Aspen Times Weekly: The Curious Case of Garrison Keillor
June 4, 2015
What: Garrison Keillor at Aspen Words Summer Soiree
When: 6 to 10 p.m., Wednesday, June 24
Where: Doerr-Hosier Center, Aspen Meadows
Tickets: 970-925-3122; http://www.aspenwords.org
Cost: $150 to $5,000
What: “Garrison Keillor’s A Prairie Home Companion – The America the Beautiful Tour” at the Aspen Music Festival
When: 7 p.m., Monday, Aug. 24
Where: Benedict Music Tent
Cost: $45 to $85
Garrison Keillor is always coming and going. The beloved writer, humorist and host of "A Prairie Home Companion" spends what seems like most of his time on the road with the long-running variety program. Yet Keillor's thoughts remain largely in his boyhood home in small-town Minnesota, immortalized in his work as "Lake Wobegon."
"This is a very odd situation to find oneself in," Keillor, whose travels will bring him to Aspen twice this summer, told me from Minneapolis. "But it seems to be the truth that what happened to me as a child and a teenager is more vivid to me than what happened in the last year."
On the afternoon we spoke, Keillor was at home in between "Prairie Home Companion" broadcasts in Washington, D.C. and Detroit.
His recounting of his plane trip from Washington to Minnesota offered a glimpse into how he works, how stories unspool from his own life and memory, how a morsel of his childhood transforms into a piece of news from Lake Wobegon.
“I want to be encouraging about the writing life, which is a very good life, and which repays good habits as most things do.”
On the flight, he'd written some notes about his high school prom, for his monologue. He started a script featuring his private detective character Guy Noir. Then he found himself — bound for Motor City, USA — thinking about cars. He wrote a song about the pleasure of riding around in a car with a girl. He thought about the first Ford his dad bought — it was the first automobile in town — and ideas grew legs and became stories as he thought about why cars were so important to his father and to Americans as a whole.
"It meant everything to him: independence, freedom, and the excitement of starting out on a trip was an intense pleasure for my dad," Keillor says. "My father died about nine years ago, but I think of him whenever I put a suitcase into the trunk of a car."
Thus, a show was born.
On Keillor's first stop in Aspen this summer, he'll deliver the keynote at Aspen Words' benefit dinner later this month. He'll return in August for a live performance on his "America the Beautiful" tour at the Benedict Music Tent.
At the Aspen Words event, he plans to address his remarks to the new generation of writers who will be in town for the literary festival and retreat.
"I'd like to talk about the advantages that writers have starting out today versus when I was starting," he says. "I want to be encouraging about the writing life, which is a very good life, and which repays good habits as most things do."
The chief advantage Keillor sees for writers today, versus the mid-1960s when he graduated from the University of Minnesota, is not word processing or the ease of online research or some such technological advance. He points instead to the remove of literary life from the culture of alcoholism with which it was intertwined through the 20th century, and which took down his literary Minnesotan forebears like F. Scott Fitzgerald and John Berryman.
"This was very strong back 50 years ago," says Keillor, who quit drinking a decade ago. "And the idea that great literary talents were almost inevitably addicted to alcohol or other drugs was self-destructive. The idea that genius and self-destruction went hand-in-hand, it was a romantic idea and it was terribly destructive to a whole generation of writers."
While the mythos of the tortured writer has dissipated, he believes today's writers get derailed by limiting the scope of their work – pigeonholing themselves into a single form or genre.
"They write prose fiction or they write poetry or they write drama, and I believe that someone benefits from trying his or her hand at all three, and with more: essays and reviews and nonfiction and journalism," he says.
Keillor himself has tried his hand at what seems like every form of storytelling. At 72, he continues to challenge himself with new ones. Along with the 41 years of radio programs and decades-worth of essays in the New Yorker, he has written 20-plus books, ranging from novels to story collections to social criticism to poetry – cutting a wide "man of letters" swath that's rarely seen today. He recently finished a screenplay about Lake Wobegon – his first proper foray into the form (he was credited for the screenplay for Robert Altman's 2006 "Prairie Home Companion" film adaptation, but he doesn't count it). He's just started writing a musical. And he's in the midst of a new novel.
"It's unlike anything I've ever written," he says of that work-in-progress. "It's not a Lake Wobegon novel. It stands on its own."
As he juggles those projects, of course, Keillor is also perpetually writing on deadline for "Prairie Home Companion." He publicly flirted with retirement from the radio program a few years ago, before opting to keep going. The creative muscle he uses for it (what he calls a "bastard combination of writing and improv") are completely different from the dogged persistence required when he writes fiction for the page.
"It really requires a sort of ability to induce memory loss," he explains of writing for the program. "You do a show and then it's very necessary to forget it, and not to brood about it. … It's a way of life, really. And I recommend it. It just works much better, having the ability to forget. They don't teach you that in creative writing programs. But it's important, in my line of work anyway."
Keillor avoids reading other Midwestern writers these days, I was surprised to hear: "I'm leery of accidentally picking up something from somebody, so I worry about that and I stay away from it." Equally surprising was his description of his life on the road. Despite the seemingly limitless curiosity that drives him to write, he rarely puts down his pen long enough for much sightseeing or exploring.
"I travel in a cocoon," he says. "I'm up in an airplane and I sit and write on a laptop. I go to a hotel and I write. I sit backstage and I write. So I've been everywhere, [but] I've not seen very much, and I'm still writing about a town that I knew when I was a teenager."
Looking ahead, Keillor hopes to continue doing just that. Whether the screenplay ever makes it on the screen, or the musical makes it on the stage, or his new novel ever makes it onto a bookshelf is inconsequential, as he sees it. It's the writing itself that matters.
"The pleasure is in the work and not in the outcome," he says. "So I hope to stay busy and keep working at it until I die. And that's the only realistic goal: to be occupied."