PERSONA: MICHAEL LEWIS

There’s a Michael Lewis, or should I say a Michael Lewis book, for almost every generation. For those who entered the work force in the late 1980s – especially if you lived in New York City (like I did) – his first book, Liar’s Poker was what you found on your stockbroker boyfriend’s nightstand. A few years later you might have seen The Money Culture, a book that reflected on the financial schemes of the “go-go ‘80s” – and hoped your beau’s name wasn’t in it. In the mid-1990s Lewis turned to another world full of gifted grifters with a message – politics. This time your father and mother – who always voted Republican, and through country club chatter knew the dirt on Bill Clinton and could never understand why he was elected – were secretly reading Trail Fever, Lewis’ take on the 1996 Presidential election. Later on in that decade, your geeky little brother – who by now was in his mid 20s and making more money as a computer programmer at Microsoft than you were in whatever profession – was reading The New New Thing, which profiled the booming Silicon Valley technological scene and its players. A few years later, the geeky brother – who was by now semi-retired having invented some program that he sold for millions – was on his sailboat reading Next: The Future Just Happened, which delved into the effect the Internet was having on business and culture.

Not one to leave any member of the family out, Lewis soon turned to sports – see, even your jock older brother has something to read – and published Moneyball: The Art of Winning an Unfair Game, which profiled the Oakland A’s baseball team and how its general manager Billy Beane created a team through talent instead of money. New Orleanians probably (and uncomfortably) saw some familiar names in his next book, Coach: Lessons on the Game of Life, which Lewis first intended as a homage to his Isidore Newman High School baseball coach, Billy Fitzgerald, but melded into a reflection on how today’s parents try to shield their children from risk and failure. Lewis’ most recent tome, The Blind Side: Evolution of a Game, blends the story about how the position of offensive left tackle has become one of the most important in professional football with that of a black teenager with a troubled background who was taken in by a white family to help educate and guide him in his football career as an offensive left tackle, who protects the quarterback’s “blind side.”
Prolific, no doubt – considering he still has the time to write for The New York Times Magazine and Slate on-line magazine, among others.

A native of New Orleans, he will be returning home for the Tennessee Williams/New Orleans Literary Festival, teaching a Master Class, “Behind the Zeitgeist,” on March 29, and sitting on a panel entitled “Politics as Theater, Theater as Politics.”
Age: 46 Family: Wife, Tabitha Soren Lewis; daughters, Quinn, 7; Dixie, 4; and Walker, about 2 months. Born: New Orleans Resides: Berkeley, Calif. High School: Isidore Newman School College: Princeton University, bachelor’s degree in art history; London School of Economics, master’s degree in economics. Favorite restaurant: In San Francisco: Chez Panisse. In New Orleans: Clancy’s. Domilise’s for a poor-boy. Favorite food: Filet mignon Favorite book: A Confederacy of Dunces by John Kennedy Toole Favorite movie: Lawrence of Arabia Favorite TV show: The Colbert Report

So what’s up in Michael Lewis’ world? My wife and I are about to embark on a series of articles for The New York Times: she does the photographs, I write the articles. Tabitha and I met while she was still on MTV as an anchor and she has morphed into an artist/photojournalist. And we just had a son.

Is it easier having child No. 3? Ask me again in a few months! It’s funny – you have to be fantastically efficient so as to not be miserable. It can be overwhelming. The main thing isn’t the newborn, it’s the response of our older children to the baby. They were angels before, now they’re not.

Who are you working for now? I am mainly writing for The New York Times Magazine; a syndicated column for Bloomberg News; Portfolio, a business magazine from Condé Nast that will launch in the fall; and Slate [Edit. Note: In which he has a column, “Dad Again: Notes on Fatherhood”].

How did you become a journalist? I started when I was working at Salomon Brothers in London. The first thing I wrote was for The Economist. They had a contest at the magazine for a job there as the science writer and I wrote about a breast cancer detection device. I was called in with the two other finalists, who were physicists. The magazine declared me a fraud, but still said the piece worked. I kept on pitching them and they would publish, so I built up a number of clips.

Your articles and books are noted for your ability to get close to your subjects. How do you get them to trust you? They don’t. We reach a kind of truce, which is different from trust. I try to get them to understand what I’m doing. The one thing I don’t do is sneak around someone’s life, even if I do harbor dark thoughts about them. I go after them openly. It’s too stressful to be phony so I’m very open about how I feel.

You also don’t want to make it [the interview] a chore to them or interrupt at the wrong time. It needs to be as pleasant an experience as possible for them.

Observers of your books note that you always seem to have great timing – writing about something just as it’s about to boom or is booming – tapping into an era’s “zeitgeist.”
I write what I feel very passionately about, because it’s such a pain in the ass to write a book. I’ve never thought “What’s of this moment?” The only reason I wrote about Silicon Valley was because Tabitha had a fellowship at Stanford University and I moved out there and had nothing to do. Otherwise, I wouldn’t have written about it.

Your recent books being about sports – were you an athlete in high school? I played baseball. In the book Coach, I wrote about the baseball coach at Isidore Newman, Billy Fitzgerald – Coach Fitz. And I think I’m still the only person to throw a no-hitter in my junior year. I played soccer my sophomore year.

Any words of wisdom for budding writers? There’s no substitute for putting your butt in a chair and starting to write. If you have interesting ideas and write them succinctly and clearly, there’s a market for them.
Don’t rely on friends or politicking to get you
published.

Do you get back to New Orleans much? I try to get back three times a year.
Have you kept in contact with your childhood friends? Right after I graduated college, I would’ve said that I would’ve stayed close to my friends from Princeton, and my friends from childhood would drift away. But the opposite happened. New Orleans has a stickiness to it. It’s a hard place to leave.

Are you thinking of moving back? Very seriously. I’m thinking about writing a book about New Orleans.

You’re family is Carnival “royalty”: Your sister was Queen of Comus and you were the King of Squires and a page in Comus. You’ve even ridden in Rex. Since you live in the San Francisco area, do you expect them to continue the family tradition? My kids have been to every Mardi Gras and will continue to go to every one. And I will be crushed if my son is not King of Squires!

Did you watch the Saints this past season? I haven’t missed a game in 10 years. I even attended the team’s first game – I was six years old. I even remember the first play: Saint’s running back John Gilliam ran a touchdown on the kick off, but the Saints still lost. It sums up the last 40 years.

What was the feedback to your The New York Times, article “Wading Toward Home,” which was about New Orleans right after Hurricane Katrina hit? Not all what was written was complimentary towards the city, so did you hear any criticism?

The response was overwhelmingly positive. I’m sure there were people who didn’t like it, but no one [in New Orleans] criticizes you to your face.

Do you think New Orleans will come back better than before?
Yes. I am generally optimistic. That could happen with the right leadership – which we’re lacking. The recovery will be long, slow and painful. But 30 years from now, people will be saying how remarkable the city is.

[However,] I think New Orleans is wearing out its welcome, though it still has the possibility of greatness. The city just made it harder for itself, by re-electing Mayor Ray Nagin and U.S. Rep. Bill Jefferson. That doesn’t send out the right signal – it says the city isn’t serious, but just go ahead and give it the money. New Orleans needs to send out a signal that says that it’s not going waste money and be responsible.

True Confession: My first-grade class went to the lower-school library for the first time and we sat in those small plastic chairs with the lower back cut out of them. When it was time to leave, I decided I would make my exit through that hole – and I got stuck. I stayed like that for 30 minutes – despite the best efforts of the librarian and my first-grade teacher to get me out.  They gave up and called the janitorial staff. The class went back and I was left there with the janitors trying to grease me out. After an hour or so, they succeeded in releasing me. I always thought that experience was integral to my personality.