Keillor, heavy and earnest, lugs his way towards the books department to sign a few paperbacks. Here we go again: the latter-day Mark Twain, the man who brought the Midwest to funny, stark life; this morning on BSkyB and LBC Radio; this afternoon on BBC Radio Scotland and Radio 3; tomorrow on Radio 2, Greater London Radio, the World Service, in the Sunday Times and the Hampstead and Highgate Express, at a bookshop reading, plug and promote, plug and promote, on and on in search of - what? Yet another bestseller? A question that won't make him yawn? A fan's name he can't spell?
A master at the game, Keillor, 50, rides the promotional trail with good humour. He knows how to make an autograph hunter's day, how to make cosy with the listener. And he knows that the trail has led to untold riches and the wider dissemination of the storyteller's art, probably in that order.
He's in Harrods with Radio Romance, his fifth book for Faber and Faber, his fifth No 1 bestseller. Radio Romance is his first novel, but in tone and characterisation it's not very different from the stories and sketches that made his name, primarily the episodes from the fictional hamlet of Lake Wobegon, where every kiss means scandal and every powdermilk cookie is just the best you ever tasted (one difference is that the novel contains a lot of fart jokes, a feature that pissed off his critics more than it appears to have upset his readers).
Keillor signs books standing up, and takes his time on the dedication. 'The name's Cole,' a man in the Harrods queue says. 'Michael Cole. C-O-L-E' Cole is director of public affairs for Harrods. 'Is it true,' he asks Keillor, 'that you based Lake Wobegon on a real town in Canada?'
'Well, not really. It's a composite of towns in the American Midwest.' Cole looks a little crestfallen, so the author offers solace: 'Probably are towns like it in Canada, though.'
The next day, same suit but new shirt, he's at Bush House for an interview on Outlook, a World Service programme broadcast to 25 million listeners. He's been shopping again, this time for the the first issue of the New Yorker edited by Tina Brown. Many of his best stories have appeared in this magazine, and he is not pleased at Brown's delicate changes. 'I don't like the by-lines at the top. I liked the signatures at the end.'
On air he reads a short snatch from Radio Romance. Too short; you can listen to this stuff for hours, and it seldom palls. Radio 4 has broadcast abridged versions of all his books, and repeated and repeated them, to the point where it becomes hard to read the work without going Minnesotan, or, at the very least, deep and rhythmic.
His answers to interviewer's questions do nothing to dispel the folksy image. On Outlook the talk turns to Ross Perot, and Keillor is asked what the Midwest thinks of the election. 'I think it hopes for it to be over soon,' he replies. 'It would be nice to get it out of the way in time for the World Series.'
Keillor is an important author for Faber, jostling in the commercial top five with P D James, Peter Carey, Kazuo Ishiguro and the royalties from the T S Eliot/Lloyd Webber collaboration, Cats. He sells to an audience far beyond the normal reach of literary fiction, partly because his stuff is only quasi-literary fiction, and mostly because it's all old-school grandstand storytelling. And it was the classic thing: Faber first took a gamble on the unknown author in 1986, after he was turned down by almost everyone else in town.
He visits his publisher's after the World Service. He does an interview with the Sunday Times ('exhaustive,' he says, 'I said things I didn't even know I thought'), and then disappears into a small room where he finds a desk and a pile of 500 paperbacks awaiting signature. He is now on a production line: one Faber person opens the book at the right place, the author signs in ink, another Faber person packs it away for the reps, and round it goes again.
'Why Garrison?' the placefinder asks.
'Actually I made it up. I'm really Gary. Now I get photographs of an adopted Korean kid who's been named after me and it's a little troubling. Garrison. I bet that kid isn't too pleased.'
'IS THIS Belgravia?' Keillor asks at 7pm. Actually not even close. He's in Hampstead, north London, for a reading and another signing session at Waterstones bookshop. There are 300 people here, and the event could have sold out many times over. Admission is pounds 2. On the seat next to me is a woman who says, 'They had that Bielenberg here - didn't have to pay for that.'
Keillor takes a while to get going; he takes off the jacket, plays with his tie, talks about how he was expecting a different kind of microphone. On the car journey he was largely silent, studying his book, tearing off paper strips to mark selected passages. He still fumbles a bit on the podium, looking for the right opener. But when he hits his stride, and his huge feet start tapping out a beat, he's in a class of one. Archly lyrical tales spun high and free: drunken gospel singers, blind baseball commentators, a song about dead teen Christians. An hour or so, with good questions and answers.
You can see why people want it signed. A long queue forms, and Keillor takes his time with everyone, even the psychos. 'I really, really like everything you've ever done,' one says. 'I'm a real fan. A real one. The biggest you've ever had. Sign it 'To Mickey'.'
Tonight you may see Keillor read and sing and conduct his Young Lutheran's Guide To The Orchestra with the Royal Philharmonic at the Festival Hall. If you want an autographed book after the show, it would be good to take heed of some of his tips on meeting famous people in his story collection We Are Still Married: 'Don't gush, don't babble, don't grovel or fawn. Never snivel. Be tall. Bootlicking builds a wall you'll never break through . . . Hand the famous person the paper and simply say, 'I need you to sign this'.'
Sandra Barwick returns next week.
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