Today, Bookpleasures.com is excited to have as our guest Mike Sager. Mike, who has been called the “Beat Poet of American journalism” is a best-selling author and award-winning reporter.
A protege of Metro Editor
Bob Woodward of Watergate fame, he is a Writer-at-Large for Esquire
magazine, a former Contributing Editor of Rolling Stone and
Writer-at-Large for GQ and has made a name for himself as an
interviewer for InStyle's cover stories of Hollywood's hottest
actresses, including Jennifer Lawrence, Jennifer Lopez, Salma Hayek,
He is also the author of 7 books, and the founder of The
Sager Group.Net, an independent publishing group for writers and
Many of his stories have been optioned for or inspired
movies, including the classic Boogie Nights, and the
Disney/Bruckheimer biopic about the death of crusading Irish
journalist Veronica Guerin with Kate Blanchet. For more info on
Mike, visit his Website and the links mentioned below.
Good day Mike and thanks for participating in our interview.
Thanks for having me Norm. It’s my (Book)pleasure to be here.
How did you get started in writing? What keeps you going?
When I was young, my mother used to ask me about a million questions before I was allowed to do anything. I think it helped me develop my verbal skills. My grandfather was a lawyer in a small southern town. I used to go visit him and sit in the secretary’s desk (I never did see a secretary) and play on the typewriter.
I’d type my name the way it read on my grandfather’s stationery, Michael A. Sager, Attorney at Law. It took me until I actually was attending law school to realize that what I really loved to do was type. I quit after three weeks to pursue a career in writing and have never looked back. Back then, I told myself, I just want to see how far I can go. I guess I’m still going.
What do you want your work to do? Amuse people? Provoke thinking?
In the musical Mary
Poppins there’s a song about a spoonful of sugar helping the
medicine go down. I like to think that my work is first of all
entertaining—sugary and beautiful and fun and well-crafted and
But there is always a spoonful of knowledge and
truth. A little bit of politics and philosophy and especially
history, because I was a history major in college but I think most
people don’t listen much to the lessons of the past.
There is a bit
of benign manipulation, that of the story teller, in my work, too. I
might lead you down a path just to mess you all up. But all stories
and all lives have lessons.
In my journalism I have always found that the public’s general understanding of any given subject is usually kind of off. In our headline news culture, we’re only ever dipping off the top of the barrel of wisdom. And I think a lot of crap is always floating on the top. For instance, to help research High Tolerance, I spent three days and nights with the celebrity Paris Hilton. In real life, Hilton doesn’t use the high and whispery voice she is known for. In real life, she has a lower, louder voice with less of a Valley Girl accent. In real life, she’s no ditz, either: she has a huge international business with dozens of products—everything from scrapbooking material to clothes and accessories to Paris Hilton stores in places as far flung as Uzbekistan and Abu Dabi.
The Hilton story can be found in my fourth collection of non-fiction stories. It’s titled The Someone You’re Not. It borrows the title from one of the stories collected, about a guy who spent 29 years in jail for a crime he didn’t commit. But I chose it for the title of the book because it perfectly speaks to the sort of mission I’ve been on for my entire career. Above all, over nearly four decades as a journalistic anthropologist, I have endeavored to find the real truth wherever I go. The Buddhists call it “the way things really are.” While there are always several visions, you find over time that there is agreement, and in there is where the truth dwells.
Is your work improvisational or do you have a set plan?
My techniques are based deeply in craft. When I do journalism, I’ve developed ways—over my nearly four decades in the field—of being with people (everyone from an LA crack gang to a Tupperware saleswoman in suburban Maryland), gathering information, researching, transcribing, the whole process. When I write fiction, I research things in much the same way, only I’m allowed in fiction to commit what’s considered a huge sin in journalism—creating composits and switching around details. All my fiction is based in “the way things really are.” My standards for “bs” are really high. Stuff has to be real.
As for the writing part, I’m a big believer that a writer should be his own best editor. Once I’ve got a sentence on the page, the editor takes over. But that’s the rub. Getting the sentence initially to the page? That’s not based in craft. That part is magical. I can’t explain why things come out the way they do. I try not to think about it because I can’t control it. You know? Like, Shhhhh. Don’t mention it! I just try to do everything I can—all the research and reporting on one end and the editing on the other—to keep the lovely beast fed and happy. Hopefully it keeps returning.
I will say this. Writers block is not a block from writing. It’s when you don’t have anything to say. Or when you don’t know what you want to say. When you go out and study people and observe things, you’re never at a loss. The art comes in trying to weave it all together.
What's the most difficult thing for you about being a writer?
Pitching! Selling ideas to publishers and editors is the most difficult thing. And also getting your work out to the public. As a journalist I’m in major magazines with a guaranteed audience. As a novelist I’m over here in the corner jumping up and down saying, please notice me! And the reason that really, um, sucks, is because my fiction is my best work by far. The result of nearly forty years of work and practice. It’s funny how you can be well known for one thing but not so well known for something else. Ha, maybe Bookpleasure will help!
But I will never say it’s difficult to be a writer. Anymore than I could say it’s difficult to be five foot five and bald. Being a writer is who I am and I love it—it’s a job and a life rolled into one. I have always chosen it first. (Well, probably now I would say I would choose my son first. He is after all my greatest creation.) I have always tried to honor my cosmos-given talent with a sort of robust self-enablement. I work hard. I just keep trying. Even when nobody else seems to care. I don’t know what else I’d do otherwise. I am happiest when I am typing, and when I am making words appear on the screen. My screen is a little world where I have control.
What helps you focus when you write and do you find it easy reading back your own work?
Writing for me means re-writing. I go over and over sentences and then I come back the next day and go over them some more and then push farther ahead and repeat the process. I love the moment after I’ve typed a new sentence because after that, the pressure to create is off… after you find the idea in a sentence, the craft side can take over and you’re like any other craftsman, using your skills to shape and polish and hone.
When I was in college I studied with the author and jazz historian Albert Murray. From him I learned to read my sentences out loud as I work. I love the sound of words, the rhythm, writing good prose has a lot of music in it. After I published my first book, in 2003, I went out on tour and discovered that my stories were really fun to read out loud. They’re written out loud so it makes sense, right? And oh, it feels so wonderful to read in front of people. There’s a palpable silence in the room when you’re reading—if you’ve got the audience, you can feel them listening, hanging on the words you’ve so carefully built. It’s like up at the podim, you can feel them leaning in, Hoovering up the words. I never used to understand how singers could sing their same hit over and over again. But you know what? There are certain passages in certain stories that I do for readings that I love to read. Ham that I’ve become, I would read them anytime I’m asked. It’s very exhilarating and affirming. Or maybe I’ve just spent too much time alone in my room.
How has your environment/upbringing colored your writing?
done has made me the person I am. It’s like I’ve collected little
pieces from every journey and reporting trip and interview, and now
my world view is made up of all those pieces. Sometimes I think of
myself as a sort of found art collage, constructed of all these
Additionally, the safe and homogenous suburbs where I was raised kind of inspired me with a sort of wanderlust for other places and types of people and and ideas. I never was comfortable with the idea that there’s only one way to be, one set of ideas, etc. There are lots of different ways. I call them “constellations of reality”—everybody sees order differently. High Tolerance is partially about that, the clash of cultures and ideas from one group of people to the other. That’s something that’s amazing about the Los Angeles Area. It’s so polycultural. All kinds of people with different world views rubbing up against each other, even as the Hollywood dream factory exports its own ideal.
What do you think of the new Internet market for writers?
The tag line for my publishing company, The Sager Group (www.TheSagerGroup.Net), is “Harnessing the means of production.” I borrowed that line from the rapper Ice Cube, out of an interview I did with him many years ago when he was just getting started in the business. He was talking about how rappers were making their own music in their own studios, marketing it themselves, waving off the old ways to gain a degree of self determination. Because of the internet, artists have that ability to harness the means of production, to get their work out to the public on their own terms, without the need for gatekeepers.
The negative side is that the internet has gutted the pay scale for writers. Even as the cost of health care, salaries, housing and consumer goods, go up, the price paid for journalism and professional writing has gone down. So the web has created a need and also an outlet. We’ll see how it goes. Selling some books would help. Thanks for this platform!
Could you tell our audience something about your most recent novel High Tolerance and what would you say is the best reason to recommend someone to read the book?
High Tolerance is about sex, race, celebrity, and marijuana. It’s a romping fun story that takes place behind the scenes in Hollywood. The main characters are a beloved superstarlet, a controversial billionaire hip-hop mogul, and a television writer/family man idled by the Writers Guild of America strike of 2008-09—all of them linked together improbably by murder, domestic heartbreak, a sex video . . . and their inclusion on a secret subscription list for an exclusive designer strain of medical marijuana. Over a span of three seemingly ordinary days and nights in Los Angeles, the world wobbles on its digital axis, and futures are forever changed.
The novel is set in Hollywood, in January 2008. The WGA is on strike. An increasingly peevish viewing audience is relegated to a starvation diet of reruns and old movies. What happens when a series of shocking, deadly, and prurient events boils over into a perfect storm of round-the-clock programming? And what becomes of the major players, whose lives are unalterably masticated by the public’s right to know?
High Tolerance is the result of my three decades behind the scenes for publications like Rolling Stone and Esquire, covering celebrities, gangs, drugs, and crime. I hope it’s a raw, entertaining and insightful tale of complicated lives in the shifting racial landscape of turn-of-the-century Los Angeles, the dream factory from which the American Zeitgeist is exported around the globe.
In fiction as well as in non-fiction, writers very often take liberties with their material to tell a good story or make a point. But how much is too much?
Top journalists take NO liberties with the facts. Full stop. Non-fiction means NOT FICTION.
Every one of my non fiction stories is finely audited by fact checkers and lawyers. The art to being a literary journalist is to stay within the facts. You just have to work a little harder. And I’ll tell you this: There’s nothing stranger than truth. I give that line to one of my characters in High Tolerance. At the time he says it, he’s in a bit of a pickle.
That’s why I love fiction. You can make composite characters, you can do anything you want. Because of a lifetime of working in “reality,” my fiction has to have plausibility. And it has to have a beginning, a middle, and an end, which life doesn’t always give you so neatly but makes for a more satisfying story. I want my readers to come away satisfied. But of course I also want them to come away wanting a little more of my writing, another book to read.
What would you like to say to writers who are reading this interview and wondering if they can keep creating, if they are good enough, if their voices and visions matter enough to share?
When I was 21, I took a big chance and listened to my heart. I knew I’d never be able to be great at doing something I didn’t want to do, so I set out upon this path. I put in the hard work and effort every single day; in this way I justify my choice. Nobody can tell you if you’re good enough. Nobody can tell you if you should be a writer or not.
I think the test is easy. If you are a person who cannot live without writing, you must write. If you’re not that person, you know that, too.
Where can our readers find out more about you and your books?
Thanks for asking.
*Esquire magazine and Esquire.com
*Facebook: Mike Sager/ Esquire
As this interview draws to a close what one question would you have liked me to ask you? Please share your answer.
How about this question: “How happy are you to be the subject of an interview by Bookpleasures?”
It’s wonderful that you’ve taken your time to help me spread the word about my book. I promise your readers will find High Tolerance to be a great read, sugar and medicine, and a lot to chew on, too.
Thanks for the compliment and once again and good luck with all of your future endeavors