My Job Interview with Garrison Keillor

There’s been a lot of media coverage of Garrison Keillor’s comments on retirement this week, so it seemed like a good time to share my Keillor story. I started listening to him in seventh grade or so. That was back when he still did a morning show during the week in addition to the Saturday broadcast of A Prairie Home Companion. I would set my alarm earlier so I’d get to listen to more of the morning show before going to school, and I rarely missed a Saturday broadcast. I was a big fan of his radio shows and his books.

Flash forward to July 2003. I responded to an ad in the paper for a comedy writer job for Minnesota Public Radio. I sent in some writing samples. The response made clear what the ad did not: this wasn’t just any comedy writer position, this was a staff writing job for Prairie Home Companion. Holy crap. I’d been listening to the show for well over twenty years. Next I was asked to write a fake commercial spot for the show. I could use one of their faux sponsors or one of my own. I created my own: the Philosophy Advisory Board. A few days after I sent in the script, I got an email from Garrison Keillor.

Did I mention holy crap? Keillor said my sketch “was funny and brisk and smart and all the things we’re looking for.” Wow. I felt like I had this job in the bag, my ship had come in, I was being called up to the show. We arranged for an interview. The day came and I was pretty freaking nervous. I went to the studio and Keillor wasn’t there. There’d been a mix-up with his schedule and he thought I wouldn’t be there for another hour. The extra time waiting actually helped me calm down because the receptionist chatted with me the whole time. Finally the man himself came in, apologized for being late, and led me deeper into the offices. We stopped in a break room to get a drink. He offered coffee or water, I asked for water. He went into the fridge to grab a bottle and couldn’t find one. He leaned further in. It seemed like the entire upper half of his body disappeared inside the appliance, and he’s a tall guy. I’m watching him root around in there, thinking, “Garrison Keillor is getting me a bottle of water.” I felt like giggling. He finally gave up and asked if tap water was all right, so I got a mug of water, he got some coffee, and we went into his office, which was a bit cluttered. We sat and I went to put my mug down . . . and there was no open surface. I ended up using the mug to push aside some books just enough to make a space on the corner of his desk.

I had brought in my first published short story, “The Mailbox,” which had appeared in Minnesota Monthly, the Minnesota Public Radio magazine. I handed over the magazine and he immediately opened it and started reading the story. He flipped through the pages, stopping here and there to read. After awhile he looked up and said that it reminded him a bit of Raymond Carver, and asked if that’s what I’d been going for. In my head I was saying, “Actually, I felt like I was being more like you when I wrote it,” but thought that might be a bit too much, true though it was. Instead I went with the equally truthful, “I had been reading a lot of Carver around that time, now that you mention it.” We talked a bit about Carver’s story collection Cathedral.

At this point the interview was going famously. I made him laugh a few times, he’d compared me to Carver . . . what could go wrong? I’ll tell you. In reality, I was a deer and the headlights were coming up fast. I was in the room with a guy I’d been a fan of for over half my life. And at the heart of it we were still a couple of shy Midwestern boys. Somewhere around the fifteen minute mark, something went south. Not sure what. But it got quiet. He wasn’t asking much. I was too freaked out to try to re-energize the situation. What I really needed was some good old Powdermilk Biscuits, which give shy people the power to get up and do what needs to be done, but I didn’t have them. I sat there thinking, “This has run off the rails, what can I do?”

There was nothing I was able to do, and the interview wandered along for a while longer, we talked about various openings on the staff, and then he walked me out, telling me to send in some ideas for the website and he’d get back to me. But deep down I knew he was just being polite. I’d missed my ship. It was an enormous blow, and particularly galling given I’d nailed that script. I couldn’t listen to the show for about two years after that. But a few months after the interview I got a job as a copyeditor for MBI, which, with some promotions and buyouts, is still the place I work. I frequently listen to the show on Saturdays, and my daughter Ella is a huge fan, and thinks it’s wild that I interviewed with the guy on the radio and sat in his office with him . . . and so do I.


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