Why has it taken so long for literature to produce a great novel about parking in New York City? You can't talk five minutes to a New Yorker without the subject of parking coming up. Of the approximately six gazillion published fictions set in New York, wouldn't you figure there'd have been at least one canonical work before now?
"There may be a long tradition in Serbo-Croatia where every young writer takes his crack at a parking novel," Calvin Trillin acknowledges, "but I don't think so. In English, at least, we think it's the first."
A staff writer at The New Yorker since 1963—also a long-time contributor to The Nation and Time—Trillin has published twenty-one books in all. His nonfiction includes a series of books about food (The Tummy Trilogy); a brilliant collection of essays about murder and other grim deaths (Killings); political doggerel, with exegesis, collected from the pages of The Nation (Deadline Poet); bestselling remembrances of his father (Messages from My Father) and college friend (Remembering Denny); and several volumes of political commentary (Uncivil Liberties and others).
Tepper Isn't Going Out, Trillin's third novel, is "warmhearted and hilarious," Laura Miller applauded on Salon.com. "Satire at its absolute best," cheered The Financial Times. Or, according to Ron Charles of The Christian Science Monitor, "as delightful as finding a free spot in Times Square."
Dave: How's parking in New York City these days?
Calvin Trillin: It's about the same. Probably one spot every four or five blocks. If you happen to be there, it's good.
Dave: Do you park on the street?
Trillin: I have a garage, like Tepper. But I drive a lot, particularly at night. I live in the Village, and if I'm going to dinner, say, at Seventy First and Madison, I drive.
My spot-hunting is usually not for a spot that's good for tomorrow, as alternate-side parkers say. In fact, there are times when I find a spot that is good for tomorrow and think about the guys who are circling the block after a really hard day at the office—they just want to go home, hug their kids, and have a martini—and I feel it really should be their spot, not mine. When I get through feeling that way, I have generally by that time locked the car and walked away. It's a tough business. You can't be soft about it.
Dave: Did the novel come to you in the form of this man named Tepper? Or did you just start thinking about a man who refused to give up his parking space?
Trillin: I think it came from being the guy who wanted the spot, not the person who was in it. What was this guy doing sitting in his car? All those things people say to Tepper—"Hey, do you live there?!" "Is that space rent-controlled?!"—I had all those thoughts. But I didn't know who Tepper was at the beginning, which made it hard for me to write.
I wrote a short story for The New Yorker, I think it was in 1985, that's essentially a version of the first scene in the book, but I had no idea what Tepper was doing there. I always thought that I would write a novel about it to figure it out.
I had at least one and maybe two false starts. I started to feel that I knew him when I figured out he was a mailing list broker. I had done a piece years ago for The New Yorker on the mailing list industry.
Also, originally the mayor was Frank Carmody, the Woodside Wacko, this self-consciously colorful mayor. That didn't work out very well. I was flailing around looking for some sort of plot until the draconian, vindictive, paranoid mayor came along. That helped.
Dave: All the characters think they understand why Tepper is there, but we never really know for sure. One reviewer compared him to Bartleby.
Trillin: There certainly is a difference of opinion about why he's there. People sometimes ask me, and the truth is I don't really know. But it had to make some sort of sense. He's very self-contained. He knows who he is and he doesn't get very excited about things.
You don't know really, though. Bartleby the Scrivener wasn't a person who caused things to happen, and one doesn't know whether Tepper really is or not.
Dave: I've read many of your pieces in The New Yorker and I've seen a lot of your poems in The Nation, but until recently I really had no idea of the breadth of your work. I was completely unprepared for Killings.
Trillin: I spent about fifteen years doing a story every three weeks somewhere in the country for The New Yorker, except in the summers. Just by the percentages, about once a year I did a story that had to do with sudden death or murder, and some of those are collected in Killings. But I always had an interest in murder; I think all reporters do.
I think my books give the idea that I've written more humor than I actually have. A lot of what isn't in the books are these New Yorker pieces, and I've been doing them for nearly forty years. An awful lot of what I've done is, if not serious reporting, then at least moderately serious reporting.
The fiction I've written really depends on the reporting. Even Tepper, as I say: I had done a piece about the mailing list industry, so I knew about mailing lists. And there are some things that don't seem true in this book that really are true. The body orifice security scanner is real. I've written a lot about Russ & Daughters, the appetizing store on Houston Street. A lot of this book, and certainly a lot of the novel I wrote about possibly runic artifacts being found in a town in Maine [Runestruck], came from reporting. I still think of reporting as the central thing I do and the other things being sidelines.
Dave: You've spent a lifetime as a gatherer of information. Food, politics, and other favorite topics aside, it doesn't seem that you've ever had one particular focus.
Trillin: In the press release, my publisher calls me "remarkably diverse." The other way of looking at it is that I've never gotten my act together and decided what I want to concentrate on. Maybe I have a short attention span. I don't sit there thinking, It's about time for me to write a novel or I should do some serious stuff now.
Some of it has been accidental. When I was doing those every-three-week pieces for The New Yorker, it evolved into a week of reporting, a week of writing, and what we called around the house "the off week," when I paid the bills and looked for my next story. An opportunity to write a column for The Nation came along, so I did it every three weeks in the off week.
The poems also happened accidentally. As I said in the poetry book [Deadline Poet], I was inspired by John Sununu, by his name. The poem "If You Knew What Sununu" led to something I still do. I think I started doing those in 1989 or 1990.
Dave: Deadline Poet compiles the work of a rather untraditional occupation.
Trillin: Wordsworth didn't have a deadline.
Dave: It's true. Imagine how productive he could have been.
Trillin: Or the other way of looking at it is that what he did was easy.
Dave: Readers come to The Nation expecting a certain liberal slant. There was the whole Christopher Hitchens brouhaha recently?
Trillin: ?right, right.
Even when I was writing columns I was considered by some readers to be insufficiently political. I created a character called Harold the Committed who didn't think we were raising our daughters with enough political content. We have a big Halloween parade in the Village, and Harold wanted my older daughter to go to the parade as Emma Goldman, somebody like that. She went as a box of M&Ms. He wanted my younger daughter to go as The Dangers Posed to Our Society by the Military Industrial Complex, and I said, "We don't have anybody at home who can sew that well."
I always thought that the column shouldn't give a complete pass to the people who were reading the magazine or the people on staff. I once told a story on television about a reporter that had asked me to describe what kind of magazine The Nation was, and I told him, "Pinko. I would call it 'pinko.' It's a pinko magazine on cheap paper. The kind of magazine that if you Xerox a copy, the Xerox is a lot better than the original."
This is aid and comfort to the enemy in some people's view, so I got some angry letters. And there have been a couple letters saying that they should definitely get rid of my poetry. Of course, those letters are usually in verse, which is always very comforting. I tend to forget that I'm not actually the worst poet in the world. There really are people who write worse than I do; they're usually the ones who write in.
Dave: I don't want to disparage your poetry?
Trillin: Oh, I'm not very sensitive about it.
Dave: Well, I guess part of the charm is that it's not Wordsworth.
Trillin: I'll accept that.
Dave: Political agendas aside, I'm guessing that some people aren't so thrilled with the literary standards of your poetic endeavor.
Trillin: Well, I think that's true. Wordsworth never rhymed MS Dos with michegas, for instance.
One of the things we tried to get settled at the beginning?I said to the wily and parsimonious Victor S. Navasky [publisher of The Nation] that I thought he had to get some sort of pass from the poetry editor because it would be insulting to have this in the poetry editor's purview; we solved that by putting it in a completely different part of the magazine.
Yes, I would agree that the literary standards of the poetry are probably not going to make me the poet laureate. I would agree with that, and not out of modesty. But I had some poetry in The New Yorker, too, you know.
Dave: But they haven't tried to steal you yet? Make you a staff poet?
Trillin: No. But I was very proud of my first poem in The New Yorker because that would have been my definition of a serious poet: one who's had a poem published in The New Yorker. That exultation was cut into a little bit by the fact that it was in the fashion issue and it was about fashion.
Then I had a poem about Christmas called "Christmas in Qatar." It was a sort of new "White Christmas." And I've written a poem that they're waiting to put in, probably waiting for some special occasion. It's about food. So that's my third poem. That's practically a career.
Dave: Do you notice anymore when editors change at The New Yorker? What has it been like to be there for so long?
Trillin: I notice. For the first twenty years or so, nothing happened. Literally: nothing. And since The New Yorker didn't have any bureaus or any hierarchy—a table of organization at The New Yorker would have been very flat then William Shawn on top—there wasn't even any gossip. At Time, where I'd worked before, you'd say, "Is so and so going to take over in Washington? He'll bring his people in, then who's going to fill in here?" We didn't even have that. Nothing ever happened.
But the editors have different tastes. I think writers judge editors almost completely on whether the editor runs their stuff. I'd like to say that it has more literary underpinnings, but I don't think it really does. And that seems reasonable enough.
I think The New Yorker happens to be in a very good period right now. I call David Remnick's regime "The Restoration." When he was first named, I think it was The New York Times that said he'd grown up with The New Yorker. I said, "No, no, it's even better than that: his father was a dentist so he grew up with old New Yorkers!"
Dave: The "Shouts and Murmurs" are short, quick pieces. Is there much planning before you write those or do you just sit down with an idea and let it take what direction it will?
Trillin: No, I don't plan on writing them. I think the last one I had in was a bunch of letters that weren't published in the New York Times Sunday Magazine's "Ethicist" column. It came to be because my daughters and I were having a conversation about what became one of the letters. I just made up the rest.
The "Shouts and Murmurs" used to be called, in the office, casuals. I think if somebody had been keeping track—fortunately no one has that little to do that they keep track of how my casuals fare—I probably have a very low batting average of having them accepted at The New Yorker. It was a little easier for me when Tina Brown was the editor because she used "Shouts and Murmurs" on the back page, which is now often some kind of art.
She was welcoming to the essay form. I've always had trouble with the sort of casual where you have to, say, decide you're something else, devise some other form. Occasionally something comes along like the letters to "The Ethicist," but normally it's not an easy form for me. Oddly, the piece that I read most often even now, though I wrote it many years ago, was corrections to a newspaper, a series of corrections that all were about errors involving the same family. Normally it's not an easy form.
Dave: You stopped writing about your daughters when they reached high school age or so, but unless your essay in last week's New Yorker was entirely fictional you were recently visiting Abigail in San Francisco.
Trillin: I was. I stopped writing about them during their teenage years because I think the last thing teenagers need is their daddy making supposedly wry remarks about their life. I did write one or two columns. I can remember at least one about the SATs, how kids' vocabularies change as the SAT grows near. I think I presented her as "the teenager I know best named S." I tell her not to worry about the SATs and she says something like, "Not worrying would be a Herculean task, that is, a task difficult to perform, because in my group there is no paucity of concern; in fact, there's a plethora, a surfeit, an overabundance." They were all talking that way. That was about my daughter Sarah. I let her read the piece and asked her permission to publish it before I sent it off.
Now they're grown-ups. I've written a couple of travel pieces where my older daughter Abigail went with me to Peru. The next book that's coming out is about local specialties; it's called Feeding a Yen: Savoring Local Specialties from Kansas City to Cuzco. As Abigail says, I "wimped out" on the local specialty in Cuzco, which is guinea pig. I did not have guinea pig.
Dave: Did Abigail?
Trillin: She did not. And I pointed out to her that I'd eaten nutria in Louisiana. I thought that maybe Peru and Louisiana could get together and form some kind of rodent marketing board.
Dave: So the next book is more food writing, an after-The Tummy Trilogy.
Trillin: It's sort of adventures in eating, based on wondering why the posolé I so love in New Mexico isn't available anywhere else, for example, and maybe going back to New Mexico. I'll go someplace to re-experience the food that's on what I call "my register of frustration and deprivation," things that I can't have at home. So there's a chapter on posolé in New Mexico and boudin from Louisiana, a type of pepper in Northern Spain, a lot of different things like that.
Dave: Your father seemed like a very colorful man.
Trillin: He wasn't overtly colorful. He was quiet in some ways, and certainly not a flamboyant person at all. I guess he was mildly eccentric, even though his views were extremely conventional about right and wrong and behavior and the American dream and all that. But he was funny. You're never quite sure about how to respond to your own parents' humor, but when I look back on it, he was funny.
Dave: You "figured some things out as you went along," you've said about the process of writing Messages from My Father. That struck me as an interesting admission. The typical son never goes through the process of having to make enough sense of his parents' lives to write everything down in a book.
Trillin: My father snuck into the book about my classmate, Remembering Denny. I hadn't realized that he'd even be mentioned, but it turned out that there were so many parallels between Denny and me and our families, even to the extent that all of our grandparents, great aunts, and great uncles had been immigrants. And my father had met Denny once, at graduation.
Jonathan Galassi at Farrar Straus, said, "You should write about your father." I thought it was sort of a dubious project—though maybe not as dubious as writing a parking novel—partly because nothing dramatic had happened to him. As I think I mentioned in Family Man, the way memoirs work in America now you should have at least some incest or bestiality or hideous business failures if you're going to talk about your family.
Also, when I was a kid my father was a grocer. He got up at four in the morning every day except Sunday to go to the market. He worked very hard all day and came home exhausted. I didn't see him as much as some people saw their fathers. I don't mean because he was out gallivanting around; he was just tired. Then I left home to go to college when I was seventeen and never properly lived in Kansas City again. I felt that I didn't have a lot of material.
I kept thinking as I wrote it, "Why would somebody be interested?" If you write something you have to take a leap of faith that readers will be interested, particularly because the first time you write it, that first draft is not beautifully done. I thought, Why would anybody want to read about a grocer in Kansas City?
If I hadn't liked that first section? There was something I just liked about where he's telling me that if I were blindfolded I wouldn't be able to tell the difference between coffee with cream and without cream. It was really a classic kind of situation with my father, and I just liked the way it sounded.
So it ran as a New Yorker piece, but it must have been a year or two later that I said to Galassi, "There was so much response to that, we probably should have thought about doing it as a book." And he said, "Why not do it now?"
I thought I'd add just a couple thousand words, but I added thirty or forty percent. In the second go-around, it turned out that in the crevices of my mind there was stuff I hadn't remembered.
Calvin Trillin visited Powell's City of Books on January 28, 2003. He reminded me a lot of his father—but I only know Abe Trillin through Calvin's books, so what to make of that resemblance I'm really not sure.