WE GOT on the phone the other day to Minnesota and sprayed various sorts of questions at Garrison Keillor, whose Lake Wobegon Days (Viking) was reviewed in Book World last week (Sept. 1). This is the very same Mr. K. who is the star of American Public Radio's A Prairie Home Companion and who will be giving a reading to benefit station WETA at the Lisner Auditorium at George Washington University on Sept. 17.
Book Report: How are the people in Lake Wobegon taking the book?
Keillor: Well, it hasn't arrived yet. Lake Wobegon has no bookstore . . . and it's a long way to the nearest one. And the public library is a little slow to stock things. They just got in James Michener's book of two books ago . . . what's the name of it?. . . Czechoslovakia? . . . Or was that one Australia? Anyway, it's a big thick thing, big enough to be a door stop, even if the door has a powerful spring. Incredible.
Book Report: You went to the University of Minnesota in the 1960s and majored in English. What was it like then?
Keillor: I wasn't planning on going to college, but the university accepts all high school graduates above a certain line, so I drifted along there. It was an immense campus. There were blacks . . . and Jews . . . and Pakistanis and Indians who used to come over for graduate work. Pretty exotic for a boy from Lake Wobegon. It was like going to the big city. . . . Allen Tate was teaching writing. A courtly man, and generous. I took a course with him. In fact, the English department was filled with old Southern gentlemen, scholarly men whom I admired a great deal, though I didn't do all that well in their courses. There was a literary magazine called Ivory Tower and we all aspired to be in it. Eventually, a while later, I became the editor. In those days, the girls on campus wore no makeup at all, but that was all right with me. I'd grown up back in Lake Wobegon knowing hardly any girls but Plymouth Brethren girls, and they never had any makeup. I don't think I could ever kiss a woman with lipstick.
Book Report: Did the people in Lake Wobegon vote for Mondale?
Keillor: The German Catholics tend to be Democrats and the Norwegian Lutherans tend to be Republicans. But the Democratic Party has been so disastrous over the past 10 years that a lot of people have been moving to the Republicans. But most everybody secretly did vote for Mondale. When he got to the end of the campaign, and things looked so disastrous for him, they thought it would be a terrible shame for a native son to lose his own state. So out of loyalty, and against their principles, they voted for Mondale. They put loyalty ahead of what is right. . . Its something I do myself. . . It's the lesso of Huck Finn, isn't it? Tusitala Inc.
IT SHOULD BE a rags-to-riches story but it really isn't. What with hardback and paperback sales in a variety of countries, Anthony Hyde, a Canadian novelist, has already been guaranteed a million dollars for his first book. Called The Red Fox, it is a thriller set in Toronto, Paris and Leningrad, among other places. It is being published imminently by Knopf.
"No rags, I'm afraid," said Hyde, who does his writing in a half-renovated house in Ottawa. "My wife has a rather good job with the Canadian government, in the Treasury Board, and she has been supporting me in fine style for several years while I've been writing."
Hyde is not really sure how much money is involved in his various book deals, which are being handled by his agent, Lucinda Vardey of Toronto. "There are so many countries involved," he said, "that the total changes with every twitch of the currency markets."
Will the big bucks change his life?
"Money is like sex. When you don't have it, it's very important. When you do, it's less important. I'm 39. I couldn't really change all that much if I wanted to. The biggest thing is that I am now a corporation -- more correctly president of Tusitala Inc. The name means "teller of tales," I think in Samoan. Robert Louis Stevenson ended up in the South Pacific towards the end of his life and that was the name the natives gave him. I first incorporated under a number -- X1234 or something. But there was a scandal here about a politician and a numbered corporation so my lawyer said to get a name. For some reason, Tusitala leapt to my tongue." On the Margin
WATCH FOR big changes in the Kremlin. Mary D. Gubser, the relentless 70-year-old from Tulsa, Oklahoma and author of America's Bread Book (Morrow), is visiting Russia, ostensibly continuing her appointed mission of collecting old and endangered bread recipes. We -- and probably the KGB -- suspect that this is only a cover. Her itinerary carries her suspiciously close to several missile bases. More later, when Mary D. returns and we debrief her. . . . The first copy of Louis L'Amour's Passin' Through (Bantam), an original paperback novel, has been sent off to L'Amour's best-known fan, Ronald Reagan. All this while L'Amour's previous novel, Jubal Sackett, is still moseying along on the hardback best-seller list. L'Amour record-keepers will tell you that Passin' Through is his 93rd book, 92 of them novels. There is much chop-licking at Bantam regarding a contemporary thriller by L'Amour, much of it set in Siberia, which is due next spring. . . . Collectors of Erma Bombeck first editions will want to know that her entire oeuvre -- The Grass Is Always Greener Over the Septic Tank, If Life Is a Bowl of Cherries, What Am I Doing in the Pits?, Aunt Erma's Cope Book and Motherhood: The Second Oldest Profession -- is bein brought together in a single volume called 4 of a Kind, to be issued this fall by McGraw-Hill. It will weigh slightly more than Erma herself. Incidentally, if one were to translate the French title of If Life Is a Bowl of etc. back into English, it would read If Life Is a Garden of Roses, What Am I Doing in the Potatoes?