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.
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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.

 

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James Lee Burke Interview

James Lee BurkeIf ever someone asks me “which author impressed you most?” the name James Lee Burke inevitably passes my lips.  In addition to Ray Bradbury and Clive Cussler, he has most influenced me to become a writer, too.  He is best known for his offbeat and moody mystery novels featuring a former police detective turned bait shop owner, Dave Robicheaux.  Many authors write mysteries, but this man has no peers.  I spoke with him via phone at his home in Montana a few years back.

JONATHAN LOWE: You’re in Montana now, where your novel Bitterroot was set.  I take it you’re what they call in Arizona a “snowbird?”

JAMES LEE BURKE: Well, I guess that’s fair to say. We live in Louisiana part of the year.

Lowe:  It is New Iberia or Lafayette, Louisiana where you go in the winter?

Burke:  New Iberia, now, which is a couple hours west of New Orleans.

Lowe:  What is your background. When did you start writing?

Burke:  A long time ago. I published my first story when I was 19, and my first novel back in the mid-1960s.  It was titled Half of Paradise. After college, and before Black Cherry Blues, I did a lot of other things to make money, and that included teaching, social work, driving a truck, and working in the Texas oil fields.

Lowe:  Where did your characters Dave Robicheaux and Billy Bob Holland come from?  You seem to be alternating point of view between those two in some of your books, much like you alternate between states yourself during the year.

Burke: Well, all the characters have been published in over twenty books now.  I think they all have the same origin, and are composite biographical characters, but have a reality of their own.  Like any writer, I draw from the subconscious.  The elements of myth, which comes from the unconscious, figures into it, and there are allusions from classical literature too.

Lowe:  You’re one of my personal favorite authors, and I can tell you why. It’s because you don’t use lazy clichés like “he screamed like a stuck pig,” something I read in a bestseller by another author who shall be nameless.

Burke: (laughs)

Lowe:  I also like it that you actually take the time to create images, making characters out of objects and settings. Just like John D. MacDonald did in the Travis McGee series. Who are your favorite authors, and who influenced you?

Burke: I’d have to say Ernest Hemingway, Flannery O’Connor, John Steinbeck, Thomas Wolfe, and Gerald Manley Hopkins, and William Faulkner.

Lowe: You’ve been compared to William Faulkner, who used stream-of-consciousness as a literary device.

Burke:  Well, that’s an old method. The Sound and the Fury is one of the best books we have.

Lowe:  What do you think about the state of fiction today?  I’m pretty disappointed with the serial killer sub-genre.  I don’t want to know who-dun-it, but rather why they did it. Get the feeling you’re the same, true?

Burke:  I feel that the psychological story as narrative art is what interests me. Hemingway did it well, and you can spend a lifetime learning it.

Lowe:  Will Patton is the perfect narrator for your own stories on audio. He’s got the accents down, but more than that, the attitudes of the characters. Very believable.

Burke:  He’s done a very good job, and also Mark Hammer on the unabridged. They’re both excellent as narrators.

Lowe:  My favorite book of yours is Sunset Limited, I’m not sure why. The last CD of that one contains some of the best writing I’ve ever heard.

Burke:  Thank you.

Lowe:  Do you have a favorite?  I suppose you have to say it’s your latest, in answer to that question, though, right?

Burke:  Well, actually, my favorite is Purple Cane Road. Everything came together on that one.

Lowe:  Thank you for that. It’s a great novel as well.  Very personal and also a culmination of redemption for its first person point of view character.  What about Bitterroot?

Burke:  Well, it’s set in Montana, about a former Texas lawman who helps a friend in trouble and then runs into a prison parolee who’s out for revenge. That’s the overview, anyway.

Lowe:  What was your Hollywood experience like?  I loved your movie Heaven’s Prisoners, which starred Alec Baldwin.

Burke:  Yes, it was adapted, and my experience on that was really good. Everyone on the creative team very vibrant.  Of course in Hollywood it’s all a matter of money.  If you have a hundred million for the budget, you can take anything and make it look good.  It doesn’t take much to be a producer, either, besides knowing how to write a gaudy bill.  You just get you director Michael Mann and screenwriter Joe Esterhaus, and you’re off to the races! (laughs)

Lowe:  So is there another movie in the future, do you think, based on another book?

Burke:  I don’t know, I kinda stay away from that.

Lowe:  Do you work all the time, or just part of the year? A book a year, or more?

Burke:  Oh, I work all the time. I work every day, seven days a week.  It’s what I do. Been at it for a long, long time. 

Download his novels on audio HERE.