Trillin on Texas | by Calvin Trillin | University of Texas Press | 184 pages, $22.00
Last month, long-time New Yorker writer Calvin Trillin published his twenty-seventh book, a collection of nonfiction pieces about Texas and Texans titled, appropriately, Trillin on Texas. Trillin grew up in Kansas City, Mo., and lives in Greenwich Village, but having spent fifteen years reporting stories throughout the country for his “U.S. Journal” series, which ran in The New Yorker from 1967 to 1982, he’s uniquely qualified to publish a book about pretty much any state in the union.
Trillin on Texas contains a number of highlights from Trillin’s work for The New Yorker , The Nation, and other publications, the best of which display his remarkable range of tone—his ability to jump, in the breadth of a paragraph or even a sentence, from wry humorist to heartbreaking storyteller. The oldest piece in the collection, a 1970 story about an outspoken black political activist in Houston who received a thirty-year prison sentence for a marijuana charge, manages to be wry and heartbreaking simultaneously. Other highlights in the collection include a profile of Joe Bob Briggs, the drive-in movie critic for the now defunct Dallas Times Herald; and a hysterically funny parody of a Lyndon Johnson stump speech. (Trillin was at one time a speech writer for Johnson, though he claims Johnson, famed for speaking off the cuff, never used a word of his work.)
CJR staff writer Michael Meyer sat down with Trillin at his home to discuss his career as a roving reporter. This is an edited transcript of their conversation. An audio excerpt of the interview appears in the CJR podcast, which can be found here.
How did this collection come about?
I received an e-mail saying that the University of Texas Press was interested in putting together a collection of what I had written about Texas, and I said, ‘Well, I don’t think I’ve written that much on Texas.’ But if you stay alive long enough you’ve written a lot on everything, I guess. I don’t think I could do Trillin on Indiana or something like that, but I spent fifteen years doing a piece every three weeks for The New Yorker on somewhere in the United States, so I’ve written a lot about most places.
Texas seems an almost inevitable destination for that project.
Yeah, and we actually had to cut a lot of pieces, too. I wrote a lot more than are included. Plus, as I said in the introduction to the book, there were a lot of Texas people on the national scene, so wearing my other hat, the jester cap with the balls bouncing in my face, I wrote a lot about them, too.
You do a lot of work in these pieces trying to capture a moment in people’s lives. Do you ever look back in retrospect and assess how accurate that portrait was?
A reporter sort of takes a snapshot. So when you’re there you can do your best and be as accurate and honest and as good at interpreting what’s going on as could be, but still you’re taking a snapshot, which might change three months later, and then it would be a different story. So, yeah, I sometimes look back and think, well, that might have been the way it was then, but who knows if I had come a month earlier or a month later.
Is that an anxiety at all?
[Laughs.] No. I figure that you do the best you can. You can’t sort of keep it on pause. When are you going to write about it? We work, as everybody else does, really, in an imperfect world, and you try to do the best you can, but I don’t think that there is anybody—unless he’s just fooling himself—that thinks, ‘I have written this in stone and it’s the truth and will always be the truth.’ Perfectly possible, I’m sure, for somebody to look back and say, that’s just wrong. It isn’t what happened six months later.
There are a number of “U.S. Journal” pieces in Trillin on Texas. How did that series come about?
I started at The New Yorker in 1963 and was doing what New Yorker writers in those days generally did, which was write, I don’t know, four or five very long pieces a year. It seemed to me that there were stories worth telling that really didn’t deserve 20,000 words, and that a series of shorter articles set in different parts of the country would be a way of getting those sorts of pieces into the magazine. I talked to William Shawn [then editor of The New Yorker] about it. He liked the concept but we didn’t really know how to proceed.