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Trillin Remembers Beloved Wife in His Latest Book

February 15, 2007 at 6:45 PM EST
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JEFFREY BROWN: In 1963, Calvin Trillin met Alice Stewart at a party. They married two years later and had two daughters. Alice Trillin was a wife, mother, college English instructor, for a while an arts producer for public TV. Calvin Trillin became a well-known writer for the New Yorker, taking on subjects serious and humorous, and many of his books and articles, especially about travel and food, featured his wife.

In 2001, Alice died of heart failure. Her heart weakened from treatment for cancer she’d had 25 years earlier. Now, Calvin Trillin has written about a marriage, about a family, about Alice.

We talked recently at the Greenwich Village house she was smart enough to convince him to purchase many years ago.

You write early in the book that your writings in which your wife was a character were something like sitcoms. When you were writing them, did you feel that way?

CALVIN TRILLIN, Writer: Yes, because I didn’t really want to write about them. I mean, I didn’t — I think you could read everything that I wrote about Alice and the girls before this book and not know anything about them, really. You couldn’t tell the girls apart. And so they just played roles, really. They were pretty close to the roles they played in the house.

JEFFREY BROWN: Pretty close?

CALVIN TRILLIN: Pretty close. I mean, Alice, who was the sort of wise mother of the sitcom, was definitely the most sensible grownup in the house. I won’t deny that.

JEFFREY BROWN: You say that, when she died, you got lots of letters of condolences from your readers. And invariably, they would begin, “Even though I didn’t know Alice.” Many readers must have felt like they did know her from the writing.

CALVIN TRILLIN: Well, they’d say, “Even though I didn’t really know her,” or something like that, “I felt I knew her,” or something. But I say that I knew what Alice would have said to that. “They’re right; they don’t know me.”

I mean, she always said that, when people asked how she felt about her portrayal in those stories, she always said it made her sound like a dietitian in sensible shoes. And she wasn’t a dietitian, although I did mention that she had a weird predilection for limiting our family to three meals a day. And she definitely didn’t wear sensible shoes.

JEFFREY BROWN: She wore rather expensive shoes, it sounds like.

CALVIN TRILLIN: She did, yes. And once, when she gave that answer — when I gave that answer, when somebody asked me after a speech about how she felt about the way she was portrayed, they asked her to stand. And she stood, and she didn’t say anything. She just took off her shoes, one shoe. And the shoes I described as looking — they cost about enough to tide a family of four over for a year or two, and waved it, and sat down.

Alice's role

JEFFREY BROWN: We're talking about her as a character in your writing, but what was she for you as a writer?

CALVIN TRILLIN: Well, I guess she was literally the muse in that I wrote -- in a way, I wrote to impress her. And...

JEFFREY BROWN: To impress her?

CALVIN TRILLIN: To impress her, yes. I mean, I showed her everything in rough draft, and it was partly because she was really good -- she was a good reader. I mean, she had taught English in college, and she had done a series on the writing process. And other people ask her to read manuscripts and things.

And it was partly just because I had on hand sort of the equivalent of a high-powered lawyer and I was the one pro bono case. So I was taking advantage of that, but also I wanted to impress her. If I heard her laugh -- if the piece was supposed to be funny -- it was a big thing for me.

JEFFREY BROWN: If it wasn't supposed to be funny, then you were in trouble?

CALVIN TRILLIN: I was in trouble, yes. And I also sometimes, because it was right next door often that she read it, I could hear a sigh. That wasn't a good sign, either. No.

Using the right tone

JEFFREY BROWN: How do you write about death, especially about someone so close to you, without being maudlin, without getting the tone wrong? You know, in so many ways you could go wrong.

CALVIN TRILLIN: Well, you know, I think people write the way they write, and I didn't think of it that way. You know, I didn't think of avoiding certain things and certain types of writing and everything, because I don't do that type of writing.

So I didn't really have much choice of how to write things. There's sort of an imperative working, which is writers write. And so that's the way eventually you respond to things that happen.

So I might have written about her sooner or later, but I really didn't have any plans to. But I think I felt, once I did start, that if I waited longer, there were things I'd forget. And I'm not sure I could have done it right away, so it worked out.

A book about marriage

JEFFREY BROWN: Whatever you were intending, you've written a book about a marriage, but it's also about marriage. And we hear so much about marriages that -- or crack-ups all the time and so much negative. Here's a story about a good marriage.

CALVIN TRILLIN: Yes, it's sort of embarrassing. I wrote once years ago that long-term marriage is now intertwined in the public mind with the music of Lawrence Welk. So you really sort of have branded yourself a square if you've been married a long time and write about in the anything other than a list of atrocities or what various people did to each other in the marriage.

JEFFREY BROWN: You're serious? You really feel embarrassed by it?

CALVIN TRILLIN: Well, I don't feel embarrassed by having had a happy marriage; I feel a little bit embarrassed about the idea that I know something about it.

And this is, of course -- I mean, I guess there are industries in this country based on the idea that you can know something about it or you can learn about it or something, but I think an awful lot of it is just luck.

JEFFREY BROWN: It's hard to read this book without thinking in personal terms. So my personal question -- I'm in a long-lasting, happy marriage, knock on whatever your chairs made of here...

CALVIN TRILLIN: I want to assure you, they're made out of wood.

JEFFREY BROWN: OK. If somebody were to ask me, "How did that happen?" I wouldn't have a clue.

Writing about Alice

CALVIN TRILLIN: I don't think you would have, and I don't, in a way. And, also, the other thing is I didn't think I was writing about marriage.

JEFFREY BROWN: You didn't think that?

CALVIN TRILLIN: I thought I was writing about Alice. And obviously I had to write about her in the context of our marriage, because we were married for 36 years, and of our family, but nobody actually knows anything about anybody else's marriage, even if you live next door or maybe even in the same house.

You don't know anything about anybody else's marriage, so it's hard to tell about how your own marriage differs from the mysterious marriages of other people.

JEFFREY BROWN: She was your first reader and the one who would tell you if it was good or not. When you finished this book, how did you know?

CALVIN TRILLIN: I didn't. I really didn't. And I said to my daughters, "I don't know if anybody's going to be interested in reading this or not." And my older daughter said, "Well, even if they don't, it will be good for the kids." And my younger daughter, who is a clinical social worker who does psychotherapy, said, "Probably a good idea for you to write it anyway."

JEFFREY BROWN: Is that true? Did it work for you?

CALVIN TRILLIN: Yes, it was. It was a good idea for me. And the fact that other people are reading it, I think, is good.

JEFFREY BROWN: The dedication of the first book you wrote after she died was, "I wrote this for Alice. Actually, I wrote everything for Alice."

CALVIN TRILLIN: Yes, that was true, literally true. And this is literally for my grandchildren.

JEFFREY BROWN: Calvin Trillin, thanks for letting us come talk to you.

CALVIN TRILLIN: Thank you, Jeff.