Garrison Keillor Interview

Garrison KeillorGarrison Keillor may seem, to some, a throwback to the age of Ozzie & Harriet or Leave It to Beaver. But if you’ve never heard A Prairie Home Companion you’ve missed out on a true slice of Americana. With his traveling road show, still heard every week on NPR, Keillor brings his quirky characters to life on the stage, and all of them are funnier than the folks you find these days at your typical suburban shopping mall.

JONATHAN LOWE: You have an association with Minnesota Public Radio and with Highbridge Audio, and you often tour the country with your radio show, besides teaching at the University of Minnesota. What gives you most satisfaction–writing, performing, or teaching?
GARRISON KEILLOR: I don’t associate work with feelings of satisfaction. Rather, guilt, frustration, and resentment of people who write better than I do. Writing is the main gig around here, and teaching and performing are sidelines, an excuse for not writing more. Working on a novel and on an opera make me seriously want to retire and find a volunteer job as a docent at the zoo explaining to schoolchildren where frogs go in the winter.
Q: What inspired you to begin this journey? Who influenced you?
A: I was inspired by the need, as an English major, to earn a living in the world and to pay the rent and purchase coffee and cheese danish. I spent most of the 60s in college, imagining I was brilliant, and then, in 1969, my son was born and I had to find work that someone would be willing to pay me to do, and the choices were limited in the extreme. Fortunately, I caught on as a DeeJay in public radio and I’ve clung to this raft ever since. My last job interview was in 1969. I will never write another resume. This is my earnest prayer.
Q: In your novel Lake Wobegon Summer 1956 you mention a lady who hypnotizes chickens before chopping their heads off. Then there’s the Doo Dads singing “My Girl” while repressed 14 year old Gary tries to both indulge and conquer his adolescent urges. With all the description and depiction going on, your town of Lake Wobegon really comes to life, and has people asking you if the place really exists. Do you see that question as a compliment or a nuisance?
A: Nothing that readers say or do strikes me as a nuisance. Anyone who cracks open a book of mine is, to me, a gem. And I am impressed that you know about the chicken hypnotizer and the Doo Dads and the boy’s adolescent urges. Most interviewers don’t have time to read my books. They ask questions like “What’s your favorite TV show?” or “What’s it like to be your age and know that the twilight years are near?” As for Lake Wobegon, it’s a real place, so the question is easily answered.
Q: You live in St. Paul, in the land of 10,000 oft-frozen lakes. I was born there, but haven’t been back since age six. How has the area changed, and is the longing for simplicity and family values more alive there than elsewhere?
A: In the time since you left, son, Minnesota hasn’t changed all that much, except the Twins won the World Series twice, and we elected an irate oaf for a governor, and a lot of farms have been lost to housing developments with names like Woodlawn and Riverwood and Floodcrest. I don’t detect a longing for simplicity so much as a longing for a 28 hour day. People are ferociously busy, and it’s taken a toll on all the leisurely arts, such as friendship and humor and good samaritanship. There isn’t time for it. As for family values, they are whatever they are–some families are tight, others are blown away like dandelion puffs. A main value in Minnesota is still: don’t waste my time, don’t B.S. me, I wasn’t born yesterday.
Q: What is audience reaction to your shows and signings? Any anecdotes to share?
A: I did a reading in Seattle a which a little girl in the front row fell sound asleep. She slept for more than an hour. It was sweet. I seem to have a God-given ability there. Some people in the room were hooting and slapping their knees, and she simply leaned her head against the fat lady next to her and dozed off. It’s good to be useful. A boy wrote me once to say that he loved it when the news from Lake Wobegon came on the radio because it meant that his parents stopped arguing. That was an eye-opener for me. You work hard to polish your act and then you find out that it does people good in ways you couldn’t predict. The audience is invisible and that’s good. Somewhere my voice is drifting through a swine barn and the sound of it seems to perk up the sows’ appetite. Or a lady is listening on headphones as she jogs along a beach, running to my cadence. Or a dog sits in front of the radio, head cocked, and the sibilants excite him in some mysterious way. A dog’s humorist, that’s me.
Q: Your guests are an eclectic mix of musicians and storytellers. Who are you most proud of having had on the show, and who do you wish would appear or come back?
A: Chet Atkins was a classy act. Nobody like him. The man never had a bad night. And Willie Nelson. A great musician, very underrated. Bogan, Martin, and Armstrong were great, an old black string band from Knoxville. And Emmylou Harris and Gilliian Welch and the Fairfield Four. And the Mormon Tabernacle Choir. When they left, at the intermission, the hall was suddenly half empty. I wish Willie would come back, but then I also wish I were 36, so what can you do?
Q: On the show you also have comedy radio drama skits and fake commercials. Are those items advertised ever real?
A: They’re all real, actually. Bertha’s Kitty Boutique, and the American Duct Tape Council, and Bebopareebop Rhubarb pie, and Powdermilk Biscuits. And if you’d like to buy a few shares of stock, see me.
Q: What does Garrison Keillor do during off hours, if there is such a thing as off hours for you?
A: Sleeps, cooks, reads, plays with the kid, goes to movies, shovels snow, sits and yaks with friends. I’m a lucky guy. I get to sit around every day and indulge in make believe and get paid for it.
Q: What’s next for you?
A: A show on Saturday. Look forward to it.
(Note: this coming season will be Garrison’s last on the radio, after more than 40 years.)

Sports books

Advertisements

David Baldacci Interview

David Baldacci

David Baldacci has sold many millions of copies of his novels in 35 languages. A former lawyer, he lives in his native Virginia with his wife and children.  This interview dates from several years ago.  I’m migrating my author interviews away from Tower Review, which will be primarily satire and humor audiobooks.  For other interviews, go here.

JONATHAN LOWE: To get right into it, mystery writer Dennis LeHane said that he starts with characters, sets them in conflict, and lets them work out the plot. Do you start with an outline, yourself, and if so, which comes first–the characters or the action?

DAVID BALDACCI: I’ve done it both ways. Had some novels where I’ve started with characters, and built the plot around them. Other times I’ve come up with an interesting plot, and constructed characters to inhabit that story. That said, you can have a great plot, but if the characters are cardboard, and the reader doesn’t care what happens to them, even the greatest plot in the world won’t hold their attention.

JL: How much of the writing is discovery for you, then, and do you know the ending when you begin?

DB: I hardly ever know the ending when I begin. I’m not smart enough to know everything that’s going to happen. Some writers have very elaborate outlines, and they don’t deviate from that. It’s an evolutionary process for me. As I research a subject, new subplots and ideas occur to me. I may not know what characters are capable of in the first hundred pages, and so this dictates future action.

JL: I know what you mean, although I also know some writers who start with the ending and work backward, not knowing how they’re going to get there. It’s more fun not knowing, in any case, isn’t it?

DB: Oh, it is. I mean, I don’t want to sit down and say, ‘okay, today I’m going to be writing section two, subparagraph nine…’ (Laughs)

JL: I’ve read that you like trains, and you wrote “The Christmas Train.” What trips have you taken on trains, and what inspired that book, specifically?

DB: Well, I took a trip across the country which was documented in that book in a fictional sense. The Capitol Limited, Washington to Chicago, then to L.A. on the Southwest Chief. You know, I grew up reading the Sherlock Holmes, the Hercule Poirots, the Jane Marples of the world, and they used trains and seemed mysterious and also enlightening. It’s a great place to people watch. I’ve also taken trains in Europe, across Italy, France, Germany. . . Most of the time I have to fly just because of the demands of time, but love taking trains, and I’ve written so much on trains, just sitting in your compartment, the lights flashing by, the darkness outside. It’s the perfect atmosphere to write.

JL: I wonder if you’ve read “Strangers on a Train” by Patricia Highsmith, and what other writers have influenced you.

DB: I actually enjoy Patricia Highsmith’s work. She is quite dark and compelling, and also unpredictable. That type of genre appeals to me. I like mysteries that break outside the normal rules. Other writers, John Irving, Anne Tyler, Eudora Welty, Flannery O’Connor, John Updike. Updike deals with many generations of people, as does Irving. Any writer can be influential, depending on what you’re reading them for.

JL: How are the movie and TV projects coming along?

DB: “Absolute Power” as a movie did very well. I’ve got a couple other books in development. “The Winner” for a feature film, and “Saving Faith” for television. They’re looking at “The Christmas Train” and “Wish You Well” for TV as well. But it’s tough, you’ve got seventy different factors out there competing.

JL: Screenwriting is very different from novel writing, isn’t it?

DB: It is. Different questions are asked, and there’s a different discipline involved. I’ve sold a number of screenplays, none produced yet, but I worked with producers at studios, where everybody has input, you know, depending on what day it is, and what angle they want you to take. And so you have to know your marks. I’ve sat in offices with six people on the other side, just firing questions. And it helped me, in a way, because it made me think out things a little better. In a script, if you don’t think things out, at some point they start asking questions, and it becomes a long afternoon.

JL: Here’s a question a movie producer might ask. Can you describe your new novel “Split Second” in one sentence?

DB: (Laughs) Boy, did I get that one a lot! I’ve had so many pitches where they say, ‘now if you can say it in one sentence…’

JL: Exactly.

DB: Split Second is a novel of redemption and second chances for two different agents. That’s it, essentially. Most of us don’t get that second chance to rectify something, and instead we brood about it, and wonder what we would do if we had a second chance.

JL: Do you listen to your audiobooks, and what do you think of the medium?

DB: I do, and it’s an exploding medium. It’s amazing, the number of audiobooks that are sold now. More and more people these days are popping them in their cars while commuting. People don’t want to carry books around, and would rather listen to them while they’re doing something else.

JL: Plus they don’t have time.

DB: Right, they really don’t have time to sit down with a book, but if they can do something else too, that’s a great thing. Just looking at the numbers of my books, it’s extraordinary the increases over the years. I enjoy them. I remember listening to Ron McLarty reading “Last Man Standing,” actually while on a train, and he’s like this diminutive Irish character actor you see all the time, but when he did the voice of this big villain, I couldn’t believe it. It was like the guy was right in the train with me! I wrote him a letter, and said, “my God, you just nailed that character!” He did that voice so effectively.

JL: Some of his female characters are just uncanny, too. You start to wonder. . . there’s gotta be somebody else in the studio. . . some woman there doing this!

DB: (Laughs) I know, it’s talent. I certainly can’t do it.

JL: Literacy is one of your charities. I’m wondering how much TV you let your kids watch, and how parents can get their kids to read more.

DB: Our kids don’t watch much TV. We’re very strict about that. No video games in our house, just a computer where we let them go to specific sites while we’re there. We read to each other instead, and make it a family affair, even making up stories sometimes. Often we’ll read a story, come to the end, and I’ll close the book and say, ‘what did you think of that ending?’ Then we’ll discuss alternative endings, and why an author did it the way he or she did. Kids want to be creative, use their imaginations.

JL: And if you’re just watching TV, everything is given to you, so you can’t picture things in your own mind.

DB: Right, it’s totally passive. I gave my daughter a journal, and told her she could write anything she wanted in there, drawings included. And if she wants to show me anything, we’ll discuss it. Our kids are outside playing, too, coming up with things on their own, as opposed to just clicking on a Game Boy. And what we’re doing is paying off. Our kids are bright, imaginative, they play well, and come up with interesting stuff. I’m convinced it’s because they don’t sit in front of the television.

Clive Cussler Interview

Clive CusslerNever met Clive Cussler in person, but I did send him a fan letter back in the early 90s when I was struggling on a conventional typewriter, and he answered the letter, along with a few more I wrote with writing samples. Then he agreed to read my first novel, gave me an endorsement on it as “powerful and accomplished, mystery at its best,” and finally later I got a phone call from him on an interview request.  This is the transcript.  Cussler and his crew of volunteers have discovered more than 60 historically significant underwater wreck sites.  Owner of a fleet of classic cars, Clive divides his time between Colorado and Arizona. Among his many books are GHOST SHIP, NIGHTHAWK, SACRED STONE, DEVIL’S GATE, ODESSA SEA…most written alone, some with his son Dirk or co-authors.

JONATHAN LOWE: You have a degree in maritime history, yet you worked in advertising, then in a dive shop on a lark, where you started writing. This was what, the mid-60s?

CLIVE CUSSLER: Yes, that would have been the mid-60s. But I got the degree, though, in 1999 or 2000. Sometime around then.

JL: How long had you been diving before NUMA?

CC: Started diving when I was in the Air Force. We were in Hickam Field in Hawaii for a while in 1951, and my friend Don Spencer and I sent for a dive tank and regulator from Cousteau in France, who’d started manufacturing them. I think we might have had the first tank in Hawaii, and I remember we went into the hanger and filled it up with a couple hundred pounds of stale air out of a compressor, and just ran into the water. So I would have started diving in 51.

JL: Finding lost shipwrecks isn’t easy, is it?

CC: Oh, no. Sometimes you get lucky, but I would say most of the time it’s difficult. The ghost ship Marie Celeste, we found that in the first hour. The Civil War submarine Hunley took me fifteen years.

JL: Is it the location that makes it difficult? Do the wrecks shift or drift?

CC: No, it’s just that the records aren’t good. I always give the example that, say, a plane crashed in your neighborhood. . . you could come back in two hundred years to find that site, but of course everything has changed, and you don’t know where to begin. Maybe they gave you a street, but maybe the streets not there. And they didn’t say it crashed two hundred yards from the old rock, you know? So you can see how difficult it is to find the exact spot. That’s the same way it is with shipwrecks. Nobody puts a big marker up and says here it is. So when you come by later, there’s no GPS coordinates.

JL: Like in the story The Gold Bug by Poe, where they drop the line through the skull to find the treasure.

CC: Yes, but even then they had a ball park.

JL: How many expeditions have you mounted by now?

CC: Oh my, there must be a hundred or more.

JL: The two Sea Hunters books outline some amazing successes, like the Hunley, Carpathia, Marie Celeste. Is there a ship still out there that beckons you, though, or still nags at you?

CC: For sure. John Paul Jones, the Bon Homme Richard. I tried for that four times, haven’t found it yet.

JL: Where did that sink?

CC: In the North Sea off Yorkshire.

JL: How goes SEA HUNTERS TV series? Will it air here?

CC: I don’t know. It’s under National Geographic, and airs internationally. What’s so funny with Geographic, I narrate the program overseas, but here they run a few of them under Mysteries of the Sea or something, and I’m cut out of it. (laughs)

JL: So you don’t know what’s going on?

CC: Well, somebody told me, and I don’t know how true it is, but they didn’t want to upset Bob Ballard, who found the Titanic.

JL: Your novels have been wildly successful, I think, due as much to the research behind them as the pacing and characters. Are you doing research for some lost shipwreck when it occurs to you that Dirk Pitt might wade in?

CC: Not really. I haven’t really combined the two. I had Pitt looking for a Pharaohs barge in the Nile one time, but we really haven’t crossed paths. I don’t know why. I think it’s just because the storyline doesn’t work as far as following anything I’ve done.

JL: Are there any more Pitt adventures in the works?

CC: Yes, I’m about two thirds through the next one.

JL: Really? I thought you were just continuing with Kurt Austin.

CC: No, those are just spinoff series. I come up with most of the plotting and they’ll start the writing, and I’ll edit, that sort of thing.

JL: So you switch off with Craig Dirgo and others.

CC: Right. Together we just finished a fiction book which has nothing to do with NUMA or Pitt or anything. In one book, Flood Tide, I had this ship that looked like an old beat up tramp steamer, had all the exotic gear, and people who ran it were like corporate mercenaries, they go around the world, like a Mission Impossible plot.

JL: Where did the name Dirk Pitt come from?

CC: My son’s name. He was six months old when I started writing. His name is Dirk, and I used it for fun, really. I was looking through an encyclopedia about the British prime ministers during the Revolutionary war, Pitt the younger and Pitt the elder. So I thought, well, that works, because I wanted a one syllable name.

JL: I was thinking, you know, like one letter less than James Bond, and easier to type than Brandon Tartikoff or something.

CC: (laughs) Well, that’s it. It’s easier to say Pitt jumped over the wall than that. I think that’s why Fleming wanted a simple name. James Bond. There was an ornithologist by that name too.

JL: What does your writing schedule look like these days? Do you work nonstop on a project?

CC: Pretty much, but I get so many interruptions. I mean, an expedition, or I have to go out to L.A. to fight over the screenplay or the movie. Or I have to speak here. There’s always something. But I try to work nine to six. Some nights now too.

JL: You know what would be great is a full cast and sound audiobook of a Pitt or Austin book.

CC: Yes, it would.

JL: Most big publishers don’t have the time to spend on productions like that, though.

CC: No, they don’t. Usually it’s just a guy sits there and reads.

JL: Do you ever get fan mail from people about your audiobooks?

CC: Yes, I do.

JL: Have you ever been on the Tonight Show? Leno’s a car buff.

CC: No, I never have, but I remember I talked to him at Pebble Beach one time and I asked him: “How come you don’t have more cars on the show?” And he said he had Carroll Shelby on one time, and the audience just had no connection with him. So producers got after him, and other than a brief bit with him in a car now and then, that’s about it.

JL: Who are your own favorite authors?

CC: When I started out the one I leaned on the most was Alister McLean. And then Hammond Innes, in his eighties now and still writing. I like Nelson DeMille. But I don’t have time to read. I had lunch one time with James Michener, and just for fun I said, “Have you read any good books lately, Jim?” And he laughed and said “I don’t read,” then clarified it by saying he doesn’t read fiction because he’s always working. I’m pretty much the same way. About the only fiction books I’ll read is like in your case, try to help a new author with a quote. I gave a quote for The Hunt for Red October for Clancy.

JL: Really? Clancy? That’s amazing.

CC: If you ever find an original, those things sell for about a thousand bucks. And then there’s Stephen Coonts, for Flight of the Intruder. Tells you how long I’ve been around, doesn’t it?