You probably know him from his voice — rich, deep, Midwestern, with a whistling “s” that’s become something of a trademark. For the last 41 years, Garrison Keillor has been hosting the live variety show A Prairie Home Companion on public radio, bringing humor, great music, and a beautifully mythologized small Minnesota town into homes and cars around the country.
While A Prairie Home Companion has doubtless earned him the most recognition, throughout his career Keillor has also been a frequent contributor to magazines like National Geographic, The Atlantic, and The New Yorker. He writes like he speaks: matter-of-factly, yet still, somehow, majestically, with a reverence for the small beautiful things in life.
City Paper: You seem to me to be the consummate raconteur — you write short, long, funny, poignant, magazine- and newspaper-style … and then of course for radio as well as for print. Is versatility something you had to cultivate over the years, or does it just come naturally to you?
Garrison Keillor: Nothing comes naturally, not to me. I got myself into a line of work for which I have no aptitude, none, so I have to make up for it with dogged effort plus ignorance. It’s good not to recognize one’s own failures. Just go skipping along.
CP: I’ve always been interested in how geography and place affect a person’s art. Could you tell me a bit about how living in Minnesota has helped shaped you into the writer you are? And do you think that it’s specifically living in Minnesota that’s affected you, or more the fact that you’ve lived in a single area for most of your life?
GK: Minnesota affected me most deeply when I was 17 years old and suddenly decided I must go to college. Back then, the University of Minnesota was affordable for just about anybody — tuition was $70 per quarter — so it was possible to lurch off to the U with no savings and put myself through school by dish washing and parking cars, no scholarship, no loans, no help from family, and there in the course of six years I found a life for myself. Back then, Minnesota was somewhat romantic about education — my parents’ Depression generation certainly was — and they believed that college was for more than vocational training, it was for self-discovery.
Of course living in one place for a long time gives you a rich treasury of references that you didn’t have when you were young. I live on a street where I used to walk when I was in college and look at the houses and imagine what life would be like if I lived there. Now I live in this house but I’m still the kid on the street.
CP: Your work often has both feet in the realm of nostalgia, which is such tricky territory. How do you keep your stories (both fiction and non-) from straying into the sentimental, or the ridiculous?
GK: I don’t think the stories are so nostalgic as they are in praise of the ordinary beauties of life today.
I talk about a college girl home on break who loves to split firewood with a hydraulic splitter — she’s majoring in history and physical labor is thrilling to her, being silent feels spiritual to her. She is Korean (adopted by Lutherans) and she speaks good Norwegian and loves her family and is mystified by life. I talk about a family who loves its old black Lab who keeps getting hit by cars. He’s obsessed with chasing them and is put on Prozac and they have bought a treadmill for him to work off his anxieties on. I talk about a widow who has taken up with a Texas bond trader who people in my town despise immediately, but she is in love with him and they grieve for her. They know this will not turn out well. I just want to sketch quick portraits of people I come across, the heroism and humor of their lives. I learn about them by being very silent and picking up odd bits of information, same as any reporter.
CP: If you had to pick one job you’ve held that’s had the most influence on your career, which would it be? And the job that’s had the most influence on your life?
GK: Getting published in The New Yorker magazine back in 1969 was a huge influence on my career. The New Yorker was idolized in the Midwest and, having been published there, I got enormous credit in public radio and was given more license than I deserved. In 1974, having written about the Grand Ole Opry for the magazine, I was allowed to do a live variety show on Saturday evenings. A great boon and I’ve clung to it. A Prairie Home Companion has guided my life for 41 years, it’s given me a host of friends. It’s made me happy on many occasions.
CP: Do you ever think you’ll be finished with Lake Wobegon?
GK: Certainly. Any day now. It’ll dawn on me that I’ve said all I can say and I will say, “Thank you,” and walk away.
CP: Is there any place you would ever like to live besides the Midwest?
GK: New York City. I have a little apartment there and my wife and I fly out and occupy it on occasion. It’s our version of a lake cabin, a pied-a-terre on the Upper West Side of Manhattan, not far from Central Park, fifteen minutes from Broadway. A great city for walking.
CP: Do you think the good old days really were better than the present?
GK: There was a clearer sense of country, of a common culture. We had more in common. There is not so much of a mainstream now. Journalism is all over the map. Washington matters less and less. The world of publishing is splintering. So is popular culture. There are no TV shows that even one-third of the nation watches, no singers whose voices can be recognized by even one-tenth of the nation. This was not always true. I worry about the future of democracy as journalism diminishes. How will citizens exercise their right to vote if nobody is trying to ferret out the truth about the workings of government? I live in St. Paul, a city with a dying newspaper. What happens when it fades?
CP: And it’s so cliché, but I find myself having to ask: From your seat as a successful, 71-year-old writer and storyteller who has lived what seems to be a very full life, what piece of advice would you give young writers?
GK: I advise young writers to see to their health, to sidestep the greasy fingers of alcohol and narcotics, to get out of the house, to be playful in their work. A writer is someone who writes, actually writes, not merely one who plans to write, so it’s good to fashion strong habits. Two hours a day, every day, same time if possible, will get you a lot. Sometimes you have to throw away weeks’ worth of work, which feels bad, but still, something is gained. Be funny, if you can. It’s a real service.