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Lake Wobe-gone: Garrison Keillor contemplates future as he steps away from ‘Prairie Home’

Garrison Keillor, creator and host of “A Prairie Home Companion,” in an interview by the Associated Press, Monday, July 20, 2015, in St. Paul, Minn. He’s taking the show on the road for his last time, and will stop in Spokane this weekend. (Jim Mone / Associated Press)
Garrison Keillor, creator and host of “A Prairie Home Companion,” in an interview by the Associated Press, Monday, July 20, 2015, in St. Paul, Minn. He’s taking the show on the road for his last time, and will stop in Spokane this weekend. (Jim Mone / Associated Press)
By Tom Keogh Seattle Times

“When people hear you’re going to retire, they tell you you’ll be busier than ever,” Garrison Keillor said earlier this year on a broadcast of “A Prairie Home Companion,” the public-radio show he’s been hosting for 42 years. “What they mean is you’ll be learning to make useful things out of clothes hangers and attending diabetes luncheons.”

Keillor, 73, has more ambitious plans for life after he leaves “Prairie Home” in July. Before that happens, he has a packed schedule of live performances with the show on a final U.S. tour, which comes to the INB Performing Arts Center in Spokane on Saturday.

Hanging over the show will be a gloomy awareness that four decades after Keillor hosted the first live broadcast of “Prairie Home” from St. Paul, Minnesota, he is moving on to long-delayed writing projects that will significantly reduce his time in the public eye – and ear.

“I’m in the midst of writing a memoir that is racing ahead,” Keillor wrote in an email interview. “I’m up to age 12 when my cousin drowned and I was sent to swim class, but instead went to the public library and a radio station in downtown Minneapolis where musicians played in front of a studio audience. It was my first big disobedience, and I took a sharp turn toward what I’d wind up doing in adult life.”

Keillor has also written a Lake Wobegon movie called “Homecoming.”

“Some people are interested in making it,” he wrote, “but first I need to go back and whack it around a little. I’d love to resume writing a weekly newspaper column. All of which I can do anywhere, in secret, with few deadlines.”

Keillor began writing for an Anoka, Minnesota, newspaper while still in high school, reporting sports stories with a descriptive, conversational flair under the byline “Gary Keillor.” His radio career took off in 1969 when he hosted a drive-time program on Minnesota Public Radio.

A year later, the New Yorker published Keillor’s first short story, “Local Family Keeps Son Happy,” about small-town parents who find a young sex worker to be a live-in companion for their 16-year-old son. The twin tracks of his fledgling career – writing and radio – converged in 1972 with “Prairie Home,” a variety show (with 4 million national listeners) driven by Keillor’s sketches, satirical observations and musical guests.

Chris Thile, a mandolin player who performs with bands Nickel Creek and Punch Brothers, will replace Keillor as the host of “Prairie Home.” A frequent guest on “Prairie Home,” Thile often participates in sketches, but he is primarily a musician and not a storyteller or gag writer.

“I haven’t talked with Chris about his plans,” Keillor wrote. “He has a free hand as far as I’m concerned. I’m not looking over his shoulder. I always ran my own show and he should have the same opportunity.”

In 2007, Keillor got himself in trouble over one of his satirical Salon columns that described gay parents as “sardonic fellows with fussy hair who live in overdecorated apartments with a striped sofa and a small weird dog and who worship campy performers.” The column was in the tradition of his self-consciously cranky “Prairie Home” character but drew backlash from columnists like Dan Savage and Andrew Sullivan.

If he could go back in time and talk to himself before he sat down to write that column, what would he say?

“I’ve completely forgotten the whole episode,” Keillor wrote. “As a serial monogamist, I have no moral standing to point the finger at anyone, and in the past eight years, being gay has become as unremarkable as having brown eyes.”

And how, in his opinion, has America changed since “Prairie Home” began? “I grew up in a country where racism was openly tolerated, where women were clearly subservient, where jingoism was blatant and open,” he wrote. “What I see around me is a people who are kinder, more various, more knowledgeable than when I was young.”

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