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Magic and Self-Loathing in Berkeley: Michael Lewis on Becoming a Writer

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Since the release of his new book, The Big Short, Michael Lewis has been interviewed about The Meltdown, mortgage-based securities, the coming wave of bank regulation, Wall Street bonuses and the major characters in his book. Rave reviews have included a comment from Felix Salmon to the effect that the book is "probably the single best piece of financial journalism ever written." Michiko Kakutani of the New York Times says, "No one writes with more narrative panache about money and finance than Mr. Lewis."

Lewis is a storyteller, not an economics professor, who uses the device of a narrative about four outliers who did their homework to uncover the ugly truth about the subprime mortgage market and to detail how Wall Street put lipstick on the pig to sell it. So we learn about complex financial instruments, the role of rating agencies and the inner workings of major investment banks as we read a tale about the journey of these people to enormous profits earned by betting against the financial system. We become engaged with the characters and want to know their stories, even as we already know the bad ending to the financial crisis. Lewis believes "there's a magic to narrative, a magic to story."

Speaking over lunch in a Midtown bistro, we had a conversation about how he became a writer, who has influenced him and how he conjures the motivation to write.

AW: The rumor goes that when you were in London, working for Salomon, you wrote for London-based periodicals using your mother's name. What was that about?

ML: What happened was that I wrote magazine articles when I was in the London School of Economics as a student before I got hired by Salomon Brothers. I published a few things, under my own name, a bunch of things for The Economist, but there was no byline. I also published a few things in the Wall Street Journal, so I had a bit of a career going when I got into Salomon Brothers. I then wrote an article for the Journal, the thrust of which was "investment bankers are ridiculously overpaid." It said at the bottom, "Michael Lewis is an Associate at Salomon Brothers in London." I got into work and the head of Salomon Brothers, Europe appeared at my desk and said, "We have a crisis...your article appeared in the US as well as Europe, we didn't know about it. In addition to being in the Journal, it's all over and being reprinted in a number of different places, and the board has had a discussion about it." He went on to say, "This is a big deal," and I said, "Sorry, but I want to write and I know I want to keep writing." He said, "Be reasonable, Michael," because he liked me and I liked him.

AW: They weren't going to fire you?

ML: No, they weren't going to fire me because I was too profitable. I had the single biggest customer outside of the United States and he would only talk to me ... so they weren't going to fire me, and I knew they weren't going to fire me, so they were great about it. He said, "You can keep writing but you can't use your name. Use your mother's name." My mother's name is Diana Bleeker Monroe, so I began using Diana Bleeker.

Michael Kinsley published a piece of mine that was a discussion about what the LBO [leveraged buyout] market was doing and what Wall Street was doing, and I remember going to the Salomon trading floor and everyone had it. People had copied it and were passing it around. A few people said, "This sounds like you. Who is Diana Bleeker?" But then "Diana Bleeker" got a call from Chevy Chase's dad, who used to be an editor at Simon and Schuster. He must have gotten my name from Michael Kinsley. He said, "You really ought to think about writing a book," so I got an agent and went out and sold the book soon after.

I got the offer the day before Christmas. I was with my parents and they thought I was nuts to take the book contract and leave Salomon. I waited for my bonus to hit the account in January and I left to write Liar's Poker. And it was really the articles I published as Diana Bleeker, including some in the New Republic, that were the catalyst for all of that.

AW: Before you got the book deal, what built your confidence?

ML: The writing I did as a student -- the little stack of clips I had from The Economist and Wall Street Journal. That built my confidence but without data. Nobody I knew made their living as a writer. The whole notion that you could make your living as a writer was an abstract idea. I didn't know that I could do it and I didn't know anybody who did. But I grew up in New Orleans and there's a lot of storytelling there, and a respect for writers. So there was a haphazard and unplanned start to my literary career -- I didn't go to journalism school, never wrote for the school paper, none of that, never tried.

AW: But after that first book, you had an editor ...

ML: I have the same editor at Norton now that I had then, Star Lawrence, and a magazine editor I adored in Michael Kinsley. A lot of the infrastructure of my writing life now is the same as it was then. It stands up -- the same people are at Norton. It's amazing -- the editor, the sales director, the rights person -- they're all the same. In my magazine life, I also have a pretty stable life. Vanity Fair is a new relationship.

AW: But what's interesting is that you made a transition from the early writing about economic issues -- even if it wasn't bone dry, it wasn't full of interesting characters -- to books where the line between fiction and nonfiction blurs. As a reader, you get drawn into the characters.

ML: My goal when I write these things is to hope that somebody can put it down, not having known anything about that world, and wonder if I made it all up. If it works as a story, they can justify having read it as a story.

Liar's Poker is when I first started doing this -- it's really fun to have characters. Again, New Orleans is full of storytellers but it's not a self-conscious environment. When I first started submitting magazine pieces, it wasn't my natural bent -- I was thinking novels, screenplays: narrative versus commentary. Narrative comes much more naturally to me.

AW: A lot of us are looking for mentors, and think there's something wonderful in having a mentor. Do you have mentors, and if so, who are they?

ML: Yes, but they are imaginary mentors -- real people who didn't know they were my mentors, like Michael Kinsley. I just spent a lot of time reading the stuff of people I adored -- Tom Wolfe, people who I subsequently developed relationships with. I initially had an imagined relationship with them because I loved their work. I didn't have a relationship where people gave me a "leg up" because they knew me ... that didn't happen. I had a passionate, private relationship with someone's work and eventually this led, almost magically, to a personal relationship with them down the road. Who would be on that list? Actually living people, not dead people: Tom Wolfe. Michael Kinsley. Nick Lemann, dean of the journalism school at Columbia, a family friend. Jim Fallows in the early days. Hunter Thompson -- someone I ended up drinking with throughout one night. Those are the main ones.

AW: These are all larger-than-life characters.

ML: Through no persistence of my own, what's magical is that I ended up in a social relationship with them. You take them in and keep taking them in, and when you start writing, some little piece of them is in you and they sense it -- I think that's what happens.

AW: You've been very prolific -- nine books in ten years. On days that you're writing, what do you do? How do you approach getting it all done?

ML: Well, I get up, take my child to school, then come back to my office and usually procrastinate until I panic, and then I write. I procrastinate to a point where I'm filled with self-loathing and then I start writing. It's usually a state of self-loathing that gets me going.

AW: So you feel the pressure of the deadline and that gets you going, just like the rest of us.

ML: It starts with self-loathing. With a book, a deadline is a funny thing because it's far away and they're used to having you miss it, so I have to create deadlines for myself. I guess I'm good at creating artificial deadlines, so I get a chapter done and then another. I also find that once I'm in the story, I find a narrative and then it almost writes itself. The hardest part's in the beginning, but once you feel you've kind of hooked yourself in a story, it almost writes itself. I wrote this book [The Big Short] in four and half months. I did a year of wandering around and learning, but the first words were laid down on paper on August 15 and I finished the beginning of January. But I wasn't through the first thirty or forty pages until early October. So the beginning took me a lot longer than anything else. Knowing where to start and knowing that the thing was off the ground took more energy than keeping it in the air. That's how it felt.

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