Meagan Flynn/Beyond the New Yorker
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.