Calvin Trillin is a journalist, humorist and novelist. Best known for his humorous writing about food and eating, he is also the author of several books of fiction, nonfiction essays, comic verse and plenty of more serious journalism.
Trillin was born in Kansas City, Missouri in 1935. He received his BA from Yale University, where he was chair of the Yale Daily News, in 1957. In 1963, after a serving in the U.S. Army and then working at Time magazine for a short time, Trillin joined the staff of The New Yorker magazine, where his reporting on racial integration at the University of Georgia eventually developed into his first book, An Education in Georgia: Charlayne Hunter, Hamilton Holmes and the Integration of the University of Georgia. Trillin's 1967-1982 column "U.S. Journal" for The New Yorker documented events throughout the nation, both funny and serious; since 1984, he has written a series of longer, narrative pieces under the title "American Chronicles."
Trillin is also a longtime contributor to The Nation magazine - is, in fact, the single most prolific contributor to that magazine to date. From 1978-1980 he penned a column called "Variation"; from 1984-1990 another called "Uncivil Liberties"; and from 1990 to the present a weekly one called "Deadline Poem" consisting of humorous poems about current events.
Calvin Trillin's most recent novel is Deciding the Next Decider: The 2008 Presidential Race in Rhyme (Nov. 2008)
Calvin Trillin: Well the mortgage.
I mean I think . . . No. You mean do I get up in the morning and think, “Wow. I see the end of that rainbow, and there’s something telling me, ‘Write the great American story about parking’”? No. No I don’t have that.
Calvin Trillin: Well I have a way of writing. I think everybody has a way of . . . I mean particularly people who work either completely as freelance writers, or in a place like The New Yorker where you’re essentially in the same situation, in that you get paid by the piece, rather than on salary. And nobody’s asking you for the piece, usually. So you have to figure out on your own how to do it and how to get it done.
Or writing books is the same way. You have to figure out how to get it done. Most people invent some structure that allows them to do that, because God didn’t intend people to make livings as writers. I mean that was not in the grand plan. So you have to invent some sort of procedure that will allow you to do it, and it can be really dumb.
I spent 15 years doing a piece every three weeks for The New Yorker from some part of the country, a 3,000 word piece. And I had the same schedule every time I came home. I knew what I do the first day. I knew what I do the second day. And otherwise I wasn’t sure I was gonna get it done.
And I used to have for longer pieces something called “The Committee for National Goals.” That was a phrase from the Eisenhower administration. And I imagined them as these old guys with beards sitting up high on a kind of a dais. I would give ‘em excuses. You know, “I don’t feel very well today.” And they’d tell me how many pages had to be written no matter what.
And you know, but people work in a completely different way. I think partly according to their background; I guess my first, more or less, “grown up” job was as a reporter in the south for Time during the Civil Rights Movement. And so I was used to writing with a typewriter on the back of the trunk of a car or something. I didn’t need to go into the woods in a shack to write. But some people do. It just depends on how they started, I think, a lot.
And also when I was in about eighth grade, the Kansas City school system; Kansas City is always a little ahead of its time. Other cities in later years closed the schools when they ran out of money, but Kansas City did this years ago. And they closed the schools in April because they had run out of money and some tax bill wasn’t passed. And my father made us go to typing school and made me type for the rest of the summer. He thought typing was an important skill.
I’ve always worked on a typewriter. I mean rather than, you know . . . You read about people who work in longhand, or I can write a letter in longhand. And so . . . And I type very quickly because I’ve been typing since I was a little boy. So I tend to put before computers . . . tended to put things through the typewriter a lot and just keep typing. And it took me a long time to sort of compose on the computer which I do now.
Calvin Trillin:: Well it’s hard for me because I do different kinds of writing. And so . . . I mean there are non-fiction writers. I mean the one who has always been sort of my hero is Joseph Mitchell – who was a New Yorker writer for many years who died seven or eight years ago I guess – who I admired partly as just his craft. I mean what he was able to do in a . . . I don’t write the way he writes, but . . . So it’s not a stylistic thing; but I was always amazed that he was able to get the marks of writing off of what he did. And also he approached people head on and without any sort of condescension, or certainly without any fawning. I mean he didn’t write about the people that some reporters fawn over. I mean he wrote about . . . often people on the waterfront or in the fleabag hotels or something like that. The stuff was wonderful, and . . .
And I think as far as humor goes, one writer who is now sort of half forgotten who I have always admired a lot was Peter De Vries. Again, I don’t write the way he writes. I mean he had a lot of word plays, and puns and things; but I think there are a lot of good, humorous writers now who write short pieces that are funny and often wise, which is remarkable when you think of how many other avenues there are for somebody who’s funny.
I mean you know it’s sort of legendary now, but the bright kid from the Harvard Lampoon doesn’t come to The New Yorker now. He goes to Hollywood and writes sit-coms or something or television or movies.
So considering how many other outlets there are, most of which pay a lot better than writing for a magazine, or a newspaper, or even books, it’s remarkable how many of the good ones there are, I think.