I was recently offered the opportunity to submit email questions to Garrison Keillor and enjoyed the attempt at thinking of questions one of the most interviewed people on earth might not have been asked a few thousand times. I’m not sure I succeeded, but here is my interview with a man that so many people feel they know intimately through A Prairie Home Companion, The Writer’s Almanac (my personal favorite), his weekly column for the Washington Post and his novels, yet somehow remains personally elusive.
You’ve had some time to distance yourself from A Prairie Home Companion. You’ve talked about avoiding the new episodes and the perils of retirement. From this distance, what do you miss, what are you happy to have left behind and what is it about this new phase of your life that has surprised you or taught you something about yourself?
“I’ve gone back to being a writer, taking on projects, trying to finish them in good form, looking for new ones. The free-lance life. Instead of working with a big cast of musicians and tech people and staff, it’s just me and my researcher. We talk on the phone now and then, otherwise I sit at my kitchen table at a laptop and work and scratch and rewrite. A very good life.”
A Prairie Home Companion is an unavoidable part of your legacy, but there is so much more. Your work as a writer is a thread that runs throughout your career, with a range from Lake Wobegon to the Washington Post and your Writer’s Almanac has long been staple of many people’s life as authors are brought momentarily to life in a personal way, elevating what may be an otherwise mundane day. What of your work makes you the most pleased when you look back on it and why?
“I don’t look back. Nothing is ever good enough: I learned that a long time ago and don’t need to be reminded. One lives on hope that the next work will be almost good enough.”
In many respects, while your work mirrors parts of our culture, it also challenges our self perception. Do you feel you have influenced American culture and how? If not, do you wish you’d had more influence and how would you have liked to see that play out?
“I’m a small voice from the Midwest. Basically, it’s Donald Trump’s culture and the rest of us have to live with it. The gang of Christian liberals that I believe in is a disappearing remnant. What we used to think could not happen here is happening.”
The span of your career has seen our country and culture change in so many ways. Feelings about media run strong, different media have developed alongside more traditional sources of information and entertainment and while we’ve become media-obsessed in many respects, we also seem more disconnected and misinformed than ever in other ways. What do you see for the future of media?
“The world is full of “content” that has a life of about fifteen minutes. Meanwhile, Emily Dickinson seems to me to be more vital than ever before. I wouldn’t trade two lines by her for a week of the Wall Street Journal and a year of Fox News.”
If anything, your entire career carries a certain dignity which is quite in contrast to the often crude discourse in our political and social media world. Will America recover a capacity for civil discourse, is that an artifact of a bygone era or did it, in fact, ever exist?
“I think that we used to believe in the American premise: “All men are created equal and endowed by their Creator with unalienable rights, including life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.” I hope we still do. There is reason to wonder about that.”
Mr. Keillor brings his “Just Passing Through,” tour to the Knoxville Auditorium on Wednesday night November 1 at 7:30. Tickets range from $47 to $68 and may be purchased here or at 1-800-745-1000.