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The Author Speaks

Interview With Garrison Keillor on 'Good Poems: American Places'

Radio host to retire, says he's 'in denial'

Q. Does age give you an advantage in writing it? Finding meaning in it?

A. Good Lord, no. The advantage is with youth, as in most things. They have the energy and bravery and pizzazz, they go slamming around, and we old coots tiptoe along the edge. But we have high hopes. And there are exceptions to the rule. I'm reading Edward Hoagland's latest book, Sex and the River Styx. He is one of the greatest prose stylists of our time, he is 78, and this is his best book — great God, I am stunned at this accomplishment. And Robert Bly, closing in on 90 and writing beautifully and more humorously than ever. And Donald Hall, likewise. I'm 68, and I am cheering for my elders.

Q. What are your favorite places to visit, apart from St. Paul and New York City, where you have homes?

A. Everyone of course loves San Francisco — I adore the Inner Sunset district along Irving Avenue and Golden Gate Park, so fresh and unpretentious, lively, multiracial, easy-going. I love Austin, Texas, and New Orleans and odd places like Mackinac Island and Plainfield, Vt., and Washburn, Wis. And for sheer friendliness, there's no place like North Dakota. I never sat down with North Dakotans but what I felt … I was with family, and politics never mattered to us at all.

Q. You own a bookstore in St. Paul. How do you feel about the Kindle and other digital reading devices versus printed books?

A. I favor people reading by whatever technology seems hospitable to them. My wife takes her Kindle on trips, I pack books in my suitcase. Either is fine. I happen to love the sensual experience of walking into a bookstore and examining the wares, picking up books, smelling them, admiring the covers, reading the first page or two. In 15 minutes, I can always find at least five books that really deeply interest me. I can't do that online. It just doesn't excite my viscera the way physical books do. This is a learned pleasure going back to when I was 10 and rode my bike downtown and walked into the reading rooms of the Minneapolis Public Library. It's not a pleasure I can transfer to a digital image on a screen, just as I can't get as excited about a picture of a naked woman as I do about one who is walking across the floor toward me.

Q. You take A Prairie Home Companion all over the country. Are the audiences different in different places?

A. Quite different. More reserved in the Midwest, more lighthearted on the coasts, which is partly a function of transportation. In the Midwest, it's too easy to get to the theater: You just drive and park and walk in the door. In New York or L.A., it's a big struggle; you have to plot your course and have alternate routes in mind and be prepared to deal with unforeseen harrowing developments. Coming in from Westchester or Montclair or Hartford to Town Hall on West 43rd in Manhattan can try men's souls, as does the trip from Ventura or Manhattan Beach to the Greek Theater in Griffith Park in L.A., and when you finally get to your seat, you're just so darned grateful, you're giddy before the show even starts. And then if you should have a beer or two … well, that audience is a pushover. In the Midwest, they are stone-cold sober. I know those people. A tough crowd.

Q. Can you recall the most unexpected/outlandish thing that ever happened during one of your live shows?

A. It's always the exact same thing — I walk down to the front of the stage and say, "It's been a quiet week in Lake Wobegon," and the audience gets very quiet and I can't remember a single thing. Not a thing. Terrifying. Happens over and over. I think, "Damn, I have got to get me a teleprompter." My heart about stops. But you start talking about the weather and the special in the Chatterbox Café and it starts coming back to you, like rocks looming in the fog, whatever it was you thought you were going to talk about. And sometimes something better comes to you, some new startling thing. That's the reason not to use a script.

Q. You've written novels, essays, a screenplay or two, even an advice column (for Salon). Is there anything you haven't done but would like to do?

A. A play. That's my dream.

'Vanity is for people in their 30s' >>

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