Michael Krasny shared the Herbst Theater stage with Chilean novelist Isabel Allende earlier this week. It was one of those “Meet the Author” Q&A events typical for Krasny.
Only this time, there was a twist: Allende interviewed Krasny, not the other way around. This time Krasny, the celebrated San Francisco State University professor and host of KQED radio’s “Forum” was the author in question.
His new book, “Off Mike: A Memoir of Talk Radio and Literary Life,” is a little bit Rousseau, a little bit Anaïs Nin and a dash of Samuel Pepys. And if those autobiographers throw you for a literary loop, rest assured they wouldn’t to Krasny.
What Jane Goodall is to chimpanzees, Michael Krasny has been to writers: observer, chronicler and champion.
“I like to think it’s a universal story,” he says of his memoir. “Not just for writers, but for people who may have the wiring and may not have the perseverance. That’s part of my story.”
“Off Mike” includes scores of vignettes, each a reminiscence of a noted writer (many, perhaps not coincidentally, Jewish). They include everyone from Michael Chabon and Phillip Roth to Tom Stoppard, Larry David and Edward Albee. Oh, and Isabel Allende.
The vignettes read like diary entries, but Krasny had to go back to the sources to write them. “I wish I had been more of a diarist,” he says. “I did go back to the tapes and try to reconstruct my impressions.”
Krasny, though, is the star of his memoir. For someone who draws out others for a living, it turns out he had a hell of a ride himself. From a blue-collar upbringing in Cleveland, to baby boomer hedonism at the University of Wisconsin, to a revelatory discovery of literature and, ultimately, to becoming a fixture on Bay Area talk radio, Krasny’s narrative may surprise long-time fans.
“When you want to tell your story you can’t cherry-pick,” he says. “You have to be honest and forthcoming and almost reportorial. I did run with the wild boys, but I’m glad I turned into a mensch.”
Indeed, Krasny has long been openly, proudly Jewish, hosting countless literary and political events at local JCCs and other Jewish venues. He says his Jewishness has always influenced his life choices and remains an important part of who he is.
“In the world I grew up in, a sense of Jewishness was exceedingly strong,” he says. “I came out of a tradition with a tremendous emphasis on knowledge, learning, trying to live an ethical life.”
With so many Jewish interviewees over the years, Krasny has contemplated the contributions Jews have made to culture over the years.
“Jewish contributions are enormous and disproportionate,” he says. “These are mysteries of nature and nurture I don’t pretend to understand, but people of my tribe go back thousands of years and have an extraordinary value system. We produced a lot of gangsters and gonifs too. There’s a whole panoply.”
The heart of “Off Mike” has to be Krasny’s lifelong lament over not becoming a triumphant novelist like the writers he interviews. Not that he hasn’t tried. He completed a novel and many short stories, but like Jimmy Stewart’s George Bailey in “It’s a Wonderful Life,” real life kept getting in the way of those dreams of glory.
“It is an agony when you have this maw that needs to be filled,” he says of the artistic impulse that still beats within. “I thought I had all the filaments to make my mark with the written word. Maybe I got off lucky, because a lot of artists are tortured people.”
In a potentially controversial aspect of the book, Krasny details his 10-year sojourn at KGO radio, which ended with his dismissal, apparently for not being sufficiently lowbrow. In the telling, Krasny names names.
“I really wanted to be honest in this book,” he said. “[Actor] Peter Coyote gave me good advice when I was writing this. He said, ‘Don’t write to get even or settle scores.’ And I didn’t. Although some people come off bad, I wrote in a reportorial way. I didn’t want to fall into sour grapes.”
He doesn’t spare himself either, recounting many youthful indiscretions, career missteps and other embarrassing Krasnyana. For Krasny, it’s all about keeping himself honest.
“Someone recently said to me, ‘You’re a god.’ I just said to him, ‘Read my book.'”
Michael Krasny appears 7:30 p.m. Thursday, Nov. 29 at the Osher Marin Jewish Community Center, 200 N. San Pedro Rd., San Rafael. Free. Info: (415) 444-8000 or www.marinjcc.org.
“Off Mike: A Memoir of Talk Radio and Literary Life” by Michael Krasny (317 pages, Stanford General Books, $24.95)