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The Writer's Life: Michael Lewis puts faces on business stories

The author of 'Boomerang,' 'The Blind Side,' 'The Big Short' and 'Moneyball' credits his New Orleans upbringing for his storytelling skill.

November 13, 2011|By Reed Johnson, Los Angeles Times

As an investigative raconteur, Lewis proceeds from the axiom that, whether in a Wall Street boardroom or on a baseball diamond, you must focus on individuals and their behavior to understand societies. Every failed bank in Reykjavik, Iceland, every collapsed mortgage in suburban Dublin, Ireland, every Molotov cocktail hurled in Athens' Syntagma Square, was precipitated by singular human actions, he observes.

"The credit crisis, it's not just evil bankers, although there are plenty of those, it's not just the banking system losing its mind," Lewis says. Millions of Americans who made reckless decisions also are to blame, Lewis points out.

Lewis credits his tale-telling instincts to the daily gab-fests he absorbed as a Louisiana youth. "I didn't know anybody who knew anybody who'd written a book, with the one exception of Walker Percy, who was this freak who lived across the lake," he says. "But everybody tells stories in New Orleans. A New Orleanian ran Goldman Sachs in the golden age of Goldman Sachs, [Gustave] "Gus" Levy. And I think it's because he really emerged from New Orleans with an advanced degree in spinning.... . And the financial world is all about that."

In one way, Lewis acknowledges, his hometown — poor, sinking, bleeding population — epitomizes failure. In another, it stands undaunted as a symbol of "misvalued" things — people whose gifts go unrecognized, good ideas that get drowned out by bad ones, the rare gem that almost winds up on the garbage heap.

"Never become a lawyer — you've got to listen to other people's problems," Lewis' lawyer father often said, and the son took half of that advice. He now lives with his wife, former MTV reporter Tabitha Soren, and their three children in Berkeley, where, Lewis jokes, his leftier-than-thou friends regard him practically as Rush Limbaugh.

Even so, it's the first community he's lived in that reminds him of New Orleans' small-town affability, a place where life can be slowed and savored while the human success stories, in their polished shoes and pinstripes, rush by.

"What was important inside New Orleans was who your mama was, what carnival organization you belonged to, where you went to school," he reflects. "It wasn't that there was an attitude that was hostile to success, it was that success was family, it was 'did you give pleasure to people?' It was just kind of being. It wasn't achieving."

reed.johnson@latimes.com

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