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Book Talk: Keillor says he still has 'distance to cover'

By Bernard Vaughan

NEW YORK (Reuters) - Don’t tell Garrison Keillor that his new book, “The Keillor Reader,” is the capstone to his more than 40-year career as a writer, humorist and host of the popular radio program “A Prairie Home Companion.”

The book collects for the first time many Keillor stories, essays and his signature Prairie monologues, along with new works, including "Cheerfulness," an essay dedicated to his mother.

Keillor, 71, spoke with Reuters about the book, fame, his career and America.

Q: How did the idea for this book come about?

  A:  It was my publisher’s idea and I wasn’t that eager to do it because it had a memorial feel about it. I’m not done writing yet. I still have some distance to cover. But I was intrigued by the idea of going back over and looking at my books, which I don’t do.

  Q: How are you different from your radio persona?

  A: On the radio I talk, and in real life I don’t. I’m a writer, and writers are observers. I talk minimally, just enough to get by. I don’t walk around the house and do monologues. With friends, I listen to what people have to say, because that’s my material. I don’t have any urge to entertain if people are over.

  Q: What can you get from performing on radio that you can’t get from writing?

  A: You’re able to talk to people who are in need of company. That’s what radio is for. It’s for somebody driving alone in a car, for people who are laid up home, for kids who are bored. We have a lot of listeners who are in prison. When we do a show, we’re standing on a stage in front of people who’ve paid $30, $40, $50, but the show is not for them. It’s for people who don’t have money and they need some cheap entertainment. Writing - I write for myself.

Q: You’ve talked about being initially uncomfortable with the fame you received from Prairie, and in 1987 you stopped the show for a few years. How do you feel about fame now?

  A: It just came on so fast. It was a lot of pressure. I reacted badly to it. I just wanted to be anonymous, to go sit in a room and write. Now? It’s a wonderful life. Everything settles down. I’m embarrassed by having done what I did. I think I ought to go into business as an adviser to people who become suddenly famous, young rock n’ roll stars and actors. I should hang out my shingle as a celebrity adviser.

  Q: What comforts and dismays you most about America today?

  A: I get together sometimes with people in college, in their early 20s. I’m very impressed by their social skills, by their wits. They’re very funny, and ambitious without being arrogant. I remember being terribly uncomfortable and shy, and sort of reclusive at that age. Young people I know are much more socially aware.

I think my generation is a lost cause. They’re just all fading away. I don’t think we were a particularly distinguished generation. So I’m glad to see this spirit among young people. I enjoy hanging around them to the extent that they let me do that, which they do because I generally pick up the check.

Politics, of course, the same thing that dismays most people. Politics has really lost the sense of the middle. And that means there’s a kind of permanent war in the political world. It’s not the worst era, it’s not like the mid-19th century, and we’re going through fairly reasonably good times compared to other parts of the world, but it just seems as if politics is not so rooted in the real world as it used to be. 

Q: When and where do you tend to come up with ideas for your monologues?

A: They come from life, from real life. They’re just stories about people, some stories I’ve heard from friends and family and other things I hear from strangers.

This last week was about spring cleaning and about conflicted feelings about lawn care.

(Editing by Patricia Reaney and Dan Grebler)

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