Author and humorist Garrison Keillor, 71, spoke with us by phone on Dec. 19 from Manhattan. The conversation included his memories of dancing to Norwegian Christmas carols at his home in Minnesota, his realization that he has never met a native Floridian and his upcoming visit to the Sunshine State ("An Evening With Garrison Keillor," 7 p.m. Jan. 12 at the David A. Straz Jr. Center for the Performing Arts in Tampa). Keillor, well-known for his National Public Radio program A Prairie Home Companion, has written more than 10 books and published work in the New Yorker. In 2006, he added independent bookstore owner to his resume by opening Common Good Books in St. Paul.
What's on your nightstand?
There's a wonderful biography on Norman Rockwell (American Mirror: The Life and Art of Norman Rockwell) by Deborah Solomon. I haven't thought too much about Norman Rockwell in a long time. The author does a beautiful job of rescuing a man who became something of a cliche and making him fresh again and pointing out what a true artist he was. He wasn't a commercial hack, and there was a great beauty and dedication there. I'm also reading a political biography, Ike and Dick: Portrait of a Strange Political Marriage by Jeffrey Frank. I was a kid in the 1950s when Nixon was vice president and Dwight Eisenhower was the president, so my view of them is very innocent. It's so intriguing to see this very objective biography, which has the advantage of access to papers that weren't always public. You see this complicated, difficult, testy relationship between two people who need each other.
What surprised you?
Richard Nixon was a more complicated person than his supporters or his detractors gave him credit for. He was very insecure. At the same time, he was idealistic. Democrats, and I'm a Democrat, thought of him as devious to the point of evil, and they could see no good in him, but in fact, he collected many of the ideals of his Quaker mother, and he truly believed in government as a force in goodness for civilization. He belonged to an older time.
What's your favorite work that you did with the New Yorker?
I loved writing Notes and Comment, the little pieces that appeared in the front. When I did them, they were unsigned, and I loved this, writing anonymously as a curious reporter walking around New York. That was my favorite, but I wrote humorous fiction that was my bread and butter. It was always fun when they bought the pieces. I raised my family on that.
Do you see it as pressure at times, to be known as a humorist?
Well, yes, but it's good pressure. People come to see you and they buy tickets, and they are not coming for you to give them investment advice. They are coming to be entertained. They want to be carried away from what was concerning them that morning. Being a comedian would be harder. A comedian is expected to make people laugh, and a humorist is a comedian in slow motion. You engage people with stories.
Early on, did you read humor that inspired you?
James Thurber, E.B. White, Robert Benchley and S.J. Perelman — all part of that generation of humorists who were working in the 1930s and 1940s — is what I read. The generation ahead of mine. When you read people when you are a teen, your heart is open, and you're very impressionable. Those are the writers who set me on a course. The writers you read when you're in your 20s don't affect you in the same way.
You're the ultimate Minnesotan. So, what's your perception of Floridians?
My parents lived in Orlando after my father retired from the post office, but when they got very old, they decided to come back and spend their lives in the house he built in Minnesota. Actually, I only know people, Northerners, who have moved to Florida after living somewhere else. I don't think I've ever met someone who was a native. I suppose I have yet to really discover the real Florida.
What's the most important offering you have in Common Good Books?
Books, of course. I want there to always be tables with books lying flat on their backs with covers up so that people can walk through and get an immediate impression of the enormous variety of books out there, and be able to wander through and pick things up and browse and page through them and hold them in their hands. I just think you get a sense from a physical book of whether it's a book you can fall in love with or not, and that's the book you want. The book that will hold onto you from the beginning on.
Times staff writer Piper Castillo can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.