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Floater Revisited: A Conversation with Calvin Trillin

On the 25th anniversary of Trillin's novel, the author talks about newsweekly culture and his long and varied career

- April 4, 2005

trillin.jpgIt's hard to overstate the breadth of Calvin Trillin's career as a writer. Over the past four decades, he has been a staff writer at The New Yorker, a syndicated columnist, a regular contributor to The Nation, and has published 18 books, both fiction and non-fiction.

His comic novel Floater, a send-up of the editorial side of news magazines, was published in 1980, and was culled largely from his time in the early 60's as a writer and reporter at Time magazine.

Trillin sat down in his Greenwich Village apartment last week with MB's David S. Hirschman to talk about his long and varied career, and how news magazines have changed since Floater was published.

It's been 25 years since you wrote Floater. How do you think news magazines have changed in that time?

I actually hadn't realized that it had been 25 years until you told me. The book is even older than that, because I had last worked at Time, before I went to the New Yorker, in 1963. So it had been a number of years since my own news magazine experience. News magazines aren't even organized that way anymore. Back then, Time particularly was very rigidly divided up into sections—national affairs, education, religion, etc.. When Time was founded, the idea behind it was to allow businessmen who didn't have all that much time to get caught up on all sorts of things in a rather compartmentalized, handy way. Those magazines have evolved quite a lot. I mean I'm not even sure they had a news service or reporters in the beginning; I think they just summarized the newspapers. Now, because of competition and a variety of factors, they've become something else.

I get the sense sometimes that Time and Newsweek, because they come out only once a week whereas the Internet provides constant access to information, have a harder time these days seeming authoritative about news.

That problem was there even 40 years ago when I worked at Time, because television and newspapers had really to a great extent covered the story, whatever it was—at least in national affairs. Some of the coverage that Time did in what was thought of as the "back-of-the-book" was much more original than what was done in foreign and national affairs because other people weren't covering subjects like religion. Newspapers across the country in those days often had a little religious column on Saturdays, but they didn't really cover it, or medicine for that matter. Several sections like that were more likely to be original in Time.

When I was there, the magazine didn't exactly break stories; I think it even sort of shied away from breaking stories. That's why Time in those days loved those little facts of what the guy had had for breakfast and what kind of pen he was writing with. In those days, the division of labor was split between the reporters out in the field and the writers in New York. I did both of those things at different times, mostly in the South for the first part as a reporter in the bad old days. And I remember there were facts that I knew were going to make it into the magazine; these little facts that would let the reader know that you were there, that the newspapers wouldn't have. Partly it was because there wasn't any room to put those sorts of little details in a newspaper; in those days newspaper writing was somewhat stiffer than it is now. So Time and Newsweek specialized in that sort of thing.

People say that The New York Times these days has evolved into a sort of daily magazine, because of the way it has strived to include those sorts of details.

It's true. The leads now in Times stories are much looser. It's almost unusual now—except in the obvious story about the change in the interest rates from the Fed—to see what people in the '50s and '60s would have thought of as a journalism school lede, which actually tells you exactly what's happening right away. The idea of the newspaper story was that you could stop reading whenever you wanted to and still get the gist of it—the whole inverted-pyramid idea with the most important facts at the top. Now you almost always get that if you stopped after two paragraphs you wouldn't know.

When you look back now on Floater, how do you feel about the book? Was it just sort of a memory of the time when you were working at a news magazine? Did it evolve out of something else?

It actually didn't start out as a book about working at a news magazine, which was kind of a type already. I wouldn't call it a genre, but there are a number of books about working at news magazines. In those days, particularly, people working at the magazines would get really angry—pissed off at the structure—and write a book about it. The way it was structured made for an odd sort of life, particularly for the people in the field—it was fun, but you were really filing stuff for a writer in New York. They used to say being a correspondent was a wonderful job unless you read the magazine because in a way, your stuff was never meant to get into the magazine. You might do a twenty-page file but the writer who was assigned to write that had eighty lines. Sometimes you could see a sentence or two of your stuff, but most of the time it wasn't even that your stuff was changed; it just wasn't your stuff. It was really literally group-journalism. There were no bylines back then in those magazines. Time had this sort of authoritative, omniscient tone, and bylines they thought would ruin that, revealing that there were actually fallible, ordinary, flesh-and-blood human beings behind it.

Working in the New York office, it was actually sort of like carpentry work. A lot of the fun—the reason you actually went and did this in the first place—was taken out. In my era, it was often because you couldn't decide to do something else; you sort of backed into journalism.

People still thought of it as an exciting profession, though, no?

Yeah, sort of. But it was slightly déclassé. Newspaper people were thought of as guys in threadbare suits with a pencil behind their ear and a bottle of bourbon in the bottom right drawer. A friend of mine had been at Yale and graduate school at Berkeley, and ended up at a Dow Jones paper in Washington, and he said he started wondering "Is this a job for a college graduate?" There was some question in that era whether journalism was.

There was also the political problem working at Time, because back then the magazine was biased towards the Republicans. Henry Luce was a great believer in the "American Century" and he had some hobbyhorse issues like Taiwan—because he was a missionary there and had grown up in China. So a lot of people would sort of storm out of the magazine because of that. I actually left simply because I found another job.

When you were there, were you actually a "Floater," like the book's main character?

Yes. I would actually move every week to a different section. Sometimes I would get stuck. Like the character, I once really did get stuck in religion.

But the book actually began with what I even admit was really a stupid plot: the idea of what would happen if the First Lady got pregnant, the whole abortion issue. I thought it would just be a complicated political situation. And so I decided I'd just set it at a news magazine, because that was what I knew, and then the magazine stuff just took over.

Nothing was really based in reality. There were a couple of idiosyncrasies, maybe. There really was a guy at Timewho was known for the way he would lean back in his desk chair with his feet on the desk, but I didn't really attempt to write a realistic thing; I was just trying to be funny. After it came out, somebody who was still at Time—a very high editor—came to me and said "the part about the correspondent in the field getting the story read to him, you must have gotten that from such and such, because we didn't start doing that until after you left." And I said "That stuff is true? I thought I'd made up most of that. You really have story conferences about two-thirds stockings and stuff like that?" I was trying to make it too silly to be taken seriously.

It was an odd book because it had a very loyal following of about 14 people. I don't think it sold that many copies, but the people who mention it to me years later almost always turn out to have worked at some kind of magazine.

I guess what I had always thought was that Time was more interesting internally than it was as a magazine. They used the phrase group-journalism, and when they had these publisher's letters it sounded like "our man in Indonesia took a canoe here. Meanwhile, so and so was airlifted here."

But, in fact, if you were a correspondent, you worked your ass off at the beginning of the week, but then didn't do anything at the end of the week. And if you were a writer in New York, it was the opposite, where you'd go to the movies on Monday and Tuesday and then have to work harder towards the end of the week. That meant also that there were a bunch of people who, in an ordinary place like a newspaper would be out reporting, but they were just sitting there and then were in a sort of a crisis situation for two or three days, with late-night stuff and always a bottle in the senior editor's office on the closing night.

And it was organized to provide a sort of sexual dynamic between writers and researchers. The writers were all male and the researchers were all female. There simply weren't any female writers. I mean, at the time there was a woman working there named Josie Davis, no longer alive, who was a very clever writer. She was a researcher in a group of sections presided over by Henry Gruenwald, who later became the editor. In Henry's group Josie was so clever that Henry ended up letting her write, sort of sub-rosa. So she was the first one, but she was still not listed on the masthead as a writer.

The women were by and large these "researchers," which today would be known as "fact-checkers." And they would each have to meet with the writers and go over every word and fact in a story. But by the time the writer met with the researcher, he had written the story probably two or three times and had passed it by the senior editor, so by the time the researcher got it, the writer had probably nudged a few transitions in a direction that might not exactly have been accurate. As a character says in Floater, the power over the story increased the farther away you got from what actually happened, so that the guy with the least power was the guy who was actually there.

So there were often tremendous arguments between the researcher and the writer, which would often turn into a male-female thing, and could often end up in tears. It was always just two people in a room, and they'd get into arguments over "whether you could say that." And of course if there had been a mistake, the person at fault was the fact-checker, so while the writer just wanted it to sound right, she was the one who was responsible. There was a lot of tension towards the end of the week, and there were always guys who meet in the bar and would talk about how many affairs were going on between people at the magazine. And it was so secretive that you often didn't know exactly if the people even knew each other until you got a wedding invitation. And this was all exacerbated by the fact that news magazines back then didn't have regular weekends; people would have different days off from the rest of the population. It had something to do with the printing schedule. So that made it even more insular. It was a strange place.

Have you ever wanted to be an editor? Someone recently told me that it was a shame for a lot of writers that the only way you can be promoted up is to become an editor.

That's absolutely right. Most of the people I hung out with at Time—John McPhee, John Gregory Dunne—we didn't really have any interest in rising in the firm. I think we all just assumed that we'd be moving on eventually. I actually had a friend who became a senior editor and while everyone was congratulating him, I said "I don't know how I feel about this. Sound like you're going over to the other team." I mean there were some writers who just stuck around for 40 years writing about the same kinds of things, but we just sort of knew we'd be moving into something else. And those who got promoted to senior editors were not really editors, they were basically just promoted writers, who wouldn't take one or two words out of a piece you handed in. They'd either tell you to rewrite something or rewrite it themselves; they weren't about tightening things up. But it's true that if you weren't interested in rising in the firm your choices were somewhat limited. Maybe you could be a foreign correspondent or something like that, which was thought of as generally a good gig. People used to say in those days if you were in a foreign capital and saw a beautiful house it was either an Arab embassy or the home of the Time bureau chief. Those days, of course, ended when the bottom line became more important at these publications.

You've done a very wide variety of kinds of writing in your career with journalism, novels, poems, essays…

You can say "never got your act together," that's okay.

That's clearly not the case. But I'm wondering what you get the most satisfaction out of, and what the secret is to your having such longevity?

I think I actually get the most satisfaction from changing around. Maybe I'll do a fairly-serious piece for The New Yorker and then do a verse for The Nation; it's not doing the same thing all the time. Journalism can be very repetitive, even at a high level—say somebody who writes national political stories. Some people are really good at that and really like doing it, but it can be the same thing over and over.

Even long-form magazine writing?

Yes. I mean, I did a piece every three weeks for the New Yorker for about 15 years around the country and there were times—sort of when I decided not to do it anymore—when I thought "Wait a minute, haven't I done this piece before?"

At that job, I filed a piece every three weeks—I didn't do it in the summer—and I would go somewhere in the country where there was a story, or what seemed to be a story. They were all sorts of things, there were 200-250 of them. When I was done I was able to put together a book of essentially murder pieces, which I had done more or less once a year. Or it was some sort of community controversy over development or tenure, or something like that. I loved the variation of it, and I think newspapers were doing less of that back then, from '67 to '82. Newspapers then were not quite national newspapers. To get The New York Times in most of the places I was writing about you went to the same place that sold dirty magazines; you didn't find them in a box on the corner in a town in Colorado. But places like the Times and the Post and the Boston Globe started doing regional pieces to the end of when I was doing that. But I used to feel that I, to a great extent, sort of had the country to myself.

Where do your story ideas come from?

Often it's a combination of one thing and another. Maybe it's an event that works well with something else that comes by total accident. The last piece I had in The New Yorker was about a helicopter pilot who got killed in Iraq; for me it was kind of an unusual piece, because it was from hearing an NPR piece and then thinking about it for about a year and then deciding I wanted to go and see the guy's parents, who turned out to have different views on the war from each other.

When I was doing the every three week pieces, that was, or course, before the Internet and before USA Today even started doing those little state pieces—which I would have found kind of useful. The New Yorker didn't have an AP wire back then. I don't know if they even do now. And, of course, there wasn't any Lexis-Nexis or anything like that. I certainly tried to be more systematic about coming up with ideas at the time. I actually used to go to the 42nd St. out-of-town newsstand and I'd buy a stack of papers frrom various places around the country. I don't know how I chose them. Certain papers I liked, like the Des Moines Register, which had little maps of Iowa next to state stories so that I could zero in on the ones I was looking for. It was probably a 99.9 percent total waste, but it was the only thing that made me feel like I was doing something. That was right around the time that the alternative weekly press started, which evolved from what was called the underground press, which was a little more ragged and less responsible. I used to subscribe to a bunch of those from around the country, but I'm not so sure I got many story ideas out of those either.

Sometimes one story would lead to another. I never had a real system for getting a story. The New Yorker never really did either, with stringers or that kind of thing. I guess the magazine's changed a bit now; it's a tighter ship than it used to be. Certainly for most of the time that I've been writing for it, though, it's been a sort of writer-driven magazine. People would come to [William] Shawn and say "I want to do this," and Shawn would say yes or no. I think the whole time I was doing those stories he may have suggested only one or two.

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