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ROUGH WRITER: Meet ‘Esquire’ reporter and La Jollan Mike Sager

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Mike Sager, whose books have become major movies including ‘Boogie Nights,’ chats in his den in Upper Hermosa.
(COREY LEVITAN)

Editor’s Note: La Jolla Light’s “People in Your Neighborhood” series shines a spotlight on notable locals we all wish we knew more about! Light staff is out on the town talking to familiar, friendly faces to bring you their stories. If you know someone you’d like us to profile, send the lead via e-mail to editor@lajollalight.com or call us at (858) 875-5950.

La Jolla resident Mike Sager has some stories. And he’s gone to extreme lengths to get them — hanging out with a crack gang in L.A., with teenage pit-bull fighters in Philadelphia and with Aryan Nation members in Idaho.

A chronic chronicler of America’s ugly underbelly for Esquire magazine, Sager is also a best-selling author who wrote the books that became “Boogie Nights” starring Mark Wahlberg, “Wonderland” starring Val Kilmer and “Veronica Guerin” starring Cate Blanchett.

Sager’s own remarkable story started out while he attended Georgetown University as a law student. After three weeks, he dropped out and applied to be a reporter at the Washington Post. He failed both the spelling and typing tests, but was hired as a copy boy on the graveyard shift. This got him the foot in the door he needed, as a freelancer, to break an investigative story that landed him on the front page and got him hired as a staff writer … by Bob Woodward of Watergate fame!

Since 1997, Sager’s been living in a gorgeous hillside house in Upper Hermosa, out of which he runs his own publishing company, the Sager Group, which releases books by Sager and a stable of his authors.

He chats with the Light in his den off the pool.

How did you have the nerve to apply at the Washington Post with no journalism experience?

“A frat brother at Emory was the son of a long-time style section reporter. She got me the interview with HR. But I did have some experience. I had been editor of the Emory newspaper, the lit mag and their insider’s guide to Emory, as well as an intern at the alt-weekly Creative Loafing. Once I got to the Post wire room, I read the paper and felt as if I could do it just as well. And I set out to prove it. It took 11 months. I was too naive to believe I couldn’t.”

What was Bob Woodward like as an editor?

“Woodward was great. He let me achieve, and then he recognized me for it. And I haven’t stopped trying to live up to it since. But he didn’t understand feature writing. At all. He was a news person. One time, I was telling him about these white people who were all Sikhs and wore turbans and lived in this house in Georgetown, and they had this shoe store. They were like a cult. So I told them I thought this was the greatest story and I wanted to go live with them for a week. I remember he asked me how many of them there were. So I told him, and he didn’t think it was a story because there were only 37 people. I stayed a couple of years at the Post but my head was somewhere else — into Tom Wolfe, mostly.”

Sager (far right) is shown in 1981 with his 'Washington Post' colleagues including (far left) Bob Woodward.
Sager (far right) is shown in 1981 with his 'Washington Post' colleagues including (far left) Bob Woodward. (If it looks like they're on the set of 'All the President's Men,' that's because the movie was filmed in this newsroom.) COURTESY

Tom Wolfe comes up in another story in this issue, because of all the facts he got wrong in The Pump House Gang.

“Wolfe’s The New Journalism started everything for me. The first essay in (the book) is all about scoop slobs versus feature writers. It was the first real epiphany I’d ever had in my life. I’d been equipped by the Post with the best field education of reporting any person could get, and Wolfe took the caul off my eyes in terms of what you could do with all this.”

But didn’t Wolfe and New Journalism care about emotional truth at the expense of factual truth?

“No, that’s not true, but that was the beef with New Journalism in the early years because of Hunter Thompson. He was clearly interpreting reality, not reporting it — although it masqueraded as reporting.”

You worked as Hunter’s assistant for a 1990 Rolling Stone story. What was that like?

“It was very exciting and makes for some great stories, but personally, I’ll say it was like being with the Ghost of Christmas Future, and kind of learning how not to become — learning not to let my life and my work overlap until I didn’t know what was what.

It was two-to-three weeks and each day was sort of 36 hours. There were a lot of drugs involved. He was addicted and not in his right mind. And he was the sweetest person ever. There were moments where it was revealed to me that he had the sweetest heart and was really a nice person, and a person in a lot of pain. But he was like that fraternity kid in the movie who all the kids egg on because he’s the one that’ll do all the stupid stuff. He’s got to be, like they say in theater — louder, faster, funnier — which is one of my writing principles, but it’s not a great way to live.”

What was it like living with Aryan Nation members?

“I got sent by GQ to Idaho to go find white supremacists after the Atlanta bombing. Some of the people I was hanging out with in the Aryan Nations compound were childish and some were, I would say, developmentally disabled. So I just left the place feeling not worried or scared about this Aryan Nations threat at all, even though I had a black Jewish son and they kept talking about the n****** and k**** and the and all that stuff. Sure enough, within a couple of years, they had been sued out of existence and the founder died.”

Sager spent time with a Marine unit at Camp Pendleton in 2000 — the first unit to arrive in Afghanistan following 9/11.
Sager spent time with a Marine unit at Camp Pendleton in 2000 — the first unit to arrive in Afghanistan following 9/11. COURTESY

What was your favorite piece to write?

“My most exciting piece was probably when I lived with the crack gang, the V13 in Venice, in the beginning of the crack wars. It was a Venice gang of Hispanics, living across the street from the Venice Shoreline Crips, who sold heroin and had low-riders and the zoot suits and the whole bit. That was an amazing story because Margaret Mead is perhaps my greatest influence — living within a situation where I don’t belong.”

How would you describe your approach to embedding yourself?

“I am not good at asking questions. I don’t know what to ask before I get there, usually. If I’m going to live with a crack gang, what do I know? And what do all these people know who have written articles about it? Because that’s one of the greatest things I’ve ever learned, through all of this. Almost every single article I’ve read in preparation to go do another article, had all this stuff that was just not quite right.

As a good journalist — or even as a good person — you need to listen to what the enemy is saying, if only to know what they’re about. When you yell back at the television, you don’t hear what they’re saying and you need to hear. If you don’t understand what they’re saying, you’re not going to get the story right, and you can’t just understand what they’re saying by what they say — because it’s not what people say, it’s what they do. Everybody knows that about everyone.

So I just hang around. I watch, I learn and I listen. I don’t have a story if not for these people, so I have to honor them.”

Sager’s old ‘Rolling Stone’ press badge
Sager's old 'Rolling Stone' press badge COURTESY

Why did you move to La Jolla?

“Because it faced the ocean, the airport was easy to get to, and it was not L.A. But I moved mostly because of the blizzard of 1996 and also because we were living in a neighborhood that was crack-infested. There was lots of crack where I lived, one mile from the White House on what they called the 14th Street Strip. That enabled me to afford the house, of course, but then when I was married and a kid came along, living in the crack neighborhood wasn’t that cool — especially after I suffered a bad beating at the hands of eight-to-10 crackheads.”

Were you embedded with them?

“I was not. I was a civilian that night. I’ve never been injured on the job, because I would never be working in a situation with dangerous people if I didn’t have my groundwork laid. Let’s just say my groundwork wasn’t laid in this situation.

So then I had the good fortune to have a number of things that sold — ‘Boogie Nights’ and some other movies. In 1996, I sold the story about Janet Cooke, who was the Pulitzer fabulist who won the Pulitzer for a story about an 8-year-old heroin addict and had to give it back. That sold for a lot of money. And that, in turn, caused another project to sell, ‘Veronica Geruin.’ And I got a deal with Jerry Bruckheimer and Disney. Over the years, I’ve sold more than 20 options on stories — some more than once.

So I took that money, sold my house in the ghetto, and I found this house in 1996, when there was a recession in San Diego. It needed work, but I was here.”

Does La Jolla influence your work in any way, or does it just make it easier to work?

“I moved here when I was 40, and one of my feelings at that time is that retirement shouldn’t be wasted on the old. And I’ve loved it here. It’s a great place for what I need, which is quiet contemplation and aloneness. During the years when my kid was a kid, I don’t know what better situation you could have than fall at Allen Field when the sun’s going down over the ocean and you’re coaching soccer to 12-year-olds.”


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