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Comments from a modest man: an interview with Calvin Trillin.

During the week of March 17-21,2003, Calvin Trillin visited the campus of the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill as the Morgan Writer-in Residence. He spent the week meeting with students, faculty, and community members to discuss his multifaceted career. He gave a public reading of several pieces of his humor writing on the evening of March 19 to the wide enjoyment of a standing-room-only crowd.

Trillin writes a few lines of politically-oriented verse each week for The Nation and has contributed articles and profiles on a variety of subjects to The New Yorker for more than 30 years. He is the author of three humorous novels, including the critically lauded Tepper Isn't Going Out, which, Trillin notes, "is the only known parking novel written in English." He has written a moving memoir of the fifties (Remembering Denny) and his journalism has been collected in several books, including Killings, which includes several of his pieces on murders and other grim deaths. He is perhaps best known for his popular writing on food, travel, and his family, collected in books such as Travels with Alice, The Tummy Trilogy, and Family Man. His most recent book, published in May 2003, is another collection of musings on good meals, Feeding a Yen: Savoring Local Specialties from Kansas City to Cuzco.

On the morning of March 20, 2003, Jonathan D'Amore had the opportunity to meet Trillin and discuss with him a career spanning more than four decades and many genres.

D'Amore: Let's begin with what we've been talking about all week here, your career as a writer who works in a variety of genres on a variety of subjects. Despite this multiplicity, do you define yourself as, say, a journalist who's also done novels or a humorist who's covered murder stories or a memoirist with a career in reporting? Or do you really think of yourself as a writer whose subject suggests its genre?

Trillin: Sometimes, when my daughters were little, they would say something like "Daddy can find it; he's nearly a trained reporter," or "Let Daddy write it; he's practically a professional writer." I suppose I would describe myself as a reporter or a journalist who does some other things. When I was first coming into the business, "journalist" was thought of as sort of a candy-ass word that we didn't use very much--the English always used "journalist."

I think certainly the subject, for me, suggests the genre, though I would imagine that there's in a way the same sensibility going through these various forms I use, even though some of the reporting I've done is very serious or sometimes grim and sad. If you ever had so little to do that you really went over all these things, I think you'd probably be able to detect the same turn of mind in the reporting as in the humor, or attempts at humor.

JD: If you describe yourself as a reporter, does that mean you feel most comfortable writing as one, or is there a certain mode of writing that you feel comes more naturally to you?

CT: I think probably it must mean something that when I use the first person in a New Yorker reporting piece, a non-fiction piece--what the New Yorker traditionally called a "fact" piece--it is almost always a "light" piece. There probably are two or three reasons for that that don't have anything to do with me, or at least don't have anything to do with the way I write. One of them is that, it seems to me, a piece that has very strong narrative line is best told as a story not having to do with the storyteller. For example, I had a Wall Street insider trading piece a year two two ago in the New Yorker that had a strong narrtive line--a beginning, a middle, and an end--and the best thing to do was to stay out of it, to try to remove the marks of my presence from the story. Then, if you have a story that doesn't have on obvious narrative line, may you're more likely to be in it; I'm more likely to be in it if its a lighter piece.

Another example, in the collection of murder pieces I had done (Killings)--they weren't all murders, some sudden deaths, but basically they were murder pieces--there's no first person at all and it's written in a very flat way that just caries on each story and tells you something of its setting and context. On the other hand, the books I've done on eating are all first person. I've never written a serious piece on food or eating; I don't think of it as a serious subject, at least not to me. I'm not interested in serious articles on eating. So for me, writing about eating is a way of writing about someplace in a lighter way, just telling jokes, and, to some extent, traveling.

JD: Your political writing could be considered fairly light, too, if we consider rhyming, witty verse light material But you're rarely overtly political in your articles or even your columns, so much. You've met all these people in all walks of life across the U.S. How do their differing political views find their way into your writing?

CT: In fact, even with The Nation poems, some of the old Nation readers find me insufficiently political to write for their magazine. They think I've let the agony of the Scottsboro boys slip from my memory somehow. I've always separated the commentary and reporting, and I've never had any problem. I should say that part of the separation is that I really don't cover political campaigns. In the U.S. Journal series for the New Yorker, I did do a piece on the first serious black mayoral candidate in Cleveland, one on the campaign of Sissy Farenthold, who was a reform candidate in Texas who lost the governor's race, and a piece on Al Lowenstein--who was a sort of a perennial student leader even after he grew up, who led the movement that resulted in Lyndon B. Johnson not standing for office in 1968--when he ran for Congress, but I did those because there was a special reason to do those stories. Also, I did them after the election, not as actual campaign coverage. Other than those stories, if you look at the stories in that series--and there are couple hundred of those or more--there aren't really any political stories, not any that are on obviously political issues.

Even when I was at Time, I wanted the story out in the country much more than the Washington story. When I worked in the South for Time many years ago, I used to think that that the story got less interesting when the federal government got involved because it inevitably became a story about the federal government's involvement. And with U.S. Journal, I think in all of those stories I stopped in Washington once, maybe twice, for part of a story. I've always been more interested in writing about people who aren't ordinarily in the paper. I did one profile of Penn and Teller, the anti-magician magicians, and I think they're by far the most famous people I've ever written about in my reporting.

JD: Well, as a reporter who has to interview a range of folks who might not often be interviewed otherwise, do you find there are certain people who reveal themselves in interviews more honestly more candidly? Do you have a certain method of conversation that gets the best information from folks?

CT: Usually, although not always, my interest over the years has been not in the person I'm interviewing, but in the information I'm getting from the person I'm interviewing. Sometimes the person becomes a sort of a character in the story and so I am also interested in the person, but the information is the story. I'm not a very aggressive, push-to-the-wall, demand answers kind of reporter, but in doing a 3000-word story every three weeks for fifteen years, I almost never left a place thinking that I didn't have the information I needed to write the story, that some of it was kept secret or withheld from me. Mostly, I think that's just a function of talking to a lot of different people who, in the first place, all have differing ideas of what's supposed to be secret. So, if you talk to enough people you eventually learn what happened or what the issue is. I mean, I've left places thinking I didn't understand the information that I'd gotten, but just gathering up the information comes from just talking to enough people so that one thing leads to another and you eventually figure it out.

Also, I often find--and I've heard other people, other reporters, say this too--that people say the most revealing things as you leave. As you sort of close your notebook or turn off the tape recorder, they let that tense, defensive posture down a little bit and they're relieved that it's over, so they say something that they wouldn't have said at the beginning of the interview.

JD. "Lighter" or not, you're obviously well-known for your food writing and for being a plainly funny writer, and you do it quite a bit. Do you find that frequently writing funny pieces helps you do the more serious subjects?

CT: Well, when I was doing a piece for The New Yorker every three weeks around the country (which, for a magazine writer seemed a grueling pace--my magazine colleagues would say to me, "How do you do that?" and newspaper people always said "What else do you do?") I think I wandered into writing about eating as a way of getting some comic relief from doing, say, an argument over development or a murder or a labor dispute every three weeks--and I don't mean comic relief for the reader, I mean for me. I needed it so that I could do a story where I wasn't constantly worried that I didn't have the one document or the one interview that was vital to putting together some element of the story. I kind of had two notebooks working all the time. Also, I think there's always some humor or, if not, some irony even in the serious stories. I think the saddest story I ever wrote was about this boy who'd gone to China, but was brought home with encephalitis and died, and about his parents' attempt to deal with that. I mean, I can barely read the piece, it's so sad, and yet I remember two or three things in the piece that, to me, were very funny.

I think there's always some overlap--because you can't totally change your turn of mind just because of the subject.

JD: Well, despite the many sadnesses in the world, when you consider the quotidian things, is everyday lift to you more humorous than serious? That is, on a day-to-day basis, do you find life more funny than not?

CT: The easy way for me to put it is that some people look for the grim things in life, and I look for the funny things. But also, there's certainly a tradition in American humor of using dally life to comment on public life. I read somewhere that the Army or the defense department had something approaching $30 billion of equipment and supply in warehouses that they had absolutely no use for, that they at this point publicly admitted they had no use for. So I began a column saying, "Reading that the Army has $30 billion in equipment and supply in warehouses that they have absolutely no use for makes me feel a lot better about my basement, and t piece was partly about my basement, partly about how the Army might have done this--I can't remember which direction it went, ultimately. But I think there's a long tradition in America--maybe everywhere else, I don't know very much about anyplace else--of using not only day-to-day activities but quite modest day-to-day activities as a way of commenting on the public scene.

JD: That is, in a sense, the root of Tepper Isn't Going Out, isn't it?. Tepper, a normal guy doing something slightly abnormal

CT:--in a normal way

JD: Yes, or we could say, doing something mundane to the point that it can't be ignored, which stirs up an almost ridiculous amount of public attention that the people of New York take up as a popular and a political issue. Tepper's is practically the definition of the modest life; were you actively working out that idea of the day-to-day stuff as some of the best material for a broader comment?

CT: Well, my wife said that Tepper was partly me and partly my father, and she knew both of us pretty well. I certainly didn't write it with that intention, but maybe some of the attitude. Certainly, there's a lot of my father in Tepper, but not all.

Years ago in The New Yorker, before I started U.S. Journal--so it must have been the middle sixties--I did a piece on the mailing list industry. That's where I learned all the mailing list stuff in Tepper, so it's all 30-year-old information; I don't even know if the mailing list industry still works that way. There are (or were, because I haven't looked into this recently) two parts of the mailing list industry. One part is called "horizontal lists," and those people essentially acquire all the names in the United States, either through motor vehicle registrations or phone books or a combination of those two, and then slice them up by overlaying information from census tracts and various things like that. That didn't engage my interest very much. But there's this other part of the industry called the "vertical lists." On that side there's the guy who, if you want to sell, say, binoculars, suggests various lists. He's called a mailing list broker; that's what Tepper did. The broker says, "To sell binoculars we'll start with lapsed subscriptions for bird magazines, then maybe a voyeur magazine," and so on, then he'll get more creative and sort of moves toward the edges of the universe. And even though everybody assumed these guys were evil because they were part of something that filled your mailbox with this junk, I found I kind of liked some of the vertical guys: often they seemed to be--and I'm sure this is where Tepper and his partner came from--a couple guys who knew each other in the army or in City College and decided to try this business because one of them had a brother-in-law who knew somebody who'd done it, and they got into it and muddled through these lists for years. I'm sure that Tepper came from that.

In general, the fiction that I've written has come from "fact" work I've done. I don't have a novelistic imagination. It's really simple: some people do and some people don't, and it never occurred to me that I did. I have to put together a novel. So I would never write a serious novel. I wouldn't even know how or what to write.

JD: You've mentioned that your first novel Floater came out of your own experience as "floater" at Time, but then I looked back at Family Man after reading Tepper and I noticed fifty pages into it there's a description of alternate side of the street parking

CT:--is that right, I didn't even remember that

JD:--which comes back in Tepper, and now learning that 30 years ago you reported on mailing lists, would you talk some more about the way you "put together" your novels?

CT: Well, the other novel I wrote, which was called Runestruck, was about these two greasemonkeys in a town in Maine finding what appears to be a Viking artifact--that is, it has runic writing on it. The book came from traveling around every three weeks and often ending up in a small town. I would find myself sitting in a lot of cafes at about nine o'clock in the morning when the downtown business men have gotten to their stores and opened them up, given their secretaries the mail and started the day. These guys then gather in the local place and match pennies for coffee and kid each other about the same thing constantly--kid the mayor about the potholes and the utility guy about the price of heat, etc., etc. I spent a lot of time with these guys because it's often where I went to find out what people thought of the town or about my subject, so a lot of that was small town stuff that stuck to my mind when I wrote Runestruck.

The novel was another way of writing about Americans in an immigrant society allowing themselves a feeling of legitimacy, that they were real Americans. There are two epigraphs for that book: one of them is "Columbus sailed the ocean blue/in fourteen hundred and ninety-two--American children's chant"; the other is "Go back where you came from--American grown-up chant." I had done a story that had to with a runestone--an alleged runestone--that was found in Maine, and it gave me some information about runic writing, about runestones, and about this sort of maniacal feeling that some Scandinavian-Americans have about proving they were here first. The first runestone--the first big, publicized runestone--was discovered in Minnesota at a time when Swedes were called "squareheads" and there was a lot of discrimination against Scandinavians. At about the same time, a Swede or a Norwegian had sailed a Viking ship over for the Chicago Exposition or a similar event, and lo and behold, a runestone was found in Alexandria, Minnesota. You can imagine the difficulty in explaining how Leif Eriksson got to Alexandria, Minnesota by boat from the Atlantic. The runologist at Harvard I talked to for this piece had grown up in northern Iowa and he had seen the guy who was pushing that runestone, not at any scientific meetings, but on Sunday nights at Lutheran churches, telling them all that they were legitimate people because of this runestone. All scholars immediately dismissed the Alexandria stone as a fraud because it had some letter that wasn't used in those days or something, but this guy gradually built up support for it and eventually it was in the Smithsonian Institution as a real runestone. So, it didn't have anything to do really with science; it had to do with feelings of authenticity in America.

All my novels came out of reporting or experience, mainly reporting. The only other fictional thing I've done is a book called Barnett Frummer is an Unbloomed Flower, a series of connected "short stories," but they all have the same plot, and each story just is about a different fashion of the sixties. One of them is radicalism, one is about how at that time it suddenly became very fashionable to be Jewish, another trend is gourmet cooking--but each story has the same plot, Barnett Frummer trying to impress Rosalie Mondle with the advice of his evil friend Roland Magrudet--but that's not even real fiction, it's sort of fictional essay.

JD: You say you don't have a novelistic imagination, but you have a sense for the small and the large narrative in life, for finding the story to tell about something that you've seen ...

CT: That's different, that's looking at something and seeing where the narrative line is, where you almost see what the end of the story is as you're reporting it and then you just have to figure out the best way to get there. In writing, a lot of that has to do with what Penn and Teller would call "misdirection," which magicians do constantly: we make a big deal about something that's happening with one hand when what's important is going on in the other. So to get a clean narrative line, it often requires pretending to talk about one thing when you're talking about another thing--like describing how a town looks but sneaking in some fact that the reader is going to need to know when he get further down the story. Sometimes, it's the reason I find those stories rather satisfying--there's a eureka moment in some of them.

I once did a story about a guy who was killed in Kansas. He lived in Emporia, Kansas, and was in the reserves. He and his wife drove up through the Flint Hills for some reserve stuff, and as they came back, there was trouble with the car and when they were stopped someone came out and shot him. Everybody said this is terrible, his poor wife. She was the secretary of a Missouri Synod Lutheran church--you may be aware Missouri Synod Lutherans are extremely conservative Lutherans--and I think I wrote at the beginning that the minister was particularly sympathetic because his wife had died in an car accident on a bridge. Well, of course it turned out that the secretary was having an affair with the minister and, after they finally sorted that out, somebody came forward and said he had been hired to kill the husband, but had decided against it. So, then there was suspicion about the death of the minister's wife. So, at one point I realized, if I can get past the wife's accident in a way that plants it with a legitimate description of how it happened, but that doesn't make you suspicious about it, then all this can unfold the way it's supposed to unfold.

One of the great advantages for writing narrative stories in those days of the New Yorker, which is now more problematic, was that it didn't have any photographs, it didn't have any little blurbs in the contents or on the cover. If you wrote that story, say, for The New York Times Sunday magazine, there might be a picture of the minister's wife with a caption "was it really an accident?" Well, I don't want those guys telling you that. I want to tell you when I think you ought to know it. I think of things like picture captions and what The New Yorker calls the "deck"--the little blurb right underneath the title--as sort of like your loud uncle who's trying to shout out the punchline to the joke you're telling.

JD: You've found lots of punchlines and lots of narrative in your family life. Is that a function of spending a lot of time with your family, or do you just think that family life particularly lends itself to narrative?

CT: It was the dominant element of my life and naturally you sort of look for material in the space around you. But there's a conflict there because you have to recognize that your family has some sort of privacy, and I recognized that especially with my girls. I think 1 mentioned in Family Man that when ! went back and looked at what I'd written about the girls, it stopped at a certain age, because I thought the last thing a teenage girl needs is her father making wry comments about her in print. When I had a syndicated column, somebody once sent me a bunch of columns he had done asking if I could show them to my syndication. The first one was about his daughter and her various sorts of trouble, what a pain she was and so forth, and I thought, Jesus, how could anyone write that about his daughter. You're supposed to deal with it, not tell everyone else about it. It's not that my family didn't end up without any complaints at all--my younger daughter is now tired of people asking her if she still has to take a bagel with her when she goes to Chinatown--but basically if you read everything I've written about my daughters, it's very hard even to tell them apart; they're just sort of "daughters." In my column, I used to occasionally write columns that were daddy-daughter conversations over breakfast. I happened to get up a little earlier than my wife did and so I always gave the girls breakfast when I was home and it was a very nice time for me--so the columns were based on my giving them breakfast, but it really wasn't me and it wasn't really one of them; it was just a daddy and a daughter. Even when their names are mentioned, who are they?--You can't really tell. And if one of them had trouble with a boy or trouble in school, I would never have written about it.

On the other hand, you can talk about other things by talking about your family. It's not as if you sit there and think, what am I going to write about? Why don't I write about my family? It just sort of happens. Also, it's sort of like eating, it's something that everybody has experience with. I did a column about how their vocabulary changed as the SATs approached; they would start saying "it was a Herculean task," and "we have a plethora of anxieties." And everybody--or, I should say, practically everybody who's reading my stuff--has kids like that. It's a subject like eating and a number of other subjects that are familiar with people, so you don't have to establish a context; it's already there in most people's minds.

JD: To wrap up, perhaps I can ask for a few recommendations. First, as a humorist and a novelist, name a few of what you feel are the funniest novels?

CT: Salon, I think, put out a book about American authors, and they asked me if I could name five novels that I had read, post-war novels, that I thought were funny. Almost any any Peter Devries novel could be on the list, but particularly the first section of Reuben, Reuben, which I think is one of the funniest things I've ever read. Another is a Mordecai Richler novel--Richler died about a year ago, a Canadian novelist from Montreal--he wrote a book called St. Urbain's Horseman, which is hilarious, I can't read it without laughing out loud, particularly one or two of the chapters. I also think I mentioned Catch 22--when I reread Catch 22 I didn't find it quite as funny as when I read it first, but I remember reading it thinking, My God. The reason is that it was sort of a breakthrough, (Joseph) Heller really wrote in a different way, particularly about the war, than anybody. All the stuff, even (Norman) Mailer, had been in some way heroic and romantic compared to Catch 22; it's very serious and very funny.

JD: There is a veritable cornucopia of memoirs available to read now. Do you have any autobiographies you especially enjoy reading? Are they funny memoirs, or do you prefer more serious fare?

CT: Well, I have really specific memoirs that I like. I think of three that are in my opinion model memoirs: One is John Mortimer's, who is best known here for writing the Rumpole of the Bailey books. His memoir is called Clinging to the Wreckage, and it's just marvelous. Russell Baker's first volume of memoir called Growing Up is wonderful because it not only tells you about him, it tells about his era, particularly the Depression. Also, Jessica Mitford's Hons and Rebels. Just great.

I'll tell you a fourth one I loved is Liar's Club by Mary Karr, a poet who teaches at Syracuse. She wrote a second volume called Cherry as well. I thought it was a wonderful memoir. She obviously grew up in Port Arthur, Texas, or one of those dreadful oil refinery towns on the Gulf Coast, and you could just smell the oil, it was a great read. And it's also a book that was a memoir unlike, say, Russell Baker's memoir, in that it didn't pretend to be exactly word-for-word fact; that is, there were conversations in quotation marks from when she was four. I'm usually sort of a crank about people's fact and fiction--I'm somewhere between Orthodox and Hassidic on that--but in a memoir when it's obvious she couldn't really know, couldn't have really remembered the quote, which probably came from being told about the incident rather than remembering the incident itself, I'll give it to her. It's her life; it's nobody else's.

Really, also, all of these are not very long

JD:--Is that a virtue in memoir?

CT:--that's a virtue, that's a virtue in anything as far as I'm concerned, but it's a virtue in memoir particularly because they capture the important part of a life. Plus, these all really start in childhood and there's only so much about someone's childhood you really want to know. Really, there's only so much of anything you want to know.
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Author:D'Amore, Jonathan
Publication:The Carolina Quarterly
Article Type:Interview
Geographic Code:1USA
Date:Jun 22, 2003
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