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Birnbaum v.

Michael Lewis

Author Michael Lewis talks about his wave-making book Moneyball and the current state of baseball, plus what’s good and bad with journalism today, Red Sox paranoia, and the joys of screenwriting.

When I spoke to Michael Lewis last year I wrote, “Moneyball is a well-researched, well-written look at the methodology and the people (mainly, general manager Billy Beane) who help make a small-budget baseball team (the Oakland Athletics) extremely competitive in the big money world of Major League baseball. It is greatly to Lewis’s credit that he has put together a book about baseball that is appealing to long-time fans as well as those recently attracted by the game’s charms. As he asks (and answers) in what follows, ‘How many truly original stories does baseball produce?’ Moneyball is certainly that and more.”

In part due to that book’s continued popularity and the issues around the [generalizable] managerial style it explicates and in part because I find Lewis an irrepressibly congenial conversationalist and a very able nonfiction writer/storyteller, I was very interested in continuing our conversation. Hence, Part II, that falls below. And if intentions have any weight in this world, there will be further installments to come.

Lewis is the author of Liar’s Poker, The Money Culture, Pacific Rift, Losers, Trail Fever, The New, New Thing, Next, and most recently, Moneyball: The Art of Winning an Unfair Game. He grew up in New Orleans and attended Princeton University and The London School of Economics and has been an investment banker for Salomon Brothers. That experience led to his first book, Liar’s Poker. He is a contributing writer to the New York Times Magazine, a contributor to Slate.com, and a columnist for Bloomberg News, and he has also done work for Nightline and This American Life. Lewis lives in Berkeley, Calif., with his family.



All photos copyright © Robert Birnbaum
 

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Robert Birnbaum: Is the Charlie Rose Show broadcast live?

Michael Lewis: It’s taped. It’s always taped. Sometimes it airs the next day—

RB: You were on last night?

ML: I was taped yesterday. I wasn’t on last night but they are going to run it in the next couple of days.

RB: I get the press releases for the show but I don’t watch TV. Were you on with someone?

ML: Last night I was in the green room. I taped with Tom Stoppard. He was on before me.

RB: That’s some combination.

ML: It was very funny. He and I sat there in the green room and he had a couple of people with him. And I saw him and instantly recognized him. And I thought, “I’m not going to bother him. I’ll sit here with my eyes averted, staring at the floor.” And we did that for five or 10 minutes. Finally, he very politely looked up and asked, “Are you a guest?” And I said, “Yes.” And he said, “What’s your name?” I introduced myself and he asked, “Did you write The New New Thing?” My God—I said, “Yes, I did.” And he liked the book. I couldn’t believe Tom Stoppard had read something I had written. Then I gushed—

RB: [laughs]

ML: “You’re a genius. I read all the plays.” I think he was on last night. They taped his [segment] and they aired it.

RB: Why would you be surprised that someone who has a brain read one of your books?
Lewis, by Robert Birnbaum
ML: It’s a niggling insecurity I have about my books.

RB: [laughs]

ML: And on many levels. But on one level, it’s that what I write about is one step removed from the literary world. I don’t often interact with literary people. By accident, I have some friends who are literary people. So when someone like that [Stoppard] who is almost the definition of a literary person and English, to boot, bumps into one of my books and reads it, I’m delighted—really delighted, flattered.

RB: It would seem that it is part of the makeup of writers of all shades and stripes to be insecure. I was talking to Robert Atwan the other evening and mentioned that I was going to be talking with you. He said, “Oh, that Moneyball book. It’s great.” I went on to say that I thought you were an excellent reporter and researcher and writer—which to me translates into being a good storyteller. And that’s why I would, in fact, read a story about a prep-school baseball coach from New Orleans. Maybe it’s my ignorance but I can’t think of many magazine writers who are given that kind of leeway.

ML: Oh, I know. I have been given enough rope to hang myself three times. There’s no question about it. I was given it at the New Republic when I was writing magazine pieces for them. My publisher [W.W. Norton] gives it to me. They spool it out a little more carefully—there’s usually so much money on the line. But the New York Times Magazine did—they actually did a brave thing in letting me go on this piece—the piece about my high-school baseball coach. Eighteen months ago, I was at dinner with Gerry Marzorati, who is now an editor at the magazine. He asked, “If you could write about anything…” I said, “There are some relationships I have had in my life that I have a passionate feeling about that I think could be generalizable. And I don’t see anyone writing about that. One of these is a baseball coach I had. It changed my life. I’d love to give that a shot. It’s a memoir and a little weird to put on the cover of the Times magazine.” And we forgot about it. And then a few months ago, he said, “Go give it a shot.” As I was writing it I called him two or three times, “Gerry, I don’t know if this rises to the level of general interest. I am having a very interesting time writing this but it may just be me that is interested and a few people in New Orleans.” He said, “No, no, no.” He let me write it. Almost 9,000 words, [and he] sticks my baseball coach on the cover of the bloody New York Times Magazine. And the thing is a national sensation. It is the piece that I put on the cover of the magazine—and I’ve put many pieces there—which has gotten, by far, the most attention. Headmasters from almost every big city in the country, writing to say can they reproduce 600 copies and pass it out? Stacks of letters to the Times Magazine—from men, all [only] men—saying I had a coach just like this, or a teacher just like this, people who identify with the relationship and the emotion. And, of course, New Orleans is in an uproar. And the coach, my poor coach, who was living his life innocently and pleasantly enough. He has movie offers, book offers, 20/20 wanted to do a piece on him.

RB: Offers to go on tour as a motivational speaker?

ML: That’s it, exactly right. He’s gotten calls from schools that ask him to come and be their graduation speaker. And it’s just, “Boom.” And that’s something that you can only do if you are lucky in your editors.

RB: Right. I can’t imagine. I look around at the small group of general-interest magazines that are left—

ML: Who would run that piece?

RB: Right, who would run it? Who would have the vision? Didn’t it used to be that editors would say, “Oh, I really like this writer—”

ML: And they would take a flyer.

RB: Right, and they’d say, “Do it”

ML: Right.

RB: On the other hand what does the Times risk in running this kind of piece?

ML: In the case of the Times, it’s true. It’s not as if fewer people are going to buy the magazine. What the editor has to lose is some credibility within the institution. Reporters bickering, saying, “Why did that prima donna writer get to write about his baseball exploits in high school?” That’s what would have been at stake. In this case the Times Magazine has evolved so that it is somewhat detached from the institution. In the last few years, especially since the departure of Howell Raines, there is a feeling that nobody is going to mess with it.

RB: Here is a story I heard. Somebody was getting a major profile in the magazine and was also asked to write an op-ed and when Adam Moss [the magazine’s editor at the time] heard of this he told the profilee, “If you do the op-ed, then we will not do the profile.”

ML: This is true. They have a rule. [You] can’t write op-eds if you are affiliated with the magazine. But this is more about the detachment. You can’t associate with both. Editorially, they are allowed to be interested in things that the newspaper might not approve of. And that’s great. Because it’s a place to put a piece of journalism and know many people will see it. And it may even be read—there is almost no better place than the cover of that magazine.

RB: Sounds right. What’s it’s competition?

ML: The New Yorker.

RB: You would call the New Yorker a general-interest magazine?

ML: Yeah. And the New Yorker has made a good living poaching writers from the New York Times Magazine. An awful lot of writers have moved from one to the other and it’s because, from the point of view of the talent pool, the writers see, “I write for the New York Times Magazine or I write for the New Yorker.” And which camp do you want to be in? It is true that the magazines are very different but maybe the one other place that I could have put that piece is the New Yorker. It had a certain literary dimension to it.

RB: Yeah, I was going to remark on the equation that you create between adolescent body hair and income—

ML: [laughs] Yeah, [I was] the first person to identify that facial hair grows more quickly in people from lower income and lower tax brackets.

RB: Perhaps we may wend our way back to the state of journalism. One thing that I hadn’t really appreciated until I digested Moneyball was how conservative baseball is. Why is it so conservative?


It’s saying, it’s a story about how markets do and don’t work, especially when they are valuing people. And places like Hollywood and Wall Street, a lot of what people there do is value people. So they instantly saw a connection.


ML: It’s rawhide bound. It’s not just conservative. You can trace an awful lot of it back to the anti-trust exemption. And that it’s never suffered outside competition. If you look at the NFL, that’s a great point of comparison. The NFL is so well run because it’s been forced to be well run, by outside competition. But given that’s the starting point, what has evolved in baseball is less of a business that is open to innovation and change than a social club that is concerned with preserving the status of the people inside of it. And so that, for example, it’s been highly resistant to—and this is going to sound strange but it’s true—to the idea that you can measure [the] performance of people who run these teams and put together these teams and manage them on the field in a way that says this person is really good at it and this person is not really good at it. It’s true that people win games and they get famous for winning games and people occasionally lose their jobs because they didn’t win games. But what’s interesting is that their names are thrown right back in the hat after they lose their jobs. The next job comes up and the only people on the list are people who are already in the club. And the idea of looking outside of the industry for people to come in and manage—which makes an awful lot of sense—is anathema to it. It is an income- and status-preservation society. And when someone comes in with a book like this and introduces a kind of radical new idea about—it wasn’t my idea, but it was an idea that was new to them—about the evaluation of management and the people who put together teams, and it says, “Look, by this standard a lot of you people shouldn’t even be doing this. You clearly aren’t suited to it”—it’s very offensive. And they respond very conservatively; there’s a quick reaction. They are very reactionary.

RB: On the other hand, one of the reasons the book is a bestseller is that beyond the baseball story it seems to be, as you say, generalizable to other things.

ML: It resonated almost immediately with people on Wall Street and Hollywood. And then in industries where, if you can find inefficiencies and exploit them, you can make money. The Wall Street and Hollywood connection was interesting because the starting point is, “Look, here you have this poor team that is consistently successful because it’s found that the market for baseball players is inefficient. You can find cheap ones. You can find overpriced ones in your organization you can sell. You can trade them like a portfolio and put much better, more accurate values on them.” So the starting point is a kind of a curious idea, that these baseball players who we all think we know and understand are misvalued. And if they can be misvalued, who can’t? It’s amazing that they can be misvalued. And once you get to that point, you have a metaphor for any market. It’s saying, it’s a story about how markets do and don’t work, especially when they are valuing people. And places like Hollywood and Wall Street, a lot of what people there do is value people. So they instantly saw a connection.

RB: Apparently more so than the baseball hierarchy. The A’s operate on this basis, [Blue Jays general manager J.P.] Riccardi in Toronto and Theo Epstein in Boston—

ML: And [Dodgers general manager Paul] DePodesta in L.A.

RB: Wasn’t Billy Beane slated for the Dodgers job?

ML: He didn’t want the job.

RB: Didn’t want the job, still?

ML: There is this curious thing going on in the game of baseball now. The reason the book is successful is that it’s in the middle of what’s happening. Some teams are ferociously resisting this whole idea of an almost scientific approach, or assigning some scientific element to the management of baseball teams. And while at the same time a handful of teams are seizing on it and running with it. A few teams are in between, like the St. Louis Cardinals, who fired their scouting director and hired a statistician in the offseason and—

RB: Tony La Russa [St. Louis Cardinals manager] is a student of statistics—

ML: He is a student of numbers but he uses them in strange ways. He looks at small sample sizes and draws large conclusions. There are many statistical fallacies and he seems to fall prey to some of them. But there is stuff in the papers about how the owner of the Cardinals read the book and turned the screws on his general manager. There were several reports that the Mets’ owners read the book and were upset.

RB: They got rid of Steve Phillips.

ML: And they got rid of Phillips after the book came out and I had a call from one of the Mets’ owners close friends—[Mets Chairman and CEO] Fred Wilpon has been talking about the book. I’m not sure he agrees with everything but it’s had an effect on the way he thinks. So there is some movement in the sport. But it is very conservative. And you can see why. The minute someone like Paul DePodesta goes into the Dodgers, he faces this—it’s like trying to wrestle a porcupine. All the scouts, all the coaches, the managers, anybody, the entire organization rises up to try to undermine what he does. Because they are threatened by it. They are afraid he is going fire them or reduce their status. So it’s slow to spread.


I think it’s interesting to watch the experiment that’s going on in Boston, to introduce this new management [style] of baseball teams into the Red Sox. [It] is going on in opposition to their fans, even though it’s the thing that’s likely to lead to success.


RB: We touched on the Boston fans in our past talk and the various mythologies surrounding the Red Sox. And then [Red Sox manager] Grady Little gets fired—allegedly not so much for that one fateful decision [not to pull Pedro Martinez from the pitcher’s mound late in the seventh game of the 2003 American League Championship Series] but because he wasn’t an adherent of—

ML: Theories.

RB: Had he pulled Pedro Martinez would they have fired him? Had he won—

ML: Had he won I don’t think they could have fired him.

RB: Remember, this is Boston.

ML: If he’d gotten them to the World Series it would have been very hard politically for them to fire him. And this is the thing about Boston and just how politically charged the team is. We talked about this last time. If you wanted to point a finger at who is responsible for the curse, I think you point first to the fans. The nature of their support makes it a much harder place to play baseball in and a much, much harder place to put together a baseball team in. You are always doing things in response to the emotions of the fans, the emotions of the dumbest commentators—

RB: [laughs]

ML: who can gin up the outrage of the mob. And once you are in that position, you do things for the wrong reasons. And it’s very hard to keep a level head. In a way, I think it’s interesting to watch the experiment that’s going on in Boston, to introduce this new management [style] of baseball teams into the Red Sox. [It] is going on in opposition to their fans, even though it’s the thing that’s likely to lead to success. The fans and the reporters and stuff around them are the thing that is making it difficult to implement.

RB: The opening day loss here and there were people already joking “Wait till next year.” [both laugh]

ML: I know, I know.

RB: Are there other cities in which baseball is a 12-month-a-year affair?

ML: No.

RB: Attention on the Sox never subsides.

ML: There is a psychodrama around the Cubs obviously and that poor man Steve Bartman, who made the mistake of interfering with the foul ball, had to move out of Chicago.

RB: No!

ML: Yes! He left town. So that’s a similar sort of problem. And the Yankees, of course—when any New York team is either winning or losing, there is a drama around that. But it’s more about the winning or losing and when the season is over, they [fans] move on to who ever else is winning or losing. But the Cubs and the Red Sox really have this curious psychodrama. But there is nothing like this anywhere. It’s the hardest possible environment to be reasonable in. So, who is to blame for that? It’s the culture around the Red Sox.

RB: At this point in the season Pedro isn’t talking to the press. Manny [Ramirez, Boston left fielder] is. Perhaps because his agent guided him. I wonder about the incipient racism that is at play here. And the talk is that [Boston shortstop Nomar]Garciaparra will be with the Dodgers by August—

ML: The A’s approach to this is interesting. You never hear about bad chemistry on a winning team. And if the Red Sox, and they are a very good team, it may be a historically good team—and if they have the success they are likely to have right away and run out in front of the American League East and beat up on everybody, all this stuff about dissension in the clubhouse is going to go away.

RB: Are we seeing dissension?

ML: It’s not exactly dissension in the clubhouse but a disproportionate amount of attention paid to the bruised egos of stars. The star egos will be well slaked by the attention they get from winning. And so the problem will take care of itself, because they are going to be this good. And there is going to be national attention focused on the competition with the Yankees. I can’t think of anything like this.

RB: It’s already a marketing campaign for a major donut chain.

ML: These two superpowers within baseball, it’s a lopsided division and it’s a good division right throughout. The Blue Jays are much better.

RB: The Orioles are better.

ML: Even the Devil Rays are better. [laughs] That takes care of a lot of problems because all these people want is attention, and they’ll get it.

RB: What happens when Pedro has a bad day and he is booed at Fenway? He could end up pitching in New York.

ML: Oh yeah, he clearly has no particular affection for Boston. He could end up pitching in lots of different places. He also could end up—these pitchers, they are very volatile stocks. He is not a big guy. He throws the ball very hard. That arm looks like it’s about to fall off every time he pitches.

RB: He’s only pitching in the low 90 [miles per hour]. [laughs]

ML: The Sox don’t have to have him to be a good team. There are lots of ways to win. And if he’s not terribly popular with the fans on top of it because of his behavior, there is even less reason to keep him around.

RB: Moneyball came out last spring. You were out there [on tour] then and now you are out in the world again. Is there anything you have thought about that you wish you had emphasized more or included?

ML: There is only one thing, but it’s entirely given the reaction to the book inside baseball. Outside baseball I am so pleased that the book was read and understood. I don’t think the message could have been said any clearer. I feel like people got it. But inside baseball the hostile faction, the faction that was hostile to the book, tried to distort and mischaracterize things that were said in the book, and I gave them a slight opening in some places. The place I wish I had given them less of an opening was in the discussion of the scouts. What I would have done, I would have parsed the scouting community and shown there are actually good scouts and bad scouts. The good scout is the new scout who actually understands performance statistics, understands that’s where you start, and so on and so forth. Who doesn’t make a fetish of how hard a guy throws or what a guy looks like. There actually is a distinction. And because I didn’t get into it—didn’t get into it all; I don’t go off with scouts—it gave baseball the opportunity to rally scouts as a group against the book. I could have prevented it and I might have and could have done so very easily and it would have flowed very easily in the narrative in the middle of the chapter on the [baseball] draft. I almost did this, but I was going to do this with Paul DePodesto and scout games with him. I could have gone off with one of the scouts, and sat him in the middle of his buddies from the other teams who were doing it a different way and explained the difference. That’s a small thing. Other than that, I feel very—I don’t always feel pleased with the books I’ve written, but I feel pleased with this one. I feel like it said what I had to say.

RB: What’s happening with the catcher, Jeremy Brown [an A’s draft choice]?

ML: He’s making his way up the minor leagues. He’s opening the season in double-A. He was in the big-league camp in spring training, the last two years. Doubled off Troy Percival. He is doing very well. They just assume he is going to be a big-league catcher. He is doing that well. He is a bright star in the Oakland farm system.

RB: At this point Billy Beane has turned down two seemingly attractive jobs, with more pay and more resources.

ML: Right. Get paid a lot more money and more money to play with. What would cause him to leave the Oakland A’s?

RB: Right.

ML: I think he has sat back and looked at baseball and said, “The difference in what I would get paid, that money is funny money. I’m never going to use it anyway. I don’t have a huge need for money. Money isn’t the motive here. A stake in what I do is the motive.” And so if someone came along and offered him part of an ownership position, it would give him not just a financial stake but also control. He wouldn’t always have to explain to some owner why he was doing what he was doing. He could just do it. He’d jump in a heartbeat. That would interest him. The big dream is to put together a group in which he had a stake, a controlling position, that owned a baseball, basketball, and football team. So this style of thinking would be applied [also] to football and basketball. It’s not an unreasonable ambition. I wouldn’t be surprised if it happened.

RB: So his vision has now transcended baseball?

ML: Oh yeah. That’s his kind of thing—to do something different, to leave the A’s—but short of that he’s not that interested. Even if the Yankees came calling. It just doesn’t do it for him.




Lewis, by Robert Birnbaum


RB: You completed this book about a year and a half ago?

ML: I actually didn’t.

RB: Two days before it was printed?

ML: Yeah, I finished it at the end of March [2003]. So they turned it around very quickly.

RB: You must write very clean drafts.

ML: I do. Where I get messy is where my storytelling goes off the rails. The kind of jump I make from a first draft to a second draft is cutting 10,000 words out of a chapter. So it’s usually cutting. I don’t really get line edited. So the words are the words. That makes it easy to get it quickly to the printer. I finished it about a year ago and then spent three months on the road.

RB: It doesn’t strike me that you are tired of talking about it.

ML: It’s stirred up such noise. The response to it is so interesting. It’s taken me into other worlds. I can’t tell you who, but I will be meeting with professional football coaches because they are interested in it. Maybe I’ll write a book about that, and the kind of conversation it has encouraged with money managers and Hollywood talent agencies has been interesting to me. And I made some friends. I like some of the people I wrote about. And their lives are very dramatic. Billy Beane’s life is very dramatic. Paul DePodesta’s life is very dramatic. The players—I got to be very good friends with [Oakland first baseman] Scott Hatteberg, [Oakland relief pitcher] Chad Bradford. So I feel kind of engaged. It’s funny when you write about people and you can turn on the TV…I feel about many of the people I have felt affection for and written about—John McCain and Jim Clark, the technology entrepreneur—when they pop up and they are doing their thing again, I get completely engrossed. But they go into long periods of remission.

RB: [chuckles]

ML: But baseball players really don’t ever do that. So it’s a kind of a tarbaby. It’s harder to get away from, once you have written about the subject.

RB: When we last talked it was too soon for you to have a next book in mind. How ‘bout now?

ML: I have several thoughts. I can’t tell you what book is going to come out first but I know I am writing a sequel to Moneyball. And I said that when I sold it, it’s not just one book, it’s two books. And I had that eureka moment when I walked out of the 2002 draft, “Not only do I want to explain what they are doing but I want to follow these kids that they have drafted in this unusual way in a kind of Hoop Dreams way—through the minor leagues and use them to write about that experience.” It’s going to be called Underdogs. It will take another five years. That’s what I do during the baseball season. I’ll go to Midland Texas and Sacramento and Modesto, Calif., where they’re playing in minor league games. There is every possibility that the piece that I just published in the Times magazine might spin out into something a little bigger—the piece about the coach. And I am also toying with the idea of a shorter book about football. And the attempt to apply this sort of thinking to football.

RB: That was a careful statement about the “something bigger” aspect of the Times piece on Coach Fitzgerald. It might not be a book?

ML: It would be a book but not just about him. And I am not quite sure in which direction I am going to take it, but I am fiddling with it.

RB: A story with everything—

ML: I have always thought New Orleans is a useful dramatic counterpoint to the rest of the country. It has a different value system. It’s not a money culture. It’s a family—it’s almost more European. It’s, “who’s your mama? Who’s your granddaddy?” I had a moment—this is a very New Orleans moment. Liar’s Poker came out. I was whoring for publicity and was sent out to be on every TV show. I was on the Letterman show. And after I was on the Letterman show, people stopped me on the street routinely because they recognized me from TV. And the tour, a week after that, took me through New Orleans. And I went there and I was staying with my parents, doing local media. I went over to the grocery store to pick up something for my mother. And I was walking down the aisle with a grocery cart and a little old lady was coming the other way. And she starts to point her crooked finger at me.

RB: [laughs]

ML: And I’m thinking, “I know you, you were on the Letterman show.” But she gets closer and she says, “I know you, you’re Malcolm Monroe’s grandson.” I said, “How’d you know that?” “I can tell by your face.” And everybody is a celebrity in New Orleans because everybody knows you. I have always thought that that was interesting material. And it’s just a question of how I would approach it.

RB: I’ve always liked something about New Orleans and Louisiana—the stories out of there by Tim Gautreaux, James Lee Burke, John Biguenet, John Dufresne

ML: Very distinctive.

RB: So you will be writing other projects as you write Underdogs?

ML: Yes, because I will be shaping the material during the baseball season(s). I’ll be getting to know the material during the baseball season and in the off season I won’t be working on it all. So I’ll have time to do something else, something else big. Another thing that is happening is that I started to build, very slowly, but a kind of side business in script writing. I just did a movie script for Universal, a TV pilot for CBS, and a couple years back I wrote a script for Fox. It’s something that interests me. I actually enjoy doing it. I feel very comfortable doing it. I am not of that world. I’m not of that world so I am at a disadvantage.

RB: [laughs] Maybe not?

ML: I’ll never be a player. So it’s going to take a bit of luck for something to get to the screen.

RB: Does that matter?

ML: Not financially. Not really financially but it matters—I don’t really want to keep doing it if they don’t get made. But there is some hope that these things will get made. And so, I will probably do more of that. It’s quite likely that I will turn that article about the coach into a movie script.

RB: That’s what I thought you were hinting at.

ML: I am thinking of both. That specific material, that I haven’t a faint idea of how to turn into a movie script. The setting and that period of my life—there’s more there that might be a book.


If there are problems it’s in the souls of the writers. To me the biggest corrupting influence in this country in the production of literature and journalism is the attempt to make it an academic subject—the creative writing classes, journalism schools. That’s the wrong approach. It’s an attempt to establish a career path for writers. And also to take the risk out of it and say if you do X, Y, and Z, then you get this plum. I think the best stuff is done by lone rangers.


RB: From where I sit, you seem to have things going pretty much your way.

ML: It doesn’t get any better. [both laugh] You can’t really ask for more as a writer. What can you ask for? You can ask for prizes. That’s the one thing—

RB: Is it easier?

ML: The doing of it is not. The doing of it is—there’s this weird “I’m doing it for the first time” sensation, every time I do it. So the doing of it is not. The success of it is. But it means less. And it’s kind of nice in a way. I still have an unhealthy interest in my Amazon sales figures when my book comes out. I still go on the web twice a day to see how I’m doing. But it dissipates faster, that feeling and the obsession with it—I don’t really have an obsession with it anymore. I have some need for the money because I have two little kids, a family. But I have a sense that I am drifting into a better and better place as a writer where—

RB: You can write what you want?

ML: I can write what I want and I don’t have any reason to write but what I want. I am not quite there yet but I feel like I am moving in the right direction.

RB: Not quite there yet?

ML: I’m getting there.

RB: You don’t want to jinx yourself by saying you’re there?

ML: I’m sure my motives are always a little mixed up. But I do feel like there is something quite nice about knowing that you do what you do for the doing of it. I can’t ever say that I have had that pure feeling but there is a pure element to my motive and I am feeling more and more that way. And that’s fun. It’s really liberating because then you really do think about, “why am I writing this?” and you get to better subjects that way—to deeper places that way.

RB: How long have you been a writer?

ML: Fifteen years.

RB: Have any sense that, in the passage of that time, the work of journalism has changed significantly? That there is still a reasonable expectation that there are venues for well-written, good stories?

ML: Oh yeah. I don’t buy declinist theories. I don’t think that there’s been some steady decline in the opportunities available for writers. In fact to put it crudely, it’s generally true that every year society is more prosperous than it was the year before and every year there is more economic opportunity for writers—writers are a luxury good. They are a strange thing—they are a necessary and they are a luxury good. The richer the society the more it indulges the craft—not necessarily good for the craft but the problem is not with the way the society shapes itself around the craft. If there are problems it’s in the souls of the writers. To me the biggest corrupting influence in this country in the production of literature and journalism is the attempt to make it an academic subject—the creative writing classes, journalism schools. That’s the wrong approach. It’s an attempt to establish a career path for writers. And also to take the risk out of it and say if you do X, Y, and Z, then you get this plum. I think the best stuff is done by lone rangers.

RB: One counter-argument that makes sense and I have heard from people who have been out in the world and then gotten into a writing program—it’s almost impossible for them as a staff writer or with another full-time job, to do their daily work and then go home and work on their novel. So the programs are giving them two years—

ML:—of freedom. That’s true. But it would be much more efficient just to give them the money and keep them out of the school.

RB: [laughs]

ML: The argument I don’t buy is that you can’t get yourself into print. I have now seen even quite prestigious magazines are really hungry for anybody who can write with a good idea. And you walk in the door and they have no idea who you are and you give them a page that looks great, that explains an idea they hadn’t thought of, they’ll say go give it a whirl. It’s a pretty open profession. And it’s porous.

RB: I have different sense it. I have written to David Remnick of the New Yorker and gotten no response or acknowledgement.

ML: David Remnick might not respond.

RB: [laughs]

ML: That’s one place—that’s a place that might be hard. But if you wrote to the managing editor of the New Republic, they’d respond. And if you wrote to Jacob Weisberg at Slate.com, he’d respond. There are places that are shop windows for making names for themselves as writers and you go there. There is a way in without having a degree. That’s one of the things that is neat about it. I think the degrees are unnecessary.

RB: Interesting that [Stephen] Glass and [Jayson] Blair are products of [journalism and writing] schools and they certainly learned how to be careerists.

ML: That is true.

RB: What was Janet Cooke [of the Washington Post]?

ML: I don’t know but she was a careerist, too. And yeah, it’s—[pauses] anyway the question was?

RB: Have things gotten better, worse, stayed the same?

ML: Life for me has gotten better. Life for everybody has generally gotten better, but what I can’t stand—this is what I can’t stand is writers who blame the environment for problems that are actually their own problems. And there is quite a bit of that that goes on.

RB: That goes along with an artistic temperament.

ML: That’s right.

RB: I would include myself in a group that at last occasionally whines about things.

ML: I do the same.

RB: I am struck this being a time when the cultural terrain has things like Paris Hilton, Donald Trump, I guess there’s still WWF and Jennifer Lopez’s romances and so on. There is a magazine on reality TV.

ML: There’s an opportunity for someone.

RB: [laughs]

ML: But there is also still the Atlantic, Harper’s, the New Yorker, the New York Times Magazine, the Nation, the New Republic. Just because the worst markets are expanding doesn’t mean there is not still a market for the best stuff.

RB: Hopefully the three or four small magazines that have begun publishing will gain a foothold—do you know Lawrence Wechsler?

ML: I do.

RB: He’s sent out a prototype for Omnivore, which is a magazine he is trying to launch—it’s interesting and smart and visually brisk. So if people such as he keep trying, that’s a good sign. I worry about when I see my son’s mother has a copy of US Weekly lying around her house—

ML: It’s moronic. It’s a picture magazine about love. [both laugh] Think of it that way and you’ll sleep at night.


I used to think that I had to write a novel. It was something I really should do. But now I don’t think that way—if I wanted to do it, I should try it, but only if I wanted to because it was likely to be painful.


RB: Getting back to you—you have a handful of things to choose from, which is nice. Do you ever think about turning to fiction?

ML: I think about it but I haven’t found myself so frustrated by nonfiction that I need to turn to fiction. And the screenplays are fiction. So I do have a fictional component to my life. It’s very hard because I do feel I can say an awful lot in the context of a nonfiction book. I know that I can get to a reader that way. I don’t really feel a need to write a novel. I can’t say that won’t change.

RB: Are you aware of the British view of fiction as the “senior service?”

ML: It’s funny: I think of it as an American—I grew up as a writer in England. I felt that the distinction between fiction and nonfiction was more heavily enforced in America. That novelists are artists and that nonfiction writers are mere journalists. Whereas in England the borders are more porous and you have recognized as great works of art lots of works of nonfiction, and a kind of irreverence towards fiction—maybe because there’s so much of it. The journalism over there is fictionalized quickly. The distinctions are not so clean. Whereas here there is the sanctity of objectivity.

RB: There is definitely an animus towards creative nonfiction here.
Lewis, by Robert Birnbaum
ML: I just think it’s all writing.

RB: Storytelling.

ML: My view is it’s storytelling and it’s all trying to get to people with words. And how you do—you have your bag of tricks and you do your best to get to them. And I haven’t felt a need to write a novel to get to people. So—and I am not sure I could. It’s a different thing. I don’t think of it as a higher or lower art. It’s just a different art. There are plenty of novelists who are crap nonfiction writers, who when they turn to write something [nonfiction] have real trouble. So it’s just a different thing. I used to think that I had to write a novel. It was something I really should do. But now I don’t think that way—if I wanted to do it, I should try it, but only if I wanted to because it was likely to be painful.

RB: Painful because you would be butting up against your limitations.

ML: That’s right.

RB: Do you envision not writing for an extended period?

ML: I don’t, because I get such pleasure out of it. I would say at this point I am addicted to it. It’s like exercise, a positive addiction. I wouldn’t want to do that. If I was forced to, it might yield interesting results.

RB: I don’t get the sense that you are compelled to pump stuff out.

ML: I don’t but I feel lazy a lot. And so I get myself working sometimes out of sheer guilt. I don’t feel like I have to sit down every day and write my 500 words. And sometimes I can’t because I don’t have the material or anything I really want to say. At the same time I feel a little more if I am not working on something. One way or another they’re in my mind. So I don’t see taking time off.

RB: And a memoir beyond what you have exposed in the piece about Coach Fitzgerald?

ML: Yes, possibly—a memoir has a higher bar to leap over. There is so much of it out there. And in a way it’s so easy to do—badly. You want to have a special reason for doing it, to keep your courage up while you are doing it.

RB: [laughs]

ML: I haven’t figured out what a particular reason is yet. [coyly, and with a smile] Other than, of course, I am very special. But I like the material of my past. I have very rich, untapped little treasure chest. So, I’d be surprised if I didn’t go there out of sheer opportunism, at some point.

RB: I hope we talk again when the next book comes out.

ML: Right, The Special One by Michael Lewis. [both laugh]

RB: Well, good.
 

biopic

Robert Birnbaum is editor-at-large at Identity Theory. All the sketchy details of his life will be (re)fabricated in his memoir-in-progress, Just Talking: How to Do Things With Words. His weblog can be found here. More by Robert Birnbaum