Garrison Keillor wants ‘just enough success to keep working’

Chad Berndtson

"Hello, Chad. This is Garrison Keillor calling from Salem, Oregon."

And I’m hypnotized – that articulate baritone, that comforting timbre, that beguiling, measured way of observing, discussing and describing that’s endeared Keillor to a fan base that, in the author, satirist and radio personality’s low-key, self-deprecating way, he’d probably still try to downplay.

Keillor’s "A Prairie Home Companion: The Rhubarb Tour'' – a live variety show adapted from his broadcast program – pulls into the Cape Cod Melody Tent in Hyannis on Sunday and South Shore Music Circus in Cohasset on Monday.

PL: You know the area, having played both venues before.

GK: They are unique venues – venues with revolving platforms. You get to walk around and get a sense of motion. And much of the audience can see the drummer’s back. He bounces. He does.

PL: What do you particularly enjoy about the South Shore?

GK: I don’t know much about the South Shore, but I remember riding through it on the bus. You saw house after house that was large but not a showpiece house – houses built for comfort but that had a sort of pleasant, rundown quality about them, which reminds me of the houses in St. Paul. In St. Paul, if you don’t mow your lawn into a work of art, people don’t hold it against you. Some of these (houses) were like that – a weathered quality about them, which makes sense being close to the ocean and the salt water – and they didn’t look like houses you’d typically see in suburbs. So much of America looks so much alike. The suburbs of Phoenix look like the suburbs of Minnesota, which look like the suburbs of Atlanta: the same architecture, shopping centers and stores. When you’re in New England, you are in a particular part of America. It doesn’t look like other places. I like that about it.

PL: You’ve described this show as "the show I could do if I could do only one more show.'' Why is that?

GK: It’s really the variety. It packs, into a few hours, some ribald humor, love songs, stories and sound effects. It incorporates some sonnets I’ve written in the last six months, but also low comedy. It has so many different things. It’s not just one performer trotting out his wares.

PL: It seems like more people should know about (country singer and Rhubarb tour stalwart) Suzy Bogguss, even though she was pretty big in the ’80s and ’90s. How would you describe her?

GK: She’s a sterling singer. People are stunned by the clarity and tone of her voice when she begins to sing. I’m sort of a constructed singer – she’s a natural. She comes out and breaks up the show. There are duets and they’re wonderful. A duet is an extremely simple and good thing: two voices in harmony.

PL: It seems fitting we’re talking during the week of the Democratic National Convention, seeing as you endorsed Sen. Obama earlier this year. What do you make of – what do you like about – how he’s run his campaign?

GK: I’ve been impressed by his discipline and focus. He’s not a casual candidate. He doesn’t come with the sloppiness that has beset so many Democrats who think they can get by on the basis of good feelings.

(Obama) is a tireless and focused person. I also admire that he wrote his own books; Teddy Roosevelt wrote his but I can’t think of many since then who have. It’s stunning, the fact that he can express himself without calling in a cadre of writers to do it for him. That’s a mark of intelligence that ought to be required, I think. If you can’t put thoughts on paper in a cogent and organized way, who are you?

And then of course, race is the great unmentionable. If Obama were a 47-year-old white man from Chicago with his same skills, I think he’d be 15 points ahead.

PL: Earlier this year you wrote a column called "The Roar of Hollow Patriotism'' (which criticized the biker subculture that gathers for the "Rolling Thunder'' parade in Washington D.C. to honor veterans). I know it was a bit controversial at the time. Has there been any feedback?

GK: There was a big reaction to it – people felt like they were being attacked – but it has mostly all passed. I’m not aware of any hard feelings. I wrote a piece that described what I saw: 300,000 motorcycles in the Capitol is quite a phenomenon.

PL: Your most recent book was "Pontoon: A Novel of Lake Wobegon,'' from 2007. I know you’re writing all the time, from poetry to columns, but do you have your next book project in the works?

GK: I’ve started a new novel called "Pilgrims.'' It will be another Lake Wobegon novel and will be out a year from now. It’s about a group of Lake Wobegonians who are visiting Italy and to see the grave of a Lake Wobegon boy buried outside Rome. I thought of Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales for the idea of these travelers who make their way from Rome to the cemetery, starting to tell stories. The death of this boy, which happened a long time ago, opens up memories of old times and people long forgotten in Lake Wobegon. It’s a very simple idea and came from my own experiences with my own siblings. You sit there and enjoy Italy, but the trip also reminds you of back home. You remember things.

PL: It’s been nearly two years since Robert Altman’s passing, and you were obviously close to his last completed project, the film version of "A Prairie Home Companion'' (2006). Do you have a favorite memory of working with Altman?

GK: I remember how frail and fragile he seemed when I first met him in New York, and then how much younger and happier he seemed when he started shooting the movie. He loved to sit in that high canvas chair, directing his cameraman, directing his lighting man, directing his set designer – he was just so happy to talk about what he was doing to anyone who wanted to listen. He had no wish to go into retirement whatsoever. I remember he started talking to me about World War II and that was my clearest insight into Altman. He had enlisted when he was 17 and lied about his age, and by the time he was 19 he was piloting a B-17 bomber in the Pacific. Here was this enormous, cold, loud, rattling piece of machinery in the sky, and he was in it doing bombing runs. When you’ve done that at 19 or 20, you have nothing left to fear. You’re fearless for the rest of your life. And he absolutely was fearless – he just wanted to go forward.

I can’t imagine being that way, and I admired getting to know him. He got that movie done under the stress of personal illness and the mentality that would have had most people going to the hospital every minute. He was a hero and an admirable person.

PL: Do you give any thought to retirement? It doesn’t seem like you’re ready to stop moving forward, either. Is that accurate?

GK: That’s accurate. I’m moving along, bouncing from one thing to another, and I love what I do for an odd combination of reasons. One thing is a kind of memory loss – I’ve had failure but I tend to forget it, and I have many regrets that don’t seem to inhibit me, and I have qualms but you learn to stifle them and go on ahead and do what you do. I still haven’t done the radio show the way I really want to do it, and I want to write another movie, and my great hope is to write a play. A person wants to do what he can’t and that’s what keeps you going. Failure is a great stimulus.

What you realize, in maturity, is that stunning success when you’re young would have killed you forever. Maybe you make a movie that’s hailed as a new classic or you have an album that goes titanium. How do you survive that? It’s hard for young people to understand, and they shouldn’t understand it, but it is the truth. You want just enough success to keep working. So don’t win any awards, OK?

The Patriot Ledger