Who are you?
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)
Question: Where are you from and how has that shaped you?
Calvin Trillin: Kansas City, Missouri.
Well it made me Midwestern, for one thing. And so I think that’s a somewhat different viewpoint . . . kind of worldview that . . . than particularly Easterners have. I always say Easterners are much more given to sort of analytical thinking of the sort that . . . If an Easterner says something like, “Is it an accident that these two things happened?” Midwesterners usually says, “Yeah probably. Probably an accident.” And there’s a sort of an undercutting quality in the Midwest of . . . I mean the worst thing that could happen to you is to have someone tell your mother at the supermarket that you’d gotten too big for your britches.
And that’s a particularly Midwestern quality, I think. And I used to make up license plates for various states, or talk about the difference in license plates. License plate mottos I mean, not the numbers. I let them do those themselves. And like some Midwestern states are so modest they don’t actually have mottos on their license plate, and I would make them up. Like Nebraska was “A Long Way Across”. And I always thought that if there had been a regional license plate for the Midwest, the motto would be “No Big Deal”.
Question: Who was your greatest influence when you were young?
Calvin Trillin: I’m sure my father influenced me. I’m not so sure about other people. I think . . . anybody my age who grew up in the United States . . . any male my age was influenced by Joe DiMaggio. And Joe DiMaggio’s . . . to the point where people said, “Well Joe did this.” And I said, “I don’t wanna hear about it. It’s Joe DiMaggio.” And partly of making things look easy and not being . . . not doing the baseball equivalent of dancing in the end zone. I don’t know what that would be. But I think everybody was, to some extent as children, or as little boys, influenced by DiMaggio.
Question: What was the first book you enjoyed reading?
Calvin Trillin: I wasn’t a great reader. I mean I did read books, but my father believed that I should . . . He had the notion that I should read these books of sort of heroic, prep school triumphs. Wright, and Emerson, and “Left Tackle Jones”. I can’t remember the names of them. The guy who wrote them, or many of them, also wrote a book that influenced my father a lot called “Stover at Yale”. And my father, who was a grocer who hadn’t gone to college from before I was born, wanted me to go to Yale. And it was all based on Stover. And people didn’t believe that.
When my wife first met my father, she said, “How did __________ happen to go to Yale from Kansas City?” And my father said, “I read this book.” And so he wanted me to read books like that. I didn’t read Stover at Yale until not so long ago when I did a book about a college classmate of mine who had been the person we call the “Would Be President” who committed suicide in his 50s. So this would have been a dozen . . . 15 years ago. And I finally read “Stover at Yale”.
Question: Are you glad you went to Yale?
Calvin Trillin: Well it’s funny. I’ve talked about that some. I was certainly happy I had gone there, and I find it difficult to imagine my life without my father’s aspirations. I mean they certainly made a big difference. I wanted to go to the University of Missouri with my pals and drink beer. And I probably would still be there if I had done that. It may have been a good thing. I don’t know. But I used to think . . . I think my father’s notion was that he would send me to Yale where Stover had gone, and I would do more or less Stoveresque things. And there I would be with the sons of the industrialists. And then I’d be . . . I think in his idea, I think it had to do with opportunity – that he thought I’d be sort of at the starting line at an even start with the sons of the industrialists.
I always thought it was a . . . it was a nice notion that Yale had changed who I was, but I had always thought it was sort of, to some extent, how I think; and to some extent what I think about; and to some extent where I do the thinking. But then about . . . god, it had to be about 30 years ago. I was at a dinner party of about 20 people and somebody’s name came up. There were two tables of about 10 people. These were mostly magazine writers, and some of ‘em had done quite well. And I realized everybody at the table knew this person who was just a figure who had came from nowhere. We didn’t know her at that time, but we had known her.
And I looked around, and then I looked at the other table and I realized that just about everybody in the room had gone to someplace like that – had gone to Yale, or Princeton, or Harvard, or because of the era had gone to Wellesley or Radcliffe. And then I thought, “Yeah, but these are writers.” It’s not like you get into the firm because you know the person, the father knows and everything. They at least have to write and let people look at what they do. And I had thought, “Well how do they get to The New Yorker?” And I got there from Time magazine. “And how did I get to Time?” Yale Daily News. And then I thought, “My god, my father was right.” That was . . . He . . . I mean at that level he, like so many other things where I thought what he said was oversimplified and everything, he had a pretty good grasp of it.
Question: What sparked your interest in writing?
Calvin Trillin: Not really. I definitely wasn’t the sensitive lad hanging off to the side composing things while the other boys frolicked. I don’t . . . I think I could have gone to law school or something. I knew that I wasn’t going to . . . I think most of the people my age who were in roughly journalism or whatever that is sort of backed in.
You have to remember that in those days, journalists, so called – except for one or two people in Washington like Walter Lippmann or somebody like that – were sort of a scruffy lot. I mean they were thought of as this guy with a kind of greasy suit and a bottle of bourbon in the lower right-hand drawer. And it wasn’t a very respectable profession, or trade, or whatever it is. And I think most of the people my age who ended up in it sort of backed in. I wrote about this not long ago when I wrote a piece about Johnny Apple – R.W. Apple, Jr. of the New York Times. I wrote a profile of him in The New Yorker. We had met in college.
He was the editor of the paper at Princeton the year I was the editor at Yale. And he always knew he wanted to work for the New York Times since about the age of 12. I think it’s really rare of people my age. I think most of us couldn’t make up our minds about what to do, and happened to be working at a magazine or a paper when we realized we couldn’t make up our minds. Or we sort of backed into it, or the novel didn’t work out or something; but I don’t think there are many people . . . I didn’t think of it exactly as being a writer. I think I thought of it as being a reporter.
September 5, 2007
Trillin wasn't the sensitive lad hanging off to the side composing things while the other boys frolicked.
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