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Arts & Entertainment
09/30/03, G-0

An Interview with Garrison Keillor

This has been a busy end of the summer for Garrison Keillor, the radio humorist, author, founder and host of the wildly popular radio show 'A Prairie Home Companion,' which is heard on Saturday nights by more than two million listeners on more than 420 public radio stations.

Along with doing his live radio show, Keillor has also been traveling the country promoting his newest book "Love Me" (272 pages, $24.95, Viking). On Tuesday, September 9th, he will be appearing at the Recreation and Convocation Center at the University at Albany's uptown campus at 8 pm for a public reading sponsored by The New York State Writers Institute.

He started 'A Prairie Home Companion' back in 1974 as something funny to do with his friends. "I continue doing the radio show because it's my job," he wrote to me in an e-mailed interview, "and I enjoy doing it."

His previous twelve books have sold more than five million copies in the United States, and his most popular books have dealt with the fictional location of Lake Wobegon, which he refers to as "The gateway to Central Minnesota."

His newest book, a non-Wobegon novel, centers on Larry Wyler, an ambitious writer from St. Paul, Minnesota, who becomes an overnight sensation when his first novel, "Spacious Skies," rockets to the top of the bestseller list.

Larry is then offered a job at The New Yorker magazine and wants to move to New York City, but his wife Iris, a staunch Democrat feminist, devoted to rescuing the homeless and the elderly, refuses to leave St. Paul.  "What does New York have that St. Paul doesn't have?" she asks her husband.

Larry heads off to Manhattan anyway and soon moves in to an upscale apartment with a magnificent terrace overlooking Central Park.  He becomes friendly with William Shawn, The New Yorker's legendary editor, and he meets such fellow literary stars as J.D. Salinger, Calvin Trillin and John Updike.

"I did know Mr. Shawn," writes Keillor in his e-mail.  "He was the editor of The New Yorker for a good deal of the time I wrote for the magazine and I was fortunate to get to know him a little.  I imagine he'd enjoy my comic fictional portrayal of him much more than he'd enjoy how he's been portrayed by people who were purportedly writing non-fiction."

After his first literary success, Larry Wyler comes down with a severe case of writer's block, and his second novel is a failure in every way.  So when he gets an offer to write an advice column from an editor at a Minneapolis newspaper, he jumps at it.  Writing commonsense advice to the lonely and the frustrated provides a much needed distraction and gradually brings about Larry's own recovery as a writer and as a husband.

Keillor wrote to me that he has never suffered from writer's block.  "Writer's block is what you get if you're trying to be Faulkner.  You sit and stare at the wall and nothing will come.  Once you come to your senses and accept who you are, then there's no problem.  I'm not Faulkner.  I'm a late-middle-aged mid-list fair-to-middling writer, and it gives me a lot of pleasure."

Much of the humor in "Love Me" comes from the newspaper advice column "Ask Mr. Blue."  Larry Wyler responds to such writers as Exasperated, whose wife gives up her judgeship for figure skating, and Nice Lady, who is abusive to the obese, and Secular Humanist, who suddenly notices his girlfriend is Amish.

From 1999-2001 Keillor wrote an advice column, "Dear Mr. Blue: Advice for Lovers and Writers" on  "I'm not trying to make fun of advice columnists," said Keillor in his e-mail.  "I don't know any advice columnists so their approval or disapproval isn't of great importance to me."

He did acknowledge in his e-mail that the writers who have had the greatest impact on him were F. Scott Fitzgerald and E.B. White.  "Fitzgerald because he's from St. Paul.  E.B. White, because his stuff sort of burst on me at just the right time in life, particularly his essays."

In the book "Love Me" protagonist Larry Wyler is forced to deal with his ambition, success, and failure.  He learns the virtues of real love and a steady job.  "My definition of a successful person," writes Keillor in his e-mail, "is someone who is independent and resourceful and who has just had sex."

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