Garrison Keillor on Singing, Writing, Small Talk—and What Comes Next

A conversation with the host of A Prairie Home Companion and the author of a new book, The Keillor Reader.

Garrison Keillor kicks off the 40th anniversary year of A Prairie Home Companion with a new book—The Keillor Reader. Fans are in for a treat with this collection of stories, essays, poems, and personal reminiscences from Keillor's long and illustrious career.

"I come from the prairie,

I've been to New York,

A tall lonesome fellow

and slightly historic,

But I am a rider, I ride

every day

On a big Underwood

cross the wide open page.

I ride in the sun and the

snow and the rain,

I've ridden with Thurber,

Benchley, Mark Twain.

They mostly wrote better

than I and I mean it

But I am still living and

that is convenient."

From those of us who love to hear you sing, how would you answer your own question: "Do I have a genuine God-given musical talent, or do I only seem gifted in comparison to other Lutherans?"

The latter, for sure. I have a certain ability to impersonate talent, and I have developed this in public in front of thousands of people. On-the-job training. You learn to sing by singing.

At the end of an essay published in National Geographic ("Top Ten State Fair Joys"), you describe yourself as a "soldier of the simple declarative sentence." Can you elaborate on the virtues of the simple declarative sentence?

I don't remember saying that. I may have said it. It sounds like something I might have said. In fact I have become an aspirant to the long convoluted unending sentence of the sort that Faulkner is famous for but mine even exceed his and I could quote you a few but what's the point and the editors of National Geographic magazine have more than once commented: "Shouldn't there be a semicolon here and how about a few periods while you're at it?"

Could you also address the importance of small talk? In your essay at the end of the book, you say, "American small talk is, almost inevitably, cheery." How have you made use of small talk in your career, ever since you were kicked out of ninth-grade shop class for talking too much?

Small talk is blips of verbal language with much implied in the gaps—so it's hard to do on the page. The words, "Well, that's quite the deal" in the Midwest can mean very different things; likewise, "So how's that working out then?" I'm not sure that Easterners would want to sit through a lot of this, but we enjoy it.

Miss Shaver kept you after school in first grade to read aloud to her, commenting to Bill the janitor, "Listen to him, doesn't he have a lovely voice?" How would you describe the voice of the six-year-old Garrison Keillor?

A soft alto voice, hesitant, self-conscious, anxious to please.

There's a typo in the introduction to The Keillor Reader. That's a joke, right? You prompted this insecure member of POEM (Professional Organization of English Majors) to set out in search of the word "tipo" (which is a Spanish word and also stands for Taiwan Intellectual Property Office).

It's a joke among us compulsive copyreaders. Or should that be copy-readers?

How do you create new material for A Prairie Home Companion? Do you write your monologues? Do you practice them?

Every week I make a manly attempt to plan ahead and finish my work in a timely manner, as any sensible person would do, and it never turns out that way, but I keep trying. The scripts are written, of course, and then rewritten the night before, sometimes changed dramatically. The PHC acting company is very tolerant of this—Fred Newman, Tim Russell, Sue Scott—and sometimes I think they do better with a cold read than with, say, a week of intense rehearsal. But the monologue is my problem. It's written, but it seldom comes out the way I wrote it. When it comes time to do it, I walk out downstage and face the audience and let fly. It's not stand-up—in stand-up you would've done the material in a hundred little clubs before you ventured onto a big stage. And it's not storytelling—which also tends to be quite rehearsed. It's just a man talking into a tunnel. Fifteen or twenty minutes and stop and say, "And that's the news from Lake Wobegon where all the women are strong, the men are good-looking, and all the children are above average."

The Keillor Reader offers "the correct version" of the popular Tomato Butt story after all these years. You make it pretty clear that you'll never apologize to your sister for nailing her with that rotten tomato, even though, in this new version, she beaned you with a cast iron skillet the next day and, years later, managed to have you incarcerated. Question is: Are you waiting for her to apologize to you?

No, I am all over it. I am only trying to get the truth out.

What are some of the differences between writing a novel, which you've done more than once, and producing a weekly radio show?

A novel takes more than a week. My friend the late J. F. Powers took about 20 years on his last one, Wheat That Springeth Green, and I doubt that he was completely satisfied with it even then. Hemingway wrestled with an enormous novel for years and finally extracted a novella from it, The Old Man and the Sea, which turned out to be enough. Novels tend to be too long, and they sink under their own weight—has anyone ever finished Moby Dick? Anyone? They're lying. A two-hour radio show is a hop, a skip, and a jump, with a bathroom break in the middle, and I am going to keep working on mine and maybe write one more Lake Wobegon novel, one with a dozen narrators.

We learn in your final essay that cheerfulness is a habit you've learned to hang on to every day—even before technological progress made you cheerful with such magical gifts as the iPhone and GPS. Do you use GPS? Do you text on an iPhone with your teenage daughter?

I do, of course. I am a one-finger texter, not a two-thumb, and don't do it while the vehicle is in motion, and I don't use GPS in St. Paul, of course, but it's handy in New York.

What's the best compliment you've ever received?

"I love your show and I got my husband to like it, too."

So, 40 years of A Prairie Home Companion. Any plans for retirement?

None that I know of, but of course everything has a limit. But at the moment the show is going strong, but of course one does think about the future. But we are planning a full season for 2014-15, and I'm working on a play and a screenplay. But I do see people my age (71), who claim to enjoy this, slowing down. But I don't think I would. But sometimes I wonder.

This interview has been edited and condensed.

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