A Q&A on Longform with Esquire’s Mike Sager
by Meagan Flynn
For every story he writes, Mike Sager, writer-at-large for Esquire, finds a way to love his subjects. From drug addicts to porn stars, military vets to once-great athletes, Sager has let them all shape him into the journalist he is today. Here, Sager talks about what makes a solid longform piece and reveals some of his secrets to the craft. In addition: a close look into the making of his 1992 Rolling Stone piece “Revenge of the Doughnut Boys,” which is about teenage car hijackers in Newark, N.J. It is also the title piece in his Los Angeles Times Best-Seller, one of Sager’s four collections of riveting longform journalism. Through it all, it comes down to one thing, he says: “Getting shit right.”
Meagan Flynn: After working for the Washington Post, what made you want to get into this longer, more in-depth writing?
Mike Sager: I came into journalism because it seemed like a great way to practice my writing skills. [During college], I worked for the paper and the literary magazine, but I still decided I was gonna go to law school because I didn’t know how I was going to become a writer. That lasted three weeks. Eventually, I got a job as a copy boy at the Post. I worked nights until 3 a.m., and during the day I tried to write stories. Eventually I broke a big one, and then my boss, Bob Woodward of Watergate fame, gave me a promotion and made me a real reporter. I learned all the basics—how to do research, how to talk to people—at the Post. But what I really wanted to do was be a fine writer. So I left because I wanted to write different things. I was young when I started there, and they always thought I was young. I couldn’t grow up there.
First, I went around the world. I did a story for Rolling Stone in Thailand. I did another story for Playboy about beach volleyball players. That’s how I [got started] in magazine writing.
MF: When you sit down to begin a longform story after all the reporting is done, where do you start?
MS: I do a lot of taping with a digital tape voice recorder. I tape everything then I transcribe everything. By the time I finish that, I kind of know what the story is. After I finish interviewing, I don’t necessarily know the story, but after I go through all my notes, the story becomes clear in my mind. I try to write in scenes, and I try to find a series of scenes that will symbolize the message I’m trying to get through. You start out doing small stories. At the newspaper, you’re told, “It’s a hot day—go cover the air conditioning repair guy in 104 degree heat.” You start small and then move up to bigger subjects.
It’s like playing an instrument. You learn to play “Mary Had a Little Lamb” on the piano, and then eventually you can play jazz. You put all those millions of little skills together. You learn the right hand, then you learn the left hand, then you learn chords. An there’s also a magical element. You can learn all the techniques, do all your research, fill up what I call a “bowl of details”—and then you make a collage, you put all the little pieces together. You’ve got this little magic. That’s what separates the Tom Junods and the Chris Jones from the whomevers. The great ones have magic.
MF: What are some elements in long pieces that you think are essential?
MS: I’m a follower of the “New Journalism.” Their basic tenet involves using the elements of a novel—scene, setting, dialogue, characters, description, point of view, a story arc. The best way I can describe it is like it’s trying to write a movie in words. When you do that, you try to use the elements of drama so you have a storyline. Sometimes, with stories like “Revenge of the Donut Boys,” there’s no story, so I have to spend a lot of time [to find it]. I have this “trash compactor theory of journalism.” You spend all this time with people and put it all together and compact it, and you see that there really was this overarching storyline while you were with them.
MF: A lot of your pieces illustrate harsh realities. What do you find to be so valuable in these stories, and what about them has kept you so drawn to them?
MS: The basic thing is that I don’t want to be boring. I want to do stuff that’s cool. I wanted to write about things that had a lot to be written about. I wanted action. I always get this question, “Why have you been doing this?” Here’s the answer:
Most people have a boring life, so they want to read about things that are exciting. When I was at the Post, most of the people I worked with were from Ivy League schools. My thing has always been the “theory of the originals.” You don’t compete with people. You have to be No. 1 in a class of one. The [people I worked with] were really smart. They were intellectuals, but they were kind of sheltered. They weren’t as gonzo as me or what I wanted to be.
I’m just good with people. I’m not afraid of people who are better or worse than me. I treat everyone the same, whether it’s a crack dealer or the president. There’s a million people who want to be writers, but you have to have something unique that people want. I learned I had a talent. I wasn’t afraid to knock on someone’s door in the ghetto at midnight. [The reason I’m doing this] has a lot to do with that. It began that way in Washington, and that’s how they discovered me in New York.
MF: In “Revenge of the Doughnut Boys,” you took a news event and dug deeper, past just the headlines. What was toughest about approaching this one?
MS: First of all, I wrote that back in a time when there was an economic slow-down in the magazine industry. I made a deal with Rolling Stone to be a columnist. I didn’t want to be a blah-blah columnist who just talks shit. I wanted to write a reported column. This one was difficult—it’s always difficult when you’re writing about juveniles. Newark felt very dangerous at the time. I remember driving down the street and hearing gunshots. The whole situation was very tentative, but you have to find a way in. I think your average reporter goes straight to the cops to write about illegal activities. The cops normally don’t understand. They see it from their point of view. This is something that’s become very important: The important thing about all of this stuff is finding the truth. The truth is always so much cooler than the hype. That’s what makes it worthwhile. [To be a journalist,] you have to feel what people are feeling. I call it suspension of disbelief. You put your prejudices aside, you go there, and you try to understand people’s points of view. That’s become very important.
In my book The Someone You’re Not [Sager is speaking about it at the Tucson Festival of Books March 9-10], the title has a lot to do with what my work has been over the years. In “The Man Who Never Was,” [2010 National Magazine Award winner, profile writing] Todd Marinovich was a football star who fucked himself up with drugs. The story people like to believe, the one pushed in the press over the years, is that his father ruined him. But that’s not really what the story was—that’s what everyone thought it was. The thing that becomes really important is telling the story the way it is, instead of this simplistic, headline news. People think they know, but they don’t. That pisses me off. I hate when people don’t have things right. That’s what’s important.
MF: More conservative media may shy away from reporting stories like “Revenge of the Doughnut Boys.” So when you are out in the field reporting these kinds of stories, do you see it as your responsibility to give people the whole truth that they can’t find in other news media?
MS: Yeah—exactly. The thing is, there’s kind of a continuum in the news business. In the newspaper, it’s “some people think this, some people think that.” It’s simple thinking. It’s changed a little bit because newspapers are discovering feature writing to keep newspapers alive. This is the appeal of longform: It’s not just longer, you spend so much more time. You get it. It’s a detail thing—going into a place you know nothing about, learning it, and writing about it.
MF: What should be a longformer’s biggest goal?
MS: There was this writer Garry Wills—one of the older guys before me in the Tom Wolfe era. He said that the job of people who do longform is to let the dust settle on some event and then go in later, figure out how all the pieces went together, tell the real truth of the impact of the event on the people and the places.
People want instant stories today. Events happen and the press rolls into town with their satellite trucks and all that shit. It fucks up the story. It’s gotten so crazy. It takes time to really step back and see what history brings to bear.
What we’re trying to do [as longformers] is go in and kick some story’s ass. Get it right. I write my stories for my subjects. They don’t have to like everything, but they have to say I nailed it. I think I’ve been successful with that. I find a way to love my subjects—even the dead ones or the evil ones. That’s the bottom line of what my secret is. To me, with longform, it’s not just writing it. It’s doing all the research and writing without flowery language. As you go through this longform stuff, there are people who write in third person and there are people who write in first person. The challenge is putting yourself in the story but leaving yourself out of the verbiage. It doesn’t have to seem like it’s all about you.
One thing I do after I’ve transcribed all those tapes—my writing kind of takes on a bit of the voice of my subject has an accent like my subject. I use their rhythm and their little idioms. I think it’s another way of making the character come through. There’s little tricks I do that are a lot of work, but that’s how [I’ve been successful].
MF: What direction do you see longform heading?
MS: I’d like to see it head in a direction where there are more women writers. With nearly 70 percent of people in J-school being women, it would be really nice if some of these women’s magazines stepped up and put a fucking longform story in the mag.
In my collection of 19 young writers, we’re saying that longform is not dead, and that the Internet is the enabler, not the killer, of quality writing. People want to do it. Longform is enjoying more popularity than ever. Web sites like the Atavist, Byliner, Longform.org are cropping up everywhere to help nurture and publish writers. And of course there’s the Sager Group, too. The web is allowing us to harness the means of production.
The key is that you need to start short-form. Once you do a bunch of short stories, you see that long stories are short stories pieced together. Eventually, you’ll get the jazz.
See this post on Sager’s “Revenge of the Doughnut Boys” from Beyond The New Yorker.