Arts & Culture
"Bullshit artist" Mike Sager is publishing the new new journalism
Writer-publisher recounts how he came to establish a modern haven for long-form nonfiction
Published: July 24, 2013
HIGH TOLERANCE: A NOVEL OF SEX, RACE, CELEBRITY, MURDER … AND MARIJUANA
by Mike Sager | The Sager Group | 282 pages
Mike Sager talks like one of the guys from Barry Levinson’s 1982 bromance Diner, fast and nonstop, riffing from one thing to another. In fact, he grew up in Pikesville, Md. – not far from where Levinson grew up, and just a few years behind him. He went from there to work at Atlanta’s alt-weekly, Creative Loafing, as an intern, ended up at the Washington Post, and for the last couple of decades has been writing long-form nonfiction stories for the likes of Rolling Stone and Esquire. He is best known for gritty tales of celebrity, excess, drugs and madness, and some of his best stories have been made into films (“The Devil and John Holmes” inspired Boogie Nights, for example).
More recently, he started the Sager Group, a small publishing endeavor which has published two collections of Sager’s nonfiction and, recently, his novel High Tolerance: A Novel of Sex, Race, Celebrity, Murder … and Marijuana. It is as lurid as it sounds, and the cover would be at home in an airport bookstore, but it still contains Sager’s trademark densely packed, beautifully written sentences. In addition to publishing Sager’s own work, the Sager Group publishes anthologies championing the younger generation of long-form nonfiction writers in Next Wave and women practitioners of the form in the forthcoming The Stories We Tell.
Sager spoke with me from his Los Angeles home. The interview has been greatly condensed for purposes of space.
How did a Baltimore kid like you end up writing for Esquire in Los Angeles?
It goes back to my mother. She always said I was a great bullshitter, which I guess meant I had verbal skills, because I had no math abilities of any sort. High school in Baltimore was deliberate jockdom. I played soccer and lacrosse and a lot of basketball on my own. Then high school journalism. College [and] the facility for writing. I was already down for Georgetown law school and got an internship at Creative Loafing and I just loved it. I reported to this weird guy who I’m still in touch with, this crotchety old city editor guy, and he’d give me an assignment and I’d go out in Atlanta. My first story was about edible plants, you know, back when salads were more romaine-y and this kind of stuff wasn’t big. It was the spring of ’74 and ’75. I was at Emory. So I went to law school with all the other liberal arts majors. But as it happened, I only lasted a year and eventually landed a job at the Washington Post as a copy boy.
I went in for an interview and I had to take a spelling and typing test and I failed, and they told me I couldn’t have a job. They finally found me this job in the wire room, where you didn’t have to be qualified for spelling or typing. I read every piece of the paper and walked around and nobody paid attention to me, like I wasn’t even there.