Tackling Michael Lewis

Michael Lewis

Here is an excerpt of an interview of Michael Lewis by Dave Weich (in 2006) for the Powell’s Books website. To read the complete interview and interviews of other prominent authors, please click here.

Since this interview was conducted, Lewis has published another bestseller, The Big Short.

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In his debut, Liar’s Poker, Michael Lewis described in hilarious detail how he stumbled into a job on Wall Street with Salomon Brothers, and what he found among “the king of traders.”

“Salomon Brothers really did make me alive to the way markets worked and how important they were,” Lewis explains.

The evidence is everywhere in his work, alongside a well honed talent for engaging portraiture. Lewis doesn’t so much write about business as the people who change it.

In 2000’s The New New Thing, we met Jim Clark, the visionary founder of Silicon Graphics, Netscape, and Healtheon. Six years later, the book remains among journalism’s most illuminating records of the dot-com boom.

2003’s Moneyball stands as perhaps the best (certainly the most important) baseball book since Jim Bouton’s Ball Four.

In Oakland A’s general manager Billy Beane, Lewis discovered an ex-ballplayer who discarded the sport’s longstanding traditions and in doing so turned a franchise with one of the league’s lowest payrolls into an annual contender.

With Moneyball still riding bestseller lists, the syndicated columnist embarked on what he imagined to be a small project, an essay about his high school baseball coach (later published as Coach). That research put him back in touch with a childhood friend and set him off, unknowingly, on the path to his next book.

The reclusive son of a drug-addled single mom suddenly becomes one of the most valued football prospects in America — how? A year before the scouts came calling, young Michael Oher had virtually no formal education, no social skills, and no athletic experience.

In The Blind Side, Michael Lewis investigates changes in the pro game that transformed an anonymous position, offensive left tackle, into the NFL’s second highest paid job. Among the beneficiaries, he uncovers Big Mike, and a remarkable story of life-altering second chances. From the outskirts of Memphis, The Blind Side offers another engaging example of market forces at work.

I want to start by asking about a story in yesterday’s New York Times. Netflix announced they’re going to give a million dollars to the first person who can improve the site’s personal recommendation engine.

They’re offering a bounty to geeks.

There was a great quote in the article by the company’s chief executive, who says, “The beauty of the Netflix prize is that you can be a mathematician in Romania or a statistician in Taiwan, and you can be the winner.” And I’m thinking to myself: The beauty of the prize is that they don’t pay a nickel to any of the people who don’t win. They don’t pay health insurance. They’re not even required to hire the winner.

A really smart thing to do because they will get more than a million dollars of labor. They’re applying a tournament logic to the labor market. If you start thinking about it, you wonder why anyone has employees. That’s very odd. I bet it works, too.

Even if no one improves their system, they’ve already received plenty of publicity.

That’s right. Does every person who improves the system win?

No. The Times said the winner will be the first person to achieve “a ten percent improvement.” How exactly that ten percent is gauged, I don’t know.

It could get messy in the execution.

It’s easy to imagine a lawsuit on behalf of the person who improves the system by five or eight or nine percent.

I hadn’t seen that story. I’ll go dig it out.

I enjoyed reading in Next about the development of TiVo and its competitor, Replay. I’ve always wondered why the fast forward button on my DVR doesn’t skip straight over the commercials.

They embedded in the technology compromises between the old way and the new way. They stiffed their customers slightly in interest of the business model.

But the technology represented such a huge leap forward that it didn’t matter.

Right. It didn’t matter. And when I wrote that, TiVo had not yet won the war.

It’s funny. It’s so hard to tell in the moment which technology is going to succeed. I remember walking with Jim Clark into his Healtheon office after they had gone public — no, actually, it was the MyCFO office, what was going to be the successor to Healtheon — and TiVo was across the hall from him. He said, “I don’t see the point in that. I can’t see why anyone would want it.”

He dismissed it, so I thought, Well, there must be nothing there. But I went back and looked at it, and I thought, God, this seems fantastic. But even someone as prescient as Jim Clark said it wasn’t going to work. And it may not work, actually, as a business model — it’s still unclear whether TiVo will survive — but the technology is relentless, it’s inevitable, everybody will have it sooner or later.

Have you followed much of what’s going on with YouTube and iTunes? What do you think will happen to video and television programming?

People will be able to slice and dice it however they want.

In television, the established forces are always slow to respond, but everyone is now preparing for a day when there are no actual ads, when the ads are all embedded in the programming. There is huge pressure on people who are creating television programs to come up with clever ways to write the programs so viewers don’t know they’re watching an ad. That’s probably the end game there.

There will always be a market for good drama and good comedy. If people want to watch it, there are ways to get them to pay. I don’t think it’s the end of television. I do think it’s the end of the network model, though.

Regarding The Blind Side, how did writing a book with an old friend at the center of the story affect your relationship to the material?

I probably don’t know exactly, but this was a person I had not seen or heard from in twenty-five years, and I didn’t think of him as a friend the last time I saw him. We had been friends when we were about eight.

It was a little odd, but it saved me a lot of trouble trying to figure out his character because I’d seen it in action as a kid.

More to the point, I’d have never written the story otherwise. I stumbled into it well before Michael Oher became a hot football prospect. I saw the humble beginnings. When I first met Michael at Sean’s house, Sean was telling me about writing letters to Division 2 coaches that he’d known in his playing days at Ole Miss; he thought he could get Michael into college as a basketball player. He didn’t have a future as a basketball player, but Sean could maybe get him an education; these coaches would take care of him.

Sean was oblivious at that point to Michael’s value. If I hadn’t seen that with my own eyes — and I wouldn’t have seen it if I hadn’t known him — I don’t think I would have believed their motives were as pure as I think they are.

It’s funny because their motives became slightly impure once he became valuable. It would have been slightly embarrassing if Michael hadn’t gone to Ole Miss, for example. They did become conflicted, and they know it. But he was in their lives before they thought he had value; that’s not why they made him part of the family.

It was important also that I had some sense of what Sean’s heart was like. It’s all helpful. When you write characters fresh, like Jim Clark, someone I’d never laid eyes on until I walked into his office two years before I wrote The New New Thing, there’s a limit to how well you can get to know them. And you have to work much harder to get to know them. Think of your own life. Think back to people you knew when you were little kids. You develop a feel for a person’s character when you’re a kid that’s very hard to duplicate later on, especially when you’re functioning as a journalist, inspecting them. You saw them when they didn’t think they were being watched. That was a huge advantage.

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