Trillin at Home
A funny man to his readers, a straight man to his wife and kids
By Interview by Mark Bazer
AUGUST 24, 1998: Interviewing Calvin Trillin is an experience both fun and frustrating. The fun part is that he's an old pro. No matter the question, he can instantly reply with a playful homemade expression or anecdote from a past column or book, or a new one you can tell he's been dying to try out. Ask him about the recent rash of tell-all memoirs and he'll respond that he doesn't have to worry about his daughters writing one because, when they were little, he made them sign a nondisclosure agreement. Ask him why he sticks to the warm and affectionate (but still hilarious) in his latest book, Family Man (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 184 pages, $20), and he'll tell you first, because he's written the truth, and second, because of his Dostoyevsky test. Simply, if you can't write as well as Dostoyevsky, which he learned "early on" he couldn't, then you have no right to embarrass your family.
The frustrating part is choosing what you want to ask this writer who's done it all. For years Trillin was a roving reporter for the New Yorker, writing the "U.S. Journal" pieces. He's written a humor column for the Nation, now in the form of a poem (he once rhymed "Senator D'Amato" with "sleaze ball obligatto"). He's tackled a more weighty subject in the probing Remembering Denny, in which he tries to understand why a multitalented former Yale classmate committed suicide. And if you get Trillin started on food -- he's written three books on this nation's cuisine, now combined into one volume, The Tummy Trilogy -- he could probably go on for hours.
Along with his regular column for Time, the occasional reporting piece, and his columns in the new Brill's Content, Trillin has also written his version of the memoir. Following the success of Messages from My Father comes Family Man, which takes us through the joys of family life with his wife (George Burns to his Gracie Allen, as he likes to say) and two daughters. Even when he's marching through the streets of Greenwich Village in a monster mask, or telling his daughters he deserves "full credit" for making the corn flakes, it's always understood that what's happening is important. Trillin never comes across as preachy -- for him, it's all a matter of love and common sense. "Your children are either the center of your life or they're not, and the rest is commentary," he writes.
I talked to Trillin on the phone from his summer home in Nova Scotia, where he used to shoot family movies with his daughters. Now there's a sense that he anxiously waits for that future day when he'll be able to dust off the camera for grandchildren.
A: I've sort of assumed that [reporting] was the center, and that's one of the reasons I've never really given it up. On the other hand, we all like to think that that's necessary. But it's not as if you've trained to run a spaceship. I think a lot of people in the business make [reporting] seem like it's some sort of initiation, like if you don't do it, you're unqualified to comment on anything. That's obviously not true. But I do think it's important. I do less of it than I used to. Either I'm expanding my horizons or losing my legs -- I'm not sure which.
Q: But is learning the form and how to craft a reported story a necessary step before you try the humorous writing?
A: If you're talking about the verse, for instance, or some of the columns that are meant to be funny, or this sort of book, I'm not sure it's the same operation. I think being able to write verse or doggerel, no matter how bad it is, as well as a certain sort of humor, is just a matter of odd wiring in the brain. The Time columns are based partly on, not so much the form, but what I've learned after a lot of years of reporting. That's certainly true of the columns I've started doing for Brill's Content. I like the name. It sounds like Sloan's Liniment. They're really based on reporting, even though they're meant to be funny.
Q: There've been a number of cases recently where journalists have been exposed for making things up. What are your thoughts on this, and how do you decide when it's appropriate to invent?
A: I have somewhat orthodox views on that stuff -- I think somewhere between orthodox and Hasidic. I don't believe that you can make up anything. I say that as someone who makes up things and characters constantly in columns. But in reporting pieces, I've always had sort of strict views on that. I think newspapers are, maybe because they've been around for so long, the straightest medium of communication that there is. When people read something in a newspaper, I think they feel, and I think they probably have a right to believe, that it's true. I think people who run [daily] newspapers have to assume that the people who are going to read them don't have any choice about it exactly. I mean, they haven't selected themselves as Boston Phoenix readers or New Yorker readers. They have to read if they want to know whether the street's going to be blocked tomorrow.
If I'm writing a column that appears in Time, I think I have a little leeway because it's meant to be funny. Most columnists have characters. Molly Ivins has somebody named Bubba, [Mike] Royko used to have Slats. Nobody actually believes those people are real. But if you say a welfare mother named so-and-so, I'd assume that's true, and the effect is different.
Q: Is Harold the Committed real?
A: Harold the Committed is not. I used to use Harold the Committed to make fun of the Nation, basically. I thought that old Nation readers oughtn't be let off scot-free.
Q: When you're using real characters, how do you decide what's fun teasing, and what's too cruel -- like when you always used to needle the editor of the Nation?
A: Oh, the wily and parsimonious Victor S. Navasky. When his father died, I said, "Victor, you've lost your only friend, because he was the only person who objected to that." He used to say, "Why do you let him get away with that?" Well, I think Victor kind of liked it. Victor's obviously a friend, or I wouldn't have done it. I remember once I did a piece making fun of a New York Times Magazine cover on the new society of people dining at the Del Relanzes. I wrote a column about why I wasn't invited, and someone said to me, "It was wonderful that you could write that and not be mean." And I said: "I resent that. That was as mean as I get."
I think people who are in the public eye sort of have to be there to take it. And of course, those people never complain. I think I got more letters for saying in a Time column that a corgi looks as if were composed from parts of other breeds of dogs. I said it was the parts those breeds might otherwise do without. And I got letters from Pembroke corgi owners saying that Cardigan corgies looked that way, but not Pembroke corgies, and vice versa. There are two kinds of corgies, in case you didn't know. They're about the ugliest dog there is.
Q: Lastly, a question about this book. You make the most fun of yourself, while holding your wife and daughters up to praise. Could someone else in your family have written the book with herself as the comic figure?
A: No, because I am the comic figure. What happens is that things sort of get exaggerated or focused on, but it has to be based on reality. My wife really is a more sensible person than I am, and I think the sort of traditional American father's role of being present to be manipulated by the rest of the family is definitely the role I play. I think the girls could write, if they hadn't been asked at an early age to sign the nondisclosure agreement, funny books about our family. But I think I'd play the same role.
Mark Bazer is a writer living in Chicago.
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