When we last left our interview with Mike Sager, he had discussed his early career and the importance of Bob Woodward in its start. We talked about his early love of books and those who encouraged his career. We also discussed his approach to his stories and the forming of the Sager Group. Now we look at his partnership with NeoText, his first book with them and what is next.
Working with NeoText
GVL: You have recently teamed up with NeoText to co-publish SHAMAN, The Mysterious Life and Impeccable Death of Carlos Castaneda. How did that partnership come about and what sold the deal to you?
MS: I’ve kind of learned that when you make a bunch of honest effort, even though it seems you’re not getting anywhere sometimes, situations always arise. Work long enough and hard enough, do good work, create a critical mass, and things happen, people see your stuff and contact you.
When John Schoenfelder emailed me and we started talking about NeoText, it felt like the perfect organic fit. For one thing, NeoText is interested in seeing what works of mine might be suitable for further exploitation. They also want to enable me to continue my work with other authors, whose careers I’ve been involved with over the years as a mentor, to create and publish outstanding new narrative works. And maybe most important to me, they want me to continue writing great stuff of my own.
NeoText is able to bring to the table the social media and PR machine and the Hollywood contacts that stories need to go to the next level. It sounds kinda sappy, but their strengths are my weaknesses, and my strengths are what they seek. I’m not a person who believes in wishing, but if I was, I’d have wished for a place in this budding relationship.
GVL: There have been many books about Casteneda and his beliefs. Some that questioned the validity of his stories but most do not deny his writing talents. What made you decide to delve into his story, and did any of the previous books written push you in any certain direction?
MS: Like almost all of my crime work, SHAMAN started as an assignment. In this case my long-time editor at Rolling Stone, Bob Love, handed me an article from the Los Angeles Times about Castaneda’s death. I had been the drugs correspondent at Rolling Stone for many years. I’d written about the drug war, crack, smokable meth, unjust prison sentences. It’d never really considered Castaneda. But he had the magic mushroom angle, the mystical, and it made me the logical choice.
I have always enjoyed doing stories I’m assigned. I’ve never been that guy poking around the internet looking for stories I’m just dying to report. Frankly, I started out wanting to be a writer. And sit in a quiet room by myself and type. My problem was, in the beginning, I wanted to type but I had nothing to say. When I got to the Post, I learned about reporting. And it was a revelation: Forget fiction. You don’t need to make up a story! You can just learn a real one and make it your own.
I guess the only complication was… I’m not really a reporter-type. Deep down, I’m shy and have a bad sense of direction and I don’t like to be lost, which happens all the time. (I don’t even understand what having a sense of direction means. If you’re somewhere you’ve never been, and you don’t have a compass? And the stars aren’t out. How do you have a sense of direction?) Anyway, for me, doing reporting isn’t natural. I kind of don’t like it—until I’m in the middle of doing it, and then, yes, it’s fucking great. It’s like, holy shit. I’m in the back seat of a Chevy driving to a drive-by shooting. Can’t get that on TV.
GVL: It’s funny you admit that. I am severely directionally challenged. My autistic son has a better sense of direction. So I’m with you there. But for someone who doesn’t consider themselves a “natural reporter,” you have done pretty well for your career. So what about Carlos Casteneda? I would be lying if I said I understood half of what Casteneda was trying to teach. Did it all make sense to you?
MS: Well, I spent a little more time on Carlos. It became my job to understand. I read all 12 books over and over. Marked them up with highlighter and Post Its. That’s the way of the reporter. It’s controlled obsession. It’s method. (Something else I learned from Marlon, The Method.) When someone gives me an assignment, there is not one question that before I’m done, I will understand everything. There will be no holes. I will be an expert. It’s just part of the game.
With Castenada, even though, in the end, he might have been nothing more than a great novelist/philosopher, I came away with a lot of spiritual knowledge that helps my life. Maybe it’s partly to do with the fact that he studied many modes of spiritualisms and thought before he amalgamated his own scriptures—in my experience, all philosophical and religious roads lead to the same place.
GVL: So what did YOU take from your research on his philosophy? What impacted you most?
MS: By far the most important thing I came away with was Castaneda’s concept of living life like an Impeccable Warrior, which he believed should be every person’s ultimate goal. An Impeccable Warrior lives every moment to the fullest, rises to every trial as a challenge, takes responsibility for everything they have a part in, lives impeccably every single day. My Jewish father called this “being a mensch,” which is just another way of saying . . . a person who does the right thing, without reproach.
GVL: During your research, were any of your interviewees reluctant to talk to you? If so, how did you get them to agree to discuss their relationships with Carlos?
MS: Everyone was hesitant to talk. But everyone also wanted to talk, deep down, or they wouldn’t have. A good reporter is like a minister. You listen to people. You witness their trials and tribulations and emotional experiences. Their bones to pick. The injustices. You hear them. Being heard is a tiny form of grace. It’s what humans need most deeply, I believe.
What’s Next with NeoText
GVL: Now that you have this book under your belt, are there any other projects (that you are free to talk about) with NeoText?
MS: Next up from me with NeoText will be my collection of greatest hits, Hunting Marlon Brando and Other Stories: Five Decades in the American Underbelly. It has some of my favorite and most well-known stories, most of them no longer available anywhere. All have been refreshed and refurbished since original publication. The title story, for instance, was written at 14,000 words. Going to the copy editor it was hitting about 50,000.
I’m really proud of the stuff in the Marlon book. These are my favorites over five decades of work. Beside Brando piece, we attend the “Superbowl of Rodeo” with the world’s winningest professional cowboy; meet the members of a once-proud street gang whose fortunes were lost in a cloud of crack smoke; hang out with a pair of near-feral brothers living in the slums and fighting stolen pitbull dogs to the death; spend time with a seven-foot six-inch, Sudanese-born pro-basketball player who broke his front teeth on the rim the first time he tried to dunk, only to go on to become one of the best shot-blockers in the history of the National Basketball Association.
There’s a lot more too: white supremacists in Idaho, near-fatally hip heroin addicts on the Lower East Side of Manhattan, the five people with the highest IQs in America, a 650 pound man, and the most in-depth piece ever written about NBA lightning rod Kobe Bryant, who lifted the craft of basketball into compelling art. And who I miss dearly. What a tragedy. Won’t get me in a helicopter. I can sit in the damn traffic.
Tom Byron Biography
After that, I’ll be working to complete my biography of the porn actor Tom Byron, who is credited with making the most porn films of any other actor over the longest person of time, four decades. His longevity makes his story unique, a perfect driver to the incredibly interesting history of porn in the US.
In the meantime, NeoText and I have about four amazing stories in development as books right now. I can’t tell you about those. But it involves work with some of my favorite younger and very talented journalist friends, all of whom I’ve known for years and feel so thankful to be working with.
GVL: Well it certainly seems like your partnership with NeoText is off to a promising start. One things for sure, it’s keeping you busy. Just as you had stated it would.
The One that Got Away
We thank you so much for your time, Mike. One final hypothetical question for you. During your career, you have had the opportunity to talk to and bio so many talented actors, actresses, and polarizing figures. Was there anyone past or present that you would have loved or love to talk to? Who would be (or would have been) your holy grail of interviews?
MS: During rehearsal for the Grammys many years ago in New York, I was privileged to be able to stand TEN FEET AWAY from Michael Jackson as he went through the dress rehearsal for his classic performance of Billie Jean. He was in a spotlight, doing the dance and singing, working the now-iconic fedora. And I was. . . right there. Michael. I feel like I would have listened. He’s the one who got away.
GVL: That WOULD have been a great piece. We really appreciate your time, Mike. Best of luck on this book and we’ll be watching with interest for your future publications with NeoText.
Senior Writer at GeekVibesNation – I am a 50 something child of the 70’s who admits to being a Star Trek/Star Wars/Comic Book junkie who once dove head first over a cliff (Ok, it was a small hill) to try to rescue his Fantastic Four comic from a watery grave. I am married to a lovely woman who is as crazy as I am and the proud parent of a 17 year old boy with autism. My wife and son are my real heroes.