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Gazette Premium Content Garrison Keillor on storytelling, Lake Wobegone and Fundamentalism

By Jen Mulson Updated: March 26, 2014 at 3:15 pm

In writer and radio host Garrison Keillor's world, the women are brave, the men are good-looking and the children are above average.

At least, that's how he describes the imaginary inhabitants of Lake Wobegone, his fictional Minnesotan town. They're the same folks he tells stories about every Saturday on his public radio show, "A Prairie Home Companion."

About 4 million listeners on more than 600 public radio stations across the country tune in each week to hear those tales, "The Adventures of Guy Noir," musical guests (including Pueblo-based The Haunted Windchimes) and other assorted treats.

Keillor, 71, celebrates the show's 40th anniversary in July with a three-day festival in St. Paul, Minn. His new book, "The Keillor Reader," a collection of stories he's written through the years, comes out May 1.

He'll be at the Pikes Peak Center on Sunday for "An Evening with Garrison Keillor."

The Gazette: What can people expect at your speaking engagement?

Garrison Keillor: If they have listened to the show for years, they can expect to be surprised. I don't look like what I sound like. I think I sound sort of chipper and cheerful, and I look gloomy and dark.

Gazette: You really think so?

Keillor: I know so. I sometimes walk down the street and see this gloomy person standing in the store window and realize it's my reflection and I'm taken aback. I feel cheerful, and I have no reason to feel bad, but I think one picks it (looking gloomy) up when you're in the radio business - where smiling gets you nothing.

I'll probably sing a few songs. That might take you aback, because I wouldn't necessarily do that on the radio. I might sing a hymn and invite you to sing with me. You keep changing the subject. You never stay in one mode too long, and when people think you might start lecturing, you change directions and start talking about your childhood and start handing out advice. I'm 71 and it's a time in life when a person ought to know a few things. And so I like to stand up and advise people. I don't do it too long. I tell people things I've learned in my lifetime. I tell them tall people can't count on short people to take care of the things we might bump our heads on.

Gazette: Is your live show planned or is it improv?

Keillor: The audience tells you very clearly what they don't want. You don't try to break through that wall. You just keep sliding and slide to the side and if they don't want to hear about politics, then you avoid that and you go off to the side. I am a left-wing Democrat and people know that, and it's no big surprise. But I don't need to sell that to anybody. I didn't mean to become that. It happened to me when I was a kid and went to a public school and ate the hot lunch. My mother didn't make me a bologna sandwich and give it to me in a bag and I didn't carry that to school - the emblem of my mother's love. I sat and ate macaroni and cheese, and it was government cheese. So I came to depend on the government and I still do. I use public roads and I drive in the right lane as I'm told to do.

Gazette: How do you approach telling your Lake Wobegone stories on "A Prairie Home Companion?"

Keillor: I've thought about it in advance. The stories are very clear to me, but the moment you start telling a story, it becomes less clear, and you have to invent your way out of those logistical corners that you get into. It never works out as simply as you imagined it will, because the audience is there and sometimes they just plain don't believe you and you have to invent something that they then might accept. Their silences are very articulate. When they're able to follow you, they become very happy and this is clear.

Gazette: What's the trick to good storytelling?

Keillor: I'm still trying to figure it out. I thought I knew when I was in college. I thought that I was a genius, a troubled genius. And then I launched into it on the radio, and discovered that I didn't know very much at all. I thought that I was going to become a great artist and tell disturbing stories. People didn't go for that. They preferred funny, and if not funny, then at least cheerful. I was forced to resort to telling stories about my childhood and the town I grew up in where people also believed in cheerfulness as a primary virtue.

You shouldn't tell a story unless you really believe in it. Your own credibility is always crucial, and the moment people sense that you are having them, they lose interest.

Gazette: Where do your stories come from?

Keillor: We complain about the government, our children, the neighbors, young people these days. All these are rich sources for complaint. I gave that up when I got into the business, and I told stories that were sympathetic to the small town I grew up in.

I don't look down on the people of Lake Wobegone, Minn., and in this way I'm different from other people in the comedy business. They look down on the people they look down on, and I don't. I don't look down on anybody. I don't look down on the media, because I'm part of the media.

Gazette: What else do you still want to explore?

Keillor: More about the fundamentalists I grew up among. I hold no grudge or bitterness toward them. They were kind and loving to me. I'm interested in their theology. I'm more interested in that than I am in seeing Asia or South America where I've never been.

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Contact Jennifer Mulson: 636-0270

"An Evening With Garrison Keillor"

When: 4:30 p.m. Sunday

Where: Pikes Peak Center, 190 S. Cascade Ave.

Tickets: $33-$53; 520-7469, ticketswest.com

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