Garrison Keillor feels your pain

Salon's former Mr. Blue talks about his new novel, the old New Yorker, romantic regrets, broken dreams, and this crazy thing called life.


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Amy Reiter
September 2, 2003 11:00PM (UTC)

Mr. Blue is alive and well and living on in the imagination of Garrison Keillor.

In the homespun humorist's new novel, "Love Me," the main character -- hard-drinkin', broad-lovin', high-livin' Larry Wyler -- shares Keillor's old Salon pseudonym, his St. Paul, Minn., roots and his former gig at the New Yorker magazine.

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Basking in the glow of a bestselling novel, "Spacious Skies," and bored with his wholesome life and do-gooder wife -- his college sweetheart, Iris -- in Minnesota, Wyler sets off for headier pastures: New York City. There, he takes an apartment with a terrace that raises him to the top of the town, joins the staff of the New Yorker, and meets his idols: Updike, Salinger, Shawn, Trillin.

But things soon take a turn for the worse -- and the weird. Separated from his muse and his homeland and swept up in an intoxicating concoction of fame, women, booze and literary pretension, he's crippled by a horrible case of writer's block. What's more, he discovers that his beloved periodical is owned by a slick Mafioso "with eyebrows like cockroaches," who won it in a card game, and that his long-held heroes -- most notably the renowned editor William Shawn, whom Keillor casts as a starlet-bedding, bourbon-swilling outdoorsman -- are not exactly as he'd expected them to be.

A card game? Guns and starlets? William Shawn?

Clearly the "Prairie Home Companion" host has taken a few liberties with the facts and steered his wonderfully silly, yet heartfelt and at times even lyrical novel into rollicking-fiction territory. But where does the basis in real life leave off and the fantasy begin? Keillor coyly -- delightfully -- confounds the reader with few road signs and many fast turns.

Salon was curious about the similarities between Keillor and Wyler, Keillor's ongoing affection for Mr. Blue, and whether he misses doling out advice to the needy, hurting masses. And so, in keeping with Mr. Blue tradition (and in accordance with Keillor's preferences), we e-mailed him a few questions:

You and the main character in "Love Me" seem to have a lot in common, including a gig as an agony aunt for the lovelorn and the pen name "Mr. Blue." How much of Garrison Keillor is there in Larry Wyler? How much of his story is your own?

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Any story a writer spins has the writer in it, plastered on every page, and the little autobiographical similarities aren't so important as the writer's big booming voice and myopic vision that skew each and every sentence. A mature writer seeks to take himself out of the story and let his characters come in and say their piece and do their turn without his own fine sensibility butting in all the time. The fun for me was to begin with autobiography --- St. Paul, the New Yorker, Mr. Blue --- and let it spin off into another direction than the one my own life took, and let Larry be somebody who is not me. This is a mature development for a man, no? To accept being contradicted by your own character.

Did you use any of the questions sent to you as Salon's Mr. Blue in the book?

I did not, to the best of my knowledge, counselor, though certainly some of the letters follow familiar lines -- "I'm a computer programmer but what I really want to be is a novelist," "I'm 48 and reasonably attractive and fun to be with and somehow I can't find a lover" -- I got lots of those letters when I was Mr. Blue at Salon.com. They were somewhat impossible to unanswer, which made them even more fascinating.

Larry runs away from his Minnesota roots and becomes swept up in the life of the famous New York writer. Has your fame ever swept you up like that and made you do rash and ultimately regrettable things? Care to talk about them?

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I was famous for about six months back in 1985-86 and remember it with a lot of pleasure and some regret. Probably fame contributed to my impetuous decision to marry an old classmate, a lovely woman to whom I am no longer married, and I regret the impetuousness of it, the big rush, the arrogant assumption that I had command of things and could make difficulties disappear. But I don't spend much time regretting it. What else? My arrogance usually takes the form of carelessness toward my own work and cutting corners and trying to slide by on charm. That is pretty dreadful. Going out onstage and doing your act by rote is nothing to be proud of and I've done it and I am sorry.

Larry also comes down with a horrible case of writer's block, partially due to separation from his muse and partly due to indulging in a few too many cocktails. Have you ever been blocked as a writer and, if so, what do you attribute the blockage to? If not, how have you managed to prevent it?

Writer's block is what you get if you're too full of yourself and trying to be García Márquez. You sit and stare at the wall and nothing happens for you. It's like imagining you're a tree and trying to sprout leaves. Once you come to your senses and accept who you are, then there's no problem. I'm not García Márquez. I'm a late-middle-aged midlist fair-to-middling writer with a comfortable midriff, and it gives me quite a bit of pleasure.

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Why are you still writing? And why this novel now?

I write because I'm a writer, love, it's what we do when we rise in the morning, it gives some shape to the day and it's always jampacked with surprises, which a man of 61 is truly grateful for. I remember the day I woke up and sat down to the laptop and decided to make William Shawn, the famously reclusive and demure editor, the ultimate green-eyeshade man, into a roistering hard-drinking sportsman and rake. That was a lovely morning. And also the morning I found out that Larry would get to shoot the publisher of the New Yorker, Mr. Crossandotti, in the head and do it in the Oak Room at the Algonquin Hotel. That was an inspiration.

Why did you decide to make the couple in the book, Larry and Iris, childless? That's not a detail based on your own life.

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If I'd given them a child, the novel would've been longer. And I wanted it to be a nice short read. An entertainment. Part of growing older is learning what to leave out and I left out the children because there is no way to treat a child as an incidental detail. I know this from my own life.

It almost seems like having a child might have spared Larry from behaving like one. Do you think parenthood is an easy way to grow up and learn life's lessons? Has it been that for you?

We all behave as children sometimes and it's shocking but there it is. You soldier along for weeks being the mature, modulated, reasonable, generous, industrious person you ought to be and then one day your heart cries out, "I want! Me! Love me!" And you lurch toward another child's toy and snatch it away. Daddyhood has taught me a lot, but it doesn't stifle the old boyish urges. I have this terrible childish urge to be a singer. It's an English major thing. So I spend an inordinate amount of time on it and sing in public, on a stage, in front of paying customers, and they can never love me enough, I need more more more. It's childish. People say lame things like, "Your singing has really improved," and I want to throw them to the floor and throttle them. Does this sound mature to you? No. Also, the urge to be slender and attractive is childish, is it not? This urge is strong in me at the moment. I am more vain about my looks than at any time since I was 15. You wouldn't know it by looking at me. But life goes on.

The book really tracks a relationship as it matures, culminating in the declaration, "I need you." Do you think admitting that you need another person is the sign of a healthy, mature relationship? If not, what do you think is the secret to a healthy, mature relationship?

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It's hard to know what one needs. We're survivors, we make do, if necessary we learn to live with a hole in our head, meanwhile we carry on baroque fantasy lives in which we're showered with pleasure and admiration, which we can get along very well without, thank you. A good relationship comes down to conversation and sex and good manners, I suppose. And if you can continue your conversation and your bawdiness and your good manners for more than 10 years, then you're doing awfully well. Conversation is the truest barometer in a relationship and when you're not moved to open your heart to your lover, something's wrong that needs fixing. We all know that. And yet it's a fabulous gift, true conversation. The world is so full of cant and rote and reflexive chatter, that good talk is pure gold, and it's what lovers need from each other.

Loyalty and fidelity come in handy for Larry as he gets old, but he hasn't much use for them as a young man. Are loyalty and faithfulness just for old people?

You don't see the beauty of longevity until you get into that neighborhood, kid. There is great contentedness in loyalty and how would you know until you get some mileage on you? But his loyalty to Iris is reawakened by the fact that she tells him a funny story. She has been such a relentless saint and a goddess of light and a liberal and then she hauls off and tells him a long story that delights him and her burst of comic energy astounds him and he sees her in a new light.

Where on earth did all that stuff about the New Yorker being owned by the Mafia come from? And have any of the famous writers who appear as characters in your book responded to your portrayal of them? If so, how? Were you concerned about how they'd react as you wrote? Are any of them actually buddies of yours?

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When I was at the magazine, its ownership and the whole business side was a dark mystery and we writers lived in childlike ignorance of what went on behind the door. This naturally made me curious: How did the rapacious Newhouse family maneuver the old genteel owners into selling to them? How did the greatest literary magazine in America wind up in the hands of the publishers of the Staten Island Advance? We had no idea. I still don't. So I invented a plausible story. A Mafioso wins the magazine in a poker game and uses it to promote the careers of Italian writers who Anglicize their names -- Brentano Guillermo becomes Brendan Gill and Paulina Coeli Pauline Kael and so forth. I asked Calvin Trillin, who's a friend of mine, if I could put him in my novel and he said, Sure. We were eating lunch in the Village. My 5-year-old daughter was there and will attest to his agreement. The other Famous Writers are either dead or so famous that they're public property, like Updike. Every English major in America for the past 40 years has envied Updike, so why not put him into a novel and punish him by making him a pale and rather minor character? Is this not revenge?

What was your experience writing for the New Yorker? Was it anything like Larry's?

No, I had a great time there and was well-treated and have the greatest admiration for Roger Angell and Charles McGrath, my old editors, both of whom have gone on to better things. I do think that my regard for the magazine bordered on idolatry for a time -- true of many others, too -- but it was a good place to be, among very kind and principled people, and then when Tina Brown was appointed editor, I left immediately, which is the best way to leave, and never looked back.

You also lived in New York for a while. Did you find it as heady yet alienating as it seems in "Love Me"?

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The city is intoxicating. No matter the season, no matter what mood you're in, New York has that power to lift your heart. (So do other places.) I can feel alienated from Minnesota sometimes because that's my home, but I'll always be a tourist in New York so alienation doesn't figure into it. Sometimes my feet hurt but alienation, no. Bryant Park is a gorgeous place that used to be a horror and to sit in this graceful public space and drink coffee on a summer morning is to feel hopeful about America and mankind. The reading room of the Public Library nearby. The Chinese spa in midtown where you sit in a steam room and pour cold water over yourself and then a powerful man pummels you and twists you like a pretzel. The Lincoln Plaza cinema. All those gorgeous little restaurants on side streets waiting to be discovered and appreciated. The Metropolitan Opera on nights when you indulge in the pre-curtain dinner at the mezzanine restaurant and see "Der Rosenkavalier" with Fleming and Graham and walk 30 blocks home in a daze of pleasure. Everyone has their own list.

Did you, like Larry, find solace in your role as Mr. Blue? Why?

I felt useful sometimes and that's good for a writer to feel, that it isn't just taking your ego for a walk, that you're maybe doing some good in the world. I worried about being harmful, but now and then felt I had told somebody a true thing that could be useful for them to know.

What was the hardest question you ever had to answer?

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The hardest question is, "Why am I not loved?" And "Why do I feel so bad?" Mr. Blue heard thousands of variations on those themes and tried to engage them in some useful and amusing way without simply saying, "Go see a shrink." That was Dear Abby's mantra. Or "Talk to your minister." She had great faith in doctors and clerics, that's for sure.

What was the funniest or weirdest question you were ever asked as Mr. Blue?

The question, "Should I quit my job and become a full-time writer?" when the question was badly written at great length.

Did you ever feel, as the book's Mr. Blue sometimes does, slightly overwhelmed by the weight of the responsibility for all these strangers relying on you for advice?

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No, because the readers of Salon.com are no fools, not even the troubled ones. They are responsible adults who will do as they see fit, regardless of what some humorist tells them. Or irregardless, as we like to say in St. Paul.

Where did the name Mr. Blue come from?

Out of my little head. It was meant to suggest that I had been around the block and gotten knocked down a few times and had a healthy sense of melancholy.

Did Mr. Blue, for you, take on his own persona, separate from your own? Or were his answers Garrison Keillor's through and through?

He was me and I was him and viva la compagnie.

Why did you want to be an advice columnist? Lord knows you weren't doing it for the money.

Salon asked me to write a political column and that seemed like much too much work and Amy Reiter already had the catty gossip beat that I coveted and so I chose the advice route because the readers do half your work for you.

What do you think Mr. Blue offered his readers that, say, Dear Abby or Ann Landers did not?

Their columns were terribly constricted by space, which is hard to understand. People love to read about other people's problems. Everybody knows this. But newspaper editors are complete dolts when it comes to understanding readers. We read because we love to, and newspaper editors edit the papers for people with serious reading disabilities. So Abby and Ann had to write postcards. Everything was shrunk. A few scant details and then some blithering generality. (Wake up and smell the coffee. Talk to your doctor. Let me know what happens, I care.) This is why magazines have a future, including online ones. This is why I subscribe to the New York Times -- because, unlike most local newspapers, it assumes that the reader is interested.

Why did you stop? Did you feel you'd said all you had to say?

Yes.

Do you miss it? Do you ever think of doing it again?

Yes. No.

If you could give me one piece of advice, what would it be?

Get outside more and take long walks. Much sadness is caused by lack of sunlight and exercise and visual stimulation.

"Love Me": Drawing on your experience as Mr. Blue and the questions you were asked, do you think all any of us really want, deep down, is to be loved?

No, we want to be rich, to be admired, to eat like a horse and be skinny as a snake, to have small children ask for our autographs, to be on terrific medications that make us calm and witty and sexy, to be able to give George Bush a piece of our minds, to sing Irving Berlin and Gershwin and Porter at the Oak Room and be described in the Times as "luminous," but in the absence of all that, it's enough to be loved.

P.S. I know you're on tour. Where are you writing to me from now?

Denver. The Magnolia Hotel. Room 1010. A couch opposite a fireplace, next to a lamp with a fake stone base. Outside, the sun is shining. It's 10:30 a.m.

And why do you prefer to do interviews via e-mail?

I talk so slow and I feel bad wasting the time of the interviewer who is sitting in a stupor wishing I were Johnny Depp. E-mail saves her a lot of time. She just rattles off a long list of standard questions like "And what projects are coming up for you?" and she doesn't have to spend the afternoon waiting for me to frame my response.

And what projects are coming up for you?

"A Prairie Home Companion" starts its new season Sept. 27. I'm working on a screenplay and trying to rewrite an opera and have begun a new novel that seems to be about tomatoes and an old lady who is devoted to growing them.


Amy Reiter

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