The News...as Seen from Lake Wobegon

Garrison Keillor sounds off about what’s above average and what’s not in American culture

| September/October 2001

Garrison Keillor, the host of public radio’s A Prairie Home Companion, is known around the world for his tales of small town life in mythical Lake Wobegon, Minnesota. Keillor started the beloved variety show—named after the Prairie Home cemetery in Moorhead, Minnesota—as a morning program on Minnesota Public Radio in 1969. The first live broadcast, with guest musicians and commercials for imaginary products, was aired in 1974. The show is now performed Saturday evenings in the F. Scott Fitzgerald Theater in downtown St. Paul or from auditoriums around the country. Keillor also hosts The Writer’s Almanac, a daily literary update. Keillor, 59, writes a lot. In addition to continuing chapters in his Lake Wobegon radio saga, he writes a weekly column for Salon and he’s a regular contributor to Time. He’s the author of nine books. In his latest, Lake Wobegon Summer 1956 (Viking), the narrator is a 14-year-old version of himself. Keillor started the book while he was on a concert tour with the Hopeful Gospel Quartet a few years ago. "I needed to do a Lake Wobegon monologue," he said, "so I sat down in a Salt Lake City hotel room one morning and wrote one, which in the course of the tour grew and developed and took my fancy, and when I got home, I was unwilling to let go of it, and wrote this novel." For this interview, Keillor corresponded with associate editor Karen Olson via e-mail from a hotel room in Washington, D.C., the seat of an airplane, and his home in St. Paul, Minnesota. What books are on your reading table? The Metaphysical Club by Louis Menand, Studs Terkel’s Will The Circle Be Unbroken? and Bone Palace Ballet: New Poems by Charles Bukowski. What book do you recommend for people who want to be writers? Roget’s Thesaurus, the 4th edition (Harper Perennial), which has those cool lists of words, like 25 different types of anchors, a hundred varieties of cheese, 40 kinds of saws, on and on. Hammers, mammals, soaps, ships. The Fort Knox of words. Your children have a wide range in age—31 and 3 1/2. Have you noticed children’s books changing over the years? Yes, when my son was little, you went into the children’s room at the library and got out E.B. White and Pinocchio and that was about it. Now that my daughter is lusting for books, there are about 10,000. It’s bewildering. I regret having added two of my own to the chaos. What are your favorite children’s books? From my childhood? Well, the Laura Ingalls Wilder books were gorgeous to me, growing up in Minnesota, and I read them over and over, and longed to visit De Smet, South Dakota, where Laura and Ma and Pa and Mary and Carrie lived, which in fact I have yet to do. I loved her. And a book called Little Britches by Ralph Moody, about a fatherless boy growing up in a cowboy town in Colorado. And then when I was 12 or so, I read The Diary of Anne Frank, and that is a book that still lives for me. Which humorists do you most appreciate? Mark Twain, always. I’ve been plowing slowly through his letters and it’s astonishing to read him writing home at the age of 14, an itinerant printer-boy living on his own in New York City, and to find so much of his style there. The man was a natural. I think Ian Frazier and Roy Blount are hugely funny. Roy is the most accomplished stylist in American writing today; he can change directions six times in one sentence. I still dip into S.J. Perelman and James Thurber. Where do you get your daily news? I sit down and read The New York Times that somebody throws on my front step about 7 a.m. No comics and the sports page is irrelevant and the arts page is all about people I don’t care for and the writing tends to be awfully earnest and wooden, but on those days when there actually is news (which are few), the Times does a fairly good job. Which magazines do you regularly read? The New Yorker, The New Republic, Harper’s, The Atlantic Monthly, all the magazines an older person would want to be seen reading. Sometimes my wife buys trashy things and I take them into a back room and close the door and devour them. Otherwise, in public, I read articles about "The Coming Crisis in Our Policy Toward Canada" and "Whither the American Theater?" What do you love about radio? I love that it’s portable and people can carry it around in their ear as they bike or run or walk down Michigan Avenue or sit looking out over the Grand Canyon. You can live your life and still listen to it. It’s hardly ever an obsession. It’s easily switched off and easily returned to. Then there is the whole matter of retention: The ear is more keyed to memory than is the eye, and what we hear goes deeper than any gaudy spectacle. We remember the voices of our loved ones long after their faces fade. And then of course there is the great privilege of talking to people without them staring at you. The dream of invisibility which has been with some of us since childhood. What do you think it is about A Prairie Home Companion that keeps filling auditoriums? Sheer curiosity: what do these people look like? Do they wear goofy clothes or dress regular like us? When he does the News from Lake Wobegon, is he reading off a Teleprompter? Or Audioprompter? Is he really 78 years old? Does Tom Keith do that helicopter sound effect vocally or is it a recording? The giant condor? The caribou and elk and wapiti and eland? Who does the voice of George W. Bush or is it programmed electronically? Who is the Swedish guy? How old is Sue Scott? I look up into the balcony and see the glint of binoculars. People saying, "A tuxedo! I had no idea! And he isn’t anywhere NEAR 300 lbs." How has public radio changed for the better in the last several years? It has brought to the fore some bright obsessive young people who love radio and know the power of radio and who are our future. How has public radio changed for the worse in the last several years? It has come under the sway of the number-crunchers who are full of survey and focus-group data about what Listeners want and don’t want, all of which is bogus, and who use it to dumb down the product. Radio news hardly exists anymore on public radio. It’s degenerated into these infernal magazine shows in which reporters get to become essayists and show us their sensibilities and their narrative style. Radio has the power to take us places, to simply put the microphone through the door, but it doesn’t do that sort of thing much anymore. It’s become much more produced and processed. I miss educational radio, when you might tune in and hear a brilliant lecture about Sophocles who, until you start listening, you never thought you needed to know about but suddenly you do, you do. The music has been severely dumbed down, to a sort of 18th century audio wallpaper. There’s a real anti-television sentiment among some Americans. How do you feel about television? Television is okay by me. I have nothing against it. About 20 years ago, I fell out of the habit of watching it, and so all the shows that people rave about, or complain about, are strangers to me. I know less about American TV than your average Swede or Bedouin. Which has more potential for harm, television or radio? Radio is in your car and, in the process of trying to tune in Car Talk, you could take your eyes off the road and go head-on into a bridge abutment. I’m sure this happens all the time. Which artistic and/or communication media other than writing and radio inspire your work? My work is pretty much self-inspired, I’m afraid, but a night at the opera can get me pretty ginned up. Der Rosen-kavalier and The Marriage of Figaro, in particular. Are there media trends that inspire you? The vitality of magazines. New ones come along every week. Niche magazines for people obsessed with some tiny pin-point or other. Walk into a serious newsstand and you’re astonished at what you find. Radio Host Monthly. Ferret World. The Risotto Digest. Are there media trends that dishearten you? The slow and painful death of the daily newspaper out here in the provinces. People under 30 simply don’t read them. And they’re becoming pretty much unreadable. How is the media in the Midwest different from the New York and Los Angeles media? My local papers have ventured deeply into "community" journalism and "service" journalism and somewhat abandoned the reporting of news, which is a bad strategic move, in my humble opinion. "Community journalism" (or, What Is Good About Our Community and Our People) is simply a lot of unreadable 9th grade term papers about How People From Many Lands Are Working Together To Solve Problems In Our Neighborhoods, a sort of soft-core Pravda, and "service" journalism is the stuff about "Cool Salads For These Hot Summer Evenings" and "Black: The New Look For Fall" and the powderpuff stuff about the arts. I’m sure there is focus-group data to back up all this awful writing but that doesn’t make it readable. Newspapers depend on crime reporting, exposure of government scandal, and a few irreverent columnists: that’s meat and potatoes. You lived in Denmark for several years. How do the media and culture there compare to the U.S.? Denmark is a small country and radio and TV and print media are crucial there, as the fundamental source of national identity, without which the country would slip into a polyglot twilight. As it is, Danish is changing very rapidly, with big incursions of Danglish. Schoolbook Danish is not the same as what most young people speak everyday. It’s a very vital and progressive country, which is unable to support high culture anymore—the Royal Ballet is a shadow of its former self, the Royal Opera is sort of a joke, the symphony orchestras are far from first-rate—and which doesn’t miss it, frankly. Danes are sailors and explorers, observers of the great wide world. Most Danes would rather ride a bike around Italy than sit in an opera house and watch The Barber of Seville. You’ve been a regular cultural and political commentator for The New York Times and other papers. What’s your take on the direction American society is headed? It’s a good time in America, fundamentally, not a time that will be particularly interesting to historians but a good time in which to live and move about and observe one’s fellow Americans. Peaceful, fairly prosperous, and full of amusing sights, the most amusing of which is the president, the stiffest and most distant public official since Silent Cal. It’s funny to watch this clueless man go through the motions. It would be even funnier, of course, if he turned out to be better than advertised, but this is a long shot. What changes would you like to see in American culture? Better trains. Commuter trains are crucial to the survival of the newspaper. A return to the beauties of the shopping street without a roof over it, one little shop after another. A palace revolt at PBS that would open the doors to something new and exciting and put an end to the sepulchral documentaries of Ken Burns. An upheaval in K–12 public education that throws out the consultants and the jargon and the mickey mouse of colleges of education and that centralizes administration and puts schools in the hands of responsible teachers. We don’t need another 10-year study or even another four-year study.
I’d also like a general ban on those cell phones with the dangly microphones used in airports by salesmen with voices like circular saws. And a revival of the American hamburger, done right. And we need a few great comedians, ones with some heart and soul, artists.