He spoke via e-mail with Atlantic Unbound's Katie Bolick.
The story of your rise to fame—from being a midwestern boy with big dreams to becoming a national icon—is terrifically American. What's it like to be an archetype? Is it all it's cracked up to be?
Every Arbor Day I get together with some of my fellow archetypes—Donald Trump and Sally Ride and Willard Scott and Martha Stewart—and we talk about what it's like. Frankly, it's okay. None of us minds, particularly. It's not a dignified life, the archetypal life, but we seem to serve a useful function as landmarks, like the Chrysler Building or the pier at Santa Monica.
You seem to have been smitten at a young age with a desire for something grander than what you thought your midwestern life had to offer—you smuggled The New Yorker into a home not "much for literature" and changed your name from Gary Edward Keillor to the "stronger" Garrison Edwards when submitting poems to your junior-high school paper. Do you think you would have become a writer if you had been more content with your roots?
I wasn't discontented with my roots. The romance of my two grandfathers, their arrival's in America from New Brunswick and from Scotland, their stories here, have always engaged and mystified me, and I loved the Midwest, of course. What smote me with a desire for grandeur did not, of course, come out of thin air—it came from various relatives and from school teachers who possessed a certain grandeur themselves. One of my grandfathers enjoyed Milton, another could recite Burns. My father knew acres of Longfellow by heart, and he was a very grand poet. You hear "The Wreck of the Hesperus" proclaimed to you when you are small and you get infected with the urge to show off yourself someday. The desire to become a writer has very modest origins: you are trying to make some English teacher happy, and maybe impress two or three girls in the bargain. When this works, and it does, then you try to impress them even more.
After graduating from the University of Minnesota in 1966 you took a bus east seeking employment at magazines and publishing houses. What do you remember about that job hunt?
It was a funny trip. It lasted for about a month. I took a bus to New York and took a room at a boarding house on West 19th Street that turned out to be a halfway house for people getting out of the loony bin. The residents sat in the dayroom, stunned by Thorazine, and jabbered; I sat and recorded some of their thoughts, imagining that I'd write a story about this. One man claimed to have known Dorothy Parker. I listened to him talk about Dotty for hours, trying to decide if he was telling the truth or not, and finally decided I didn't care. A woman named Marion lived there, who somebody said was the aunt of Patrick Dennis, who wrote Auntie Mame. We ate lunch together in a tiny courtyard, under ailanthus trees, and there, for the first time in my life, I was served tongue. I walked all over New York, saving my money, and had an interview at the The New Yorker and another at Sports Illustrated and wrote some tryout pieces for both magazines and generally had a fine old time. If I had really really wanted to get a job in New York, of course, I would have simply moved there and taken any job I could get and hoped for
something better eventually, but I didn't: I was engaged to marry a girl who didn't want to move to New York, and I could see that New York is a tough place to be poor in, and then, too, I thought of myself as a midwestern writer. The people I wanted to write for were back in Minnesota. So I went home.