Mike Sager has what some journalists might call a dream job, and others a nightmare. Writing for magazines like Esquire and Rolling Stone, he immerses himself in the lives of celebrities like Rosanne Barr and Kobe Bryant, often actually living with them for months at a time, and comes back with pieces that are equally hilarious and touching. PW caught up with him on tour for his second collection of magazine pieces, Revenge of the Donut Boys: True Stories of Lust, Fame, Survival and Multiple Personality, and got his take on making journalism out of nothing, taking abuse for the sake of a scoop and writing lovingly about pimples.
These are magazine pieces, written, perhaps more than other kinds of writing, with a general interest audience in mind. Do you find that they translate well to reading aloud?
I discovered that I kind of write out loud: when I write I mumble. I found I really enjoyed it. I write in 1500 word chunks a lot of times, so that’s kind of what I read. I’ve figured out belatedly that when you’re a famous writer people come to your readings because they already know you. I think that with my readings they are attracted by hearing about a magazine writer and that world and the celebrities. Then they end up surprised by what they hear, and I end up gaining a reader or two along the way.
The piece on Rosanne Barr’s Multiple Personality Disorder is absolutely riveting. Do you read it much?
I really love reading that one. I sometimes start with that. Everybody you meet they always tell you they have a name for their autobiography, and mine would be The Glam Life of a Journalist, because I’m always in some shitty place doing some shitty thing; that was the ultimate example. I loved her and she’s so brilliant, but she’s really just abusive. Not only that but celebrities famously screw you around for time, or they’ve got dental surgery or something. She brought the idea for the piece up to me out of the blue, then she said she wanted to write about it, then she had approach avoidance for months, so we just screwed around for months and months. I would go up there and spend some time, and she didn’t want to trot out the personalities, and I even talked to her shrink. Really, it was a hard won story, which really made it great. The access was great.
Is it rare for a celebrity to give you that kind of access?
That’s the whole problem—I just spent five days with Kobe Bryant, and it was really about five or six hours. I was not allowed to be alone in the car with him, I was not ever alone with him. I got a glimpse of a wonderful story. Nobody really understands this guy. Everyone hates him, and he doesn’t get it, because he’s a machine. All he wants to do is be the best basketball player ever. I related to him on the craft level. He is an amazing craftsman. He’s trying to get Nike to design socks that stick in the shoes so he won’t lose one one-hundredth of a second when he makes a cut. It’s fascinating stuff, but he won’t give it to me. I got glimpses of it I have a certain style and technique of working, which is immersion, and these people won’t let you immerse.
Nonetheless, you keep pursuing this kind of story…
I spent a long time chasing after crime stores, and that sort of thing culminated with I get to a story and there’d be producers with checkbooks and CNN truck rivets in the grass in front of the house, and there was no way I was going to work my charm as this guy who comes in quietly and has honor and gets the true story. I couldn’t compete with that, so I went and did what was always first love, anthropology, where there’s no other reporter within ten miles and no other reporter would even see a story there. Everything doesn’t have to be negative to be true: you write about the model, and you write about her pimple, but you do it in a loving way.
Your pieces are so lively and social; they seem suited for performance, though your medium is paper—it must be refreshing to hear an audience’s response.
My stories run under the radar. Almost universally, the reaction to my stories is silence. Writing for magazines, I get no feedback whatsoever. I live in San Diego, where I’m sure a lot of people read, but I don’t know them. I sit in my office, I type, type, type all day long. It’s great getting actual feedback—when you’re reading and people are listening, there’s a palpable presence to their listening, and you can just feel them lean in or lean away. It’s very affirming.