Tag Archives: writer

The Devil and a Comm Week Speaker

10 Nov

Photo: Alexandra Andersen

Mike Sager lives with a crack gang, befriends murderers and attends swinger parties. He hangs with models, politicians and white supremacists. He goes to high school even though he’s old enough to teach the class.

He is a journalist and he is in the pursuit of his next story.

Sager is known for his dark tales of depravity, his gritty exposes of American subcultures and his anthropological take on journalism. Now, the critically acclaimed writer works poolside in his office in La Jolla Calif., putting the finishing touches on his sixth book; the characters are inspired by the subjects he’s been writing about over the past three decades.

A bald Jewish man in his 50s, Sager’s posture emanates east coast confidence and his gentle, smiling eyes clash with his seemingly rough exterior.

His most famous article, “The Devil and John Holmes,” a story about the first male porn star, a drug lord and one of the most gruesome mass murders in Los Angeles’ history is the basis for movies Wonderland and Boogie Nights.

“It was my first big investigative crime story. I didn’t make it lurid. I was mature about sex and I could go into a porn thing and not act like an idiot.”

Following the role of notorious journalist Hunter S. Thompson, of Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas fame, Sager became the de facto drug correspondent for Rolling Stone and while working at Esquire he developed the celebrity profile format that is still used today, interviewing the likes of Jack Nicholson, Paris Hilton, Angelina Jolie, Robert De Niro and Snoop Dogg.

But Mike Sager did not always envision a career in journalism and he initially thought that becoming a professional writer was impractical. After graduating from Emory University, he went to Georgetown Law School to become a lawyer but quit after three weeks, knowing all the while that he was denying his true calling in order to have something to fall back on.

“It was Labor Day vacation weekend and I found myself in the parking lot of my apartment building sitting on the hood of my car crying because I was just so unhappy. I knew I didn’t want to do this. So I quit,” Sager said.

The self-proclaimed ‘writer who didn’t have anything to write about’ found journalism in 1978 as a copy boy at the Washington Post under editor Bob Woodward, of Woodward and Bernstein, the famous journalists who helped expose the Watergate scandal that led to Richard Nixon’s impeachment.

After six years of climbing the ranks, starting out with no journalism training, Sager left the Post to pursue a career in magazines.

“Bob Woodward didn’t really appreciate good writing. The work I do now takes a lot of good investigative work but it doesn’t look like that, it just looks like I’m telling a story. They didn’t get that and over time it became a struggle and the reason I left,” Sager said.

Leaving behind the Ivy League culture of the Post that he never really belonged to, Sager went on to write for Playboy, Rolling Stone, GQ, and Esquire, among others, carving a niche for himself writing hardcore investigative stories, often putting his life on the line and his judgments on hold.

“I have this thing called the theory of originals. You have to be number one in a class of one. You don’t compete. You find what you do better than anybody else,” Sager said.

What Sager could do was use his anthropological approach to temporarily become one with his subjects and see the world through their eyes.

“You see this sometimes on TV, like Diane Sawyer, she’s interviewing hookers and she’ll be like, ‘You did that? For how much?’ And she’s making this face like she just tasted something horrible. Now that’s really going to make her subject feel good right? I’m more like, ‘Cool! What was that like?,” Sager said. “I’m more accepting when I listen. As a reporter, it isn’t about you and your ideas, it’s about them.”

Sager recalls the beginning of his six-year stint at Rolling Stone. The uncomfortable moments that would have frightened or disgusted others didn’t faze him and his ability to turn these scenes into literary pieces is what earned him respect in the industry.

“After seeing a piece I’d written about a pimp in D.C., the guy from Rolling Stone saw my piece in the New York Times about pit bull fighting in Philadelphia. These Puerto Rican kids were hanging the dogs if they lost and it was so degraded. The Rolling Stone editor was like, ‘He can do that ghetto thing,’ so he calls me up.”

Though his career has led him to many unusual adventures, Sager has proven his literary talent through less sensational stories. After Sager left GQ to work at Esquire he was told to write a story about a 90-year-old man.

“I’m Sager, the bald guy. (I’ve) lived with a crack gang, occult, slayer, and you want me to write about a 90-year-old guy? And this is going to be the basis of whether I get another contract? But you know that’s the story people remember more. That finally got me a nomination for the magazine award.”

Since Sager became a father, he’s spent more time working from his home office and focusing on his novels. He hopes that one day he’ll be known as a novelist who occasionally does journalism.

Looking back on his decision to quit law school and follow his true passion for writing, Sager knows he made the right decision.

“What thrills me is this creation,” he said. “If you’re lucky enough to be one of those people who have a calling then you need to try to take advantage of that and do everything you can to service that.”

His first novel, Deviant Behavior, was published in 2008 and the three collections of his articles: Scary Monsters and Super Freaks, Revenge of the Donut Boys and Wounded Warriors, showcase some of his most famous articles throughout his career.

Sager visited Cal State Fullerton last spring to lecture during Comm Week and taught a Creative Writing for Journalists seminar at the University of California, Irvine for four years. He urges all students to find what they are passionate about and to develop it for no other reason than it makes them happy. He warns that ignoring your talents and listening to your doubts can lead to a life of regret.

“Don’t be afraid to follow your dreams because if you don’t, you definitely won’t get them.”

Originally published at The Daily Titan

Essay Review: Slouching Towards Bethlehem

28 Oct

During spring of 1967, just before the Summer of Love, thousands of Americans flocked to San Francisco, the epicenter of the hippie movement that challenged everything that was understood about the world.

Psychoactive drugs, creative expression, revolutionary music and political ideals swept the nation. Long-haired flower children spoke of free love, peace and the necessity of exploring realms of consciousness. People questioned the policies of the generations before them and demanded change.

It was during this time that award-winning journalist Joan Didion stepped onto the scene. Embracing the changing landscape herself, Didion wrote about her experiences in what was called the “New Journalism” style, of articulating facts through narrative storytelling, which was popularized by Tom Wolfe, Hunter Thompson and Truman Copote.

Didion spent months in the Haight-Ashbury district of San Francisco not knowing exactly what she wanted to find out, but made friends “where the social hemorrhaging was showing up… where the missing children were gathering and calling themselves hippies.”

In her 1968 essay “Slouching Towards Bethlehem,” Didion draws upon her observations of Haight-Ashbury and removes the romanticized veil that has come to represent the hippie movement.

She bears witness to the social phenomena of the late ‘60s and communicates her experiences as an observer rather than a participant.

The title for the essay and the book of the same name, is taken from the last line of William Butler Yeat’s poem The Second Coming (1919) and shares the same apocalyptic vision.

During Didion’s time in Haight-Ashbury, she meets a 5-year-old on lysergic acid diethylamide (LSD) who explains that her mother had been giving her drugs for the past year and that many of her fellow classmates “turn on,” too.

Didion, who was in her 30s at the time, describes her work Slouching Towards Bethlehem as the “first time I dealt directly and flatly with the evidence of atomization, the proof that all things fall apart.”

Throughout the essay, Didion encounters runaways who left their stable lives behind to live in the “Golden Land” of California, a place they believed promised freedom, love and acceptance, but instead found themselves homeless, hungry and looking for their next drug fix.

Didion is told to offer these vagabonds hamburgers and Coca Colas in exchange for interviews and comes to the conclusion that their lives are now filled with aimless endeavors where the past no longer matters and the future can’t be planned.

“We were seeing the desperate attempt of a handful of pathetically unequipped children to create a community in a social vacuum… we had somehow neglected to tell these children the rules of the game we happened to be playing. They are less in rebellion against the society than ignorant of it,” Didion writes.

“Slouching Towards Bethlehem” acts as a time capsule into the ‘60s with Didion reporting on the intrinsic pitfalls of the counterculture and allowing readers to catch an intimate glimpse into the lives of those entrenched in the hippie movement. Her essay portrays a darker, more removed account of 1967 than could be expected from the versions of her subjects.

Originally published at The Daily Titan

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