If I were still aspiring to an expertise in certain areas of contemporary journalism I might be tempted to offer up Michael Lewis, who among other things is a contributing writer for the New York Times Magazine, as an occupant of the upper tiers of magazine feature writing. As I have all but put aside certain childish ambitions, I can only make the claim that I would be surprised if there are very many print journalists (not working for The New Yorker) who as competently conjoin the two necessary skills requisite to achieve the excellence I am circumlocuting on. Michael is a talented and diligent reporter who possesses a lucid prose style that only enhances the stories he tells. These observations don’t yet even commend him for the good fortune that must attach itself to him in his unswerving ability to find such good stories. Certainly his last two books, Coach and the renowned Moneyball, are good evidence of that luck (and no doubt, skill).
This is the third time I have spoken with Michael Lewis (see: #1, #2), whose engaging conversational persona adds another layer of pleasure to reading his work. This time around we spoke on his newest tome, The Blind Side, an adaptation of which appeared recently in the above-mentioned magazine.
The Blind Side is an incredibly moving story about the remarkable reversal of fortune Michael Oher, a 6'5", 350-pound, feral sixteen-year-old black boy from inner-city Memphis, encounters as he is adopted by a wealthy white Evangelical family. And as is Lewis’s inclination, he is able to tell this heart-rending and warming tale in the context of a football story and a parable for re-evaluating our views of nature versus nurture and, in fact, a whole set of fallible talent assessment criteria.
I, of course, can’t speak to whether you will be as moved as I was by this story—I was certainly surprised by the wrong-headedness of the one review I read—but my hope is that beyond the human drama portrayed in Lewis’s book that you might understand how much public schools are failing our most needy children. That’s something to keep thinking about.
Robert Birnbaum: What was the emotional platform from which you wrote The Blind Side, for lack of a better term?
Michael Lewis: That’s a fair question. There’s always...I find the books—there is always some reason I wrote the book. And I can summarize it pretty easily in this case. It was about the...the thing that animated me was, here you have this kid who is wandering around inner-city Memphis, and inner-city Memphis might as well be inner-city Chicago, inner-city New Orleans, or inner-city Oakland—
RB: You cite it as the third poorest zip code in the country.
RB: On top of which you referred to black Memphis as a “second-hand city.”
ML: Right, it’s black ghetto America, and here is a fifteen-year-old. He is almost 6'6" tall. He is 350 pounds. He has incredible athletic abilities in this amazingly large body and, nevertheless, no one sees any value in him. Until he crosses over into rich white Memphis, and then his value is tapped. And it struck me that there could hardly be a more conspicuous and more obviously useful asset than this kid wandering around inner-city Memphis—and we don’t normally think of the path out of the inner city into athletics being a particularly obstructed one. If there is one thing that sports does do with inner-city kids is that it finds the athletes and exploits them [laughs] and makes use of them. But that even this kid—who had such an obvious value—had that value neglected.
RB: He was moving target. He didn’t stay anywhere long enough—
ML: That a child could even be in that circumstance—he was essentially a feral child. And there wasn’t anything unusual about that. I thought, “Here is a little parable to describe the waste of the structure of our society.” If a boy with such obvious and visible talents can go neglected, you know there are lots of invisible talents.
RB: He was a tip of an iceberg.
ML: That’s right—it’s a huge tip of the iceberg, and there are all these less visible talents that go untapped. So that was really—you talk about the emotional platform—about the way inner-city America neglects and destroys value in people.
RB: Did that...does that make you angry?
ML: It was more a combination of wonder and outrage. Just from the point of view of efficiency it makes no sense. So yes, it’s outrageous—look, it’s outrageous. On the other hand, the particular story of this kid is wonderful. That a kid at the age of sixteen can be taken in hand and provided love and a home and can flourish and can essentially have his life changed and his brain woken up. And all kinds of other things happen to him...it belies, certainly, the premises of a public policy in the country. The assumption that government operates with is essentially if we don’t get them by the age of six or seven they are doomed. It shows you really shouldn’t write people off. It was an extension, in a funny way, of Moneyball, off the field of play. Because Moneyball was about discrimination, really. It was about how a baseball team used statistical analysis to get beyond the surface of things and show the way that people were conventionally valued was screwed up. This is another way of showing that the way people are conventionally valued is screwed up. And that many of the things that we think of as the natural order have nothing to do with nature.
RB: That’s what you started with—but let me say that reading this story, there were moments when it made me cry. The Touhys, for whatever reason, whatever their religion...which is not my religion...
ML: Nor mine.
RB: And their politics. They are astounding to me.
ML: But on the other hand, it was a very natural thing, in a funny way. Because this woman, Leigh Anne Tuohy, encounters this totally needy sixteen-year-old boy who happens now to be newly enrolled in her daughter’s school, and this is a boy who is walking around in winter, in the snow, in shorts and a t-shirt, trying to break into the school gym because they have heat in the school gym during Thanksgiving break. She responds to the level of need. And she kind of creeps into his life, answering his needs. He needs clothes. He needs food. He needs shelter. He needs health care. And before you know it, she is serving as a mother to him. Because really, he needs love. He needs someone to take care of him. It's dramatic how it ended up—they end up adopting him. But to them there was nothing dramatic about it. It was just, “Well, the kid needed that.”
RB: Seemingly totally unselfconscious. And the way you wrote it—seemingly without regard to how other people viewed it. Leanne was shocked when asked if she was concerned about Michael and her nubile teenage daughter—
ML: —being under the same roof. She didn’t even think that way. She really got angry after a while. She is just a great character. Because she is so willful. She steamrolls anything that gets in her way. And everybody just knows that about her, so people don’t get in her way. That moment, this is so typical when Michael has been living with them for six months and she decides he had to be in the Christmas card. Because basically he is another child. And she just sticks him in the card, and just sends it out without explaining it to anybody and so four hundred people who she barely knows, who are her relatives, get this card and there are two little white kids and this huge black kid in the middle of it. And they think it’s a joke. The cousin calls from North Carolina in the middle of the night and says, “Alright, I just had my fifth beer. Who the hell is this black kid in y’all’s Christmas card?” She just rammed the relationship down the world’s throat and said, “You’re going to have to deal with it because this is the way it is.” If she were the kind of person who would take another approach, she never would have done such a thing.
RB: Or would she have gotten through to Michael? He wasn’t an open person who expresses his needs. He didn’t open up with you—
ML: It took a long time. He doesn’t trust men. He doesn’t like to talk about himself, just generally. I think Leigh Anne intersected with Michael at a time when Michael was—he has just entered this white school. He basically had never met a white person, at the age of sixteen. And is now surrounded by nothing but white people. And they are all rich, and he is completely out of place. He can’t function. He is terrified. He is feeling very needy. And so Leanne was someone he could turn to. He needed someone to help him. And he knew it. It was either help him or go back to the streets, and if he went back to the streets—that was going to be the end.
RB: He ran out of chances.
ML: Completely. He’d have been sixteen years old, dropped out of high school, surrounded by people his age that soon would be either dead on jail or on drugs. And so I think he sensed that this was a lifeline, and he grabbed. And to her credit she just kept yanking on it. If she had not been so willful about it, yeah, probably. She insisted on the relationship.
RB: Sean Jr. and Collins too. They didn’t seem to bat an eye, as you wrote it.
ML: This is what happened. The Tuohy family, before they met Michael Oher, had had several poor black kids who had come through their children’s private school, the Briarcrest Christian School. And Sean, because he had the experience of being the poor kid in the rich school when he was growing up, had made a point of seeking them out and seeing if they needed anything. All those kids had mothers who were functioning grandmothers, or someone who was taking care of them. And they had a home to live in and a bed to sleep in and all the rest. Michael was unusual in that he was so exceptionally needy. The other kids needed help—maybe needed Sean to buy them lunch or something, but they didn’t need the total infrastructure. So the Tuohy kids had seen these other kids come through, and they’d come over for dinner. And so Michael was, in a way, an extension of that. But the kids also saw the level of need. Their parents said, “Look, this boy doesn’t have a bed to sleep in; he doesn’t have a roof over his head. We are just going to let him sleep on the sofa for a while.” And then after he started putting dents in the sofa because he weighs 350 pounds: “We’re going to get him a bed.” One thing led to another. It’s funny—it’s hard to believe, but it’s absolutely true that the relationship was totally natural and organic. What was odd about both sides of the relationship, the white family and the black kid, is that no one, I don’t think, thought much about race. And this is in the deep, dark South. They were aware of it. You couldn’t ignore it completely, but it was treated for what it should be treated—a kind of superficial, surface trait. And they got quickly beyond that. And I don’t think inside that house that they saw black and white. They actually were fond of each other. The relationship worked, for lots of reasons. And so when you are there—and I entered that relationship very early—you didn’t sense that this kid didn’t belong, or that he was being grafted on unnaturally. He really felt...like a child of theirs.
RB: As you talked about your own role in the writing of this book (in the Author’s Note) you didn’t see this as a story. Your wife is the one who really lobbied to take this story on—
RB: Was your hesitation because the story was too easy?
ML: Sean Tuohy, who I had grown up with but actually had not seen since I was seventeen years old, or heard from—it was partly because I had grown up with him. I thought, “Ehh, it’s kind of weird writing a story which has as one of the protagonists this kid you grew up with.” And it was partly that it was entering emotional terrain I have not typically entered. And so I was probably a little uncomfortable with that. It was a family drama more than it was a football story, and it was partly some trepidation about having a main character who didn’t talk. This kid, Michael Oher, who is the most striking physical presence in any room he enters, won’t open his mouth. And I wanted to be sure if he would talk to me. And what my wife persuaded me was that the story was so powerful and important in a weird way that I should just take a jump—take a leap and just see if I could make it work. What I did at first—when I committed to writing about it—I didn’t commit to writing a book. I thought I would write a magazine piece. And so I started to interview people as if it was going to be a magazine piece. And then it all opened up. It became clear to me that it was actually even better than I thought it was, and it was doable, and Michael would eventually talk to me and was interested in talking to me one way or another. So I dropped the magazine piece and it became a book.
RB: Other than Leanne’s father, it struck me that really everyone else was receptive to this—maybe the NCAA investigator was troubled—
ML: There was some minor social resistance, but once the Tuohys made up their minds to take this poor black kid in and let it be known in no uncertain terms that this was okay and nobody was to tell them anything about it, people didn’t have the nerve to say anything to their faces—behind their backs there was plenty of little stuff, social stuff. They walk into their church and there are three thousand people there and Michael Oher is the only black person there. Memphis is a very segregated place, and it’s very noticeable. But I will also say this, that in the new South there is a hunger and a desire for people to demonstrate that they are not racist. That the old form of racism is, if not dead, it’s on the wane. That racism takes different forms...
RB: No more cross burnings?
ML: No more cross burning, and the “n” word, and all that other stuff—everybody knows. I’ll tell you, in their world, everything about that is “redneck,” and so they don’t want to be rednecks. So there is a class disapproval of overt racism.
RB: So now it’s just normal good-old American tribal animus.
ML: Yes, right. And in theory, of course, the Christian church should be colorblind, and this is a very churched place. You are talking about evangelical Christians here, and in theory it distresses them that there are not more connections between white Memphis and black Memphis, and the church has outreach programs to deliver meals in the inner city and that kind of thing. So in theory they are all for this. It just so happened that in practice there are no black people around.
RB: I would think it now goes both ways. Black people have no big motivation to get friendly with their white neighbors—I understood the need for it, but really I was bothered by Sean—and again I know it was necessary—that Sean Tuohy found these loopholes in the NCAA rules—
RB: —to use these Brigham Young Character subjects courses–
ML: What Sean Tuohy did to get Michael Oher qualified to play college football was outrageous.
RB: [laughs heartily]
ML: There is no question about it. He looked at the transcript—when they took Michael in he had basically failed all his courses up until that point. Sometimes he had been given Ds, and some generous people gave him C minuses. But he had a transcript that was not going to be approved by the NCAA. However, from the moment they took him in he started to perform much better in the classroom, and by the senior year he was an honor-roll student at the high school.
RB: As you say, by graduation time he ran out of time to make up all the ground—
ML: Right, so he wasn’t going to be allowed to accept the football scholarship offered to him from Ole Miss because his grade point average wasn’t high enough—and there are plenty of loopholes and it’s easy to rig a transcript to replace old grades with new grades you get by correspondence courses by, among others, Brigham Young University.
RB: A good Christian institution.
ML: The great Mormon Grade Grab is what it was called. But this was not something that Sean did all by himself. This is going on across the country. There is this kind of keystone cops quality to the NCAA. They create a bunch of rules, and then people try to find ways to work within the rules—
RB: Kind of?
ML: But yeah, yeah—undermine the spirit of them entirely. I didn’t feel outraged by it watching it up close. Because...while it’s outrageous in theory that this happens—that people can go and subvert the rules of the NCAA—the rules themselves seem to me to be a little screwy. First, the rules that kid lived by his whole life...what basically the NCAA is saying to this kid is, “Society completely cheated you for the first sixteen years of your life. Failed you in every possible way. No family, no love, no upbringing, no structure, no schooling. Nothing! And so we are going to make sure that that sticks.”
ML: “We are going to make sure that you don’t dig yourself out from that—that you don’t overcome, essentially, the hand you were dealt at birth.” And so Sean was helping him overcome the hand that was dealt him at birth. Second thing is, what he was doing with a poor black athlete was cruder and coarser than how it is normally done. But it isn’t so different in many ways from the advantages that are offered the well-to-do. And the spirit of a college education in the middle of SEC football is maybe rather different than it is at Harvard—although that may be overrating Harvard. But it is not as if these schools are in the business of producing scholars, generally. Their general purpose is to socialize these kids—it’s a rite of passage. A handful will end up being scholars, but it’s a very small part. And that the athletes are singled out for special standards and made to jump through hoops that the others aren’t...I don’t completely understand. And just given the basic fact that some large number of serious college football players come from impoverished backgrounds where they went to crappy public schools, and they can’t read and write properly, and all the rest, and that they get weeded out and prevented from entering this—
ML: This elevator, right, it seems to me outrageous. And exploited in the bargain—not paid for their services even though essentially they are rendering very, very valuable services to the university. What they should do is drop altogether the pretense that they are normal college students. There should be a track. You say, Okay, anybody can come—you can have anybody you want come to play football at your university within an age limit or something. But then, you have to then teach them how to read and write; you’ll teach them all the things that the public school system didn’t provide them with, so they get something out of it too. I think they should also pay them, but that’s a different subject. In any case, it didn’t bother me that he was violating the spirit of the rules, because the spirit of the rules seemed to me kind of obscene.
RB: And in addition, it was not as if Michael was a fraud as a student—clearly he had improved himself—
ML: He’d made huge, huge strides and was working his tail off—even in these BYU correspondence courses he was up all night doing it. It wasn’t that he wasn’t doing anything. It was that he literally didn’t have time, given his starting point at zero at age sixteen. There was no chance that at that point that was he going to, in any normal way, get himself into college.
RB: And his IQ rose something like thirty points?
ML: Between twenty and thirty points. Yes. It was measured when he was in the elementary school system at 80, and it was re-measured after he had lived with the Tuohy family for two years and been drowned in nurture and tutors and all the rest and had been taught to read and write and take tests, and it was then between a 100 and 110. That’s a normal IQ—it’s fine.
RB: And that may not be an accurate reading of his intelligence—of the ceiling of his intelligence.
ML: That’s right. This is one of the things that runs right through the story. How so many things that we take to be nature are in fact nurture. And IQ is a classic case. People think that’s a fixed quantity. That’s crazy. Think about it, it’s crazy. If you are paralyzed with fear when you look at a piece of paper, how are you going to take a test and function? It’s a test, and what is outrageous about it all is that the low IQ test, the 80 score, is something that in some funny way the public school system is pleased to have because it justifies the low performance—so there is an incentive in that environment. I get those low scores, then the bar over which he is supposed to jump is that much lower.
RB: As I read the encounters with the NCAA investigator I found it to be beyond absurd—beyond Kafkaesque—I mean, what was the point?
RB: Is this a self-justifying organization? Who takes the NCAA seriously, other than the schools who are finding all the loopholes trying to cover their behinds?
ML: It’s a corrupt regulatory system—it's worse than you know. What happens is that there is a career to be had as an NCAA investigator, and what you do is go to work for the NCAA—like a career with the Securities Exchange Commission: you go to work being the cop, and then you get hired for a fancy salary working for the school interpreting the rules written by the cops. And so it becomes this little incestuous world that justifies itself in all sorts of ways. And its main purpose is to serve as a fig leaf for what has become professionalized college athletics. The tutors at Ole Miss were very blunt about this. They watched the regime that the football players were in; they said that they give them a speech when they arrive: “You are employees of a corporation. You are not college students. You are employees of a corporation. You are just not paid.” [laughs] I think the harm that is done by the hypocrisy is greater than the harm that would be done just by throwing open the doors and saying this is the way it is. People have so obsessed with football at the college level, and it is such a money maker—it’s not just a money maker for these universities: in some cases the school would have trouble surviving without the football team. So let’s just acknowledge this. Let’s acknowledge it in the way we acknowledge professional baseball players were once indentured servants and they shouldn’t have been—these people have a market value. They are poor people who desperately are in need of realizing their market value—let’s be fair and honest about it.
RB: Right, they are all not going to the NFL.
ML: The vast majority will not go to the NFL. These are the numbers—there are a million high school football players in the country, roughly fifty-five thousand of them will play college football. And a thousand of those will have some kind of professional contract, of whom just a couple hundred will make enough money to have careers. So you are talking about a winnowing process that’s brutal. However, the whole system is premised—not the million to fifty-five thousand—but of those fifty-five thousand college football players, there is some large number of them who are sustained by the hope that they are going to be professional football players and are not making other provisions for themselves.
RB: That’s a false dream.
ML: It’s a horrible dream.
RB: So even in those years when they are in college, they could get some vocational guidance, and get some compensation—
RB: What would it take to change the system? To overthrow the corrupt system?
ML: A lawsuit.
RB: It’s not as if this is a new issue.
ML: I’ll tell you what—the system is very hard to break from the inside because no individual university wants to stand up to the NCAA, because then you are all of a sudden banned from the next eighteen bowl games. So they are all prisoners of the system.
RB: You need a Curt Flood or Andy Messersmith.
ML: This is exactly right. There is a defensive tackle who has not been admitted to the University of Mississippi named Jerrell Poe who filed a lawsuit in Mississippi against the NCAA for preventing him from going. Ole Miss was taking him. The NCAA said, "You can’t go and play football at Ole Miss." And they were only interested in him to play football. So he filed a lawsuit, and I thought that’s going to be the way it’s going to happen. Now—he withdrew the lawsuit. I think under pressure from Ole Miss, because they didn’t want to encounter the wrath of the NCAA.
RB: What can they do to him? What is Ole Miss’s leverage with Poe?
ML: Spend another year bringing your grade-point average up—
RB: The promise of a future—
ML: —and it will all work out. I think what will happen is someone will come along who won’t buckle under the pressure and will say, “Okay, we’re going to get a good lawyer and take care of them and break the system.” Because it’s outrageous. It is outrageous. Essentially what you have now is thousands upon thousands of poor black kids coming from the most horrendous kind of destitution, exploited briefly for three or four years and led to believe that they might actually make a career playing football and then thrown back on the street with absolutely nothing to show for it. And the flip side of that is what an opportunity to at least make a dent in the social problem. There are not very many points of contact between white America and black America. Here is...you can be cynical about sports, about football, but you can’t argue that white people aren’t interested in those black people playing on the field when they are playing football. Why not use that for some greater purpose? Instead of forbidding the rich white boosters for so much as taking the black football players to lunch, why not insist that they not only take them to lunch but they give them an internship and pay them well in the off season and teach them about their business? The minute those kids cease to be football players, they are of no interest whatsoever to those white people anymore. That relationship should be cultivated rather than denied.
RB: Speaking of that, the book ends up with Leanne deciding they need to do more. That Michael Oher will not be the last instance of reaching out and helping. So where is that?
ML: She isn’t a person given to abstract thought. She is responding to particular concrete things around her. And she was laying in bed one morning and the newspaper landed on her lap, and in the newspaper there was a story of a kid who had been offered a football scholarship to Ole Miss, who had been found with three bullets in his head because the NCAA had not let him go to Ole Miss. He had no mother, no father, he lived on the streets, eaten out of garbage cans. It was the Michael Oher story all over again, and she just said, which she knew in her heart, “If that boy had landed on our doorstep instead of Michael, he’d be at Ole Miss too. He’d be on to a future too.” It takes so little in the grand scheme of things to help these kids. So she bawled all morning about it and then she said, “I’m not going to let this happen.” And so they are still working this out, but the Memphis Grizzlies, the professional basketball team for whom Sean Tuohy is an announcer, have something called the Grizzlies academy. It is designed to do just this—to take kids who are behind in school, no family structure, destitute in all sorts of ways, impoverished in all sorts of ways—and provide them with a structure. Organize their lives. And there are sixteen or eighteen kids that are now in a building in downtown Memphis, and what Leanne’s ambition is is to expand on that. That’s a good model—each kid has some family, who he has some relationship with. He may not be adopted by the family—Michael’s case is extreme, he ends up being adopted and in Sean’s will, but—
RB: [laughs] Sean Jr. is funny, he asks—
ML: —right, right, about the will: “How come if he is going to be worth 100 million dollars in the NFL, how come he gets a third of daddy’s money?” [both laugh] But then it just becomes a question of cultivating the relationship between these kids and the outside world. Giving them structure to get through school. Look, it really is all about finding the gifts, the value that is inside people. It’s hard to imagine an environment less conducive to realizing people’s value than inner-city America.
RB: Where do the Titans play?
RB: Why not harness the Titans and their resources?
ML: What’s funny is I went to see the Titans because a part of this book is about the evolution of the position that Michael Oher is so uniquely suited to play—left tackle. I talked to some linemen up there, and while I was talking to them the PR person, Robbie Warren (I was telling him about the story), said, “You’re kidding me.” He goes and gets Todd Williams. Out of the locker room comes this six foot six inch 340 pound lineman who raised himself on the streets of Tallahassee or some Florida town, no mom, no dad, sleeping in automobiles, not having schools to go to, and he starts telling me his story, and it’s an incredible story. And I am thinking, “How many times am I going to run across this kind of thing?” It is true that the NFL—it’s a very natural thing for the NFL to get involved in, and it wouldn’t surprise me if the Grizzlies academy—you have to prove a concept and show that it works—this thing the Grizzlies have been doing, they haven’t been doing very long. You show that it works, and I think there’s enormous potential support for it. A lot of people would like to address this problem—in a way that it needs to be institutionalized. Doesn’t necessarily need to be the federal government.
RB: Given the track record, that’s an understatement.
ML: Yes, so it’s a question of how do put these not-for-profits—how do you create the institutions to address the problem, which is twofold: incredibly bad public school system, incredibly dysfunctional inner-city family? Michael Oher is at the point in his life, living in Hurt village. There are two thousand families and there isn’t a single two-parent family. How bad is that? And so you’ve got to create essentially both family and school structure for them. But then once you have proved there is value in that, and you can prove these kids turn out great...look how well this is all working. I bet you find that plenty of people get involved.
RB: You could argue that the professional sports leagues in this country have more than the federal government and could allocate it more efficiently [laughs].
ML: Right, but also more influence. The Memphis Grizzlies academy isn’t about athletes; the kids are not athletes. But by the associations, the kids in the inner city want to be involved with it. And so that would also be true for the football teams. Why couldn’t every city that has a professional football or basketball team have one of these little academies that has the team’s name on it?
RB: As an object lesson, what’s a more glaring failure of our great society than the public schools in the inner cities? We now seem to have an under-the-under class.
ML: That’s the thing that shocked me so much as I dug into Michael’s childhood. I thought I knew how bad it was. I had no idea. I had no idea for a kid how bad it got. There was within the inner city the ghetto, there was a class system, and he was at the bottom of it. He was doomed at birth. It was an incredible stroke of fortune that he got himself out.
RB: Have you seen HBO’s The Wire?
ML: I hear it is terrific, and I have not seen it.
RB: It is, and this season, the fourth season, has been about the inner-city schools and so-called at-risk kids, and it’s on target—it’s a great show all the way around. Anyway, you told me that someone had already optioned The Blind Side.
ML: 20th Century Fox bought it. When the excerpt appeared in the New York Times Magazine three weeks ago now, it created a frenzy in the movie business. And there was a competition for it. And so it sold pretty quickly, and I like the idea of it being made into a movie. If the story is told right, it might have some effect.
RB: Will you be involved?
ML: Nah. In case you hadn’t heard, Hollywood doesn’t exactly care very much about authors [both laugh].
RB: I’ve heard rumors.
ML: [For them] the best authors are dead authors. So I will have nothing to do with it.
RB: What is happening with the book?
ML: All but one of the reviews were great—you saw one in the L.A. Times that wasn’t. This is what happens with books. I have never had a book—I don’t think there is any author who has a book that didn’t get a bad review—every book gets bad reviews. So far this book has gotten more than its share of good reviews. There are a lot of big reviews that are still to happen. Most of the big reviews, oddly—they’ll probably come in the next week or two. New York Times Book Review, Time, Fortune, Newsweek, Business Week, the national magazines. It’s too early to say that a critical consensus has emerged. With every book I have done, it’s been different enough from the book before it that it takes a little while for people to type it. And this book is no exception. Moneyball took a couple of months before people came to the conclusion of what it was about—because ostensibly this is a sports book, a football book. People are looking for it to be the Moneyball of football—but it is not. It's not that book, it’s a different book. I don’t know how it’s going to do still—it has hit the bestseller list, so the response is not terrible. But whether it comes and goes or whether it hits the reading audience in the way I hoped it would hit, I won’t know for a few weeks. Maybe even longer.
RB: The book industry is geared to a short window for a book to prove itself, but real books have a life beyond—
ML: They do, that’s true. They give you a month to go out and hawk it and it either takes or doesn’t take. This has taken to the point that it’s on lists and things so it won’t go away really quickly, but it is true that what sells a book is word of mouth. People have to read the book, and so it will just take months.
RB: I think I have sold two or three copies myself [laughs].
ML: Have you? That’s why I am here [chuckles]. Really, it’s the message in the bottle kind of thing. You do your best to craft the message exactly as you want the message to be and stick it in the bottle and push it out to sea, and you go and holler into the ether for a few weeks about it and you don’t know what effect that has, and it may be none or may be some. It either catches on or it doesn’t catch. Sometimes it catches in strange moments for strange reasons. It will be out there for a long time—they printed three hundred thousand of these things. Unless there is a concerted effort to gather them up and burn them—it’s going to be out there.
RB: This is too good a story. Well, I guess we’ll see. Thanks.
ML: Thanks for having me.
© 2006 Robert Birnbaum
Images by Red Diaz/Duende Publishing