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Monday, January 24, 2005 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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Garrison Keillor on Lake Wobegon and 30 years of being above average

Seattle Times staff reporter

It's been a quiet three decades at Lake Wobegon. You know, where the women are strong, the men are good-looking, and all the children are above average. (Maybe a little hearing loss could account for some of the quiet by now.)

Not a bad time to chat with town architect Garrison Keillor about the milestone, heralded by the recent DVD "A Prairie Home Companion 30th Anniversary Broadcast" (Rounder Records, $19.98). Each Saturday, 4 million listeners tune in on 558 public radio stations (locally at 3 p.m. on KUOW 94.9 FM) for two hours of folksy, wry humor (if you're not a fan, insert "twee"), bluegrass music and absurd commercials for such fictional sponsors as Ralph's Pretty Good Grocery. Slogan: "If you can't find it at Ralph's, you can probably get along without it."

Keillor has a reputation for an off-air persona that isn't so folksy, but talking from the big desk piled with stuff in his St. Paul, Minn., office, he's as friendly as someone with a bellyful of Powder Milk Biscuits — my, they're tasty — which give shy people the get-up-and-go to do what needs to be done.

Question: I don't think I could have cut it in Lake Wobegon — I think I was a below-average child.

Answer: You don't seem below average. I don't see how you could possibly have been considered below average. But maybe you didn't test well. Some people don't test well.

Where's the worst place you ever did a show?

Reno, Nevada. I just felt creepy. Every time I turned around in Reno, I just saw pathological behavior.

You mean old people with those big change cups?

No, I don't think [the audience] knew we were there. I don't know where the audience came from. I think they came over from Utah, which is almost as strange.

After 30 years, aren't you tired?

I'm tired from time to time, as anybody else is. But I don't think I'm as tired as a lot of teenagers I know. I know teenage boys 16, 17 years old who are exhausted. They sleep all the time. And they have a kind of world-weary demeanor about them. I think that I'm eager as can be, compared to most teenagers I know who seem exhausted, discouraged, burnt-out.

No, I'm not tired of doing the show. I don't listen to the show, so I don't really experience the show in the same way other people do. I don't really have a clear picture of what I do.

To me it's a big social event. I mean, I write. That's hard work. But I don't necessarily connect the writing to radio.

I had to spell "prairie" twice to the Seattle Tower Records guy looking for your DVD. What's that say about today's youth?

Well, in Seattle I wouldn't be surprised by the inability to spell "prairie" — just as in Minnesota, "Puget" might be a problem.

That raises the question: Who are your groupies?

I attract mature women. Mature women with sensible shoes.

Does the 30 years include the time you took off in the '80s?

I went off on an unwise romance, and then I came back a couple of years later. Yes, it does. So it's an anniversary with an asterisk — like Roger Maris' home-run record.

Stephen King could make something out of "Lake Wobegon: The Dark Years." What do you think happened to the citizens of the town in that time?

They went on cheerfully with their lives. They felt a certain burden lifted from their shoulders. They weren't sure what. They felt youthful. And then the cloud returned. I don't take many cues from Steve, because he's not a very funny writer. I find him a hugely tedious writer.

How do you write your News from Lake Wobegon?

I sit down on Saturday morning, and I write it in whatever form I can. Sometimes it's not particularly complete. Sometimes it's kind of bare-bones and scattered. But I always put as much down on paper as I possibly can. I think by writing.

It helps to be trapped, and the sparks are moving up the fuse, and your arms are in the straitjacket. You're dangling over the water tank. And Dobermans are woofing. I would not have done this just for fun out of the clear blue just to amuse myself of a Thursday, Friday and Saturday. I would have sat and watched television, probably, and not done anything. So that's why I do a live radio show, because it forces me to work.

How do you unwind after a show? What did you do after your most recent one?

[Laughs.] What did I do? I came directly home from the show. My daughter had her tonsillectomy on Monday, so she was still a little fretful. And my wife had been with her all day Friday and all day Saturday, so I really owed it to her to come home. So I sat on a couch with my daughter, and I had to watch a couple of videos with her.

Are reports true that there will be a "Prairie Home Companion" film?

Well, we're working on it. Sort of came about in an odd, backward fashion. But [director] Robert Altman got in touch with me — I think now it's been a couple of years — and suggested doing this. I've always wanted to make a Lake Wobegon movie. He wasn't interested in that. He was interested in making a movie about the radio show, but having it be a fictional movie.

What are the odds that Will Smith will be cast in the lead and there will be car chases and explosions — and perhaps robots?

[Laughing.] No robots!

That's where you draw the line?

They're expensive! And car crashes are expensive. And Altman is cheap. Altman is a low-budget guy.

You recently wrote a book about being a Democrat ("Homegrown Democrat: A Few Plain Thoughts from the Heart of America," Viking Books). Did it please PBS types or alienate others?

Oh, it's done both. It alienated a number of people, and there was a whole large group of people who carried on a letter-writing campaign against the show — their perfect right, and I don't mind. And I suppose that it pleased other people.

I did it because I felt that Democrats in Minnesota were terribly discouraged after the 2002 election. And these are people I really love. These are really good people, really salt-of-the-earth people, and I hate to see them down. I don't necessarily need to see them triumphant, but I hate to see them down and depressed. So I did a lot in the summer and the fall for them, and then I was really glad when it was over with.

Have you given any thought to what your radio spot "The Writer's Almanac" would say about you?

Yeah. I mean, I'm not going to say anything about myself on "The Writer's Almanac," but sure. It would say that I was a writer who had a story bought off the slush pile — off the unsolicited manuscripts of every English major in America in manila envelopes — bought off the slush pile in the summer of 1969. A reader, an unknown nameless person, saw my story and plucked it out and passed it up the chain of editors, and it was bought, and that changed my life.

You've been very patient.

You're not nearly as ill-tempered as they told me you were going to be.

Mark Rahner: 206-464-8259 or mrahner@seattletimes.com

Copyright © 2005 The Seattle Times Company

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