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Books: Grateful for the Midwest

Author Calvin Trillin always remembers his roots

By Jason Gargano · September 15th, 2007 · Books
  Author Calvin Trillin remains prolific, recently publishing personal recollections and political commentary that reflecting his Midwestern sensilbility. He speaks Saturday at the Mercantile Library's lecture series.
Mercantile Library

Author Calvin Trillin remains prolific, recently publishing personal recollections and political commentary that reflecting his Midwestern sensilbility. He speaks Saturday at the Mercantile Library's lecture series.

Calvin Trillin has done it all. And he's still going. The 71-year-old author has tackled nearly every mode of written communication imaginable, moving from journalist to novelist to critic to columnist with equal skill and humor.

Trillin has written for myriad publications since graduating from Yale in the late 1950s, including stints at Time, The Nation and The New Yorker, where he wrote his popular "U.S. Journal" column that largely focused on everyday Midwestern people like those found in his native Kansas City, Mo.

While best known for his incisive, lighthearted books about eating, Trillin's most recent works have focused more on his family. About Alice, an affecting, graceful look at his late wife, was published late last year. Oh, and don't forget A Heckuva Job: More of the Bush Administration in Ryhme, also published last year, a satirical collection that finds Trillin's sharp but rarely spiteful wit firmly intact.

The man they call "Bud" recently spoke to CityBeat from his summer home in Nova Scotia.

CityBeat: How has your Midwestern roots influenced your writing over the years?

Calvin Trillin: I grew up in Kansas City, and I don't think I would have done that New Yorker series every three weeks if I had been from a boarding-school family. I was always interested in writing about the United States, and I was always grateful that I grew up in the Midwest. I grew up with the people I write about. I don't feel they're very different from me.

CB: Is that where you picked up this idea of constantly deflating people of self-importance?

CT: I think there's a long tradition of Midwestern American humor that concentrates on people who, according to mothers in the supermarket, have gotten "too big for their britches." That's a natural. One of the obvious values of the Midwest is that people are equal and they want to be treated equally. And there's no way to write about politics, particularly if you're trying to make jokes, without deflating people who are in power.

CB: How did you become interested in writing about food?

CT: I have a limited interest actually. One of the things that I could write about the country and still write in a lighter way had to do with eating. I had always been interested in the fact that the writing about eating, at that time in America, was always sort of ... I don't know what you'd call it, fine dining? It wasn't about the places people actually liked. I always noticed when Kansas City people got together they talked about ribs and fried chicken. They didn't talk about the fancy French restaurant. Plus, I was in a strange city every three weeks, so I had to find someplace to eat. I can't cook, and I don't know what the proper Beef Wellington is supposed to taste like. I have no idea. I choose wine by the labels. So it's really just another way of writing about the country.

CB: In reading About Alice, I was struck by the balancing of tone. It's affecting without being sentimental. Did you have to work at that, or is it something that comes naturally?

CT: It's not something I'm aware of. I think at some point writers sort of acquire or end up with a voice and that's the way they write. And so even though I write a lot of things that are fairly different, like that book compared to a New Yorker piece or just silly stories about eating in Singapore, I think once you end up with that voice -- and I've never known how exactly how that happens; I'm not sure anybody ever knows -- that's the way you write. It isn't that I would start to write something and think, "No, that's a little too sentimental." I wouldn't write the thing to start with. I don't think it's something that I'm consciously aware of. And I don't know how other people write; the main thing about writing is that everybody does it a different way.

CB: Where is journalism going in the age of the Internet?

CT: I think newspapers are in some peril, and I think publishing is in some peril. What will happen? I have no idea. When talking about governmental or corporate stuff, I'm not sure there's any exact substitute for a guy who carries the imprimatur of an established newspaper or magazine or television station going to the guy and demanding an answer, even though they don't demand an answer as often as they should. So it worries me, for instance, when you read that such and such paper used to have 12 guys covering City Hall (and) now has one.

CB: Today is Karl Rove's final day at the White House. Any thoughts?

CT: (laughing) I'm glad to see the back of him.

CALVIN TRILLIN is the featured speaker at the Mercantile Library's Niehoff Lectures black-tie dinner at 7 p.m. Saturday at the Netherland Plaza Hotel downtown.


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