Q&A: Calvin Trillin

“I think journalists make a mistake writing about more than one person at a time”

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.

Then in 1967 I did a piece called “The War in Kansas”, which was really about the home front. I went there for two or three weeks. I wrote the piece in sections, with each section set in a different part of the state. That summer, my dad died and I was actually having trouble starting to write again. And Shawn said, ‘Why don’t we try to do that series?’ I realized that the way to do them is not to wait to see if one that seemed interesting came along, but instead to just go someplace and find one. And I asked him how many weeks of reporting and how long would they be, and he said maybe three weeks and 3000 words. I thought that I would do it for a year as I got back into the rhythm of writing, and then I really liked it. I did it for fifteen years. Magazine people would say to me, ‘How do you keep up the pace?’ and newspaper people would say, ‘What else do you do?’

A lot of writers, perhaps most notably Steinbeck, have attempted to write books that presented these encompassing notions or theories of what America is. Maybe you wouldn’t admit it, but was “U.S. Journal” ever about that in any way?

No. [Laughs.] A simple no. It was always a specific story, and don’t think you can tell something about the country that is true for the whole country. Someone asked me once what I had learned about the country, and I said, “Well, more things are about real estate than I thought.” Other than that, I don’t think I could draw any conclusions.

I think that reporters almost always make a mistake talking about more than one person at a time. There was an editor at Time. In those days it was sort of a double system. Time was written and edited in New York, and then there were reporters [in the field.] And there was one guy in New York who had risen quite high in the firm without ever having been a reporter. He went on one of these fact-finding trips to England. According to the story, I’ve never known if it’s true, he got in at night and sent a cable the next morning that started something like ‘The people in England believe.’ Well, the people in England in that case must have been the cab driver, or whoever picked him up on the way in. When I read about what people are like or what they believe, if it’s more than one person at a time I’m always a little suspicious.

If I were you I wouldn’t be so modest about presenting myself as an expert on the country. I would tell editors, ‘Just send me to San Diego or Wichita or wherever. Pay my expenses and I’ll answer every question you could ever have.’

At one point during the beginning of Watergate there were surveys that showed that the majority of the American people thought Nixon had committed a felony, but the majority of the American people were against impeaching him. And this really amazed Shawn, so he asked me to look into it.

This was one of the few things that Shawn ever asked me to do in “U.S. Journal.” I thought that he was entitled to ask someone who was constantly traveling around the country to take a stab at that, and so I went back to Kansas, where I had done a couple of stories, and, the trouble with that kind of public opinion story is that if you talk to three wrong people in a row you’ll get it wrong. How many could you possibly talk to? You could never talk to enough to make some sort of scientific sampling.

On the other hand, I learned something doing that story which I had never thought about before, which is that people in our trade are so enamored of tumult, that we forget how much other people dread it. A lot of people in America were probably against impeaching Nixon because it sounded scary to impeach the president. People in journalism sort of think ‘the more news the better, the more shaking up the better,’ but most people are the opposite.

This is how many books for you?

I think it’s twenty-six but I’m not sure.

It’s kind of impressive that you’re not able to remember.

Well, I remember once being at a luncheon with Isaac Asimov, who had written 560 books or something at that time. The woman next to me whispered, ‘Mr. Asimov seems very quiet,’ and I said, ‘While you were making small talk he wrote a novella.’ And then I said, ‘It’s got to be some kind of illness writing 560 books. It doesn’t make any sense. It’s got to be some kind of mishegas.’ Then the guy next to me said, ‘I’ve written 178,’ and I said, ‘Oh, well, 178, sure. That’s fine.’ 178 books?

Click here for a complete Page Views archive.

Has America ever needed a media watchdog more than now? Help us by joining CJR today.

Michael Meyer is a CJR staff writer. Follow him on Twitter at @mcm_nm. Tags: , , , , ,