There are preachers and there are storytellers, as folks from New Orleans like to say, and Michael Lewis is one of the premier storytellers of our time. His latest book, The Premonition, focuses on three individuals—Dr. Charity Dean, the former assistant director of California’s Department of Public Health; Dr. Carter Mecher, who worked at the Department of Veterans Affairs; and Joe DeRisi, a professor of biochemistry and biophysics at U.C. San Francisco—who conspired to work around Washington officialdom to fight the coronavirus pandemic. Journalists find it easy to envy Lewis and his success, but anyone who meets him finds it impossible not to like him, thanks to his charm and self-effacing manner.
JIM KELLY: Your new book focuses on a mosaic of medical experts who battled the Trump administration’s incompetence in handling the coronavirus. You point out that before the pandemic hit, the U.S. had been ranked by a study group as the No. 1 country able to handle such a catastrophe. And yet, as you point out, with about 4 percent of the world’s population, the U.S. has suffered about 20 percent of its coronavirus deaths. If you had to give a percentage of blame to Trump himself, what would it be?
MICHAEL LEWIS: Thirty-seven point six.
J.K.: One lesson I drew from the book is that what matters most in a crisis is strong and resolute leadership from the top. You imply that George W. Bush would have been far better equipped to deal with the pandemic than other presidents. Why?
M.L.: I don’t know that he would have been better than any other president at managing a pandemic, but he would have had the advantage of having personally prepared for one. Bush read John Barry’s history of the 1918 pandemic and was so spooked that he brought in a ragtag but imaginative group of people, the most important of them doctors, who basically invented pandemic strategy. It’s a tribute to Bush that he forced the federal government to think about the risk.
J.K.: You have so many fascinating characters in this book, many of whom learned the hard way that no one really wants to listen to them when they play Cassandra. Do you have a favorite character? (Mine is Dr. Charity Dean.) And do you think our country’s experience this time will make it easier for them to be heeded in the future?
M.L.: In Charity Dean, Carter Mecher, and Joe DeRisi, I had three of the best characters I’ve ever had in my career. That none of them really thought of themselves as characters made them even better characters. I’ve probably screwed them up already by explaining to them why they are. I don’t want to screw two of them up further by explaining why one is the best.
J.K.: You have a wonderful skill at writing about topics through the personalities of the people you encounter. What usually comes first when deciding what to write about: the topic or the main character?
M.L.: I guess I always sort of start with a topic or, at any rate, a question: How does a poor baseball team consistently beat rich ones? How did all these Wall Street firms filled with the putatively smartest financial minds on the planet commit collective suicide? How did the country widely believed to be the best equipped to fight a pandemic lose so spectacularly in battle?
But I don’t have a story without a character, and so the question eventually winds up being attached to someone. In the case of The Premonition, I was far more aware far earlier in the process of the importance of the characters.
J.K.: Your work shows such tremendous range, from writing about baseball to finance to medicine. Have you ever pursued a topic and decided it was a dry hole and dropped the project?
M.L.: The history of the stapler.
J.K.: Three of your books—The Big Short, Moneyball, and The Blind Side—have been made into successful films. How involved were you in the process, and do you have a favorite film?
M.L.: The films all worked great, I thought, at least in part because I had so little to do with them. I played roughly the same role with the directors of all three films as I do with my children in their athletic lives: I stood on the sideline and hollered some, but without much effect. I don’t have a favorite, but of the three, the most unlikely was The Big Short. I told Adam McKay, the director, that he shouldn’t even try to make it. He did it anyway.
J.K.: Serendipity often seems to be your friend. In 1996, for example, when you covered the U.S. presidential campaign for The New Republic, you spent an unusual amount of time and effort covering the Republican Party candidacy of Morry Taylor, a tire manufacturer whose quest brought the definition of quixotic to a new level. Yet your dispatches were funny and charming and remarkably revealing about campaigns in general. At what point did you realize your instinct to focus on Taylor would pan out?
M.L.: I have always trusted my luck. I do this to an alarming degree. A brief story to illustrate the point: When I was 14, I was taken to swim in a big, cold lake. The water was so murky that when you were under it you could hardly see your hand in front of your face. I swam out 30 yards or so and then for some strange reason said to myself, “I’m going to dive to the bottom and grab whatever is there.” I went down maybe 12 feet and grabbed a handful of sand and what felt like paper. When I came to the surface, I was holding a $20 bill. Morry Taylor was that $20 bill. Found money.
J.K.: Several years ago you wrote a terrific piece about Tom Wolfe, a literary hero of yours. Are there any teachers or other writers who had a profound influence on you early in your life?
M.L.: A bunch. A few like Tom Wolfe got inside me around the time I was finding money in lakes. George Plimpton, for the sheer joy with which he went about his work. John McPhee, for the feeling of a craft being pushed to its breaking point and becoming art. John Steinbeck and F. Scott Fitzgerald and Thomas Wolfe: these three for some reason meant so much to me that by about age 17 I’d read all their books. But their influence on me was strange as I never imagined that I’d one day be a writer.
Michael Lewis’s The Premonition: A Pandemic Story is out now from W. W. Norton
Jim Kelly is the Books Editor for AIR MAIL