The Devil and a Comm Week speaker

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Mike Sager lives with a crack gang, befriends murderers and attends swinger parties. He hangs with models, politicians and white supremacists. He goes to high school even though he’s old enough to teach the class.

He is a journalist and he is in the pursuit of his next story.

Sager is known for his dark tales of depravity, his gritty exposés of American subcultures and his anthropological take on journalism. Now, the critically acclaimed writer works poolside in his office in La Jolla Calif., putting the finishing touches on his sixth book; the characters are inspired by the subjects he’s been writing about over the past three decades.

A bald Jewish man in his 50s, Sager’s posture emanates east coast confidence and his gentle, smiling eyes clash with his seemingly rough exterior.

His most famous article, “The Devil and John Holmes,” a story about the first male porn star, a drug lord and one of the most gruesome mass murders in Los Angeles’ history is the basis for movies Wonderland and Boogie Nights.

“It was my first big investigative crime story. I didn’t make it lurid. I was mature about sex and I could go into a porn thing and not act like an idiot.”

Following the role of notorious journalist Hunter S. Thompson, of Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas fame, Sager became the de facto drug correspondent for Rolling Stone and while working at Esquire he developed the celebrity profile format that is still used today, interviewing the likes of Jack Nicholson, Paris Hilton, Angelina Jolie, Robert De Niro and Snoop Dogg.

But Mike Sager did not always envision a career in journalism and he initially thought that becoming a professional writer was impractical. After graduating from Emory University, he went to Georgetown Law School to become a lawyer but quit after three weeks, knowing all the while that he was denying his true calling in order to have something to fall back on.

“It was Labor Day vacation weekend and I found myself in the parking lot of my apartment building sitting on the hood of my car crying because I was just so unhappy. I knew I didn’t want to do this. So I quit,” Sager said.

The self-proclaimed “writer who didn’t have anything to write about” found journalism in 1978 as a copy boy at the Washington Post under editor Bob Woodward, of Woodward and Bernstein, the famous journalists who helped expose the Watergate scandal that led to Richard Nixon’s impeachment.

After six years of climbing the ranks, starting out with no journalism training, Sager left the Post to pursue a career in magazines.

“Bob Woodward didn’t really appreciate good writing. The work I do now takes a lot of good investigative work but it doesn’t look like that, it just looks like I’m telling a story. They didn’t get that and over time it became a struggle and the reason I left,” Sager said.

Leaving behind the Ivy League culture of the Post that he never really belonged to, Sager went on to write for Playboy, Rolling Stone, GQ, and Esquire, among others, carving a niche for himself writing hardcore investigative stories, often putting his life on the line and his judgments on hold.

“I have this thing called the theory of originals. You have to be number one in a class of one. You don’t compete. You find what you do better than anybody else,” Sager said.

What Sager could do was use his anthropological approach to temporarily become one with his subjects and see the world through their eyes.

“You see this sometimes on TV, like Diane Sawyer, she’s interviewing hookers and she’ll be like ‘You did that? For how much?’ And she’s making this face like she just tasted something horrible. Now that’s really going to make her subject feel good right? I’m more like ‘Cool! What was that like?’” Sager said. “I’m more accepting when I listen. As a reporter, it isn’t about you and your ideas, it’s about them.”

Sager recalls the beginning of his six-year stint at Rolling Stone. The uncomfortable moments that would have frightened or disgusted others didn’t faze him and his ability to turn these scenes into literary pieces is what earned him respect in the industry.

“After seeing a piece I’d written about a pimp in D.C., the guy from Rolling Stone saw my piece in the New York Times about pit bull fighting in Philadelphia. These Puerto Rican kids were hanging the dogs if they lost and it was so degraded. The Rolling Stone editor was like, ‘He can do that ghetto thing,’ so he calls me up.”

Though his career has led him to many unusual adventures, Sager has proven his literary talent through less sensational stories. After Sager left GQ to work at Esquire he was told to write a story about a 90-year-old man.

“I’m Sager, the bald guy. (I’ve) lived with a crack gang, occult, slayer, and you want me to write about a 90-year-old guy? And this is going to be the basis of whether I get another contract? But you know that’s the story people remember more. That finally got me a nomination for the magazine award.”
Since Sager became a father, he’s spent more time working from his home office and focusing on his novels. He hopes that one day he’ll be known as a novelist who occasionally does journalism.

Looking back on his decision to quit law school and follow his true passion for writing, Sager knows he made the right decision.

“What thrills me is this creation,” he said. “If you’re lucky enough to be one of those people who have a calling then you need to try to take advantage of that and do everything you can to service that.”

His first novel, Deviant Behavior, was published in 2008 and the three collections of his articles: Scary Monsters and Super Freaks, Revenge of the Donut Boys and Wounded Warriors, showcase some of his most famous articles throughout his career.

Sager visited Cal State Fullerton last spring to lecture during Comm Week and taught a Creative Writing for Journalists seminar at the University of California, Irvine for four years. He urges all students to find what they are passionate about and to develop it for no other reason than it makes them happy. He warns that ignoring your talents and listening to your doubts can lead to a life of regret.

“Don’t be afraid to follow your dreams because if you don’t, you definitely won’t get them.”

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One commentOn The Devil and a Comm Week speaker

  • “Following the role of notorious journalist Hunter S. Thompson, of Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas fame…”

    I would have gone with “Hell’s Angels fame”, but I’m just a fan.

Comments are closed.

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