Thursday, May 01, 2008

"I'd Go Anywhere Where There's a Transcript"

New Yorker writer Calvin Trillin came to UC Irvine yesterday to talk about writing murder stories, composing food journalism, penning humorously rhymed verse (regularly run in The Nation), and producing many other genres that could be described as "literary nonfiction" in a "master class" sponsored by the program in Literary Journalism.

Although he's a fixture in print journalism, who is known for his ability to crank out polished 3,000 word pieces every three weeks for decades, many of the questions posed to Trillin had to do with changes to the media landscape brought by the Internet. As a trial transcript-centered journalist, Trillin reminisced about the days when there were few copy shops outside of Utah -- where he said these establishments served a practical function for Mormon genealogists -- and noted that today documents could be texted to the cell phones of reporters filing stories. He also expressed some nostalgia for the old format of The New Yorker in which the information design of the magazine was minimal: no pictures, no table of contents, no subheadings, no captions if there were pictures, and no descriptions of the stories attached to the front cover of the magazine. Trillin argued that under those circumstances, writers had "the opportunity to tell the story the way you wanted to tell the story." He compared these story-telling activities to "tellling a story in front of a fire" as an exercise in "keeping people's attention" with "surprises," since as he points out that when interviewing subjects it becomes apparent that "everyone has a different idea bout what part of it is secret."

As a way of "delivering narrative," Trillin expressed the opinion that blogs were only doing what newspapers had done with stories in previous decades by appropriating the techniques of literary magazines, although "more people are doing it." As a story-teller of narratives that could be described as being -- in some sense -- in the public domain, Trillin also described the challenges to retaining intellectual property faced by magazine writers, particularly when movie-makers adapt their work without attribution or compensation.

Trillin also said that the Internet was of great practical use to him in writing, since he could look up facts that would be difficult to find in his local library, such as the name of the dog of former Canadian Prime Minister William Lloyd MacKenzie King.

As someone who has had to contact the parents of a soldier who died in Iraq myself, I was particularly impressed by Trillin's sensitive and measured account of how he came to write "Lost Son."

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Anonymous Vivian Folkenflik said...

In the evening, Trillin gave a brilliantly funny/serious lecture open to the general public as well as students. Everyone delighted in his poetry tags for recent politicians, admired his geography skills polished in childhood car rides through Western buttes and mesas, sympathized with his math and foreign language struggles, and felt a pang for his childhood memories of dog Chubby being "sent away to a farm" -- though no, says his sister, there wasn't any farm and you were the one called "Chubby." Towards the end of the evening, in response to a question about his "writing process," he talked both about multiple revision to make things right, and not wanting the results to look "too finished." The evening -- the talk -- just seemed to tell itself. Nice, nice work, the pleasure of his company.

4:56 PM  
Blogger Lupton said...

I loved this session with Trillin. He was very funny about his low-brow food writing, too. After writing three books about the regional road stops of American cookery, he said, "I discovered how quickly you can be seen as an expert on something about which you know nothing." His way of "knowing nothing," however, is deeply revelatory of how we live, love, and eat.

5:11 AM  

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