Author Michael Lewis thoroughly inhabits the space of the real-life people who become characters in his books – NFL offensive tackle Michael Oher in “The Blind Side,” for instance, or Oakland A’s general manager Billy Beane in “Moneyball.”
“People who have been main characters (in my books) are shocked by how much work it is,” Lewis said. “If they knew how much trouble it was going to be when we started out, they would think twice about getting into it.”
Lewis told me he couldn’t do what this columnist does: “I would be uncomfortable doing what you do. I have to go back again and again and again and again and again until I feel like I’m starting to really understand this. I find with subjects that you could ask them the same question twice in different environments, and they will give you two different answers. You want to make sure you get the right answer.”
Well, now, writing this column has become a tiny bit awkward and somewhat diverting. Yet it is no more daunting because the daily journalism process has worked so many times for this columnist, plus Lewis’ answers are nuanced and expansive. It is something that his fans will have the opportunity to savor in person when they hear the Berkeley resident speak at 8 p.m. Wednesday at the Community Center Theater, 1301 L St., in Sacramento.
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The author spent months living in Memphis, Tenn., alongside Oher and his adoptive parents, Sean and Leigh Anne Tuohy, and he spent roughly eight years gathering string for his upcoming book, “The Undoing Project: A Friendship That Changed Our Minds,” set to be released in December. He described his latest project as a prequel to “Moneyball” that tells the story of Israeli psychologists Daniel Kahneman and Amos Tversky, who explored the way the human mind makes systematic misjudgments in conditions of uncertainty.
Fans of Lewis’ work admire the vivid descriptions that come from his observant eye, and he does not disappoint when he turns that eye on himself and his work. He said he believes this skill came from his study of art history at Princeton University and from growing up with a sharply observant father in a city ripe for people-watching.
“New Orleans is just a fantastic smorgasbord of visual delight,” Lewis said. “It’s like a (Pieter) Bruegel painting. There’s all this stuff going on, just this exotic behavior, so your senses are awake. There’s a reason for them to be awake, as opposed to like when you’re at Costco or mall world and everything is numb and un-stimulating or too stimulating in the wrong way.”
Many people are exposed to Lewis’ books in movie theaters because they have been adapted for film. However, his seminal book, “Liar’s Poker,” did not enjoy that kind of exposure. In that memoir, Lewis wrote about his time as a bond salesman at Salomon Brothers. Asked whether there is anything he would change about the work, Lewis said “no,” but expounded.
“I never reread it, so I only vaguely remember the book. I never had any feelings of remorse about it,” he said. “As a work of nonfiction, there are plenty of technical things I would say that were kind-of amateurish about it. But I was an amateur. I was just starting out. I was 27 years old. So I can’t let my 55-year-old self rewrite my 27-year-old self. It would just be weird, but my 27-year-old self did the best he could with the hand he was dealt.”
Like “Barbarians at the Gate” and the fictional “Bonfire of the Vanities,” “Liar’s Poker” exposed the excesses of Wall Street in the 1980s. Lewis went on to write more books chronicling other high-finance schemes – “Flash Boys: A Wall Street Revolt” and “The Big Short: Inside the Doomsday Machine.” One can’t help but ask Lewis: Why does this keep happening again and again?
“Here are the necessary ingredients: male overconfidence, bad incentives, a really kind-of screwed-up relationship between the financial sector and everybody else,” he said. “One day, 100 years from now, people will look back on it and ask, ‘How did they ever let money do that to them, create institutions that had that sort of relationship with the rest of society?’ It was essentially predatory. You asked a big question, and there’s not a simple answer, but I’ll say this: If you got rid of male overconfidence, you’d be starting to solve the problem.”
As for the author, he manages his own money, putting it in index funds and a few bonds: “What’s the point of having money if you’ve got think about it all the time? The point of having money is that you don’t have to think about money.”
Who: The best-selling author has produced roughly a dozen books, several of which have been made into films. They include “The Blind Side: Evolution of a Game,” “Moneyball: The Art of Winning an Unfair Game,” and “The Big Short: Inside the Doomsday Machine.”
When: 8 p.m. Wednesday
Where: Sacramento Community Center Theater, 1301 L St.
Cost: Sold as a series, prices range from $210-$450; tickets not sold at the door