Midwest master: Garrison Keillor on 35 years at the heart of Lake Wobegon
Keillor has spent 35 years at the heart of the American Midwest, poking fun at his neighbours' mores, even as he himself has adopted them. But, he tells David Usborne, it's almost time to leave Lake Wobegon behind
Sunday 03 January 2010
Garrison Keillor has a distinctive way of talking. It helped build a broadcasting empire that rests upon the enduring success of his live radio variety show, A Prairie Home Companion, which, more than 35 years after its debut on American public radio, still offers a weekly cornucopia of singing, strumming, gabbing, rude-noise joking and, of course, tales from the fictional Lake Wobegon in some frozen corner of Minnesota.
His is an especially lugubrious delivery, where the vowels linger in his larynx before agreeing fully to come out. It is these unusual tones that persuaded the late Robert Altman that his final film should be a celluloid rendering of Home Companion that starred Meryl Streep, Kevin Kline and the bushy-browed Keillor. It also endeared him to Honda's head honchos, who three years ago hired him to narrate its UK television ads.
Some things are just as you expect as you enter his New York apartment in one of those high, historic piles along Central Park West. He is gracious, tall and, as usual, dressed in red track shoes (tatty) and long red socks under the jeans. Yet the furniture is spare and not cluttered with, say, sheet music or books, half-read or half-written as you might have expected. The impression of slight loneliness is reinforced when I leave. "Self-promotion is the only socialising I do nowadays," he says forlornly. It's a joke, of course, but still.
I had come to talk to Keillor about the latest of his series of Wobegon comic novels. Called Pilgrims, it follows a group of Wobegon residents on a trip to Rome generously funded by none other than Keillor himself. (This is the first book with a part reserved for himself.) But first, here is another surprise: because we are talking about his writing – and Keillor is prolific, authoring at least one book a year (four in 2009) as well as a weekly column – you'd think he'd drop that voice for something a bit more, well, normal. But he can't.
"It's an odd thing," he says. "A person has to be careful with it because it can easily slip off into something that is too theatrical and too ponderous. You have to keep it in check." But he makes no excuses for it either. "You just have one voice and you wouldn't want to have to use a special voice for talking on the radio which is meant to be natural. So you accept this performing voice as your own voice, even around your own home."
A few other mildly startling facts begin to emerge. Although his Wobegon franchise rests on observing and gently satirising Midwesterners and especially the reserved, never-make-a-fuss folk of Minnesota who worship in Lutheran churches and trace their bloodlines to Scandinavia, Keillor's own peculiar accent isn't really a Midwestern one at all. It's just Keillor. And for those of you who think his family tree is rooted in Norway, that's wrong, too. He is part Yorkshire, part Scottish. This minor detail is not something he advertises too often.
But his Calvinist upbringing in Minnesota has not left him unflavoured by the very Midwestern characteristics he so likes to parody. Keillor approves of – and indeed shares – almost all of them. "I am fond of their stoicism and their reflexes towards being self-effacing. They are a modest people, they are good listeners, they are good travellers, they fit in well, they try hard to fit in and they have good manners." But, he adds, "I do think they are a little too self-restrained maybe and they have an aversion to unpleasant subjects and a fear of frankness that really is a handicap. That's really a burden to them."
Here is why we know he is one of them. Keillor was with his massage therapist one day in September when suddenly he felt unwell. "She asked me something and I spoke to her and my speech was all slurred and my mouth felt funny, numb, and I had a very odd sensation in my head," he recalls. In fact, he had had a small stroke. But rather than draw attention to himself, he decided to drive himself to the hospital. "I was pretty sure I was going to be able to do it. So I did. To pick up a phone and call 911 for an ambulance would be, well... it seemed not quite justifiable to me."
If he wasn't of them, writing about them would be much harder. And it doesn't matter that in this latest book, the main character is a woman. It is Margie Krebsbach who gets everyone on the plane to Rome, who finds unexpected passion in its cafés and bedrooms and who accidentally acquires a rather large financial fortune along the way.
"She is a character that a man – that I – have no difficulty sympathising with. As important as her being a woman, it is her feeling that she got stuck and failed to move that matters most," Keillor explains after brewing a pot of green tea for his guest. "I am sure there are shades of her psyche I don't have access to, but I think I have done as good a job, and maybe a better job, of getting her down on paper as a woman writer could."
Keillor then begins to worry out loud that as writers get older, they become less funny. "I am working in humour and comedy and this is a field in which clearly people don't last very well into old age. It really is a young person's sport; I can't think of many people who sustained it into late life." But then he mentions PG Wodehouse. Wodehouse, it turns out, is a bit of a role model for him. While for the time being Keillor's characters and stories are drawn partly from the real American Midwest, he imagines at some point weighing anchor from reality altogether, just as Wodehouse left England before writing most of his work.
"Wodehouse offers hope to somebody such as myself," Keillor suggests. "He created a fictitious old England of dotty aristocrats and country houses and wily servants and men's clubs that probably never existed and, by the time he was writing those books, had completely vanished. It wouldn't have been possible for Wodehouse to write all his Jeeves stories if he had actually been living in the UK. He could only have written these living out on Long Island as he was, because it was all in his head. That would be my ideal, I think. To write about a Midwest that is only in my head and is made up of little bits and pieces of what I remember from my childhood."
At this point, Keillor quietly lets slip that his days producing, writing and hosting A Prairie Home Companion, on the dial since 1974, may be coming to an end. He is "passively" looking for someone to replace him as of some time in 2012. The show will go on without him, he says, with most of the same elements, "though probably not Lake Wobegon". That will bring big changes to his life, among them an end to Republicans complaining to him that his political bias – he calls himself a moderate Democrat – have been polluting the show.
"What do you say to these people?" sighs Keillor, noting that almost nothing of his political opinions leak into the variety show, the comedy of which he calls "goonish", referring to The Goon Show that pioneered radio comedy in the UK in the 1950s. This allows him to indulge in a 10-minute vent about politics in America.
"Republicans are a very embittered element in our society," he offers. "I really regret that. They are a very dark force in our society and we are talking about fully a third of the country. It is dismaying, but this is a party whose success has been based on racism for the past 40 years, so it is not surprising that the election of a black president turns them into a fury." As for Obama, he admits he is a little disappointed to discover he is "a mortal" and, in his mind, has drifted away from some of his "core beliefs" now he is in office.
Yes, wait. There actually is a small amount of mess in Keillor's apartment – one framed front page of The New York Times with the single-word headline, "Obama" and, on a low coffee table, a tin of souvenir "Presidential Peppermints", decorated with the face of the man in the White House. One is unhung, the other unopened.
Pilgrims, By Garrison Keillor (Faber £16.99)
'...She strode onward, map in her pocket... If she got lost, no problem. She was well lost already. Nobody here knew her, nobody expected her to smile and say hello to them. Nobody was going to stop her and ask how is Carl, is Carla pregnant yet, did Cheryl get the job?... Nobody would look at her and think, "Back in high school we all thought she was going to go places. Wonder what happened?"'
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