Eight Questions for Michael Lewis
Photo by Tabitha Soren
Michael Lewis is one of the most celebrated authors and journalists working today. He’s also a Berkeley resident who loves the thoughtfulness of his community. He cites Peet’s Coffee founder Alfred Peet, who reinvented the American coffee industry by applying the international roasting traditions he learned from UC Berkeley’s international students and faculty. This example also fits Lewis’s writing: His best-selling books—including Moneyball, The Blind Side, and The Big Short, which have all been adapted into Academy Award–nominated films—explain wildly complex subjects via thoughtful, creative storytelling. His most recent work, 2018’s The Fifth Risk, comes out in paperback on December 3.
Q: How long does it take you to drill into a subject before you realize it is something you want to turn into a book?
A: Well, I drill a lot of dry holes, for starters. I get interested in all kinds of things that don’t lead anywhere. What usually triggers the realization that I can turn it into something long is stumbling upon a person, a character. It was obvious in Moneyball, because I had Billy Beane to run us through the story. In The Fifth Risk, the idea [about the effects of the Trump administration’s dismantling of government agencies] preceded the characters. Then, I discovered these [government workers] who were so interesting—these people who were very mission-driven, very different from the rest of the culture, and misunderstood. That’s what energized me.
I’m trying to think of an instance where I started [a story] without feeling I had literary characters. I can’t. I mean, if you gave me a zany character, it wouldn’t do it. It usually starts with some curious situation or some idea, like a baseball team that has no money to win games, or these people on Wall Street who figured out that our stock market is rigged. … So how long does it take? The fastest it has happened is a week or so for me to realize, Oh, my God, I’ve stumbled onto something. I could spend six months with material before I figure out that it’s a book. I spent seven years on The Undoing Project … before I actually had the nerve to do it. I guess it could take a long time.
Q: You must have multiple ideas percolating for years. What is your process for moving them from the back burner to the front?
A: If you saw my desk, to the left of it are about 70 manila folders, and in those manila folders are news articles or something I’ve scribbled about a situation—most of them will not come to anything—every time something causes me to go, Ah, I need that. I’m writing something right now: sort of a sports-parent memoir about youth sports and college recruiters. When I went to go dig through these manila folders, [I noticed that] I have opened something on the subject five separate times. I finally realized this was something I could write about. So, I gather stuff and then something happens that electrifies the material.
Q: That’s an interesting subject, youth sports, because it’s such a big part of the East Bay suburban lifestyle.
A: It’s such a big part of the American lifestyle—the effects it has had on family relationships, between kids and parents, what childhood is like. There are good things about it, and there are bad things about it, but I’m writing it now. The material is actually good. I think what kept me from doing it was, I had in the back of my mind, If I do this really well, it could possibly screw up my daughter’s softball career. Now she’s got a college she’s going to; it’s all done, so I can’t do that.
Q: The Fifth Risk is coming out in paperback this month. How much did you update the book for that edition?
A: I added a long piece [about Art Allen,] a guy who’d been deemed inessential during the shutdown. He is the one person in the world who does what he does. He’s the only oceanographer in the Coast Guard search-and-rescue division, and he’s the only expert on how the objects in the sea drift. If you fall off a cruise ship in a life vest, without his work, they would not find you. Sometimes he needs to be there to explain the way the programs and algorithms work, and he is just gone.
This kind of thing will be interesting at some point: Maybe in a year and a half, go around and see what happened that people might not have noticed because of who is not there. The thing that I wrote suggested what kinds of things might happen, but I don’t actually know. I suspect there is probably a wonderful sequel rolling in with whoever replaces Trump—to try to figure out what damage has been done, or try to explain it. If you go in the State Department, you’ll find an institution in tatters. There’s lots of expertise gone, chains of command have been broken, ways of doing things have been disrupted. If you go into the Agriculture Department, you’ll find that all the economists—who, among other things, are responsible for figuring out how climate change [is affecting] the food supply—were removed, told they had to leave Washington and relocate to Kansas City. Which meant that they all just left. … There was no reason to move them; there was good reason for them to be in Washington.
The bigger picture is the government was hardly perfect when Trump took it over. It wasn’t the fault of the people in the government; it was the fault of us. Congress has just allowed lots of silly incentives to get pegged into the way the government is run. It is very hard to fire people, the technology is ancient, and there has been little investment in long-term growth. You have a dramatically aging workforce. … Something like a quarter of the senior level of the bureaucracy was eligible to retire at the end of 2018, and then the shutdown happened. A lot of them would not retire; a lot of them would have said, “Nobody is here to replace me.” This has been a mass exodus. The guy I wrote about is an interesting example of an expertise that is unique.
Q: You have had great success with Hollywood adapting your work. Can you speak to that experience? When you were writing these books, were you thinking in cinematic terms?
A: Most of it is luck—as in who was attracted to the project and who wanted to do it. The directors and the writers are really good. I haven’t had anything to do with it; I just supply the book. It may just be randomness. I can’t say that I have any gift for getting good movies made. … In a funny way, to a point, the more impossible it seems to adapt to film, the more likely it’s going to be good, because to do it is so hard. It requires talent. The people who do the obvious, easy thing—who will do something that’s mediocre—they won’t be attracted to it. The fact that The Big Short and Moneyball were so hard to do, I think it attracted really talented people. The challenge interested them.
The second thing is, there has to be something there: the characters and the situation. If the characters and the situation are really interesting, they can find ways to cinematize it. I don’t write cinematically, but I do write in a storytelling form. It is generally scene-by-scene construction in places, so it’s not outlandish that people would take the books and turn them into movies. It’s just hard. If you ask me about what I believe has happened to my books in Hollywood, I think a lot of it is just pure luck.
Q: Reportedly, Barack and Michelle Obama have optioned The Fifth Risk to develop it into a Netflix series. Can you talk about that?
A: All I can say—because I’m sworn to secrecy—is that they bought it and it’s being made. It’s being made right now. How it’s being done, I am not allowed to say. I wish I could.
Q: Your podcast, Against the Rules, is enormously popular. How does the audio format affect your style of storytelling?
A: It’s nice to do something that exercises different muscles. Up until now, the way I’ve done it is writing screenplays and books, and this was more fun for a bunch of reasons. One was, writing a book is an individual sport, and the podcast is really a team sport. I get all the credit, but there were like a dozen people doing really important things. Then there is the need to perform it, the need to speak the words. It does make you aware of when you’re being boring in print, and wordy, and all the vices that creep in. It was disciplining in a way.
The subject matter, the general idea, my approach to form was, I think, a little odd. I thought we could unspool, not exactly a book, but take a single idea and play with it over seven or eight episodes so it would have a book-like feel, since it’s all about the same thing. It worked so well. The response was so good, and the audience was not just big but delightfully different from the book audience. I felt like I reached people who might not naturally read a book, including my kids’ friends. It was fun to reach 16-year-olds.
It was so much fun that I am doing another season. … I don’t really want to talk about what it’s about, but the form is the same and it rhymes with the first season. It’s not about refs; refs were our first season. It’s about something else. It will feel like a very similar sort of exercise. For whatever reason, I feel fertile in the form. Lots of ideas pop into my head about it. That’s fun. When that ends, I’ll stop.
Q: You mentioned that the sports lifestyle isn’t just an East Bay lifestyle, it’s an American lifestyle. What about Berkeley or the East Bay is unique?
A: Unique is a strong word, but I love how thoughtful it is [here]. … Our local softball league, in which our daughters are nurtured, the guy who founded it wasn’t just a sports guy; he was a moral philosopher at [UC] Berkeley. The first line that he spoke about the purpose of the league was, he said, “The purpose of youth sports is the moral education of the parents.” The whole league was designed to teach people how to behave, which is very different than teaching them how to play softball. That sort of stuff, that sort of curious angle on the world, runs through Berkeley life.