For more than 40 years, Garrison Keillor has regaled audiences in public radio with A Prairie Home Companion, featuring news from Lake Wobegon, the fictional town where “all the women are strong, all the men are good looking and all the children are above average.” The 72-year-old humorist is author of more than two dozen books, hosts The Writer’s Almanac and lives in St. Paul, Minnesota, where he also owns an independent bookstore, Common Good Books. In advance of his appearance at The Smith Center, Keillor participated in an email exchange with Vegas Seven.
Has spring been truly attained at your home? How was the winter?
Spring will arrive in due course. Winter was excellent, delicate muted Monet sunrises and dazzling days among glittering ice-covered trees and starry nights when walking in the moonlight on the snow you cast a pale shadow. Everyone is more mannerly in winter, even drivers in rush hour. Winter is our secret paradise, the common wisdom that it’s misery, but [actually] quite the opposite.
Do you typically enjoy travel or dread it as part and parcel of the profession?
I am flying from O’Hare to LaGuardia as I write this and the woman in the seat ahead has not leaned it back, which would crush my kneecaps and render me a helpless cripple for life. I’m grateful for that and for TSA pre-check and for reasonable hotel rooms with desks and adjustable chairs and accessible power outlets and beds with kindly mattresses. I dread dinners in loud restaurants and learning that an upstairs showerhead has been leaking and mold is growing in an interior wall that needs to be replaced. I travel in order to avoid dread.
What can we expect from your show here?
I’ll talk about resurrection; the prostate; the goodness of life; my teen crush Julie Christensen; how my cousin Roger’s drowning lit my interest in radio; how I started A Prairie Home Companion and dumb things I did that almost killed it; cheerfulness as a guiding principle; my uncle Jack and aunt Evelyn; and the 24 Lutheran pastors on the 22-foot pontoon boat. And at the end we’ll all sing The Battle Hymn of the Republic.
Do you have any strong impressions of Vegas?
Once in the airport I stopped at a cluster of slot machines and put a dollar in one and pulled the lever and out came a flood of silver, about $250. I scooped it up and then noticed that people were glaring at me, three elderly women in particular. They loathed me on sight. I think it was the fact that I walked away from the machine after the flood and sat down and opened up a newspaper. I didn’t put any of the 250 back in the kitty.
Do you lament the attention span of today’s audiences?
I do a two-hour solo stand-up show with no intermission, so the audience’s attention span is my business, not theirs—my responsibility entirely. People naturally flag a little around the 90-minute mark, but you simply have to work harder and toss in some racy elements to pick up the slack. So I toss in a few dirty limericks, a sonnet (very elegant) about cunnilingus or a poem about urination, something to get old men’s minds off their bladders. I don’t lament anything. I did that when I was in my 20s. I’m over it.
Have you embraced the latest technology to tell stories?
What are we talking about—Algorithms? Transmedia? Podcast immersion? The use of deep-dive laser sensorization to beam linear narrative directly into the brainpan? I don’t. Those are all effective means of storytelling but also very transitory, with a half-life of 3½ minutes, and what endures, sometimes for decades, is first-hand experience, which means me looking you in the eyes and telling you a story, perhaps with my hand on your knee for emphasis. You don’t forget that. And why should I be forgettable?
What’s the most important component of a good story?
There needs to be something with the letter K in it, a chicken or kitchen, a pickup truck, kith and kin, or something with an X such as a lexicon, next-door neighbor, Texan, Mexican, an ambidextrous sexton, a dog named Rex, and so forth.
How has the experience of being a new father late in life informed your storytelling?
If we had gotten a rotten spoiled kid, it would’ve informed my storytelling, but we got a tender-hearted sweet-tempered girl who enjoys my show and is friends with all the musicians and loves jokes, and what is there to say about that except that I love her dearly? I used to talk about her on the show but you can’t do that past the age of 10 or so, and she is 17.
What contemporary humorists do you admire?
I am in love with Sarah Silverman, but then everyone is except embittered old women. She is outrageous, and she gets away with it so elegantly and she never breaks character. I love Cora Frazier’s writing for its cool style, and I admire David Sedaris’ for its good-heartedness. He is a sweet man.
Do you have a guilty pleasure that would surprise us?
The pleasure of seeing books by lousy, pretentious authors remaindered for $1.95 on tables on the sidewalk in front of Barnes & Noble and nobody even bothering to shoplift them.
What are you working on now?
A Lake Wobegon screenplay about a man who comes home for his father’s funeral and falls in love with his ex-girlfriend. A novel about a stand-up comedian. A 25-city tour in August. Also working on battling old age, trying to walk briskly for 30 minutes every day and give up desserts and carbs.
Looking back, what aspect of your career has given you the most artistic satisfaction?
I’m a writer first, and what gives satisfaction is editing oneself at leisure, reworking a draft, cutting and pasting, rewriting, then putting it aside to be edited some more. I would be quite content not to have published any of the books I’ve published, to still be working on them, every one. I’d live in a big house with one room for each book, and every day I’d roam from room to room, barefoot, in jeans and a T-shirt, a sharpened No. 2 pencil in one hand, a cup of coffee in the other. Happiness.
What’s the most memorable description of your voice you’ve heard?
A boy wrote to me saying that he listened to the show sitting in the back of the family station wagon as they drove on Sunday back to New York from their weekend house in the Berkshires and he looked forward to my monologue because when I said, “It’s been a quiet week in Lake Wobegon,” his parents stopped arguing.
An Evening With Garrison Keillor
7:30 p.m. April 16, The Smith Center, $29-$99, TheSmithCenter.com