Garrison Keillor keeps the home fires burning

2011-12-01T22:30:00Z 2013-07-30T12:56:05Z Garrison Keillor keeps the home fires burningBy Bruce R. Miller bmiller@siouxcityjournal.com Sioux City Journal

Lake Wobegon residents, rejoice.

Your favorite son isn't abandoning you.

"I thought about it," Garrison Keillor says of leaving "A Prairie Home Companion." "And then it panicked me ... which got me to rethinking the whole brilliant idea. The show is going well. I love doing it. Why quit?"

For many, that's the best news to come out of the show's fictitious Midwestern town in years. A staple of public radio, "Companion" has been Keillor's calling card and a dandy sandbox in which to play.

A throwback to the days of radio drama, it has helped launch several Wobegon books, inspired a Robert Altman movie and given Keillor a platform like no other.

In April, he'll release a new book -- "Guy Noir and the Straight Skinny" -- based on a detective featured on the show.

"I have a couple of projects going all the time," Keillor says by phone from his New York home. "If I can sense it's running down in a few years, I won't write much."

But now? He's up at 5 most mornings, crafting stories on paper or at his computer.

"If you write the first thing in the morning, you get your best work done," he says.

Since his wife and daughter get up around 7 a.m., that gives him a substantial chunk of time. "You can do things in that hour and a half that you couldn't do in four," Keillor says. "Then, after I've taken my daughter to school, I'll do some editing and putter around. But the dark hours before the sun comes up -- that's the best."

If he happens to write on the computer (no, he's not a Luddite), Keillor will print out his day's work so that he can mark it up.

"I never used an outline. I should. Any rational person would. But I carry scratch paper around with me in my pocket during the day, make notes and then when I sit down to write, I pull them out. That fixes it in your memory."

The Saturday radio show has a formula, too, but "it's a last-minute, frantic chase up a slippery slope," Keillor says. "It starts on Friday morning and you go hard all day, do a rehearsal, stay up late that night and rewrite and come back and have another rehearsal in the early afternoon. You do more rewriting and then it's time for the show. The beauty of doing a live show is it comes to an end.

"I enjoy it as it unfolds. But when the show is done, I always have regrets and I'm self-critical by Sunday."

Because he lives in New York -- where residents "lean toward tragedy and feast on mishaps and adversity" -- Keillor can often find situations and characters able to fuel a multitude of stories.

"I'm sort of a freak," the 69-year-old admits. "I don't have that angst and I don't know why. I've earned it. But I don't really have it."

Visiting Midwesterners, as a result, gravitate to him when they see him on the streets. "They'll walk up to me and say, 'I'm from Iowa' and we have this little bond. Midwesterners travel very well. They pick up the alien culture and they learn to co-exist with it."

Like those new-found friends, Keillor says he's reluctant to accept compliments. Midwesterners "are generous spirits who believe in work as solace and we demand to be productive."

So what's he going to do for the holidays? "This year we're going to Hawaii," he says, practically making the parishoners at  Lake Wobegon Lutheran Church gasp in unison.

"It's a way of taking a vacation from Christmas. We'll be there with a few friends. We'll light a candle on Christmas Eve and sing 'Silent Night.' But we're doing something different. My daughter loves to swim."

Change is good, Keillor admits. Even in his world.

"I use a computer. I use an iPhone. But I'm not fascinated by gizmos themselves. We have a digital mixing board for the radio show and that's changed a lot of things."

But e-books? "My wife likes them a lot but I haven't really delved into them. I own a bookstore in St. Paul and I like walking around and picking up books and smelling them. I don't care how people read a book -- the technology suits the readers. But I don't think we will ever lose books.

"For one thing, you can put books on a shelf when you're home. They're trophies and you look at them, think of those books that you've read and the ones you meant to. You can't do that with e-books."

During a show in Northfield, Minn., Keillor heard a phone ringing in the audience. Rather than berate the offender, he wove it into a story and had audience members sing "America the Beautiful."

"I could see all of these kids Google 'America the Beautiful' on their cellphones so they could sing the words. I would rather they knew the words, but it proved technology does serve a purpose."

And those books he has written? Does Keillor ever reread them? Sometimes," he says quietly. "But I try not to look back."

Copyright 2015 Sioux City Journal. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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