“Tell him I said to call him Bud,” advised Ed Koren. The Brookfield-based New Yorker cartoonist was referring to writer Calvin Trillin, his longtime friend. In advance of Trillin’s talk at the Vermont Statehouse for Farmers Night next Wednesday, January 29, and my phone interview with him, I had called Koren looking for any inside info he could give me. After all, when you can find every detail of a man’s accomplishments on the internet, what’s left to ask?
But Bud? I knew that Trillin’s parents had called him Buddy, and the nickname apparently stuck. But I’d been thinking “Mr. Trillin.” That’s because, over a 50-plus-year career, he has written loads of incisive journalism, close to 30 books, hundreds of essays and magazine articles, mostly for the New Yorker, short stories, columns, memoirs and humorous verses as the “deadline poet” at the Nation. He’s even had a couple of sell-out one-man stage shows. Trillin has more than earned my respect and admiration, and he’s hilarious, to boot. He’s an American treasure, like Mark Twain. I couldn’t decide whether I was intimidated or in love.
So I said to Koren hopefully, “He must be nice because he’s from the Midwest.” Kansas City, Mo., to be exact. Never mind that he’s lived in New York City far longer.
“He is nice,” agreed Koren. “And he is very funny.”
In fact, Trillin was awarded the Thurber Prize for American Humor for his book Quite Enough of Calvin Trillin: Forty Years of Funny Stuff in 2012. He has written about presidents — well, one in particular — in comic verse (my favorite: Obliviously On He Sails: The Bush Administration in Rhyme). His columns are so enjoyable, they’ve been collected into books so we can read them again and again. And the witty commentary in his “deadline” poems is a marvel of economy. Take this one about the polar-opposite Cheney sisters:
Yes, Liz and Mary now are fighting.
Thanksgiving there should be exciting.
On Turkey Day, we may get word
On who was first to flip the bird.
Trillin was an inspired choice for the Fairbanks Museum’s William Eddy Lecture. And the museum’s leadership made an even better one to team up with Farmers Night and bring “Calvin Trillin’s America” to the Statehouse. Koren had told me, “He’s very funny when he talks.”
So how did it go on the phone? Well, I started with, “Ed told me to call you Bud, but I wasn’t so sure.”
“‘Your Grace’ would be good,” he replied without hesitation.
I told Trillin I’d learned that he and Koren met not at the New Yorker but earlier, in 1959, when both were in the army. And both happened to be present “on the occasion of the mustering out of Elvis Presley,” Koren had said, describing the mob of screaming teenage girls welcoming their idol home from a stint in Germany. Trillin said he didn’t really remember Elvis. However, both he and Koren very much remembered Nancy Sinatra, who was inexplicably part of the scene.
I didn’t ask Trillin about the stellar early reporting on racial integration that got his writing career off the ground, or about joining the New Yorker staff in 1963, or about the remarkable “U.S. Journal” series he wrote for the magazine for 15 years. I didn’t ask him about his food writing, or his memoirs, or about his beloved late wife, Alice. Because all that has been done.
Instead, I asked Trillin what he was going to talk about for Farmers Night in Vermont. That didn’t go anywhere, as he claimed to have no idea. “I think I can write a speech in 12 days,” he assured.
We did some arithmetic to figure out how many deadline poems Trillin had written since he began them in 1990 — more than a thousand! “Although they’re not very long,” he said modestly.
“But it’s a lot of words,” I countered.
“At a hundred dollars a poem … I should have a lot of money around here somewhere,” he said.
“I hope it’s well invested,” I said.
Our conversation took a few tangents in this manner, which I did not write down and which generally ended in giggles — mine. Finally, I asked “Bud” where his funny comes from.
Instead of a quip, his answer was thoughtful. “I think some people just have their heads wired differently,” Trillin said. “But it depends on the household you grew up in. My father was funny, in a low-key, Midwestern way.” He paused for a beat before adding, “It’s also whether or not you are appreciated.”
In a burst of Midwestern solidarity, I shared that I was from Omaha.
“People from Omaha,” Trillin said, “aspire to be like people from Kansas City.”
“Calvin Trillin’s America,” William Eddy Lecture at Farmers Night, Wednesday, January 29, 7:30 p.m., at the Vermont Statehouse in Montpelier. Free and open to the public. fairbanksmuseum.org