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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?
Lewis takes off his coat and sets up a portable seat behind the plate. At 13, Quinn has a frighteningly powerful arm, and for the next 30 minutes her pitches hit Lewis’s glove with the smack of a boxer hitting the heavy bag. “At this level, it’s such a pitching-centric game,” Lewis says as Quinn drives home a change-up. “You can almost watch the pitchers warming up and see who’s going to win.” Lewis is not uncompetitive. Just after Quinn and Dixie joined the Berkeley team, he recruited Val Arioto, a 24-year-old national softball champion and the 2012 Pac-12 player of the year, to serve as his daughters’ coach. Calling pitches from the side-lines, Arioto corrects Quinn’s form with mild authority: “Arm came up on that one”; “Use your hip as a whip.” Despite this advantage, the team’s performance has been uneven. “When they were 10, they got killed by everybody,” Lewis recalls. “Then, for a while, they got better. And then they started playing older teams, and they got killed again.” Characteristically, Lewis sees this problem as at least partly a matter of confidence. “You watch these little girls, and it’s so exaggerated. The minute they get a little down—or a little up—the game is over. They’re either going to crush the other team, or they’re going to fold.” Like sports, writing is a mental game: If you don’t think you can do it, you probably won’t be able to. Sometimes these doubts constitute a mild disability—temporary personal torment. Sometimes they’re more severe. One writer I know of spent over nine years working on a single 5,000-word magazine story. Lewis doesn't have that problem. When I observe that he seems remarkably free of writerly neuroses, he replies, "That's true." He doesn't worry about antagonizing his sources, hurting the feelings of people he writes about, or being scorned by experts. he also claims not to worry about the success of his books. "If I'm interested in it, I just assume other people will be, too," he says.
Lewis is so confident, in fact, that at times he can sound like a bit of a dick. He describes writer's block as "a myth" (take that, Nine Years) and thinks that writers who doubt their ability should just basically get over it ("You have to condition yourself not to have those thoughts"). When I point out that some people might have more difficulty shedding their anxieties, Lewis seems simultaneously puzzled and annoyed—like a rock climber confronted with someone terrified of heights. "To worry about what people will think, whether you're good enough—what value is there in any of those thoughts?" he asks, snagging a low fastball. "All those thoughts are just excuses to freeze."
It’s Dixie’s turn on the mound.
Lewis: “So, Val, what should Dixie have in her head when she’s pitching?”
Val: “That she’s going to strike out anyone who gets in the box.”
Lewis: “That’s exactly right.”
Lewis’s agenda for his daughters is complex. On the one hand, the author of several books about professional sports and Wall Street is, not surprisingly, genuinely interested in winning. On the other hand, he sees sports as a pathway to understanding resilience, which means that the losses are as important as the wins. “Val’s putting them in positions where they fail, and then teaching them how to come out of it again. And they remember it. You fail, and then you get over it. You fail, and you fight through it. You write crappy things, and you say, ‘I’ll come back and redo it.’ You develop that skill here, and you can take it anywhere.”
As a boy, Lewis got a similar message from his mother. Growing up, he was sass-mouthed and vaguely delinquent: When he was 12, he would sneak out at night and hacksaw the hood ornaments off of cars. Despite that, he says, his mother created “a narrative” for him. “She would say, ‘What I love about you, Michael...’—and she’d sound a little angry, because I was always pissing her off—but she’d say, ‘What I love about you is that when life hands you lemons, you always find a way to make lemonade.’”
It’s a cliché, sure, but for Lewis, it was also formative. “It was a story I started to believe about myself: I’m the guy who, in a bad situation, finds a way to turn it around. Once you start thinking that way, a setback almost becomes fun.”
Though it’s not very well known, Lewis has actually written a slim book that includes an origin-of-confidence story of sorts. Called Coach: Lessons on the Game of Life, the book details the inspirational, borderline-abusive practices of his high school baseball coach, Billy Fitzgerald. While Fitz was known to vent his temper by occasionally smashing a water cooler with a baseball bat, or, sour from a lackluster loss, conduct bloody base-sliding drills in a bare, rocky lot, Lewis’s coach also taught him something rare and elusive: toughness in the wake of disappointment.
Much as a child who survives smallpox acquires immunity to the disease, Lewis, through the efforts of Fitz, developed a kind of inoculation against self-doubt. He recalls a time when the team, 0 and 12, and wearing uniforms that hadn’t been washed since before the base-sliding drill (a Coach Fitz penance), reached a strange kind of apotheosis. Grubby and winless, Lewis writes, free from vanity and with nothing left to lose, “we ceased, at least for a moment, to fear failure.”
Dixie drills in a change-up.
Lewis: “Ho! There you go! A little low, but it was a pretty strike.”
Val: “Go hard with your legs. Don’t let me read it.”
Lewis: “Strike two! That one had some spin on it. Remember, if you don’t like what I give you, shake me off. You have to take ownership. It’s your job to say, ‘This is my pitch.’”
This could almost be Lewis’s motto: Shake it off. Own the pitch. As though confidence can be created by sheer force of will. And who knows? Maybe it can.
“I do think that if you don’t feel it, you fake it,” Lewis says as Val calls the last pitch. “When I coach, my strategy is to persuade the team that they’re good, even before they are good.” He shrugs. “And then they get good.”
Lewis: “Boom! Strike three. Outta there! We’re done!”
Jennifer Kahn teaches journalism at UC Berkeley and writes for the New Yorker, the New York Times Magazine, and many other publications. She lives in Rockridge.
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Originally published in the June 2013 issue of San Francisco.
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