The moment Michael Lewis first spotted the Oakland A’s naked, the germ of the megahit “Moneyball” began forming in his brain. What he saw was this: Fat rolls abounded on more players than not. There was a pitcher with two club feet. Not only was the locker room not a pretty picture of buff athleticism and six-pack abs, it was — most importantly — the counter-intuitive thing.
The fat rolls and dimpled cheeks presented Lewis with a niggling image he couldn’t shake, one that would lead to pure storytelling gold:
How the hell had the A’s cobbled together a winning team out of this holy mess?
For “Moneyball,” that was Lewis’s aha image — the lucky inspired moment that changed everything that came after it.
I had my own hair-on-the-back-of-my-neck book moment the first time I heard that John Bassett III had his factory workers deconstruct a made-in-Dalian dresser to prove that the Chinese were illegally selling furniture at less than the cost of materials. Furthermore, the gritty Galax furniture maker had surreptitiously traveled to the hollows of northern China, with a Taiwanese translator-turned-spy in tow — to find out from whence factory the cheap dresser came. That’s when it hit me: This was a much bigger story than a newspaper article, with tentacles stretching from the hollows of Virginia to the halls of Washington and, finally, to Asia and back.
Or, as my agent put it when he read my first proposal, “Holy shit, Macy! You’ve stumbled on ‘Moneyball’ — with furniture.”
On the eve of the release of his new book, the instant bestseller “Flash Boys,” Michael Lewis spoke Friday to the Society of American Business Editors and Writers. I was in Phoenix at the same conference to talk about how one goes about turning an article into a book — from my own new fat rolls (gardnered via 420 pages worth of sitting down, to write “Factory Man”) to dealing with difficult story subjects.
Here are some takeaways from Lewis’s freewheeling talk, delivered breathlessly and cheerfully before he was ushered out of the conference hall for his next media event. (He wasn’t allowed to talk specifically about “Flash Boys” because “60 Minutes” had a story running Sunday and had embargoed the material. But since “Moneyball” had been my guidebook for “Factory Man,” which publishes July 15 by Little, Brown and Company, I really didn’t care. . . .)
- GET YOUR HEAD OUT OF YOUR “BEAT”: The best stories come about when the subjects have no idea they’re doing anything special at all. In the Oakland A’s Billy Beane’s case, they were using data to make business decisions. . . about baseball. “A lot of business is boring,” Lewis said. “The people in it don’t even know how to explain it. People in sports don’t say, ‘Wow, this is just like making plastic.’ ” People who aren’t daily business writers, then, tend to see things beat reporters overlook. (He encouraged editors to turn reporters loose when they have a real passion for an off-kilter nugget stumbled upon on their beat. Even a boring subject can come alive if it’s told through an appealing character.)
- ALWAYS LOOK FOR THE COUNTERINTUITIVE — the person or event that stretches the bounds of what’s normal in your subject arena: When Lewis first spotted the A’s naked, “I said to the front office, ‘They don’t look like professional athletes. And the second in command goes, ‘That’s exactly the point. We’re in the market for people who don’t look like baseball players. If they’re handsome, they’re overvalued. We’re looking for defective human beings who happen to play baseball.’ ”
- HOW TO SLOW-COURT A BOOK SUBJECT: “Don’t ask to sleep with them on the first date. Don’t even kiss them.” He interviewed Billy Beane every day, for hours a day, for a year. (Beane didn’t realize he was the main subject until the book came out. His main objection to the book, though, had nothing to do with being misled: It was that his mother would object to his constant use of the word “fuck.”) Leave little crumbs of unanswered questions for later interviews. “You never want your subject to think, ‘How am I going to get rid of this guy? You train them to want to say, ‘He leaves before we’re done!’ ” The goal is to make you and your notebook invisible.
- STORY STRUCTURE AND NOT NOT SCREWING AROUND: Lewis lays all his notes out — in paper form, not digital — on the floor. “It’s like a river full of rocks. I have to cross the river by jumping rock to rock to get to the other side. How do I get there?” The reporting never stops. He starts writing when he feels he has the first 30-40 pages formed in his head. He gives his publisher mini deadlines “and I hold to ‘em by the hour,” sending 60- to 70-page chunks at the end of every month. “And I gun for that deadline. I screw around without a deadline.”
- DON’T BRAG ABOUT WHAT YOU KNOW; BURY YOUR BABIES INSTEAD. A book isn’t an excuse for you to tell readers how much you’ve learned about the stock market or baseball or football recruiting. A book is ONLY a story. “When I’m done, I’ve hidden how much I know. You want your book to create the illusion that it took you two weeks to write it. You have to have a willingness to ruthlessly get rid of stuff.” Never say, “I interviewed 200 people,” pulling back the curtain on your reporting/writing process. “Don’t flip on the fluorescent lights over a candlelit dinner,” Lewis said.