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Campus Beat

A Candid Krasny

This time the interviewer answers the pressing and personal questions

Photo of Michael Krasny's book, titled "Off Mike: A Memoir of Talk Radio"Professor of English Michael Krasny, the host of KQED-FM's award-winning "Forum" program, is one of the leading interviewers of literary luminaries, but his new book reveals that he didn't plan on this.

In "Off Mike: A Memoir of Talk Radio and Literary Life," Krasny takes readers back to a time when he was a student of literature and hitchhiked across the country to meet his hero, Saul Bellow. He reveals much about his failed attempts to become a novelist before he turned to a career in education and -- quite by accident -- radio:

 

My first interview, a baptism of fire, happened by fluke: in 1976, the AudioVisual head at San Francisco State University asked if I might be interested in interviewing Gore Vidal on the campus's new-at-the-time intracampus television network. I jumped at what seemed like a serendipitous opportunity. It was an interview that would cast me as nervous, deferential neophyte and Vidal as sour, condescending, inebriated and mean. Heading into the interview, I was sure -- both of us being literary types with left-wing politics -- that we would become fast friends. I wanted to do a professional job and ask good, thoughtful, intelligent questions. I read as much as I could on Vidal and reread early works of his like Myra Breckinridge and The City and the Pillar, as well as his newest novel at the time, Kalki. More impressed by Vidal's essays than his fiction, I still felt certain that the two of us would have much to talk about and would get on well.

When we met briefly before going to the television studio set to begin the interview, Vidal seemed world weary, as if afflicted with terminal weltschmerz, but more important, he smelled of liquor and his voice was thick with booze. I noticed a copy next to him of James Atlas's biography of Delmore Schwartz. I asked what he thought of the book, hoping to initiate a bit of literary conversation before we went on the set. What did he think about Schwartz, a gifted Jewish writer and lifetime friend of Saul Bellow, the prototype for Bellow's novel Humboldt's Gift? Vidal's response shocked me and felt like a blow. "Schwartz thought he was better than we goyim," Vidal replied acidly. Then he added offhandedly, "The Jews really think they run New York."

Was Vidal baiting me, sensing my Jewishness and trying to gore me with it? How could one with such radical sympathies sound like such a rank, bloody anti-Semite? He must not have meant what he said. How could he? Well, I did know a few Jews who acted like they thought they ran New York, and I shunted Vidal's remarks aside. I was on my maiden voyage. I had a job to do.

Excerpt from "Off Mike: A Memoir of Talk Radio and Literary Life" by Michael Krasny, (c) 2008 by the Board of Trustees of the Leland Stanford Jr. University, by permission of the publisher, www.sup.org

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