Faith, God, Radio and Writing: An Interview With Michael Krasny
By Lou Fancher
Interviewing Michael Krasny is unnerving.
First of all, he's the one who's supposed to ask the questions. He's the host of KQED's award-winning radio broadcast, Forum with Michael Krasny. The popular NPR broadcaster has interviewed Rosa Parks, Archbishop Desmond Tutu, Robert Redford, Hilary Clinton and a slew of other famous folks.
Plus, he was lost. That's right, as 11:10 a.m., the time for our scheduled phone interview, came and went, no one could find Michael Krasny. Not the publicist, not the office, and not my phone calls.
Once I got past the disbelief that a person so well-known could be misplaced, I started to worry. Maybe he forgot. Maybe he just wasn't in the mood. Maybe he's lying in a stairwell, the victim of an unexpected heart attack. Or, a very much-planned mugging.
And truly, what questions could be asked of the man who wrote Spiritual Envy: An Agnostic's Quest?
Hadn't Krasny, with this new memoir and exploration of faith, already placed the most fundamental questions in the lap of God?
Several hours later, when the phone rang, I got to find out.
After switching phone lines two or three times, Krasny and I were, at last, connected, and it turns out I had many questions to ask, and we had lots to talk about: interviewing, writing, agnosticism, faith and the many good books we don't have time to read.
Unlike some recent authors who say yes or no to the idea of God, Krasny is among the millions who know they don't know.
Since much of his memoir deals with the subject of evil, I asked Krasny if he'd ever interviewed someone he felt was truly evil.
"It depends on what you think of as evil," he said. "I interviewed Robert McNamara, who was secretary of Defense under Johnson. I certainly felt he came close to the mark because he was pushing this nation into a conflict, into the war in Vietnam, where human life was at risk. He was sure he was right and he was arrogant."
Krasny thought for a moment, then continued: "Evil, in my mind, has strong, profound connotations. I've talked to people who are wrong-headed, intolerant about social issues, but evil would be too strong for people like that."
At the other end of the spectrum, Krasny equivocates in his reply. "I've interviewed people who do good. Who want to appear good. Hospice work—people who do hospice work and put themselves at risk: those are people who want to do good. But are they good? That's a judgment call."
Krasny, as anyone who has read Spiritual Envy will know, is not into judgment. As an interviewer, he says it's important "to fulfill a bi-role: to be an educator and not just a boiler plate." He doesn't trust his own natural curiosity to carry him through an interview, but instead, reads every book he plans to discuss and researches his subjects extensively.
I ask him if he's ever talked to kids on his radio program and what interviews stand out in his memory.
"I've interviewed Make-a-Wish Foundation children who have spirit, vitality and genuine enthusiasm for seeing things. Even though they know their lives are at risk; that their lives are ending, they are still seeking."
Given the personal nature of his new book, I wonder if the people he talks to will respond to him differently during interviews.
"I have no idea," he says, "but one likes to hope that one's book will have an impact. And when people get a sense of my own doubts, that I struggle, I think they will find it useful to have their own inner-dialogue."
Krasny says there are " a lot of engaging and wonderful topics" he'd like to explore. He admits he'd like to interview a member of the Rolling Stones, and that he was disappointed to miss Michael Caine when the actor was in town recently.
On the topic of writing, Krasny, also an English professor at San Francisco State, has said he is a man of the spoken word, not a writer. Yet he's advised would-be novelists not to think their dreams lie in the dust. Has he ever wanted to write a novel?
"The dream of being a novelist hasn't gone to the dust yet," he answers. "I was thinking this morning about Grace Paley. She said, 'I don't think I have a novel in me.' And I wondered if that applied to me."
In addition to Spiritual Envy, Krasny is the author of a 2007 memoir, Off Mike: A Memoir of Talk Radio and Literary Life and books on reading and literature. With regard to his own writing process, I ask if a man who asks so many questions holds each word up to scrutiny?
"I write quickly," Krasny answers. "It does flow. I write on Fridays and on weekends and I like to see it to the end, then go back to do the editing."
He won't immediately name a novel he would like to have written, but instead, reels off a list of five or six favorites. Finally, he settles on William Faulkner's The Sound and the Fury and Absalom, Absalom. If he believed in reincarnation, he says he might like to have been Saul Bellow, or presently, to be Philip Roth.
Since his book is about exploring the idea of faith and God, I ask him about empirical evidence. He claims he needs to have "something concrete" to believe in God. "For me, you need to go beyond intuition or faith. You'd need to see, hear or experience God with your senses."
As for the state of religion in America, he says, "There are people who want to save other people's souls. I don't reject that sort of thing, I just think they have to realize a lot of people don't want that. There's a terrible spiritual hunger in large areas of this country. Yes, there's a push to be religious, but we also have this militant sort of atheism. Ultimately, we're all looking for answers."
It's like opening the starting gate in front of a race horse when I suggest Krasny tell me the four questions he'd ask if God appeared before him.
1. What exactly did you have to do with the creation? Did you do it by yourself?
2. What did you want humans to be? Did you want them to love each other?
3. Is there some way of understanding that, [loving each other], in light of all the toxic, bad things that occur?
4. How does one have a relationship with you, especially in light of our mortality?
Since finishing his memoir, Krasny says his thoughts on God continue to change, but "the agnostic undergirding" is the same. "What makes us human is that we seek higher knowledge. I don't intend to give up the ghost. I think of myself as a seeker. Raymond Carver said one's purpose is 'To feel beloved on this earth.' I say, to feel beloved and to love. August Wilson, the playwright, when asked about life as he approached death, said, 'I've lived a blessed life.' I thought, Does it get any better than that? If you can say that, you've fulfilled your purpose."
It was 45 minutes since the start of Krasny's call. I thanked him, glad he was found and relieved to have his answers to my fumbling questions. Unfortunately, I forgot to give him my number, so Michael, if God does answer your big 4, would you give me a call? Say, 11:10 a.m. tomorrow?