Interview: Michael Lewis, author and financial journalist

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Michael Lewis is a Berkeley resident and has written and published 14 books and numerous magazine articles. His first book, “Liar’s Poker” (1989), was a memoir about his experience as a bond trader for the investment bank Salomon Brothers in the late 1980s, and he has since written several nonfiction books covering aspects of the financial industry, including “Flash Boys,” published in March. The Daily Californian sat down with Lewis to discuss the financial industry, writing and his love of theatre.

Daily Cal: Why did you go to Wall Street?

Michael Lewis: I couldn’t figure out what else to do. I think it’s useful for writers to have experience doing something other than writing. I knew I wanted to write when I got the job. I was publishing things and I really liked doing it. I wrote for “The Economist,” I wrote occasional op-eds for the Wall Street Journal, and I was published in British newspapers. I had dinner with these people who said, “Come and work at Salomon Brothers.” So it was handed to me.

DC: What were your conceptions about it before you went into it?

ML: It was prestigious. It solved the problem of what to say when people asked me what I did for a living. I didn’t have this sense that it was a dark force, that I was joining the Evil Empire.

But especially in sales, you see just how many zero-sum interactions there are. It’s not win-win, it’s win-lose. Not all the interactions were that way, but enough of them were that I  quickly became a cynical about it.

DC: Did you feel like your peers went to Wall Street for similar reasons?

ML: When I was in college, it was hard to imagine a person that had a passion for finance in college. They wouldn’t have known. This was 1982. They wouldn’t have had the information available to them to have developed that interest. So the crowd I saw going in all went in because they couldn’t think of what else to do. Then the money was so good in relation to everything you might do that once you were in, it was hard to get out.

DC: Why did you leave?

ML: While I was there, I kept writing. I got in trouble because I wrote things about banking. I wrote an op-ed in the Wall Street Journal that argued, among other things, that investment bankers were wildly overpaid, and at the bottom it said, “Michael Lewis is an associate at Salomon Brothers in London.” The head of Salomon Brothers international, Charlie McFadden, pulled me into his office. I said I wasn’t going to stop writing. He told me to use another name. So I published under my mother’s maiden name, Diana Bleeker. Diana Bleeker wrote an article in The New Republic, and an editor at Simon & Schuster figured out who I was and called me at home in London to say he would publish me. At that moment, I had a foot out the door.

DC: Were you afraid to make the move?

ML: The only thing that looks hard in retrospect was the sum of money involved. The last year I was there, in 1987, they paid me $230,000, and the book contract was $40,000. But I had a sense, even then, that working on Wall Street was unsustainable. I was not going to be a valuable employee, because I didn’t like it. Leaving was exciting, so I must have felt some risk, but I didn’t have a sense of jeopardy. I had a false sense of certainty. I was so sure.

DC: Do you still go inside big banks? How is it different now?

ML: “The Big Short” and “Flash Boys” both required me to have formal interviews inside big banks. But often, what I needed I could get from people who would talk to me over a beer. I think they are too big, too complicated to manage, certainly should be busted up, but I am almost at the point where I’m beyond the point of caring because it seems like a waste of energy to get too worked up about it.

DC: Do you feel like writing about finance changed the way you write about other subjects?

ML: In both “The Blind Side” and “Moneyball,” value is at the center of the narrative. I think studying economics and not writing about finance but actually being in the markets, certainly had an effect. It changes the question. At the center of the “The Blind Side” is the question, “Why did this kid’s value change so much?” At the center of “Moneyball” is the question of why baseball as a sport fails in valuing talent. Those are the sort of questions that traders ask about securities.

DC: How do you feel like writing nonfiction has influenced you stylistically?

ML: If you get your start in journalism, you are going to have to have some facility with getting basic information across clearly. Fiction writers pride themselves on being essentially unknowable. Any fiction writer worth his salt thinks that, on some level, you are never going to understand his book because it goes so much deeper than you know.

DC: Would you ever write fiction?

ML: Only screenplays. I love the theatre. My fantasy is that I get my TV show in the air, it’s a big hit, and then someone lets me write a play. But I made a brief stab at writing a novel after writing “Liar’s Poker” because I felt I should, and I gave it up after a few months. There’s not a lot of things that I feel like I want to say that I can’t find a nonfiction vessel to say it in.

DC: What are you writing right now?

ML: I am writing a magazine piece for Vanity Fair about Silicon Valley. I am writing a screenplay for Showtime that is set in the 1920s in New York. The book I am working on is set largely in Israel.