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May 11

At home with Garrison Keillor

More from the host of radio’s “Prairie Home Companion”

“A Prairie Home Companion” host Garrison KeillorIn case you’ve ever wondered whether Garrison Keillor’s folksy radio persona is a ruse, here’s the truth:

The host of “A Prairie Home Companion” and “The Writer’s Almanac” sounds exactly the same on the telephone. Gentle. Steady. Midwestern.

I recently chatted with Garrison Keillor — who appears tomorrow at the Performing Arts Center in San Luis Obispo — and found him to be just as genial as he appears on radio and in the film version of “A Prairie Home Companion” (Robert Altman’s final movie).

Most of our conversation wound up in print. But here are some quotes that didn’t make it into the final cut.

You mentioned that you meet a lot of fans while traveling.

I got off a plane from Washington and a guy stopped me who looked like a fisherman. He had a vest, but he was carrying a briefcase. Interesting combination. With jeans and a plaid shirt and a long billed cap. Balding guy, in his mid to late 30s. He was a sky marshal. And he had been sitting in first class. He’s from Northern Wisconsin. He had been listening to the show if he was a kid. I had once said “Hello” to him and his sister on the show when he was a little kid.

And he wanted to me to wish his father a happy birthday for him and he pulled out his little iPhone and dialed up his father in Green Bay. And so, there I am in a terminal wishing “Happy Birthday” to Ken who I’ve never met before. We converse. He’s 69. It’s very pleasant.

That’s how you get to meet these people.

They just walk up to you and say, “I’m an English teacher. I liked a poet you had months ago on the show.” …

They almost always apologize. That’s the odd thing…. They said, “I’m sorry to bother you, I know you must be busy.” No need to apologize for being friendly.

Why are they so apologetic?

We’re Midwesterners. Midwesterners have this terrible urge to apologize – “I’m sorry, please pass the butter.” “I’m sorry, excuse me,” when someone else has bumped into you. We have a dreadful tendency toward self-effacement and self-accusation and it does other people, especially New Yorkers, wild.

Midwestern manners come into play in your upcoming book, “Pilgrims: A Novel of Lake Wobegon.”

It’s the story of a group of Wobegonians who go over to Rome to honor a fallen war hero. And when they are away from Lake Wobegon they learn all sorts of things about him – the war hero – and also about themselves. So it’s a little comic novel. A woman trying to seduce her husband is the story at the heart of it.

I was just in Rome. I’ve been in Rome a few times in the last two years and I needed a place for them to travel. I needed to get them out of town. People’s tongues are loosened when they get away from home and they become more themselves when they get away. I hit on the idea of Rome.

I love the center of the city, a little part of Rome which reminds me of Lake Wobegon, which is Trastevere, across the Tiber from the center. I don’t go there for the ruins. I just go there to watch the people.

What do you see as the future of radio?
The middle has sort of vanished, and in its place … are a whole lot of rather small niches. Public radio is no longer alternative radio. I think as much as any medium, it represents … a broad swath of the middle.

With the digital revolution and with the Internet especially, anyone who has a message or music or anything they want to disseminate – photographs of themselves and their cat, their poetry – there’s a medium now. You can go online … and people will see it.

You say you’re “more and more interested in the middle.”

I love the idea of the middle, actually. I’m from the middle of the country. In an Internet culture where there’s a lot of dramatic writing and a lot of political screeching and so on, I like the middle class notion of the common good … and as eccentric as we may imagine ourselves to be, there is a middle to which we mostly subscribe.

Speaking of the middle, some people are put off by the difference between your stage persona on “A Prairie Home Companion” and your more political persona as a writer.

“Prairie Home” avoids political commentary. People deserve better than to be haranged on Saturday evening.

Since Barack Obama was inaugurated 100 days ago, I’ve done very little political writing. I don’t have much to say about it. … I wrote a lot about the previous administration.

I wrote a column this week that was political. I got a torrent of abuse over it. I thought it would be a mistake to launch into prosecution of the Bush administration for war crimes. We need to know the truth, what happened.
I don’t believe in criminal prosecution at this point.

(The column) was printed in Salon.com and I got a flood of letters from lefties (criticizing it). There are so many people standing on the sidelines. They’re very interested in politics but they’re interested in it as a bloodsport. There’s a great degree of self-righteousness …

Do you see any parallels with the authors you profile on “The Writer’s Almanac” and your own journey as a writer?

No. I see myself as being a very lucky person, very, very lucky.… I think that at a number of crucial points in my life, somebody intervened and there was a kindly intervention and I was given an opportunity.
I did not suffer. I would tell you if I had. (chuckles)

To Midwesterners, you say, California is “paradise.” What do you mean?

It’s the California myth and it’s very strong in the Midwest. It’s the myth of the good life, whether it be a counterculture life and whether it be a leisure life.

That’s our myth about California – as a place where people go to discover their true selves that they could not discover in Minnesota. They also go because they felt repressed in the Midwest or because they didn’t get along with their family.

Weather does not have much to do with it. Weather is incidental. Weather is what you tell your family. You tell them that you’re tired of shoveling snow. But weather is not a strong enough motive….

I think living in paradise is a burden as well. Because if you’re living in paradise and you have enjoyed paradise weather and (scenery), if you’re still unhappy, then what’s your problem? That’s terrible.

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Photo by Brian Velenchenko.

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1 comment

  1. Pat

    As a transplanted Midwesterner, I have to disagree with Keillor on the “California myth” thing. The quality of life here is notably different — and better. Attitudes are better, bad habits like overeating and alcoholism aren’t as prominent, and the natural beauty of the place does make people happier.

    In the Midwest there’s a lot more jealousy, cynicism and bitterness.

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