So long, Lake Wobegon

Garrison Keillor abandons fictional hometown in funny, racy new book

Sunday, September 7, 2003

— Yes, Garrison Keillor once wrote for The New Yorker, as did the narrator in his new book, "Love Me."

But no, Keillor has never shot a magazine publisher. You have his word on that.

"The New Yorker is real, but everything about it in the book is fiction. It's not really run by the Mafia," Keillor says during an interview on the porch of his home in a leafy neighborhood in St. Paul. The house is a solid, well-kept brick with high ceilings. Children's toys are scattered about, including Raggedy Ann and Andy dolls.

Looking fit two years after heart-valve surgery, the famously shy Keillor is barefoot and wears blue jeans and a white shirt with the sleeves rolled up. He scrunches his bulldoglike face as he sips coffee and discusses everything from his new book to his decision to quit drinking.

In "Love Me," he abandons his fictional hometown of Lake Wobegon for a funny, sometimes racy story that he describes as "about 15 percent autobiographical, same as with most novels."

"Love Me" traces the rise of a writer who leaves St. Paul for New York City, then returns to Minnesota -- a path followed by Keillor, who quit his popular "A Prairie Home Companion" radio show in 1987 before reviving it years later.

Larry Wyler, the book's narrator, writes a best seller, "Spacious Skies," and realizes his dreams when he joins the staff of The New Yorker, a glossy, stylish magazine that Keillor calls "the Valhalla for all English majors in America, or was at one time."

But Wyler's wife, Iris, a liberal Democrat, refuses to leave their blue-collar neighborhood in St. Paul. Wyler goes to New York alone, has several affairs, then suffers writer's block when his second novel, "Amber Waves of Grain," flops.

Wyler turns to writing a newspaper column, "Mr. Blue," dispensing advice to the lovelorn. Along the way, Wyler discovers The New Yorker is controlled by the Mafia and ends up accidentally killing the publisher, mobster Tony Crossandotti (a joke name made up from "cross your t's" and "dot your i's"), in the Oak Room of the famed Algonquin Hotel.

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AP Photo

Garrison Keillor, author and radio personality, pauses during an interview outside his St. Paul, Minn., home Aug. 5. In his new book, "Love Me," Keillor abandons his fictional hometown of Lake Wobegon for a funny, sometimes racy story he says is "about 15 percent autobiographical, same as most novels."

While Keillor says most of the book is fiction, there are similarities: Keillor did write for The New Yorker, had an apartment with a big terrace like Wyler's and for a couple of years wrote a "Mr. Blue" advice column for Salon.com.

Wyler lists arrogance, restlessness, an ungrateful heart and dishonesty among his flaws -- traits Keillor says he also shares. And like his main character, Keillor also went through a period of drinking before stopping about a year ago.

Increasingly political

Keillor's first piece in The New Yorker -- "a tiny, tiny piece of fiction," titled "Local Family Makes Son Happy" -- appeared in 1969 or 1970. After he began work on an article for the publication about the Grand Ole Opry in Nashville, Tenn., he was inspired to begin a radio show with musical guests and commercials for imaginary products. That idea blossomed into "A Prairie Home Companion," which debuted in 1974.

But Keillor's association with The New Yorker ended in 1992 when former Vanity Fair editor Tina Brown was named editor and brought her brand of celebrity journalism to the once intellectual magazine.

"Love Me" is dedicated to the memory of Keillor's first wife, Mary Guntzel, who died in 1998. Keillor says the character of Iris, Wyler's wife, is based on Guntzel, who was a social worker.

Those who know Keillor only as the teller of folksy tales about Norwegian bachelor farmers may be surprised by the salty language in "Love Me." His mob character, Crossandotti, uses a certain four-letter word "almost like punctuation," Keillor says.

"I thought it was funny, in the mouth of a Mafia guy. I think it's comical," Keillor says.

Keillor's radio show has become increasingly political, zinging Republicans and President Bush. While Bill Clinton's foibles provided much richer material, Keillor says, there's something about Bush "that's kind of smirky and kind of uncurious and proud of it."

Keillor did shock some fans last November when he wrote two scathing columns for Salon.com after Republican Norm Coleman was elected to the U.S. Senate following the plane crash that killed incumbent Democrat Paul Wellstone in the campaign's final days.

Keillor has no regrets about the columns, which denounced Coleman as "a hollow man" and "a cheap fraud."

"I wouldn't take back a single thing I said," he says. "Nor would I feel the need to go out and repeat it."

Return to Lake Wobegon

Keillor lives with his third wife, Jenny Lind Nilsson, and their 5-year-old daughter in a three-story brick home, where he writes in the dining room. Nearby is the birthplace of F. Scott Fitzgerald and the house where Fitzgerald wrote his first novel, "This Side of Paradise."

He plans to return to Lake Wobegon for his next novel, which will be about tomatoes. After writing an opera that debuted last year, he's working on two screenplays -- one about a man who comes back to Lake Wobegon for his father's funeral, the other a farce about a radio show that originates in St. Paul.

And he has no plans to celebrate the 30th anniversary of the first "Prairie Home" broadcast. "I don't want to do anything to give away my age to young people who might be listening on the radio," says Keillor, who turned 61 on Aug. 7.

A dozen people watched Keillor be host to the first live broadcast of his show from Macalester College in St. Paul on July 6, 1974. Today, about 3.9 million listeners in the United States hear "A Prairie Home Companion" each week on more than 500 public radio stations.