Garrison Keillor is speaking from his St. Paul office on the west side of the city, "a stone's throw from the Mississippi," which sounds alluring, except that he doesn't have a view of the water. In fact, he says, "I avoid a nice view." The office has "just one small window, and it's covered with Venetian blinds, and it looks off into some bushes."
His voice is warm, his pace hypnotic, his semantics precise. Asked about his permanent residence, he chuckles and points out, "Well, who knows what's permanent? We're all avoiding the permanent home for as long as possible."
Keillor's style of speech seems rambling until you realize that if you lose concentration for one instant you may miss a flash of brillance in his effortless, extemporaneous narrative. Everything seems to slow. Sentences want to add clauses, periods become commas, funny words like "duck" and "apocryphal" crop up. It's a smile-inducing conversation, packed with droll observations with a twist.
Keillor, creator, host and visionary behind "A Prairie Home Companion," will bring his Summer Love Tour to Artpark at 7 p.m. Aug. 21.
He has visited Western New York several times, appearing at Shea's and Chautauqua Institution, and seen some of the sights. "Buffalo has a handsome downtown, as I recall," he says.
"It's a hardy band of people in Buffalo, they experience winter much more intensely than we do in Minnesota," Keillor says. "I was in Buffalo once and did a show at Shea's and stayed over to sign books, and a blizzard was forecast. I signed books and then I got in a cab and raced to the airport and I think I got on the last flight out of Buffalo before the deluge descended, we flew up out of the airport through about 10,000 feet of clouds, it was like coming up out of a mine shaft, and I sort of regretted not being caught in a blizzard in Buffalo. That's something on my list, I should do it."
Reminded that he once suggested Congress "would do better work if it moved to Buffalo," where "the honorables had to experience blizzards and snow-shoveling and cold weather, which stimulate intelligence -- SAT scores rise as you approach the Canadian border," Keillor listens carefully.
"I did say that, didn't I?" he muses -- and he still backs the concept. Harsh weather "just reminds you that your feet are on the ground and provides an intimate contact with reality. These summer nights in St. Paul are idyllic, and you are sort of floating, weightless, and it's very pleasant, and it's also not a good indicator of how to live like this the whole year round.
"We know that in a few weeks, maybe a month, we'll get a hard frost, and that will be a jolt, and it will be interesting, and then comes Indian summer, which is like having a big love affair after your first heart attack, and that's very dreamy, but it's brief, very brief, and then we settle down into winter, which is when we get our work done. Work is the key to the whole thing, and I'm not sure Congress has been apprised of this. They are interested in adversarial games."
Despite several trips here, Keillor hasn't ever seen Niagara Falls -- and there's a reason for that. During his childhood, "Niagara Falls figured prominently in gospel sermons out here in the flatlands," he says. "Preachers would tell a story, probably apocryphal, about someone in a boat on the river, falling asleep, then being awakened by the roar of the cataract, and this was a metaphor for the soul that isn't paying attention to what lies ahead. It was terrifying to me as a child."
This time, though, he may do a bit of sightseeing. But here, as in other places, despite his height and distinctive face, he is sure he will not be recognized.
"Oh, no, no, no. I'm in radio," he says. "I'm sometimes recognized by cabdrivers when I tell them where I want to go. They hear my voice. Evidently cabdrivers, there's a big public radio audience there. But no, I'm not recognized by sight. I'm sort of recognized when I walk out on stage, you know, and the light is focused on me. But other than that, no."
Accompanying Keillor on the monthlong tour, which started Friday, is actor, writer, musician and brilliant sound-effects man Fred Newman, whose work enhances every episode of "A Prairie Home Companion."
"Fred has a very intense, boyish curiosity about the sound of things," says Keillor. "Fred is very articulate with dog barks and ducks -- I mean, he's the most articulate person doing ducks and geese, and he makes dolphins almost human, and humpback whales."
Then Keillor plunges into a description of a sound and the meaning it evokes. Newman, he says, "does a used car making a left-hand turn, a car that has a problem in its differential, and it's a sound that people have heard in the past, but they don't remember that they've heard it, and when he makes it, you're in that car, you're in a car with car problems, and you're back at a time in your life when you didn't have much money, and this was a wounding experience, when you realize that you might have to pour $300 into this monster, and it's not worth it."
The third pillar of the Summer Love Tour is alto Heather Masse of the Juno Award-winning Canadian trio the Wailin' Jennys. "The show really has three elements, and I think love plays a part in all three of them," Keillor says. "First it's the News from Lake Wobegon, and I want that to center on love, love misbegotten and love remembered, and then of course I mess around with Fred and I think that's always better if there's some romance in it, two creatures are drawn powerfully, inexorably toward each other, a swan in love with a German shepherd is a story.
"And then I love to do love duets, stand up there with Heather Masse and do 'Unchained Melody' and 'All I Have to Do Is Dream.' That's my great pleasure in doing this show, singing duets with another person. I am much more interested in love than I am in satire."
As he thinks about the show, he begins to form an image of a skit he could do with Fred, playing off the possible Nik Wallenda tightrope walk over the Horseshoe Falls. "I am sure that Fred could do [the sound of] a cataract, and we could certainly have him walk on a cable. He could ride a bike on a cable, he could carry ducks on a steel bar over his shoulders, the ducks could be singing the Canadian national anthem, there could be some mishap, ducks sometimes excrete things that would fall on the cable and make it slippery and he would fall and he would grab hold of the cable, and then he'd lose hold of the cable and then the ducks would attempt to carry him and they would fly, and he would hang on to their legs.
"It's very, very doable," says Keillor, sounding happy.
Tickets to Garrison Keillor's Summer Love Tour, produced by Prairie Home Productions and presented by American Public Media, can be purchased at the Artpark box office, by calling 754-4375 or 1-(888)-223-6000, or online at www.artpark.net or www.tickets.com. Inside tickets are $55 or $46.50; lawn tickets are $27.50.