In the flesh: Garrison Keillor talks to CL about shitty books, red shoes and why he hates Twitter

Fun fact: he never read Moby Dick, and he is not ashamed.

click to enlarge In the flesh: Garrison Keillor talks to CL about shitty books, red shoes and why he hates Twitter
Claudia Danielson

Years ago, my mother read an essay dissing Father's Day in a local paper, and she emailed me to ask about “this horrible man who was saying awful things.” What she described, narrative-wise, sounded familiar, so I pressed her to tell me who wrote that. When she told me “Garrison Keillor,” I explained he probably didn't mean it seriously — and, once my mom realized that, she became a fan.

Tonight at Ruth Eckerd Hall (and tomorrow night at the Van Wezel in Sarasota), Keillor — now retired from his beloved Prairie Home Companion — won't only make jokes. Audiences can expect to hear him sing patriotic songs and talk about... well, whatever he likes, really. When you're Garrison Keillor, you can do that. He has a writer's podcast, five-minute affairs that appeal to the writer in me, and anyone could spend years combing through a treasure trove of Keillor's books, columns, broadcasts and poetry.

And the man isn't done. He's touring — we speak as his night is kicking up in New York. At 74, Garrison Keillor still has plenty to say, and he says it well.

CL: You don't just do one thing, you do many things — and do them well. But you do not tweet — you have a Twitter account someone else runs. Is that a time thing or that's it's easier for you?

GK: I'm surprised that somebody is doing it for me. The left hand does not know what the right hand is doing. No, I despise Twitter. I love Facebook, and Twitter is, to me, it's just way beyond me. There's some things I don't get. That's one thing, and another thing is people walking around with wires going into their ears. I can't get my head around that. Listening takes so much time; reading you can do so quickly. You can read ahead; you can't listen ahead and that's why the idea of listening to a podcast is alien to me.

You see, I'm older than you and when you get to be this age, you become very careful about time and the investment of time. I go into a bookstore — I own a bookstore in St. Paul — and I go in and I pick up one book after another and I read the first two paragraphs and if I don't like that I put it away. I don't want to waste the time. It's the author's obligation to keep you in it, and you're a reader, you've been reading all of your life since you were a child, and you learn to recognize when the author is blowing smoke in your face and when the author is just getting all absorbed in himself, and I just say, “Give me a break” and you put it down. I have no patience for that.

CL: What should people expect Monday night?

GK: I'm not exactly sure. Ever since the election, I've started out by walking out on stage and humming a tone and from this we sing "My Country 'Tis of Thee" and we sing "Oh, Beautiful for Spacious Skies" ["America the Beautiful"] and maybe "Mine Eyes Have Seen the Glory of the Coming of the Lord" ["The Battle Hymn of the Republic"]. So I start out with that, and people like to sing. And if they're in the mood, you know, we can always sing a few other things, and then I have to dispose of the election, in a way, put it away. Because it is still on people's minds, a lot of people.

I kind of pack that up into a box and talk about the goodness of life. Which I think you're entitled to talk about when you're 74. Most comedy is comedy of complaint and I respect that, but I'm all done with that, so my comedy is very different; it's about looking back and looking at events in your life that were enormous good luck, even though they were accidental, you had nothing to do with them and you had no idea at the time what they meant. And many of these things have to do with teachers. I always talk a little bit about teachers, my own and I talk a little bit about Minnesota, because it's getting to be winter and this is sort of a wondrous time of year and in case there are Midwesterners in the audience I should let them know what they're missing out on. At some point, where I sort of lose my way or I come to a stop, I just say, "It's been a quiet week in Lake Woebegone." And then so I can go into that a little bit. But I always come back towards the end to the goodness of life, and I know it sounds corny and it sounds kind of soupy, but that's what I want to talk about, and it's funny. People laugh.

I'll recite some poems if I'm in the mood. My family loves sad songs and so do I, and I always like to sing one or two sad songs, murder ballads, that sort of thing. People oddly go for that. It just kind of wends its way around, and then we sing a few songs, I walk offstage and two hours have passed. That's how it happens.

CL: You've recently made your thoughts about Trump pretty clear in the Salt Lake Tribune. What's next for Americans who aren't content to, as you say, watch the emperor-elect parade around in the nude?

GK: I'm in New York right now and oddly, at the moment, I'm about a mile and half away from his tower, I feel much farther away from him than I do in Minnesota, where I'm apt to walk by a TV set and see him, hear him, see the front page of a paper. New York is so utterly unlike him and the politics he represents. It's a very civil place; it's a place with a very decent regard for people in trouble. I mean, if you fall down on a sidewalk in Manhattan, there will be five people at your side within 30 seconds. It's a place with a high regard for learning, for literature, for the arts, for culture, so it's entirely anti-Trumpist. There's no need to go to a foreign country. People I know still talk about this; they don't mean it, but they they talk about it. There's no need for that. You go live in any city in America and it's completely unlike the politics of the past six months. So, you know, I think that it's necessary to refocus after this miserable past year; it's necessary to refocus on your immediate life, your immediate surroundings and what you can do within your own personal realm.

We feel this in Minnesota when winter comes on, because you go outdoors every morning and you realize this is a cold world, and you could die here and so it's your duty to make the world better in any way you can, and this becomes a way of life. You need to practice good manners, you need to practice kindness and courtesy and you do this and you are rebelling against the wave of ugliness in the country, where we're suspicious of outsiders and aliens and we live in paranoia and we are alienated from our own elected representatives.

That's a long speech.

CL: What's the last book you read?

GK: The last book I read was a novel by Louise Erdrich called LaRose, which I picked up and started reading it and I just could not stop. There's always a few books like this for me, and I know them right away when I pick them up. I don't waste any time on all of the others. I think everybody has just a few books that have a power to change your life, and these are the books you've got to read and don't worry about any of the others.

I say that as an English major; I was required to read all of these books that meant nothing to me, and I don't call that a good education. Moby-Dick, I never got past page 47. There isn't anything there for me. Each person knows this for himself or herself.

CL: How will you spend your free time in Florida next week?

GK: I get up early in the morning. I like to work from about 5 a.m. to about 9 or 10 a.m., and then I get in a car and I drive to the next place. I'm hoping to take two-lane roads if possible and see if there's some of the old Florida around, I'm sure there is. I need to get to the next town by about 5 or 6 the next evening, get dressed and do another show. It's a leisurely week.

CL: Can you share with our readers something about you that isn't common knowledge, that they won't find on Wikipedia?

GK:I have never gotten over my fear of water. I think the world looks better at 5 o'clock in the morning, and the world looks even better than that at 4 o'clock, if I'm lucky. I wear red shoes because I can see them down there and they make me feel steadier. I love Ferris wheels and I haven't ridden a Ferris wheels in a long, long time. I'm done with the radio show and I love working as a solo. I really love sitting in a room by myself for a long period of time and writing.

I was brought up to be modest, even feel inferior, and this never leaves you for the rest of your life. And so my first impulse when I'm around people is to be quiet and to listen, and this is a good start for a writer. I feel very lucky — I sometimes have dreams of horrific things and then, in the middle of the dream, I think to myself, “Wake up, you're dreaming,” and I do. I do. I've mentioned this to people I know and they think that's quite unusual — the power to control your own dreams and to bring them to an end when they are frightening.

Many of my dreams still have to do with doing a show, being onstage in front of people and being unable to think of anything, which has never actually happened to me in real life. I doubt that it would.

Look for our review of Monday night's show, online Tuesday.

Garrison Keillor

Ruth Eckerd Hall

1111 McMullen Booth Rd., Clearwater.

Dec. 12, 7 p.m. 



Van Wezel Performing Arts Center

777 N. Taimiami Trail, Sarasota.

Dec. 13, 8 p.m.


Dec. 13, 8 p.m.

941-953-3368. Buy tickets.

About The Author

Cathy Salustri

Cathy's portfolio includes pieces for Visit Florida, USA Today and regional and local press. In 2016, UPF published Backroads of Paradise, her travel narrative about retracing the WPA-era Florida driving tours that was featured in The New York Times. Cathy speaks about Florida history for the Osher Lifelong Learning...
Scroll to read more Local Arts articles


Join Creative Loafing Tampa Bay Newsletters

Subscribe now to get the latest news delivered right to your inbox.