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Michael’s Musings

A Biographer Reflects on Garrison Keillor's Retirement

A biographer reflects on Garrison Keillor’s retirement
By Michael Fedo | 07/29/16

During the last month I’ve frequently been asked to comment on Garrison Keillor retiring after more than four decades with National Public Radio’s “A Prairie Home Companion.” This isn’t surprising, since nearly 30 years ago I published an unauthorized biography of the Old Scout, titled “The Man From Lake Wobegon.”
“Well, it’s the end of an era,” I may respond, but questioners expect more. After all, he strongly opposed the biography, at first claiming it was an invasion of his privacy, then declaring the published book was poorly researched and dreadfully written. But that’s just his opinion; my dad thought it was terrific, and so did Mother’s cousin Jean, who as a teenager was published in The Atlantic.
Folks who remember the biography assume I was acquainted with Keillor, but I’ve never met the man, and my only communication with him was an exchange of letters when I announced my intention of writing his biography and requesting an interview, and his reply, a hand-written letter declining to participate, and informing me his friends wouldn’t either.
Met with silence
Soon I learned that "Prairie Home Companion" and Minnesota Public Radio employees were advised not to communicate with me. In addition, Keillor’s attorneys sent a letter to the superintendent of the Anoka-Hennepin school district where Keillor had been a student, which was disseminated to all employees, stating that Keillor did not approve of the proposed biography, emphasizing the invasion of privacy again — i.e., he was not a public person. I suppose I could be resentful, but I’m not. It was my first book with a New York publisher, and I was grateful for that opportunity.
However, the biography was not an author in search of a publisher, but the reverse. My then-agent had met with Thomas Dunne at St. Martin’s Press, who wondered if she had a client willing to write the biography.
I accepted the assignment for a modest advance, and set to work. I was, of course, disappointed that Keillor was unavailable for interviews, but as a neophyte biographer, I’d have given him the final edit had he requested it. I realized upon completing the manuscript, however, that would have meant the book would never have been published.
Then several months prior to the book’s release, when Keillor announced his resignation from "A Prairie Home Companion," he was simultaneously feuding with local media, making disparaging remarks about Minnesota. As the publication date neared, Keillor’s regional popularity had taken a hit, and many lost interest in the man who’d become an icon.
National appeal was underestimated
While the book’s 25,000 copy print run sold out — if remaindered copies count — sales did not meet expectations. St. Martin’s sales staff underestimated Keillor’s appeal around the country, assuming the Twin Cities would be the best market, and didn’t aggressively promote it elsewhere, though sales were strong in Nashville, where performers on "PHC," such as Chet Atkins were prominent.
I was a Keillor fan back then, and remained a follower of the program even after he put a fictitious me in his 1991 novel “WLT: A Radio Romance,” where a community college instructor (me) attempting to write an unauthorized biography of a radio celebrity is run down by a truck and left brain dead. I thought this odd because in the typical roman a clef, readers know who the target is. With relatively meager sales of the biography, hardly any readers of WLT knew who that was.
So one of America’s all-time favorite storytellers is leaving the airwaves, but not riding into the sunset. Perhaps his departure adds cash value to the letter he sent me in 1986, but that’s to be determined by folks who bid on eBay. Still, I wish Mr. Keillor well in whatever is his next incarnation. To sum up his career and my own assessment I refer to a quote by a character in one of screenwriter and film producer Ernest Lehman’s short stories: “He brung happiness to millions.” No minor accomplishment that, and a notable legacy.
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