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Writers on Writers: Jennifer Kahn asks Michael Lewis, "What the hell?"
Jennifer Kahn | Photo: John S. Dykes | June 3, 2013
Jennifer Kahn watches Michael Lewis lead softball practice.
This is what it’s like to spend time with Michael Lewis. You’ve got a job to do—this interview—so he invites you to hang out at his daughters’ softball practice. Lewis has two daughters: Quinn, who’s 13, and Dixie, who’s 11. Both have blond hair, like Lewis, and seem also to have inherited a certain fearlessness.
Besides competing in the local Berkeley rec league (Lewis: “coached by dads”; Quinn: “all kinda short, a little chubby, maybe with a gray mustache”), both girls play in competitive travel leagues, where games are aggressively contested. “Parents are thinking, ‘This is how my kid’s going to go to college!’” Lewis says, sending warm-up fly balls to Dixie in left field. “Often—often—opposing coaches get thrown out of the game. Dix, take it from there. Don’t charge it. I just want to see if you can make that throw.”
And so it goes. Lewis is a raconteur by default, and few vanities escape his notice, even when his attention is split between fielding questions and hucking grounders. He notes that the other local teams all call themselves “the something-something Elite” or “the something-something Extreme.” And what is their team’s name? “We’re just the Sting.”
During a travel game, Lewis says, it’s not uncommon for a parent to rage at the ump, trash talk someone else’s child, or fight with the coach. He describes this as “a great experience.” “Once the girls leave Berkeley, they start to encounter people who really care about winning,” he says as Dixie drills a throw to Quinn at first. “I love for them to see grown-ups behaving badly.”
Here is what fascinates me about Michael Lewis. It’s not his prose, even though he is a legendarily crisp writer whose books—and not just the best-sellers like Moneyball and The Blind Side, but also the should-be-tedious ones, like Liar’s Poker and The Big Short, about bond traders and financial markets, respectively—move with the effortless momentum of a gazelle bounding across a field. It’s not his sense of humor, even though he is famously funny: gimlet-eyed, unflinching, and slightly cruel. It’s not even his salary, despite the fact that he makes more than almost any other nonfiction writer currently working. (Rumor puts his Vanity Fair rate at roughly $10 a word.)
No, those attributes, while enviable, aren’t what get me. What amazes me about Michael Lewis— what has mystified and obsessed me since I first met him in a class he was teaching at UC Berkeley a decade ago—is his confidence. This is subtler than it seems. Lewis is not grandiose or narcissistic, nor is he delusional. He applies the same briskly critical, let’s-not-kid-ourselves eye to himself as he does to his subjects. What makes Lewis unique is the fact that, while most of us possess at least a modicum of confidence at least some of the time, Lewis possesses total confidence all of the time. He is simply never shaken. Not by a bad review (see: the Huffington Post, "Debunking Michael Lewis's The Big Short"). Not by someone suing him for defamation (see: Chau v. Lewis). Not even by a genuinely embarassing piece of work (see: Lewis's ill-conceived early-90s essay about dating an underwear model.) In January 2012, just by asking, he gained unprecidented access to President Barack Obama—playing pickup basketball, visiting his private quarters in the White House—for a 14,000 world pre-election story in Vanity Fair.
So while Lewis shags balls on a windswept Berkeley infield, I hunch awkwardly behind the plate and try to ask him what I really want to know. Which, in short, is: What the hell?