Michael Lewis on writing, interviewing, New Orleans

Aidan McCahill, Associate News Editor

When I met Michael Lewis this past Bookfest, he joked that this paper had once written a hit piece on him. Back in 2005, The Hullabaloo had described Tulane’s decision to pick Lewis for the commencement speaker as “strikingly inappropriate,” citing outrage from students who believed they deserved better. 

Almost 18 years later, Lewis’s resume suggests otherwise. Known for bestsellers such as “Moneyball,” “The Big Short” and “The Blind Side,” Lewis’s writing career could be characterized as high-profile business journalism, exposing greed and inefficiencies in various institutions, mixed with in-depth, emotional character studies. 

“It always starts with the character.” Lewis said. “Someone who’s coming at the world from a different angle.” 

These include people like Michael Burry, a physician turned hedge fund manager who predicted the 2008 financial crisis, eccentric Silicon Valley billionaire — and Tulane alumnus — James H. Clark and pioneering Jewish psychologists Amos Tversky and Daniel Kahneman. 

Despite studying world-renowned people, which at one point included flying with George Soros to former Soviet Republics, a lesser-known Tulane alumnus stands out as Lewis’s favorite. Charity Dean, a physician profiled in “The Premonition: A Pandemic Story,” attended Tulane Medical and Tulane School of Public Health. A central figure of the book, Dean was one of the earliest scientists to warn about COVID-19.

“If you’d say, ‘Okay, Michael, you have all these characters you’ve written about, which is most likely to make a great movie?’  [Dean],” Lewis said.

Lewis’s current project is on Sam Bankman-Fried, the man behind the rise and fall of cryptocurrency exchange FTX. Lewis has been spending time with Bankman-Fried since the exchange’s collapse in November. 

“He’s a fun character,” Lewis said. “And I got it all.”

Shivani Bondada

Lewis, known for making esoteric topics in finance and economics digestible to a wider audience, also mentioned the importance of interviewing good teachers in order to learn about these topics. 

“I think of it as removing all the [expletive],” Lewis said. “All the efforts that insiders make to make the things seem so complicated so you can’t possibly understand.” 

A graduate of Newman High School down the street, Lewis’s personality complemented his New Orleans roots. Down to earth and quick to laugh, he made a nervous Hullabaloo writer feel like he was a good interviewer. 

After graduating from Princeton, Lewis went to work at the former investment banking behemoth Salomon Brothers in 1985, while simultaneously submitting freelance articles to magazines. 

“I never had any ambition to go work on Wall Street. It just kind of found me,” Lewis said. 

Lewis’s experiences as a bond salesman gave him the material to write his first book “Liar’s Poker,” exposing the greedy and frat boy zeitgeist of 1980s Wall Street. The book was a wild success and a huge scandal. 

“I thought I’d put explosive charges on the side of the bridge and blow it up, and I was never going back,” Lewis said. “I was toxic.” 

Fortunately for readers, that was not true. Lewis would write about other industries like sports and technology, but eventually came back to Wall Street 20 years later to write books such as “The Big Short” and “Flash Boys.”

One thing apparent from our limited time together was Lewis’s remarkable curiosity. At one point I felt I was the one being interviewed as he grilled me about Tulane Football and the percentage of student-athletes who take school seriously. I assured him Coach Fritz actually makes his players go to class. 

About a week after Bookfest, I asked Lewis if he had some thoughts about the collapse of Silicon Valley Bank, which had happened a few days prior. What I got was a lecture on the evolution of banking, contrasting today’s fixed incomes assets and interest rate risks with 2008’s credit bubble and subprime lending, even bringing in old-fashioned 1930s bank runs.  

“It’s a combination of complacency from a long period of time without interest rates moving, it’s also related to social media, everything moves so fast … it’s so easy to pull your money out,” Lewis said. 

Lewis described the failure of SVB and the fate of other banks like First Republic as “sociologically interesting,” and predicted the Fed and larger banks would step in to buy them.

After realizing I was over my head in finance talk, I turned to New Orleans — a topic his readers have begged him to write about.

“When my kids were little I absolutely adored Mardi Gras,” Lewis said. “It’s just a little different. I noticed that every time I get there … It’s just a lot of casual interactions. I feel recognized in New Orleans. And I think people feel recognized. It’s like it’s just a little slower. People are a little bit less in a rush. And that’s my favorite thing.”

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