A Literary Life

For over three decades Marin resident Michael Krasny has been conducting interviews, both on the radio and in front of live audiences. Name almost any important cultural figure of the 20th and 21st centuries and he’s probably had them on Forum, his in-depth interview show on KQED. Politicians? Yep. Scientists? Right again. Movie stars, novelists and Nobel Prize winners? Ditto, ditto, ditto.

Over the course of his career he’s developed a reputation for being almost uncannily erudite on the wide-ranging subjects he covers, a perception he is quick to qualify. “I think of myself as a dilettante more than as someone who knows a lot,” he says. “But I like being curious about things and I’m like a black hole; I just absorb a lot.”

Through his interjections, comments and observations during interviews, listeners have come to know him a little. He’s funny. He’s smart. He’s patient (but he doesn’t suffer fools). And, above all, he’s profoundly interested. But there’s still a lot we don’t know. For whatever information we’ve managed to glean, there is much that remains private about the man whose voice has become such a fixture in the Bay Area.

With the publication of Off Mike: A Memoir of Talk Radio and Literary Life ($25, Stanford University Press), that has changed. Although the book is called a memoir and indeed contains many well-told chapters from Krasny’s life, it is also something more. It intersperses autobiography with descriptions of his most memorable literary interviews.

In this way, we continue to see Krasny through the lens of the ideas and people he finds most interesting. And the list is an impressive one: David Mamet, Joyce Carol Oates, August Wilson, Umberto Eco, Studs Terkel, Grace Paley—the names go on and on, a who’s who of important writers. “I started out thinking I was going to write an autobiographical novel,” Krasny says. “I had good, colorful material…but I found myself focusing on literature because it’s been such a focus in my life.”

What we find out first is that Krasny, as a young man, loved literature like other teenagers love baseball or pop stars. His idol was (and in many ways still is) the novelist Saul Bellow, author, most famously, of The Adventures of Augie March and Herzog. It was Bellow’s writing that inspired Krasny, who grew up in a working-class household in Cleveland, to try and become not only a man of letters, but also “a good boy, a mensch.”

This idea of finding a moral compass and allowing it to guide one’s life is woven throughout his book. “I wanted to write about myself,” he says, “but I wanted to infuse it with what I have tried to do with my life. I’ve tried to be a public servant—and I think working in public radio is part of that—and to be a good man. There is something in that that always felt right and ennobling to me.”

So was he nervous about coming out from behind the microphone and exposing a more personal side of himself? “I’m well aware that I’m a public figure,” he says from his Marin home. “I’m authentic on air, but we do have private selves and public selves. Some of what’s in there will surprise—maybe even shock—people. It [writing a memoir] is either a very courageous or a very stupid thing to do. I haven’t decided yet.”

Booksellers Recommend Their Favorite Political Books

Bill of Wrongs by Molly Ivins
($25, Random House)

“It’s just wonderful. She’s got this absolutely amazing way of being funny while she’s telling you something really horrible. The issue of the Bill of Rights was a burning issue for her throughout her whole life but ever since the George Bush presidency, she had become passionate about it. Her passion just pours through and her wit makes you keep going while you’re all riled up.”
—Sheryl Cotleur, Book Passage

The Shock Doctrine by Naomi Klein ($28, Metropolitan Books)
“Naomi Klein has written what is sure to be regarded as among the most compelling critiques of post–Cold War corporate globalization. She delivers a sharp and devastating riposte to the dogmatic conflation of free market capitalism with democracy—expressed most vocally by her implicit nemesis Thomas Friedman.”
—Stephen Bender, Green Apple Books and Music


The Local Type

La Suma de los Dias by Isabel Allende ($27, Rayo)
For those lucky enough to be able to read Spanish comes a new memoir (the title translates as “The Sum of the Days”) from Marin County favorite Isabel Allende. English-only readers shouldn’t despair: a translation is sure to appear soon.

Let the Northern Lights Erase Your Name by Vendela Vida ($14, Harper Perennial)
From the co-editor of the immensely imaginative and fun-to-read literary journal The Believer and author of the novel And Now You Can Go, a sensitive and dark novel about loss and identity. Set partly in Sweden’s Lapland, it’s “a darkly witty and galvanizing tale of one woman’s search for the truth about her parentage.”

It’s So You: 35 Women Write About Personal Expression Through Fashion and Style edited by Michelle Tea ($16, Seal Press)
It’s So You
explores the intersection between style and personal expression through lively essays by 35 female writers and artists, among them Jill Soloway, producer of Six Feet Under, who chops off her hair and then ponders her “hotness.” Local contributors include Beth Lisick, Laura Fraser and editor Michelle Tea.