RENEE MONTAGNE, host:
For readers of Calvin Trillin's writing in “The New Yorker” and books like “Alice Let's Eat” and “Family Man,” his late wife Alice is a familiar character. Alice Trillin died in 2001 of heart failure, the result of the radiation she underwent for lung cancer 25 years before.
Calvin Trillin now has a new book, and this time it's all about Alice. The title is, in fact, “About Alice.” It's a longer version of an article that appeared in “The New Yorker” and it's a valentine to his smart, funny and beautiful wife.
Calvin Trillin joined us from our studio in New York. Good morning.
Mr. CALVIN TRILLIN (Author, “About Alice”): Good morning.
MONTAGNE: You begin the book with some of the responses that you got after your wife Alice passed away. And if you wouldn't mind, maybe I'll just have you read that very first paragraph.
Mr. TRILLIN: OK. There was one condolence letter that made me laugh. Naturally, a lot of them made me cry. Some of those, oddly enough, were from people who had never met Alice. They had become familiar with her as a character in books and magazine pieces I had written like books and magazine pieces about traveling or eating or family life. Virtually all those letters begin in the same way, with s phrase like - even though I never really knew Alice. I was certain of what Alice's response would have been. They're right about that, she would have said, they never knew me.
MONTAGNE: Did she recognize herself in your portrayal of her in your writing?
Mr. TRILLIN: Well, that's I think why should would have said that the people writing to me about her, even though they hadn't met her, were people who didn't know her. When there's a scene in the book about a speech I made and someone asked me from the audience, what does Alice think of the portrayal of her in your books and in your magazine articles? And I said, she thinks that it makes her sound like a dietician in sensible shoes. And he said, is she here? And I said, yes.
And Alice stood up, and of course she was wearing something absolutely smashing. She didn't say anything. She just smiled and leaned down and took her shoe off - a shoe that, to me, looked like it would cost about enough to support a family of four for a year or two in most places - and waved it and then sat down.
MONTAGNE: Many writers have - I would hope, actually - have lovely wives. Alice, though, for you she was a muse.
Mr. TRILLIN: Yeah, she was. I mean when I dedicated a book to Alice, I meant it literally. She was, among other things, the first reader, the only reader, before I handed something in. The other part of that was I was trying to impress her. And I was trying to impress her after 30 or 35 years in the same way I was trying to impress her when I met her. So that never ended. And that's part of what a muse's role is.
MONTAGNE: You write in the book that she said throughout your marriage that you were never funnier than the night she met you.
Mr. TRILLIN: And I would say, you mean I peaked in December of 1963? And she would say, I'm afraid so.
MONTAGNE: You know, you said that's the definition of a muse. It also struck me as a possible definition of love.
Mr. TRILLIN: I guess it is. I always wanted to impress her.
MONTAGNE: How did her experience with lung cancer at a quite a young age, right?
Mr. TRILLIN: She was 38 and she had never smoked a cigarette. So she wasn't a likely candidate for lung cancer. So I guess it was, first of all, obviously a great shock. And she approached it the way she approached everything else, which was to find out a lot about it. I think the way she felt about serious illness was that the battle you were in was won by not being changed by it.
MONTAGNE: Lung cancer is so deadly and she beat it for 25 years. She saw your two daughters, who were little girls when she was first treated, married.
Mr. TRILLIN: Yeah. I mean in that way, she would have thought of that as great luck.
MONTAGNE: And would have told you that was great luck if she'd had the chance?
Mr. TRILLIN: Yes. I'm sure of that, yes.
MONTAGNE: There's something quite touching at the end of the book. She ended up having heart surgery because the radiation had destroyed parts of her heart. There's this moment after your older daughter is married when Alice has - well, she's made it to the wedding. And what?
Mr. TRILLIN: She got out of the hospital about six hours before the wedding. She did march down the aisle and she was able to stay late enough at the reception to witness a 20-minute or so rendition of the horror that left the Chinese waiters staring in amazement.
The next day she sent an e-mail to the group of people I'd been keeping informed of her condition. Most of the first paragraph was in caps. Abigail got married yesterday and I was there; I was there for the whole thing. Got to say my toast, quite moving, and eat chocolate cake and watch Bud's 87-year-old uncle, Jerry, who married Sarah and Alex in Malibu last June, dance his ass off with Alice Waters who had brought me roses from her garden in Berkeley.
Toward the end of the e-mail, she said she was safe at home in the village, eating comfort food and about to watch “The Sopranos” and an A.R. Gurney play on television. She closed by saying: Life doesn't get much better than this.
MONTAGNE: I guess you could say it doesn't.
Mr. TRILLIN: No.
MONTAGNE: You know, of all the letters you got from readers about Alice after she died, and the letters you got from people you didn't know, you mention one that you say reflected any number of other letters that you got. Do you remember the one I'm talking about?
Mr. TRILLIN: Yeah. Maybe I could just read half of that paragraph.
Mr. TRILLIN: They may not have known her, but they knew how I felt about her. It surprised me that they had managed to divine that from reading stories that were essentially sitcoms. Even after I had taken in most episodes of “The Honeymooners” after all, it had never occurred to ponder the feeling Ralph Kramden must have had for Alice Kramden.
Yet I got a lot of letters like the one from a young woman in New York who wrote that she sometimes looked at her boyfriend and thought, but will he love me like Calvin loves Alice?
MONTAGNE: Well you would hope so, wouldn't you?
Mr. TRILLIN: Yeah, I do hope so.
MONTAGNE: Calvin Trillin, thank you very much for joining us.
Mr. TRILLIN: Thank you, Renee.
MONTAGNE: Calvin Trillin is an author and writer for “The New Yorker.”
This is MORNING EDITION from NPR News. I'm Renee Montagne.