Humorist, writer of screenplays, books, columns, and sonnets, creator of the make-believe world of Lake Wobegon and the live weekly American Public Media radio show “A Prairie Home Companion,” Garrison Keillor comes to the Vineyard on Sunday, May 28, at 8 pm at the Performing Arts Center, presented by WCAI.
Mr. Keillor, born in 1942 in Anoka, Minn., began his radio career at the University of Minnesota, and then worked for Minnesota Public Radio, where he hosted “A Prairie Home Companion” for an estimated 3.5 million listeners on 700 public radio stations. He “retired” from the radio show in July last year. He’ll be joined on stage by musicians Robin and Linda Williams, playing bluegrass, folk, and old-time country music.
It’s an interesting time to be a humorist. What are your observations regarding our new president?
The president is simply being himself. He never pretended to be anyone other than who he is, and now we have got him for awhile. He is off to a bumpy start, but still has the support of the vast majority of Republicans, and it remains to be seen what he could do that would cut into that support. If he defied the courts — if he shut himself up in Mar-a-Lago and refused to come out — if he grabbed Senator McConnell’s crotch — where is the red line?
How did “A Prairie Home Companion” begin?
I was 32, had spent four years writing a novel that got worse and worse and had to be abandoned, was unhappy, and desperately needed to break out of my writerly solitude and melancholy, and I hit on this beautiful idea of doing what you most fear. I had terrible stage fright, so I went out on stage. It gave me a life, which I didn’t have before.
What’s “retired” life like after 40-some-odd years of “A Prairie Home Companion”? Do you miss all those Saturday-night live shows?
I wrote a Lake Wobegon screenplay, wrote about 100,000 words of memoir and a book of limericks, wrote a weekly column, started a musical, and did about 75 solo shows, so I’ve managed to keep my hand in.
You welcomed some pretty big names to the stage. Anyone you admired above the others?
Odetta was indomitable. She was a powerhouse singer who in the course of time became a little old lady, but she was still magnificent. Chet Atkins, after he had a stroke and a brain tumor and could hardly chord a guitar, kept trying — he said, “I wish I could play like Chet Atkins.” I saw musicians who were on the steep downward slope and who were possessed by the passion, Jethro Burns, John Hartford, Johnny Gimble, Doc Watson. I am in awe of them.
Do you still live in Minnesota full-time, and why stay in Minnesota when you could live just about anyplace? What’s its appeal?
I live in Minnesota because there are friends there whom I’ve known since I was a child, and knowing them is how I can know myself.
Were you imaginative as a child? Writing stories, putting on plays, etc.?
I was dutiful as a child, and then I became sneaky as a child, but imaginative? No. It was all laid out for us in the Bible; no need to imagine anything.
Will your show on Martha’s Vineyard be a sort of variety show or more of a contemporary monologue?
Robin and Linda Williams and I are doing a reunion show, singing some songs together, and I expect to talk a little bit as they change guitar strings or as I think of things to say.
Have you been to the Vineyard before? If so, when and in what context?
What do you prefer: writing or performing? Which comes easier?
Writing is what I do every day, starting around 6 in the morning, after the coffee is ready. Performing is more complicated, an arrangement you make with other people, and you’d only do it if there is an audience for it, whereas I can sit and write simply for myself. It’s how you find out what you really think.
Describe your idea of a perfect Minnesota day.
You’re up early, it’s raining or snowing, you sit down with coffee and you work, and in the afternoon the sun comes out, and in the evening your friends drop in uninvited and you sit around and talk and tell stories until the moon comes up.
You opened a bookstore or two a while back. Are they still going strong in the age of digital libraries?
The bookstore is doing well, now that a nearby Barnes & Noble closed. But I buy my books from Amazon because Jeff Bezos owns the Washington Post, and the Post has become a great paper under his patronage. Heroic journalism is going on, even as we speak.
Whom do you like to read these days?
I am still reading John Updike. It will take me about five more years to finish with him. And then I’ll turn to Faulkner and Turgenev and go back and reread “War and Peace,” and then if I’m still alive I’ll take another run at “Moby-Dick.”
How important do you think it is to address contemporary issues with both candor and humor? Would you rather watch the news channels or someone like Stephen Colbert or Jon Stewart?
I’m not so interested in comedians as I am in the underlying facts: I want to ascertain if indeed the president asked Mr. Comey to ease up on the investigation of Michael Flynn. That’s not funny: That’s obstruction of justice.
What do you consider the biggest absurdity of our current infatuation with news and/or the media?
Twitter is absurd on the face of it. I don’t know anybody who does it. It’s garbage.
For tickets for this show and more information about the Martha’s Vineyard Summer Concert Series, visit mvconcertseries.com.