Calvin Trillin | Talking with Trillin

prof trillin_dogfight_75Everything he writes is suffused with wit, its style and usage depending on the subject.

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Calvin Trillin is coming to St. Louis on Dec. 7 to read from and talk about Dogfight, his latest collection of political doggerel, at the St Louis Public Library’s Schlafly Branch. No doubt, he will also address other aspects of his interesting life and durable career beginning as a staff writer for The New Yorker magazine. He wrote a series of articles from 1967 to 1982 under the title “U.S. Journal” on a plethora of topics reflecting his catholic interests: a murder mystery which became collected into a book called Killings; the history of a restaurant in New Orleans; and anything else that aroused his curiosity. He loves food, though he hastens to say he is not a chef or “food critic,” and has three books of his columns on that topic he calls the “Tummy Trilogy,” to prove it.

Trillin’s late wife Alice was, as he put it, the George Burns to his Gracie Allen—but was not, as readers might have perceived her, “a dietician in sensible shoes.” She was, in fact, a highly educated teacher and social innovator in her own right (and was, incidentally, quite beautiful and liked pretty footwear). His short reflection on her published in 2005, About Alice, is a touching tribute.

Calvin Trillin is a father and doting grandfather, but the attribute for which he is most widely known is his humor. Everything he writes is suffused with wit, its style and usage depending on the subject. We began our discussion talking about what I think is his remarkable prolificacy—but he’s not so sure.

You have written so much and so regularly your entire adult life. How do you account for your ability to do that?

Well, an editor once said that I’ve never gotten my act together, so I do find a lot of subjects fascinating. I’ve said also that I take a shower in iambic pentameter on Sunday night, and usually something comes out. So, it doesn’t take very long. I guess most of what I’ve done if you count up the words has been reporting for The New Yorker and, knocking on wood that I don’t have in my office right now, I’ve never had one of those awful writing blocks I’ve heard about.

You’ve said you had to write rather furiously earlier in your life…

Oh, yeah. When we were doing the house [a brownstone in Greenwich Village the couple renovated, which became Trillin’s home to date], I had a sign above the desk that said “Words is Money” [Voltaire].

You’ve always joked that The Nation editor Victor Navasky was cheap. I guess he became more generous…

Nope. I still get $100 a poem [up from “the high two figures” he’d been paid in the past]. But I think we already had the house renovated before I started doing that.

I’d like to talk to you a little bit about growing up in Kansas City. My husband did, too, and he recalls that you were fond of Winstead’s burgers, but he thought Allen’s and Sidney’s were better.

That’s right. And Sidney is my cousin, but I don’t remember eating there. [Insert “small world” comment here]. I really liked a place called Nu-Ways, but it was loose meat. I think my sister and I are the only people who ever ate there who had gone past 5th or 6th grade. [Laughs]

You went to Southwest High School (class of ’53), and (I’m paraphrasing), said you were one of those Midwest, middle-class, brown-suited boys who went to Yale to get polished up. What made you want to go to Yale, specifically?

That was simple. My father, who grew up in St. Joe [St. Joseph, Mo.] and didn’t go to college read a book when he was a teenager, or maybe even younger, called Stover at Yale. It was about a heroic figure named Dink Stover who won the game against Harvard, probably in the last minute, and I think he decided then that his [own] son should go to Yale. He was a grocer by trade, and after he died, my mother told me a story about how he put away a rebate he got regularly from some bread company for displaying their bread [prominently] for me to go to Yale. Not to “college,” but Yale. I don’t think I was even born when he started. When my wife met my father—she had always thought I was exaggerating about this stuff—she asked him how I happened to go to Yale, and he said, “Well, I read this book…” I think he thought this is where the sons of the industrialists go, and that I would have a sort of ‘place at the starting line.’

He was right about that.

He was right about a lot of things.

I haven’t read your book about him (Messages from My Father), but apparently you came to respect his opinion in many ways.

Yes, I did.

In a 1995 interview with George Plimpton in the Paris Review, the two of you talk about “writing funny” as opposed to “talking funny,” and you are pretty versatile. There doesn’t seem to be too much you haven’t done in your sphere. Do you have a favorite form?

I don’t think so. I think the form is suggested by the subject matter. There are things I’d write a poem about for The Nation that I wouldn’t write a column about for The New Yorker, or vice versa. I like switching off, sometimes doing one thing, sometimes doing another. For 15 years, I did a piece every three weeks, except in the summertime, for The New Yorker, from somewhere around the country, from ’67 to ’82, I think, then started the column for syndication in ’78. So for 10 or 12 years, most of what I did were those pieces, though I did write a couple of comic novels during that time.

I read an excerpt from Tepper Isn’t Going Out, and parking is an odd topic for a novel.

Well, I’m not here to boast, but we think that may be the first novel about parking.

And probably the last?

Yeah, there wasn’t a big bandwagon to jump on to write parking novels. [Laughs]

Are you winding down at all?

I don’t think I work at the pace I did when I was doing those pieces and a Nation piece every three weeks, but I write. It’s what I do. I don’t have any hobbies or anything.

Congratulations on the Thurber Prize for American Humor, by the way. (Trillin received the 2012 James Thurber Prize for his collection Quite Enough of Calvin Trillin, published in 2011.) How do you feel about honors in general?

Well, I don’t get many, so I’m sort of removed from it. This was unusual for me. I claimed that it wasn’t that I’d never been honored before. In 1953 at Southwest High School, I was voted Third Most Likely to Succeed. [We laugh] But there’s no one I’d rather be associated with than James Thurber when it comes to recognition.

Back for a moment to the “writing funny/talking funny” subject. Does the humor just come out when you put your hands to the keyboard? I read about how you were inspired to get into the political verses by the name (John) Sununu (former Governor of New Hampshire and White House Chief of Staff under George H.W. Bush) because it made you think of the line “If you knew what Sununu…”

I think, again, it depends on the subject, but I do think some people just have a skewed sort of mind. It’s like some can write rhyming verses and some can’t. I compare both of those things to a small genetic facility, kind of like the guy in every family who can bend his thumb back and touch his wrist. Or throw a cigarette up and catch it in his mouth. And it’s hard to write humor anticipating what might make somebody laugh, because it’s so personal and subjective. I’m not sure I’ve ever analyzed how it’s done, or how I do it, anyway.

Perhaps if you did, you couldn’t do it anymore.

[Laughs] Yes. It might collapse under the weight of analysis.

You and Plimpton talked about how there aren’t many women who write humor. You cited MollyIvins…

I think at one time, there weren’t many women who wrote humor, but that’s changed. For a long time, there were comic actresses like Lucille Ball, but few women comedians; it wasn’t thought of as “ladylike.” I think there are some wonderfully funny women now: Sarah Silverman and Paula Poundstone, Tina Fey, Susie Essman, Gail Collins in the political arena, and of course, Nora Ephron [Ephron was a close friend of Trillin and his wife] and Molly Ivins, two women who died far too young.

And Michiko Kakutani [New York Times book reviewer] who reviewed Dogfight in verse.

I’m not sure about that. We were supposed to think it was funny, or maybe we weren’t. She also reviewed the first campaign book the same way. I don’t really get it. [This is all said with good humor.] She wrote them in what I’d think of as “rehearsal dinner couplets,” and I don’t know whether to laugh at it not.

When did you decide to sort of focus on the political doggerel?

These two books are really the only time I’ve sort of stopped everything else and done that. I just realized that I could write a long poem about what’s been going on. The others are collections from The Nation with some prose thrown in.

Are you still writing a regular column?

No. I just wrote a piece this week for The New Yorker, so I still write for it, but not at the pace I used to. It was about going to visit my daughter and her family who are spending a semester in Wahaka [Calif.], and my editor said writing about seeing my grandchildren and eating in Wahaka was the “most brazen piece of boondoggling he’d ever seen.” And I said, “I take that as a compliment.”

Were you away from your kids (two daughters) a lot when you were traveling?

No. I only left for a few days every few weeks and I think they were glad to see the back of me. Also, when you work at home, they’re always listening. I signed them to nondisclosure agreements when they were very young, though. [Laughs]

Is there anything you want to tell me about your talk on the 7th?

Nope, because I don’t know yet, but it will certainly be at least partly about writing deadline poetry, as I do in Dogfight. And reading from it, of course. | Andrea Braun


Calvin Trillin discusses and signs his new book, Dogfight: The 2012 Presidential Campaign in Verse. The event takes place at the St. Louis Library Schlafly Branch, 225 N. Euclid Ave., at a special time on December 7 at 7 p.m.

Dogfight was published on Nov. 20, 2012, so Trillin could use the outcome of the election to finish the “epic.” He has a wonderful dry wit that is best enjoyed in person, so I hope you’ll go see his presentation—and, of course, buy the book. 

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