When Jon Carroll was hired as a columnist for the San Francisco Chronicle in 1982, he assumed that the position was going to be temporary. He’d been bouncing around the magazine and newspaper industries for the previous decade, looking for the perfect outlet for his talents. As it happens, he’d found it.
Thirty years later, Carroll has written more than 8,000 columns for the Chronicle, having become the newspaper’s star, leading voice and, essentially, its conscience. Although he says he doesn’t tend to think about these things, Carroll is one of the most prolific journalists in the newspaper business today (and likely its history): at 800 words per column, his output tallies somewhere beyond 6,400,000 words. He also pens his own headlines and captions.
Carroll’s column appears Monday through Friday on the back of the paper’s Datebook section. Oftentimes, he writes about his life — including his wife and two daughters — but he’s equally willing to delve into local matters, politics, world affairs, pop culture, technology and more. The subject matter (and the tone) changes by the day, occasionally by the paragraph. He is equally funny and playful, earnest and eloquent.
He’s also poetic. Take this excerpt from a column titled One Fine Day In Gualala, in which Carroll and his wife Tracy sit in the waiting room of a doctor’s office, reading books, waiting. At first, Carroll describes what the clinic looks like, the informative posters on the walls, the ambience … until he reaches the halfway point of his column. Then, he focuses in on his wife of 20 years and writes this:
It was all very sleepy and sunny and obscurely calming. Don’t know why; just reporting.
It was quiet. I looked up at her. It happened.
We were on the island. I was looking at her in a way I can just begin to describe. It was as though our entire history together were a deck of cards, usually packed in a box, but just for that moment opened and fanned out, so that every moment was equally visible. I saw her staring down at her book, rubbing one finger along her cheek, her right leg crossed over her left, her right foot moving in a slow circle, and I saw her doing the same thing in a thousand different rooms, in airports and hotels, on kitchen stools and picnic benches. And we just floated together, she reading and me watching, as we have for two decades now, mostly unaware that we were floating, the smaller movements of life disguising the gentle, ceaseless current of daily existence, the trip down the river.
SHE IS MY OTHER. It is beyond the things that attracted me to her; it is beyond the virtues that made me love her, beyond the flaws that I learned to accept. It is something beyond; it doesn’t have a name. It is like the gift of companionship raised to another level. It is coming to that part of another person that is deeply unknowable, and knowing it anyway. It exists outside emotion. These moments on the island, the moments of unique connection with the other, have a curious stillness to them, a noiselessness. I am conscious only that I have suddenly gone inside the mystery and, for a moment or two, am able to live there.
It does not mean anything at all, except that there is no turning back. It does not mean anything at all except that the islands are rare and we have found one and it is not romantic, although it can make you cry. It can lift up your heart. It can make you more than whole. It’s just the way things are. It’s just where we have found ourselves. Who knew? It was all a gamble. Maybe we got lucky; maybe we’re good people; maybe anything.
There’s more and I’m inclined to just print the whole column (and many more where that came from), but you get the point, which is this: you don’t see that in newspapers, every day.
Carroll began his career in the early 1970s as a magazine editor, including stints at Rolling Stone, the Village Voice and NewWest, the latter of which he guided to a National Magazine Award. In 1977 and 1978, he wrote a column for the San Francisco Examiner, before assuming his current post at the Chronicle. In the ensuing years, Carroll has received numerous honors, including the Ernie Pyle Lifetime Achievement Award and he’s released one book-collection of his columns, Near-Life Experiences.
Carroll and his wife live in the East Bay. He and I met on a sunny day in the Glenview area of Oakland, at a café called Ultimate Grounds. Over coffee, we sat at a small table near the back door and chatted about his career.
The Rumpus: What is it that you like about starting a new column every single weekday? Most people would find that daunting.
Jon Carroll: Yeah, but you can forget about what you did before. I mean, it’s always a clean slate. Novelists, poor babies, come down and they have to read what they wrote the day before and then attach something to it, live with their mistakes, live with their errors, feel bad about something that happened 28 pages ago that they still haven’t resolved. And I know friends who live with novels for three or four years and they just agonize over them. Some people start researching compulsively and some people start rewriting compulsively. I’ve got a fresh piece of paper every day. It doesn’t matter what I said the day before. It’s all gone. Nobody will expect there to be a consistency of tone or a consistency of characters, or anything like that. And if it’s shallow, well, I come by my shallowness naturally. I’m in a shallow profession, writing against deadline.
Rumpus: Something I really like about your column is how it will often take an unexpected turn after two or three paragraphs. The reader doesn’t know where the piece is going. Take your recent column about a concert you attended in Berkeley. You mention hearing a song about playing cards and then all of a sudden you’re writing about the sound of cards in bicycle tires and then suddenly the column is actually about your childhood. The concert was just a prelude.
Carroll: Yeah, well that’s all intentional. The idea is to surprise the reader. The idea is to not be predictable. My problem with most columning is that you’ll read three paragraphs and you kind of know what the argument is. You know where he’s going with it. And it’s not clear that reading it all the way through would reward you in any other way. I mean, it could reward you with good writing or good jokes or something like that, but usually it’s just kind of received opinion presented in a pedestrian way. And God knows I fall prey to received opinion, but I try not to do it in a pedestrian way. So at least the reader has some idea that there might be some little ice cream cones hidden along the way, that, if nothing else, it’s worth spending your time.
Rumpus: I love that. Ice cream cones. Little treats you sprinkle in there for observant readers. So, in the last few weeks you’ve written about big government, the sale of the website The Well, the state of the magazine industry, President Obama and Mad Men spoilers, among many other things. Is there a conscious effort to make it so varied and also switch up the tone from humor to pop culture to politics to the more personal stuff?
Carroll: Yes, absolutely. That was the idea coming in, that I wouldn’t be writing in any one way about any one topic, or series of topics, or cluster of topics, because I wanted to not bore myself. I’d been around the magazine and newspaper business for 15 years already when I got the job and so I kind of understood what the dangers might be in a column. I didn’t understand all of them. But one of them is certainly that if I narrowed my purview too much, I could start repeating myself very quickly. And I didn’t want to do that. By this point, I realize it’s inescapable. You do express the same sentiment in slightly different ways. You could call that “keeping after an issue,” or something. You can’t be original all the time. But if you have a very broad field of view, you can be original more of the time, because you conceive of the world as your topic and you can go anywhere in the world and see what you think. Which is part of what writing about: seeing what I think. I can read a story in the newspaper and I don’t know exactly what’s there, but I know there’s stuff I can work with. So I — God help me, like an old journalist — I put the paper clipping aside.
Rumpus: Do you learn something about yourself with each new column you write? Or do you at least learn what you actually think about something?
Carroll: I certainly learn the latter. I don’t learn something about myself. I don’t think of it particularly as a tool for self-analysis, writing what I do. I’m not writing deeply felt novels in the newspaper, so I think using the column as a window to who I am is kind of nonsense. But, in terms of clarifying ideas on something, or arranging them, the process of writing a column is making something coherent to myself. It’s what I’m trying to do, figuring that if I can do that and express it, then maybe it also makes it coherent for somebody else. That’s the theory, anyway. So that’s what I’m doing — I’m talking to myself about this issue, whatever it is.
Rumpus: When you start on a new column, how often do you have a clear idea of where it’s going to end up? Or do you generally figure it out as you go?
Carroll: Well, you try to be open to changes. I start out with an idea. But I start out with the idea that that idea is temporary. It can go anywhere. And sometimes, in the process of writing, I find a nice corner or nook or cranny that hasn’t been explored, so I go off and explore it. And the cranny turns out to be a tunnel and it takes me to another place, entirely. And I think, “Far out!” and then go adjust the column to make sure that everything tracks, and I take the tunnel instead of the way that I thought. Other times, it’s just straight down the road. Today’s column was kind of straight down the road. I knew what I was going to do and I did it. There were no surprises.
Rumpus: Are you allowed to reveal today’s subject, or is that a trade secret until it’s published?
Carroll: It’s not a trade secret. I prefer to have people read what I’ve said, because I’ve said it better than I’m going to say it like this. That’s why I write and don’t talk for a living.
Rumpus: That makes sense. So did you already turn it in? How does it work?
Carroll: Yeah. I start writing right in the morning, because I will — as a matter of deeply held personal philosophy — avoid writing if I can. The only way I can avoid the avoidance is to do it in a pattern, set up this routine in which nothing gets done until the column gets written. So basically, I get up, have caffeine, read the paper, go into my room and stay there until the column is done. That’s my routine. And everything else has to be on pause until the column is done. And then you can press the button again and my life goes up to speed and I go do things that resemble a life, as opposed to sitting in a room, staring at a screen.
Rumpus: And you can’t do anything else until then? You protect your mornings?
Carroll: I protect my mornings, right. I mean, I work at home so there’s always a phone call, or there’s a workman and there’s all sorts of violations of the sacred trust. But that’s the plan.
Rumpus: And those around you know not to bother you.
Carroll: Oh yeah. Oh yeah.
Rumpus: How do you know when a column is finished? Do you tinker for a while, or are you just done and send it in?
Carroll: There are several steps you take: you do a first draft, and then you go back. The first thing I do is read it through for sense, just to see if the argument is holding up and where I might’ve taken the argument off course. And I fix that. And then I go through again, with a more “copyeditor” kind of eye and see where I have failed myself grammatically, where it’s muddy, where it isn’t clear. Just seeing the individual sentences and how they’re forming and I try to fix that. And then I clean up around the edges. I write the e-mail thing, I write the headline, I write the pull-quote, I write all of that stuff. And then kind of tidy it, go through one more time and then off it goes.
Rumpus: So is there a standard length of time that it takes you, or is all over the place?
Carroll: It’s all over the place. Could be 45 minutes, could be three hours. That’s about the breadth. I can’t usefully write for more than three hours.
Rumpus: And morning’s the only time that you write? Say something really important comes up. Do you ever write in the afternoon or evening?
Carroll: Except for some very rare things, like 9/11. I write overnight so I have to have early deadlines so it can get in the paper in the Datebook section, which is printed earlier than some of the other sections.
Rumpus: So the one that you wrote today is coming out in two days?
Carroll: Yes, that’s right.
Rumpus: What gets you in the mood to write a column? I’ve heard you express that you have a sense of dread when you wake up and realize it’s a workday. Do you still have that?
Carroll: A little bit, yeah. Sure. Time to write, no avoiding it, that’s the point of the routine — that it doesn’t give you a chance to think about avoiding it, you can’t begin excusing things. So yeah, workdays are a different kind of day than the days when I wake up and realize, “Oh, boy, no column today!”
Rumpus: So when you’re on a vacation, you don’t feel like there’s a void in your life.
Carroll: If the vacation is long enough, I will eventually get antsy to write again. I will begin coming up with ideas, I will begin taking notes. But in general, the first seven days I’m happy to be away. I’m perfectly OK with those days.
Rumpus: Do you think of a specific person when you write? Do you have an ideal reader?
Carroll: I don’t really. The only thing I can come up with is someone like me. I mean, I assume that they’re interested in what I’m interested in and have the same cultural assumptions that I do. And that’s all I can do. I can’t write for anybody other than me, because I don’t know anybody other than me well enough. So I have to write for me. And if I’ve amused myself, at least I’ve started.
Rumpus: I remember you writing that you think of your column mostly as a “California column.”
Carroll: Yeah. One of the great advantages in narrowing that focus is that you can use West Coast shorthand to talk about things from a West Coast perspective, without having to transfer it and somehow make it, “That’s like your Grand Central.” You don’t have to transfer it to a national audience. I certainly have readers in other parts of the country. I hear from them, I know they exist, but I don’t write for them.
Rumpus: When you’re looking through the Chronicle in the morning, having your coffee, do you reread your own stuff?
Carroll: Well, I’ve read it enough. Maybe I look at it in the afternoon. I don’t pick it up first thing in the morning. I wait to log onto my e-mail and see what kind of bomb has exploded. Occasionally, it calls for a correction and I gotta get on that right away, so I have to go find out what the initial reaction is. And then I might read it again with those criticisms in mind, whatever they are, and see what I think.
Rumpus: What about coming to a place like this café? Your work is everywhere. I walked in today and it was folded to your column. Do you ever just get a kick out of watching people read it?
Carroll: Oh yeah.
Rumpus: You do?
Carroll: Yeah. Oh yeah. That’s fun.
Rumpus: Do they ever have any idea it’s you? I mean, your photo’s up top.
Carroll: Right. No. Not usually. I’ve never had one of those moments where they finished it and looked at me. [Pantomimes looking up from reading the paper.]
Rumpus: I find that great, though, that you do watch people read it.
Carroll: Yeah, if I see where they are in the paper. I mean, I can see what section of the paper they have and if I know what section of the paper they have, I know where I am. And I check to see if they do. And of course, the dispiriting thing is when they turn to that page and just put it down.
Rumpus: I bet they’d be mortified if they knew you were sitting there watching them not read your stuff.
Carroll: Yeah. Right.
Rumpus: So if it’s a humor column, you wait to see if they smile, laugh, that kind of thing.
Carroll: Yeah. Yeah. The whole thing.
Rumpus: So, let’s back up for a second. When you got the job back in 1982, what was the job description?
Carroll: Well, it was write five columns a week.
Rumpus: Even at that point?
Carroll: There was a great Chronicle tradition when I got there: columnists wrote five a week. So Herb Caen and Charles McCabe and all those people I grew up reading, the generation before me, were all five-day-a-week columnists. So it was assumed that the replacement would also be a five-day-a-week columnist. They became aware of the aging of their battery of stars and they were looking for someone else and that’s why they gave me the job: to have me winding up in the bullpen. And in fact, I did that for almost a year. And then Charles McCabe died. And so I took his place, after a decent interval. His place, in all its permutations, is where I’ve been.
Rumpus: Was that daunting, when you first took it over, writing five columns a week? Or were you just gung-ho about it?
Carroll: I didn’t think it was what I was going to do forever. I was gung-ho at the time. I thought, “Oh, I can do this.” And I did not think of this as my last job. I had no idea that that was going to be true. Because I’d come from a period of time in my life in which I’d had something like eight jobs in 10 years, different magazines, different positions.
Rumpus: Mostly editing at that point?
Carroll: Yeah, I got writing in where I could. I would write captions, I would write headlines, I would write editor’s notes, I would write magazine copy blocks for photo spreads, things like that.
Rumpus: But the money was in editing.
Carroll: The money was in editing, oh yeah. I couldn’t make a living as a writer back then. I was fortunate to be able to learn while employed. Because I could do all the editing and then I was always ready for an assignment to do things. So I got to do a little writing, too. And eventually it turned out that editing a magazine is like carving the Lord’s Prayer on the head of a pin. It’s very difficult and not everybody can do it. After a while it’s just, “God, this is hard.” You know? And I had a personal life, but it wasn’t much of one. And I spent an enormous amount of time in the office, just deluged, working on other people’s stuff.
Rumpus: What kind of column-writing experience did you have before the Chronicle?
Carroll: I wrote a column for the [San Francisco] Examiner for a while, three times a week, in 1977-78.
Rumpus: Similar to what you’re doing now?
Carroll: Similar, except in the Examiner, they let me draw. The drawings weren’t that good to call it a thing. They were stick figures. They were supposed to be dopey looking, that was the point. I could give them dopey looking. So, it was a thrill to me, an absolute thrill to have my pictures in the paper. Words, sure. But my pictures? Oh, that was fun.
Rumpus: You turned in five sample columns when you were trying to get the job at the Chronicle? Do you remember those?
Carroll: I remember one of them because it was the first one that was printed. It was The Universe as a Guest on the Johnny Carson Show. Not a promising premise. I don’t remember the column. But that was one of the five that convinced them. They were just going to turn over this real estate to me. They never said that it was for more than a week, but they never said it wasn’t. As the years went on, you got the idea that they thought you were permanent. Nobody says anything. Particularly at the old Chronicle. The new Chronicle is somewhat better in this regard.
Rumpus: And you didn’t ask about how you were doing?
Carroll: Well, it was a pretty good thing. And I thought, “Well, yeah, I’ll just keep doing this and we’ll see what happens.” Again, at this point, I was used to the idea that I was going to get another job. That’s what I thought I was going to do, just play this string out for however long it lasted and then go find something, probably back in editing. I didn’t know. And then they kept wanting me. Back in the old days, people got raises. That’s an antiquated idea, giving people raises for quality. I got enough raises so that even now my salary is good enough where I can save some. So, I’m fine.
Rumpus: I have your book Near-Life Experiences, which is a collection of your writing for the Chronicle, mostly from the 1990s. It’s a great selection of 100 columns, a really nice mix. When you look back at your 8,000+ columns since 1982, do you think about doing more book-collections?
Carroll: Well, it doesn’t necessarily transcribe, unless the columnist has backed it up by being a media personality of some sort, like on television. I played around with the idea of collecting again, but nobody was really interested. Many people watch Rachel Maddow, but would not be interested in a collection of The Best of Rachel Maddow shows. You know? They are, by nature, ephemeral. Popular journalism is, by nature, ephemeral. When it’s viewed in an ephemeral context, it can be very important to people. But when it’s put between hard covers, it’s somehow less important, less urgent, less of the moment. So you get the kind of tradeoff of currency with your readers. You can talk about stuff that’s going on, right in their lives. So if I talk about the weather, I’m talking about the weather that my readers in the Bay Area are experiencing. But you don’t get longevity out of that. You don’t get a historical sense. It is the first draft of history. It’s just writing very fast about events that are not completely understood.
Rumpus: Speaking of events that may not be completely understood, I loved your September 12, 2001 column “Welcome to the 21st Century.” I thought it was so even-tempered. You were taking a long-view of something that caused so much panic and grief. It was very different than anything happening in newspapers at that point. How did you decide to approach that one?
Carroll: Well, that was a command performance. I’d written the column I was going to write for the day. And I was going to talk to my editor on the phone when it was time to edit it. I was actually going to a cactus sale in Stockton that Tracy [Carroll’s wife] really wanted to go to. And then I got a phone call that said, “You have to write about nine one-one.” And I thought, “I don’t have anything to say about nine one-one. I’m not there.” Given the immediate attention, any kind of standardized expression of shock or horror or something like that would be repetitive and stupid. Who am I to be the 932nd person to say, “Gosh, this is a bad thing”? So I wrote about the only other thing I could think about that day, which was the tendency of these things to provoke panic in the populous and the necessity to avoid the panic and to avoid scapegoating and all that … and remembering that, as bad as it seems, life goes on. Just kind of, “Let’s chill out about this a little bit.”
Rumpus: And have you looked back at that one? Because it seems like a lot of your predictions came true — specifically what you wrote about civil liberties being taken away in the name of protection. You said this on the day of the attacks. How were you so astute with your predictions?
Carroll: I think it was a historical thing. Any conversation in which Nazi Germany is mentioned always approaches idiocy. But it’s like the way the Nazis manipulated themselves into power. It’s like the anti-Japanese hysteria in World War II. It’s like the anti-Germany hysteria in World War I. It’s like all of this stuff has happened again and again and again. You find somebody to blame — an “other” — and we blame the other. And it seemed very likely that that would happen again and that unwise decisions would be made as a result of it and that it would be used as an excuse, as governments always do, to tighten control. It’s what governments are all about.
Rumpus: Now to the flipside of that: your really intimate, personal columns. You write very poetically about your wife. I haven’t seen anything in daily newspapers like your columns for Tracy. How did you know you could do that?
Carroll: I didn’t. I never asked permission, is the thing. [I say] do it and see what happens. Take a chance. Walk towards the fear. The response is so instantaneous. You’ll know if something strikes a chord.
Rumpus: When you write a column about your wife, does she see it before it goes to print?
Carroll: She does not.
Rumpus: What does she think about that kind of thing? In a way, you’re communicating with her through the newspaper.
Carroll: Oh. [Pause] She likes it. Those columns happened a while ago and I remember at the time she was very happy with them. It’s certainly nice. But she’s inured to the column-rhythm too. She knows that, in the end, it’s just Wednesday and whether it’s fabulous or awful, tomorrow it’ll be Thursday. It will go on. She’s entirely comfortable with being as public as she’s been and I don’t think she’d be more comfortable being any more public. She’s just kind of at the right level. I’m pretty able to gauge that and what’s going to work for her. Except for one column, once, in which I gave myself a speaking role that belonged to her.
Rumpus: Really? What was the column?
Carroll: It was about breaking down in King City. It was about being in the car, a long time ago, and having an accident and talking to the tow-truck guy. And she talked to the tow-truck guy. I didn’t talk to the tow-truck guy. But for reasons of economy and not wishing to introduce another character, I put her in my voice. She said, “That’s not you. You wouldn’t ask those questions.” But that’s the only time and that was at least 20 years ago. So I think I’m safe.
Rumpus: What’s your working relationship like with your editor? Have you worked with the same people this whole time?
Carroll: Yeah. It was one of my conditions. Various things would go on at the Chronicle, changes would come, changes in management, changes in ownership, but at some point, someone would think to come to me and say, “You OK? You all right with all this? Anything you want to ask us?” And I’ve always said, “Just make sure that Andy Behr is my copyeditor.” I don’t want to train another copyeditor. We’ve been together for so long.
Rumpus: How long?
Carroll: [Since] 1995, I think. Something like that.
Rumpus: And she knows your rhythms, she knows everything about your writing at this point?
Carroll: Right. And she knows what I’ve written before. She’s a friend as well as a colleague. She comes over for Thanksgiving. So that means we can talk in a kind of shorthand that we couldn’t talk in if we were just getting to know each other. That’s a given. And she’s a good copyeditor and she’s now copy chief. She’s now out of the union. She’s management, but she’s still editing my copy, God bless her.
Rumpus: And she protects your stuff?
Carroll: Yes. She is my advocate, an advocate of the prose. It’s nice that it works that way. I think every editor should advocate for their writers.
Rumpus: In terms of your relationship with the Chronicle, they’ve stuck by you for decades and for good reason. But have there ever been any times when you worried that they wouldn’t?
Carroll: I’ve never been worried about that. In general with a few exceptions, I’ve known when I’ve screwed up. So I was on it before they were. Last time, I made an awful, awful mistake. It was this Occupy the Farm column I wrote.
Rumpus: What was the mistake?
Carroll: I missed the location of a Whole Foods outlet that was planned for that general tract of land and put it on the specific corner where the Occupy movement was. I read it wrong. And [Carroll’s copyeditor] Andy asked me if I checked it and I said yes. She said she took away the idea that you never listen to writers — they’ll always lie to you. But I thought I did [check the location]. I had written the correction before management called.
Rumpus: Was there a lot of reader response from that?
Carroll: Oh yeah. Oh Christ yes.
Rumpus: And what is the response like on a day-to-day level?
Carroll: It depends on the column. Sometimes, it’s five letters. Sometimes, it’s 45 letters.
Rumpus: And do you try to answer them all?
Carroll: I try to answer all of them that are trying to engage me in some way. Some of them are just one or two or three-word things. And I usually just pass on those. And then a few of them are actively hostile and I pass on those, too, because I don’t want to get in a fight with anybody. And also it’s their chance. I don’t want to be a kind of “talking machine,” just regurgitating his opinions. It’s the other person’s turn. Say your piece, whatever it is.
Rumpus: Do you immediately know when you’ve hit a homerun with a column?
Carroll: Pretty much, yeah. I don’t know how I know. And there’s some that, when I start them, I think they’re going to be out of the park and then I realize that it’s a solid double, but it ain’t out of the park.
Rumpus: You’ve said before that one of the columns is always going to be the worst of the week. You’re OK with that?
Carroll: You have to be OK with that. It’s not a matter of whether I am OK. Long ago, I made the decision that I can drive myself crazy or not — take my pick — it wasn’t going to change the situation.
Rumpus: Then again, one of them is the best of the week. Are you always able to determine what’s what?
Carroll: For me, yes. It might be that the readers would have a different selection, but I sometimes take a liking to columns for reasons that are really peripheral to the point of the column. I’m thinking about a paragraph I particularly loved, other people are thinking about the opinions and all of that. Opinions are kind of boring, all by themselves. You know? Everybody has an opinion. The mere expression of opinion is not a creative act.
Rumpus: And what about being blindsided with either positive or negative feedback?
Carroll: Somebody once said, “There’s no column so good that somebody won’t roast you for it and no column so bad that someone won’t tell you that it changed their life.”
Rumpus: You’ve said that column writing is a partnership. Can you expand on that?
Carroll: Well, the reader has to do some work. And that’s the partnership. You’re trying to get the reader’s attention sufficiently so that they will follow the argument, or follow the joke, or follow whatever it is you want them to follow. And that requires reading every paragraph. So the idea is: the closer they read it, the more they get out of it. Now I don’t know that that’s always true, but that’s the idea and that’s where the partnership comes in. They agree to read it closely, I agree to write it closely.
Rumpus: Is there an assumption on your part that they’ll actually know something, too? You were saying that you write for the demographic that you know. It reminds me a little bit of a New Yorker cartoon — the cartoonists often skip a step with the premise, assuming a base level of cultural knowledge.
Carroll: Yeah! It is like that, because, if you took time to explain it, then it would be three paragraphs of the column and you wouldn’t get to the point, or you would find a less colorful way to do it. So, I’m going to write about Oakland without cluing people in — in Pennsylvania — what Art Murmur is, other than what I’m about to tell you about it. I don’t have to go all the way back to explain Oakland’s socioeconomic situation and how it is being improved.
Carroll: Kind of true, surely. You go back to fear, go back to loss, and you’ve got all of its wonderful permutations and forms and you’ve got the basis for a lot of human interactions, so you can begin to talk about them. The things we do because we’re afraid of death, the things we do because we want another human being, we love another human being, we’d like to love another human being.
Rumpus: Those are the two biggest themes then?
Carroll: I think so. Sex and death? Oh yeah. I think that’s one and two. How you’re getting older is sex goes down and death goes up. Same amount of material, either way.
Rumpus: Is there anything in your life that you haven’t really touched on in your column?
Carroll: Well, there are things I don’t feel comfortable writing about. The best example was when my mother went through a protracted illness before she died and I was involved with her and the emotional aging-parent thing. She didn’t want anything in there about her failing. So nothing went in there. Even though lots of people were dealing with issues like that. And maybe, in the sense that a column forms community, I might have been useful in talking about that or useful in thinking about that or … something. I didn’t feel comfortable. And when she died, I didn’t feel comfortable. I did do something for Mother’s Day for it. But not about her illness or about her passing or about the whole medical thing. It was a tangled deal. I just wrote about her. I mean, who she was when she was alive. And so yeah, that’s out of bounds. Illness, I think, is a general boundary. I wrote about diabetes because I have it.
Rumpus: Was that hard for you to do, to reveal that?
Carroll: No, it didn’t seem to have a stigma. I haven’t had to face revealing to the public some stigmatized illness that I’ve contracted.
Rumpus: What do you carry on you for writing down ideas? Do you have a little journal or something?
Carroll: I carry pens. And I let myself find the paper where I do.
Rumpus: Have you found that you’re so naturally observant that you could’ve easily developed a column idea on the way over to this café?
Carroll: Yeah, or I can easily not have a brain in my head. It’s that easy when it’s easy, but sometimes you take a walk and a walk is only a walk. And you’re at the end of the walk and then that’s it.
Rumpus: Can you teach somebody to come up with ideas?
Carroll: You can teach them where to look for ideas. It’s all around you. It’s really a matter of attitude, more than it is a matter of ideas. Everything is an idea. [Looks around the café that we’re in. Notices the walls.] The color this thing is painted. Any of the decisions that went into making this place …
Rumpus: You could take the color that this café is painted and turn it into something?
Carroll: Yeah, you could. You could think about the use of red and this is kind of … Spanish. It’s a very California space, this space is. The temperature is a very Bay Area temperature. The cool breeze in the afternoon and the warmth of the sun and all of that stuff, even indoors. And eventually, as those thoughts lead to each other, you may or may not have anything you can put on paper. You just start thinking the thoughts.
Rumpus: If you’re angry or sad about something, can you write good columns? Or do you need to be in a neutral state of mind?
Carroll: It would be ideal to be in a neutral thing and you do strive for the ability to put all that beside you and write in a normal way. I think my mood can’t help but affect the tone of the column, so if I’m particularly happy, I might write something particularly weird and blithe and if I am feeling the weight of the world for some reason — if I’m feeling ancient and creaky and all of that stuff — I might get a little bit more cranky than I used to get. So, sure. But the idea is to not do that. The idea is to let the subject matter dictate the tone.
Rumpus: Have you ever scrapped anything because you approached it from a passionate stance and then reread it and it just doesn’t work?
Carroll: I’ve cut down on the passionate things. I’ve decided I’ve gone overboard on something like that. I know what my hot buttons are, so I try to slow down. I try to persuade people, not just harangue them.
Rumpus: What are your hot buttons? Politics?
Carroll: Well, aspects of politics: the Tea Party, the Catholic Church. Those are two big ones. Evangelicals in general.
Rumpus: Do you have a take on the state of the newspaper industry?
Carroll: It’s terrible. I think it’s going to always be a niche market from now on, people who want words on paper. And I’m afraid that a job like mine — which pays a full salary plus benefits to produce content — is going the way of the great auk. The New York Times has plenty of columnists that it pays very well. And so do some other papers. But in general, at the smaller papers, columnists don’t get paid a full salary.
Rumpus: Are you finding that there’s no new wave of columnists being groomed? There aren’t that many at the Chronicle. Is there a potential new Jon Carroll waiting in the wings?
Carroll: We don’t seem to be picking them up. We’re dropping them off. I think that might be a conscious Chronicle decision to move away from a reliance on columnists. And SFGate has a whole bunch of guys who are exclusive to the Gate. I don’t know why we stopped running [SFGate columnist Mark] Morford. We ran Morford for a while.
Rumpus: Have you noticed your writing changing over the years? Obviously, you’ve been doing this column for 30 years. Do you look back on some of your early stuff and cringe?
Carroll: I think my early writing was more often sillier. I think I’ve gotten more serious as I’ve gotten older. I think I take things more seriously than I used to. But it’s two different modes of being. I think one was appropriate for that guy, and the other’s appropriate for this guy.
Rumpus: There seems to be a recurring theme of hope in your column in that things will work out or that people will do the right things. Are you optimistic that they will?
Carroll: It depends on the day. I distrust people banded together for political purposes. I think people as members of society act pretty well toward each other. There are all sorts of unexpected acts of kindness and caring that you don’t hear about. They’re just part of how people go about living their lives. And the news — what we see and hear in newspapers and on television and the radio — is one aspect of life and it’s interesting and it’s important, because it ultimately can affect the future of our society. But it’s not the whole story of life. It’s not what life is about. And if you confine it to that, you’re missing out, because there’s good stuff around. You know, the first dry-farmed tomatoes were at the farmer’s market just two days ago. Now, see, another annual rite of passage. And good tomatoes for three months! We’re in the good tomato season. Already, this has to be a good day, because there’s good tomatoes again.
Rumpus: Not everybody would notice that. So maybe some would say that you notice the littler things.
Carroll: Well, it’s all little stuff. We can’t really perceive the big stuff. We kind of talk around it, stand around the base, rap on it, but don’t really know what it is. The little stuff, a nice tomato sandwich — that’s what I’m going to eat for dinner, by the way — a nice tomato sandwich when I get home will be just fine.
Photograph by Tracy Johnston.