Ten years ago this Sunday, on Sept. 11, 2001, author Calvin Trillin’s wife, Alice, died of heart problems related to her cancer treatment many years earlier.
The historical coincidence of losing Alice on the same day his home city of New York was being attacked by terrorists is something that Calvin Trillin doesn’t dwell on. “It didn’t have anything to do with what was happening that day,” Trillin said of his wife’s death.
In a phone interview from Nova Scotia, where he was spending some down time before his book tour for his latest work, Trillin explained why he didn’t mention the Sept. 11 parallel in his 2006 memoir about his wife, “About Alice.”
“I wanted the book to be about her life rather than her death,” said Trillin.
He dedicates his new book, Quite Enough of Calvin Trillin, a 40-year retrospective of some of his best work, to Alice’s memory. “My wife, Alice, appears as a character in many of these pieces,” Trillin tells readers of “Quite Enough of Calvin Trillin,” which goes on sale next Tuesday, Sept. 13. “Before her death, in 2001, even the pieces that didn’t mention her were written in the hope of making her giggle.”
During the Trillins’ long marriage, Alice, who was a gifted educator and writer, frequently appeared in Trillin’s first-person essays on family life and food as the foil to Trillin’s comic musings.
In “Tales of a Clean-Plate Ranger,” one of Trillin’s pieces of culinary reportage that’s included in the new anthology, Alice makes a typical appearance as the voice of prudence and restraint. “Now that it’s fashionable to reveal details of married life,” Trillin writes, “I can state publicly that my wife, Alice, has a weird predilection for limiting our family to three meals a day. I also might as well admit that the most serious threat to our marriage came in 1975, when Alice mentioned my weight just as I was about to sit down at a restaurant named Chez Helène in New Orleans.”
Trillin once confessed that Alice thought her portrayal in his essays “made her sound like what she called ‘a dietician in sensible shoes.’ ” In actuality, Alice was blonde, beautiful, and chic. Since losing Alice, Trillin says he has no particular reader in mind when he writes humor pieces: “With humor, it’s so subjective that trying to think of what the ideal reader would think would drive you crazy.”
Although Alice is no longer around to act as his sounding board, Trillin does get immediate feedback on his humor as a frequent speaker and talk show guest. He came of age on the talk show circuit as a guest on “The Tonight Show” during Johnny Carson’s days, and as Trillin sees it, Carson’s guileless interview style remains unmatched. “Carson never said anything that wasn’t faintly interrogatory,” Trillin recalled. “I’ve done 'The Daily Show' with Jon Stewart, and he’s very good, too.”
As a veteran author, Trillin also connects with the public on book tours. His author tour for “Quite Enough Trillin” will take him to a dozen cities from coast to coast. Trillin readily admits that author complaints about the rigors of book tours could fill an anthology of their own: “It would have to be two volumes. The first volume would be authors complaining about their book tours. The second volume would be authors complaining that they didn’t get a book tour.”
But Trillin said that after his years in journalism, which have involved frequent travels to get a story, he doesn’t mind book tours. “Being on a book tour is a lot easier than reporting,” said Trillin. “I don’t mind being interviewed on television or radio.”
A native of Kansas City and a graduate of Yale University, Trillin began his national journalism career at Time magazine before joining the staff of The New Yorker, where he became known for “U.S. Journal,” a widely read series of pieces from datelines across the country in which he reported on everything from local murders to one of his favorite topics, regional cuisine. Trillin has also been a syndicated columnist and tongue-in-cheek poet about politics for The Nation, and he’s written two one-man shows featuring his droll brand of humor.
Even when delivered on the page rather than the stage, Trillin’s stories are a performance, as in “Doing My Talent,” an essay in “Quite Enough of Calvin Trillin” that details his gift for humming and whistling at the same time. “My agent had been urging me to do something like this for some years,” Trillin said of his new anthology. Trillin finally obliged, although he says that he feels a little bit guilty reissuing material from previous books, adding that it makes him feel like a WASP who’s ignored the family advice against “living on your principal.”
Although he’s widely known for his humor pieces in The New Yorker and his comic poems about politics in The Nation, Trillin describes his humor writing as a sideline. Of the scores of pieces he’s written for The New Yorker, “very few of them have been humor,” he said. Even so, Trillin said he isn’t bothered when he meets people and they expect him to be funny. “I’m more disturbed,” he said, “when people expect me to be serious.”