On Tuesday, June 10th, at Corte Madera’s Book Passage, Garrison Keillor poked fun at contemporary writers, saying “Nowadays they jog! They drink carbonated Italian beverages!”
Keillor, as a young man, modeled his life after the dark brooding authors he loved: F. Scott Fitzgerald, Sinclair Lewis. To his interview for A Prairie Home Companion, he showed up in jeans (carefully torn), and a long leather jacket with fringe. He was going to be a novelist. He would “become a surrealist poet, and die young.” Thank goodness that’s not what happened. Over the years, the show changed him, and he changed us. He has offered more to the writing community than many print authors—poets or novelists. His audience is multi-generational, and spans all literary genres.
Even at 1pm on a weekday, the parking lot was so full that people had to drive down the street and park in the Movie Theater lot. This was no Chatterbox Café in his fictitious Lake Wobegon, “the little town that time forgot and the decades cannot improve.” It was packed. Behind rows of paperback fiction, audience members with no view watched live stream on ceiling monitors, rapt by America’s favorite bow-tie wearing storyteller.
The early morning-turned prime-time radio show where Keillor continues to woo audiences is now near 40 years old. He is releasing a new book, The Keillor Reader, wherein monologues from the show, and stories from The Atlantic and The New Yorker are all finally bound together in one volume. In addition, the book contains photos, memorabilia and a few never before published essays.
But I, like many people in the audience, came to hear his voice. His careful baritone has become a placeholder for poets and writers today, as familiar as a living room easy chair. His is the voice attached to a bulk of audio poems available through the Academy of American Poets. And his show, The Writers Almanac has offered daily poetry and literary history for nearly 20 years.
For two hours, he ad-libbed and charmed us with snippets of his writer’s evolution—a story on storytelling, if you will. At the end, he offered generalized quips about his book, and answered questions. He noted that “The way to get something done is to do it. The way to not get something done is to not do it.”
Someone asked if he was going to retire, and he deflected. With new broadcast journalists popping up all over, he knows there is a need to make room. Of his generation, Keillor said, “We are supposed to get out of the way and make room. Nature expects nothing more from us. After a child is 15 we only teach bad habits. By 12, they’ve got most of it figured out. 71 is past slotted age.” He listed the plagues of old age, covering erectile dysfunction and aches and pains. But then he posed the question of why people should continue. What does nature want? “The only reason to continue,” he said, “is storytelling. We have the material. You get respect at this age. People listen.”
Xan L. Roberti is the winner of the 2014 New South Poetry Contest, and runner up in the Mississipi Valley Poetry Contest 2013. Her memoir Portable Housing was nominated for the Walter Sindlinger Award at Columbia University Teachers College. She received her MFA in Poetry from Sarah Lawrence College, where she was the graduate keynote speaker. She lives in San Francisco on a windy hill.