You could say Mike Sager stumbled into journalism as a way to save his ass.
Three weeks into classes at Georgetown University law school in Washington D.C., he’d realized how much he wanted to be ... a writer. Having lied to his parents—assuring them a deferred admission to the following year’s class had been easily secured—he pulled up the only writing contact he had: the mother of a fraternity brother happened to be an editor at the Washington Post.
When Sager got the call from the Post, he put on his three-piece interview suit, packed his new graduation-gift briefcase full of college-era writing clips, and drove to the august newspaper, situated only a few blocks from the White House. Promptly he failed the spelling and typing tests administered by the paper’s human relations department.
Several dozen desperate phone calls followed over the next month before he landed a full-time spot as a copy boy on the graveyard shift. His assigned post—which required no spelling or typing—was a closet-sized space housing some fourteen news service teletype machines (AP, UPI, Reuters, and others). Before mobile phones and the Internet changed newspaper reporting forever, the wire room was how news-gathering organizations kept up with worldwide events. The cacophony of sound emanating from the printing machines—the hammering, sawing, buzzing, and dinging—was deafening. There was a metal bar stool and a large window at the front of the room, which gave Sager a front seat to the daily drama at one of the best newspapers in the world.
Unbeknownst to Sager, he’d arrived at the Post at a moment in cultural history when journalism was at its zenith. A few years earlier, relentless investigative reporting by the team of Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein for The Washington Post helped usher a crooked president, Richard M. Nixon, out of office. Journalism was considered the highest of callings; it was equated with the best intentions of the political idealism fostered by the social protest movements of the 1960s.
At the same time, a longer form of non-fiction writing was in vogue. The well-known author, cultural critic, and magazine writer Tom Wolfe—with his talent for coinage and self-promotion—called it “The New Journalism.” The idea was to meld investigative reporting and cultural anthropology with the creative elements of a novel. Reporting the story was only the first part of the job. Next came the grace of the telling. Wolfe and others believed that by using the techniques of fiction—scene, setting, action, dialogue, and point of view, with a particular emphasis on character and setting—a deeper, more entertaining, more thoughtful, and ultimately more informative story could emerge.
Along with Woodward and Bernstein, reporter/writers like Robert Caro (The Power Broker) and David Halberstam (The Best and the Brightest), created massive character-driven narratives, while New Journalism stylists such as Wolfe, Joan Didion, Gay Talese, and Hunter S. Thompson had a more distinct flair. Either way, they all shared the ability to immerse themselves in reporting. While some writers used the banner of New Journalism to stretch the truth—or even make stuff up—the true practitioners knew that careful reporting cannot be faked or written around.
Of course, Sager wasn’t familiar with any of this when he started work as a copy boy at the Post in 1978. A history major in college, Sager didn’t come from a bookish family. He wasn’t versed in the classics, he didn’t read magazines or newspapers. He just knew that he loved to write and would find a way to do it.
A former jock—he’d played varsity soccer at Emory University—Sager threw himself into his new job as if he was playing a sport, with the intensity of a 5-foot 5-inch guy with something to prove. Like many young reporters at the Post, Sager burned with ambition to succeed. Unlike most, he had no Ivy League credentials, no flair for office politics, no family connections, no facility for French or other foreign languages.
He made up for his lack of experience by working long hours, soaking up everything he could learn. The late 1970s was a time when the Drug War raged and the murder rate in the nation’s capital hovered among the highest in the nation. Sager’s familiarity with the worlds of his other teenage preoccupations—music and drugs—had given him some street knowledge that made up for his lack of polish. Within the year, Sager’s freelance work for the Metro and the Virginia Weekly sections, carried on outside of his 40-hour weeks as a copy boy, earned him a promotion to staff writer. At the time, Bob Woodward was the lead editor of the Post’s Metro staff. It was he who delivered the news to Sager, inside his glass cubical in the heart of the newsroom, in the late afternoon, right in the middle of deadline. Sept. 12, 1979, also the day he had his first front page story in the Post.
From there, starting with a stint at night police, Sager was given an old-school newspaper education, rotating through all the traditional stations of reporting—night rewrite, courts, general assignment, and politics, learning the standards and practices of the Fourth Estate from the very best in the business.
When he wasn’t covering his beat or doing spot stories assigned by the editors, Sager used his own time to work up enterprise features, longer stories told with more literary flair. In college, he’d minored in creative writing, but his work was not memorable. “I could write a decent sentence, but I had nothing say,” he has said. But with journalism, he’d found the motherlode. He didn’t need to say anything, just put in the work. “You hunted up the details, the interviews, the background. Then all you had to do was get out of the way,” Sager said.
Three years into his stint at the Post, Sager was assigned to a new editor named Walt Harrington, who would go on to write Intimate Journalism, one of the seminal textbooks on literary non-fiction. It was Harrington who opened Sager’s eyes to Wolfe’s anthology, The New Journalism, which he found “mind-blowing. Here I was, a typical kid, trying to re-invent the wheel. I sat up all night reading the book. As soon as I got it, I knew it was exactly what I wanted to do.” For the next three years, Sager read every bit of New Journalism he could find. Under Harrington’s tutelage, he began to put the pieces together that would become his voice and style.
Seeking, in his own words, “more room to stretch my fingers,” Sager quit the Post after six years to become a freelance magazine writer. As much as he loved the people he worked with, he knew he wasn’t quite one of them. Working first at local publications in D.C., and then moving on to stints as a contract writer for Rolling Stone, GQ, and Esquire, Sager applied the New Journalism approach to the subjects that fascinated him (and his editors) most—the underbelly of American life. Drawing the techniques of his anthropological hero, Margaret Meade, Sager would, over the next four decades, make a career “finding the quotidian within the extreme, the tender amid the grotesque,” according to the author and popular Columbia Journalism School professor Sam Freedman.
Sager takes us inside different worlds in a way that is immediate, vivid, and dramatic. He doesn’t hover 20,000 feet above his subject and just give you an overview—instead, you are right there on the ground level. He has a rare ability to get people to tell him things that they wouldn’t tell other people, maybe not even themselves. He earns their trust by hanging around, by not pushing or manipulating. By being genuinely interested.
Because Sager doesn’t put any barriers between us and his characters, and because he renders them so thoughtfully and with such compassion, readers are allowed to focus on the drama of the stories. Above all, Sager doesn’t get in the way of the story. He is not a commentator or a pundit. He doesn’t analyze, his pieces don’t have an obvious aim or thesis. His prose is so direct and unfussy, it’s almost invisible, like a camera. And yet there is a propulsion to it because in almost every sentence you’ll find a fact—that blessed newspaper training again. The sentences flow with a definite rhythm, but Sager’s style is unadorned with falsity, unburdened by over-interpretation. He’s a natural storyteller. You never get the feeling he’s there just to show off, only to entertain you.
It was at Rolling Stone that Sager’s career took a leap, owing mostly to the mentorship of editor Robert Love, the guy who put him into his first true crime story. Sager’s bible for the form was Truman Capote’s masterpiece of reportage, In Cold Blood. Thanks to Love, Sager had found a genre in which he could amalgamate his reporting skills and his literary aspirations. And thanks to Love’s generous assignments, he had great stories to tell.
Sager’s 1989 Rolling Stone article, “The Devil and John Holmes,” published ten years after his promotion from copy boy to reporter, became the inspiration for P.T. Anderson’s porn saga, Boogie Nights, and Wonderland, starring Val Kilmer and Lisa Kudrow. It remains one of the greatest true crime magazine stories ever published. Twenty-one years later, Sager’s portrait of failed NFL quarterback Todd Marinovich would win the National Magazine Award for profile writing. It was later the basis for the The Marinovich Project, an Emmy-nominated ESPN documentary. Along the way, more than a dozen of his articles would be optioned for or inspire Hollywood feature films, including Veronica Guerin, starring Cate Blanchett, and Betrayed by Love, starring Patricia Arquette.
In between, with the help of editor Peter Griffin, Sager pioneered Esquire’s hugely popular What I’ve Learned series of celebrity interviews, did scores of celebrity profiles large and small, and left behind dozens of deeply-reported narrative stories that are, taken together, an omnibus of American life. From his harrowing depiction of a raid on a federal research lab by the Animal Liberation Front, to “An Imperfect Weekend,” an intimate account of a lonely, painful, three-day ordeal in which a sandal-maker, trapped in his van at the bottom of a ravine, attempts to cut off his own arm in order to free himself from the wreckage, Sager grabs us by the gut and doesn’t let go.
For “Death in Venice,” he lived with a crack gang for six harrowing weeks. For “The Man of Tomorrow Goes to the Prom,” he attended high school for four months with a 17-year-old. Sager has lived with a 600-pound man, Palestinian refugees in the Gaza Strip, members of the Aryan Nations in Idaho, young artsy heroin addicts on the Lower East Side, and a 92-year-old retiree in Sun City, Arizona. To nail down his opening scene, Sager arranged to be in the old man’s house, in the chair beside his bed, in the wee hours of the morning so he could witness the old man waking up—he’d earlier told Sager that upon waking he often wondered where he was. That’s how close he brings us. Along the way, he was sometimes able was able to apply his anthropological sensibilities to a rogue’s gallery of public faces, including Rob Lowe, Al Sharpton, Roseanne Barr, Mike Ditka, Ice Cube, and Kobe Bryant.
Shaman: The Mysterious Life and Impeccable Death of Carlos Castaneda has its origins as an assignment, in the spring of 1998, from Rolling Stone. The odd circumstances of Castaneda’s life and death had been touched upon in a short article in the Los Angeles Times, by a young J. R. Moehringer, who in 2000 would win a Pulitzer Prize for his newspaper feature writing. At the time, Sager had recently been named a writer at large at Esquire. He had joined the magazine a year after the influential editor-in-chief David Granger took the helm. Previously, he’d spent six years at GQ, where he’d been lured by Art Cooper, who was rebuilding the laddie magazine (which began life as a section within Esquire) with the help of deep-pockets owner Condé Nast.
After leaving Rolling Stone, Sager maintained a clause in his contracts with the other magazines by which he could still freelance for the pioneering magazine of rock and alternative journalism. As he had many times before, Rolling Stone’s Love—by this time the managing editor of the magazine—"handed me the Castaneda assignment on a silver platter,” Sager recalled.
Sager spent a year reporting and writing the story, but an economic downturn left Stone unable to support the publication of a 25,000-word story. The piece was spiked. Sager received expenses and a 5 percent kill. Thereafter the piece went into an electronic file, not to be seen again until the 2003 publication of Scary Monsters and Super Freaks, a Los Angeles Times bestseller, Sager’s first of six full-length collections of his stories. A number of smaller collections have also been published.
Shaman is a carefully rewritten and updated re-presentation of the original Rolling Stone piece. It is a stronger, more dramatic, and more compelling work, on par with Sager’s finest, his mature skills on display. The book comes out of a collaboration between Sager’s boutique publishing company, The Sager Group, and NeoText, a new publisher formed this year by Addictive Pictures' Russell Ackerman and John Schoenfelder, alongside producer Jay Schuminsky. The unique cover and interior art for Shaman are the work of Sunny Day and Biddy Maroney of WBYK who collaborate closely with NeoText.
To Sager, who founded his own publishing, film and design company in 2011, Shaman represents the opportunity to bring together all the elements of his creative pursuits. Coming soon after publication of Shaman in eBook and paperback will be an audio book version of the story. Fully soundscaped with a musical score, it will be available wherever audio books are sold.
The Sager Group and NeoText have several more joint book projects in the works, including two more written by Sager: Hunting Marlon Brando, about a world-wide search for the elusive man when he was revered as the world’s greatest actor; and a biography of porn star Tom Byron, whose incredible career spanned four decades and 2,900 XXX-rated porn films, making him the most credited male actor in the history of the form.