It's Just Work

Garrison Keillor on radio, writing, and his perpetual revolt against piety

Garrison KeillorGarrison Keillor's relationship with The Atlantic Monthly began in 1966—with an unsuccessful job interview. This month, thirty-one years and ten Atlantic short stories later, his name is scripted in rolling green letters across the cover. About his interview three decades ago Keillor reflects, "I think they could tell I was somebody who had just changed in a public restroom. I had a kind of hangdog look about me. I looked a little too stiff, too, because I had to keep my hand on my leg where I had spilled some Orange Julius two days before." Not getting that job certainly hasn't stifled Keillor: he has hosted A Prairie Home Companion on National Public Radio since 1974 and has written ten books, including Lake Wobegon Days (1985) and The Book of Guys (1993). The October 1997 Atlantic piece "Talk Radio" is an excerpt from his novel Wobegon Boy.

Splitting his time between Wisconsin and New York City, radio and writing, Keillor has evolved into the rare sort of cultural critic who can poke fun at the self-important, politically correct muddle he sees National Public Radio to be while also being one of its defining elements. In 1994 Keillor was inducted into the Radio Hall of Fame at the Museum of Broadcast Communications in Chicago.

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.

You sent stories to The New Yorker for several years before they finally started being published in 1969. Was that a big milestone for you? How did it feel to then go on and become a writer for the magazine? What were your early years writing for The New Yorker like?

I lived on a farm south of Freeport, Minnesota, when I wrote for The New Yorker at first. My wife and little son and I occupied a big brick house, and I wrote in an upstairs bedroom from which I could look down the long driveway to the mailbox and see the mailman's panel truck come steaming down the gravel township road. I'd ship a batch of two or three stories off to New York every month or so, and a week later I'd start watching the road. I'd walk out for the mail and if The New Yorker sent me a large gray envelope it meant a story had been rejected; a small creamy envelope meant acceptance. My editor was Roger Angell, who was terribly generous with his praise and apologetic for his criticism and who, if a month passed without submissions from me, would write the most wonderful encouraging letters. An old-fashioned seigneur of an editor. Acceptance meant a check for a thousand bucks, give or take, and in 1970, that was real money. My monthly rent on the farmhouse was $80. Food was cheap. It was a princely life. I wrote on an Underwood manual typewriter, worked all week, and friends from the city came up to visit us on the weekends. I felt lucky to be supporting myself writing fiction and doing nothing else. I wasn't a very good writer at all, had no idea how to construct a novel, had a poor ear for dialogue, was pretentious and arrogant in all sorts of ways, and yet I had found a knack for something that somebody was willing to pay for. I had always imagined having to work for a living—put in eight hours in the post office, or teach school—and here I was fooling around and living off it. I kept warning myself not to take anything for granted, to be prepared for when The New Yorker dumped me overboard and I'd have to find a job. I loved those years, though it's painful now to read what I wrote then (so I don't).

You once said that Lake Wobegon Days was a "project to get myself back to being a writer, a writer as I dreamed I might be when I was a child." What kind of project was Wobegon Boy, then? What kind of projects are you cooking up now?

Wobegon Boy is a prose entertainment, conceived after I had gotten an honorary degree from a college and sat and heard myself described as a giant and a vast force for good in our time. I didn't want to be that good. I only wanted to write stuff that would make readers laugh out loud even if they were on airplanes at the time and there was some turbulence. The book is a revolt against piety, I hope—against the sort of thing that Kathleen Norris and these holy midwesterners write, the heavy-breathing school of writers who go for long walks and look at sparkling reflections in the water and think about continuity and change. This book is supposed to be fun to read. Anyway, it was fun to write.

A Prairie Home Companion has an extensive Web site with live audio-visual broadcasts from the show and a chat room you'll be visiting for Wednesday lunch hours during the month of October. As both a radio and print loyalist who tried and discarded television, what do you think about the Internet? Do you plan on exploring it further?

The Internet is vastly over-sold. It has limited usefulness—for e-mail, for some kinds of research—and it's also heavily laden with absolute trash and effluvia. The best thing about the Internet is that it absorbs the attention of tens of thousands of people whom everyone would like to keep off the streets and away from our children. But I'm glad to do online chats, same as I'd be glad to go to the Sidetrack Tap and have a couple beers with you. But I wouldn't want to spend the day in there.

Do you think public radio, and radio in general, can survive? Or will it become nothing more than the kind of thing you describe in "Talk Radio": "Wounded Nephews of Distant Uncles at 1:45, People in Grief for Deceased Pets at 2:00, The Herpes Hour at 2:15, People in Search of Closure at 2:30," and so on?

Public radio is absolutely necessary in this country, given that commercial radio over the past decade has abandoned any sense of public service. Commercial stations are chasing after particular segments of the market—the eighteen to twenty-five year-old male who is into hearing loss, the fifty-plus male who is into conspiracy theories—and it's left to public radio to fulfill the great dream of radio as a medium that brings people together and disseminates information accurately and swiftly and creates national bonds of understanding and brings great music and poetry and drama to the far corners of the land. That's what the inventors had in mind. They didn't intend it to be used to sell headache remedies. At the moment public radio is full of interesting shows—such as Fresh Air with Terry Gross, out of Philadelphia, which is so far above and beyond any television interview show that ever was, bar none. Or The Splendid Table. Or Selected Shorts. But public radio is also maddening for the way it tolerates windy pretense and preciousness of the sort that now fills All Things Considered, formerly our flagship program and now a dreary melange of personal essays and whimsy and liberal piety and sheer tedium. The way this once- proud show has been turned into liverwurst is a tragedy, but the arrogance around National Public Radio is about hip-high and there's the reason for it. The problem is that although more people listen to public radio than go to the theater, there is absolutely no criticism in public radio. None. Every year they give out awards to people on the basis of the same old logrolling and backscratching politics, and there is no radio journal, or radio show, where someone reviews the current work and crowns the saints and flogs the sinners.

Lake Wobegon Days's John Tollefson finds himself unfulfilled in Wobegon Boy, itching for something more. You have said about A Prairie Home Companion that it started as "something funny to do with my friends ... and now it's just a good way of life." Are you, like Tollefson, hankering for any kind of change?

I am on the verge of all sorts of change, I'm sure, and don't need to hanker for it. I'm fifty-five. My wife is expecting a child. So is my daughter. I'm writing a novel. I do a show next Saturday and have no idea what it'll be. It's fall. Back when I used to hanker for change, I was young and life seemed as slow as molasses. Now it moves like greased lightning.