It’s been four years since Anoka-born Garrison Keillor told his last story about the little Minnesota town of Lake Wobegon, ending his public radio show “A Prairie Home Companion.” Broadcast over a medium that was supposed to be dead, meshing storytelling and music, the show became a national success. Besides the radio show, Keillor has 27 books to his credit, ranging from a collection of limericks to a children’s book written with his wife, Jenny Lind Nilsson, as well as novels, including the just-published “Lake Wobegon Virus.”
“My great accomplishment was to gain competence at work for which I had no aptitude, a solitary guy with low affect who learned to stand in front of four million people and talk and enjoy it,” Keillor writes in his new memoir, “That Time of Year: A Minnesota Life” (Arcade, $30).
Keillor is 78 now, sharing with readers a lifetime of success and regrets. His book is funny, sad, poignant, and sometimes wistful, especially when he recalls good times on the PHC tour bus, traveling to performances all over the country. Yards of copy has been written about Keillor in Twin Cities newspapers, with whom he had a long, contentious relationship, but this is the first time he’s shared the feelings behind his sometimes-inscrutable facade.
He tells his story in a straight-forward way, beginning with his birth in 1942. He writes of how his family’s membership in the strict Plymouth Brethren shaped his values with their belief in the rapture and disapproval of entertainment. Yet he got into comedy partly because his mother, Grace, loved to laugh. And his dad, John, loved him although he couldn’t say so. He had 18 aunts who loved him dearly: “They comforted me and excused my shortcomings and praised my letter writing and my penmanship. They brought me up to be mannerly, helpful, to not be a lazybones but not a braggart either, to avoid bad language, the vulgar kind and the ungrammatical. They listened to me when I spoke up.”
Keillor got a good education at Anoka High where he was “an indifferent student” but encouraged to write by several teachers. He knew he wanted to be a writer from the time he was a boy, and when he was 13 he changed his name to Garrison, feeling it had more weight than his given name, Gary.
“I made a tiny niche of my own, Anoka Boy of Letters, and carried myself in a serious literary manner, and went on to the U where, if you could write lines that sounded like a translation from the Japanese, you were considered a poet,” he writes.
Two weeks after Keillor’s arrival at the University of Minnesota, where he worked for a while as a parking lot attendant, he had a job with the school’s radio station. The program director, Barry Halper, was one of the significant people in young Keillor’s life.
And then, one of his dreams came true in 1970. He received a letter “on creamy stationery” from The New Yorker, telling him the prestigious magazine he aspired to had accepted his story about a family who hires a call girl for their son. He was paid $500 and he and his wife, Mary, took their baby Jason to a celebratory dinner that cost $3.60 for his portion, including pie. His mother said, “Why can’t you write something more positive?” He would later join the magazine’s staff.
When Keillor drove up to St. John’s University in Collegeville to apply for a job at the new radio station KSJR, he met another influence in his life — station manager Bill Kling — who shared his love for old radio shows and would become his staunchest ally. Although KSJR was a classical music station, Keillor “ignored that in favor of free-form entertainment.” He took requests, wrote limericks for listeners. It was a “show of gaiety and exuberant transitions from the Marine Corps Band to a steam calliope and spoon player and a tuba trio played the ‘Ode to Joy’, with scraps of poetry. …” He doesn’t say so, but fans will see the seeds here of “A Prairie Home Companion.”
One of the reasons Keillor wanted a joyful show was that he and his wife were in a dark place and they divorced in 1976. Mary died in 1998 and his regret is palpable.
“A Prairie Home Companion” launched in 1974, after Keillor was inspired by seeing “Grand Ole Opry” in Nashville. He had fallen into work he loved — writing stories about Guy Noir and the latest news from Lake Wobegon, singing duets, leading audiences in hymns, patriotic songs and just about anything that took his fancy.
Keillor’s secret to success: “The key to the story was to maintain a modest tone, avoid smart and uppity language, stay in the background, as a Wobegonian would do.”
In 1982, Keillor collected some of his stories for his first book, “Happy to Be Here,” which sold well, thanks partly to fans of his radio show, and in 1985 “Lake Wobegon Days” was published to critical acclaim. The boy from Anoka was pictured on the cover of Time magazine. This formerly awkward kid writes that as his novel climbed the bestseller charts, he noticed “another phenomenon, very charming and also bewildering. I noticed women taking an interest in me.”
In a chapter poignantly titled “I Found a Great Sorrow,” he recalls his marriage to Ulla, a Danish woman on whom he’d had a crush when she was an exchange student at his high school. They moved to St. Paul, which Ulla found provincial, and they lived in Denmark for a while. “We were in love and we were miserable,” he writes. One day he called a taxi, went to the airport, and flew home to New York. This time, there were no regrets.
Five years later, Keillor met Jenny, a freelance musician whose Anoka family was known to the Keillors. They were married in New York and their daughter, Maia, was born in 1997. Keillor’s writing about his little girl is among the most touching passages.
In 2006, Keillor wrote the script for the film “A Prairie Home Companion.” Shot in the Fitzgerald Theater, it starred Meryl Streep, Lily Tomlin, Lindsay Lohan, Kevin Kline and Woody Harrelson. It was the last film directed by the great Robert Altman, and Keillor admits he wishes he, Keillor, could have made it a better movie.
After almost 40 years of doing his radio show, Keillor decided to retire in 2016. Bill Kling was looking toward retirement, and MPR “had gone corporate during my years on the road. … I could feel the wolves watching from deep in the pines.” The chapter about those last shows is tellingly titled An Easy Descent Into Oblivion.
Keillor eventually sold his St. Paul bookstore, which he reveals lost him a lot of money. Then he and Jenny moved from their home on St. Paul’s Summit Avenue to Minneapolis. They divide their time between Minnesota and New York.
Three years ago, Keillor made national headlines when he was accused of inappropriate behavior. He recalls that unhappy time head-on.
“I got kicked out of public radio in November 2017, accused of an email flirtation with a freelance researcher, a friend who’d worked for the show for 13 years. …” he writes. Reaction was swift. His column was dropped by the Washington Post, a tour was cancelled, as well as all his dates from his lecture agency. The Writer’s Almanac, which he did gratis for 25 years, was “gone, in the trash.”
His response is not bitter because this is not a score-settling book: “MPR disposed of me without remorse and, oddly, life was better for it. … The University took my picture down from its gallery of distinguished alums. I finally got the chance to live a quiet domestic life with the woman I love and write comedy. This is the beauty of misery — it invigorates you to work, work is what relieves misery. Good work rouses your heart to live another day. …”
Keillor has, at times, been unkind in his comments about St. Paul and Minnesota. Yet this state, our atttiudes and speech cadence, is in his bones as shown by his memory of attending his Class of 1960 Anoka high school reunion:
“People asked, ‘What you been up to then?’ And I said, ‘Not much.’ “