Author Michael Lewis ’82 has an uncanny ability to take complicated subjects and bring them to life through deft storytelling and vivid characters. In 16 previous books, many of them bestsellers, he has explored Wall Street (Liar’s Poker and Flash Boys), the baseball analytics revolution (Moneyball), football strategy (The Blind Side), the subprime mortgage crisis (The Big Short), and the public health system (The Premonition). Tom Wolfe once called him “probably the best current writer in America.”
In his latest book, Going Infinite: The Rise and Fall of a New Tycoon (Norton), Lewis again demonstrates a sixth sense for a hot topic, exploring cryptocurrency through the controversial figure of Sam Bankman-Fried, founder and CEO of the crypto exchange FTX. Lewis spent more than six months working on the book before FTX declared bankruptcy in November 2022 and Bankman-Fried, once rated as the 60th richest person in the world, was arrested. Bankman-Fried is currently on trial in New York on charges including securities fraud, wire fraud, and money laundering, with a second trial scheduled for next year.
Although Going Infinite has been praised as an entertaining story, several reviewers have also criticized Lewis for being too sympathetic to Bankman-Fried and whitewashing his alleged crimes. “Is Michael Lewis Throwing Out His Reputation to Defend Sam Bankman-Fried?” the website Coindesk asked.
Lewis, the subject of a 2021 PAW profile, spoke with PAW on Oct. 16 while on a book tour in his native New Orleans, discussing his writing process, public response to the book, and what he learned during a very unusual two years.
How has the tour gone? It seems like this book has received more criticism than you usually get.
It has been very similar to the Moneyball tour. That was a shitshow for the first month because the baseball scouts who were threatened by the books were friends with the reviewers, so it was just a steady drumbeat of negativity. I have found in the past, though, that when there’s this kind of noise when the book comes out, it wakes people [up] to the book’s existence and has a very positive effect on sales.
Several of your books have been made into movies. Is there a movie deal in the works for this one?
Yes. This has been an unusual situation because word got out that I was actually embedded with Sam when everything blew up. I didn’t start writing the book until last January, but there was such interest in it that I sold it to Apple. I’ve written a television show for them, and I wanted the story in a big, safe place, because there were people who didn’t want the movie made. There was a fantastic bid for the movie rights from a rival crypto billionaire, and I didn’t want him to have any kind of influence on it. Events sort of forced my hand.
You have said that you write quickly. What are you like during those couple of months when you’re producing pages?
There are two stages. One is the agony of figuring out what the book is about and how it needs to be written, and that always takes a long time. In this case, I started writing the last week of January and I handed in the last chunk on Aug. 15. I only give myself six or seven months to write, because that seems to be what it takes, and I’m always almost always slightly ahead of my deadline. On a really good day, especially if I’m writing a scene or a set piece, that can be 2,500 words and it takes me a day to write. I polish it up later. But on the other hand, there are passages that are 500 words long that were also a day’s work. I’m all over the map in terms of my output per day. The joy of it, though, never really changes. I don’t find the writing agonizing. I find it challenging, like a good workout is challenging.
How did you decide to write about Sam Bankman-Fried?
I got a call in September 2021 from a friend [Brad Katsuyama] who was thinking of doing a business deal with Sam. He wanted my opinion of Sam, because the guy had come out of nowhere, from having zero dollars to having $22 billion and being the richest person in the world under 30. But nobody knew who he was, and my friend had no character references. So, he said, could you just sit down with him and tell me what you make of him?
I spent a couple hours with Sam and gave my friend a big thumbs up on his investment. We’re still talking about whether he should ever turn to me again for investment advice! I didn’t have any idea who Sam was or FTX. I had dipped into crypto as a possible subject several times and walked away because I never found a way to write about it in a way that interested me. So right away I said to Sam, I don’t know where this is going to go but I want to watch you. Which I spent the next year doing.
It was instantly clear that Sam was an interesting character, but it was also his situation. He already had his fingerprints all over U.S. national elections, the media, financial regulation, and philanthropy. I thought, this kid has got his hands on a giant pile of money and the world is reshaping itself around it, and I want to describe what happens when that happens. He felt like a mechanism for holding a mirror up to the world.
What were those days like when you first got word that it was all falling apart and Bankman-Fried was going to be arrested?
I was with him in the Bahamas. I was present the day he signed the FTX bankruptcy papers, and then I was kind of constantly present with him in the months afterwards when he was under house arrest. I was with Sam until they hauled him away to jail.
So, what was it like? There are a lot of different answers to that question. The literary answer was that, at the time of his arrest, I was sitting there with half a book. If you read it, you’ll sense that I could have written the first six chapters just the way they are without changing anything. When FTX collapsed and Sam was arrested, suddenly it all made a different kind of sense. My first thought was, he just solved my literary problem.
My second thought was about the insane differences between what I was reading in the newspaper or hearing on Twitter and what was actually happening. Because I was sitting in a room with him. Thing after thing after thing either lacked context or was completely wrong. Anybody who’s had this experience knows you can never read the newspaper the same way again, because you know how much of it is not quite right.
The third part was Sam’s reaction to what was happening. There was a 400-something person company [FTX], his parents, the venture capitalists who invested in him, and a lot of others, and this whole world just collapsed in a matter of days. It was interesting to watch the way different people responded. Everybody that I knew even casually seemed more dramatically affected by it all than Sam Bankman-Fried. The person who was the most consistent in his behavior and seemingly the least affected by it all was Sam. And that was odd.
After his indictment, wasn’t the first reaction of his lawyers and handlers to say, get this journalist out of the room, for goodness’ sake?
Yes, it was. That was the first reaction, but the lawyers will tell you that Sam is a very difficult client. He just let me stay. His parents, though, were very wary. There was a funny moment where I was in a room in Palo Alto with Sam and his dad and three Stanford law professors. The law professors walk in and see me and say wait, what’s he doing here? And his dad said, if we were going to kick him out, we should have done it two months ago. Now, it would be pointless.
When’s the last time you’ve spoken to Bankman-Fried?
Aug. 10, 2023. He got put in jail on August 11 [Bankman-Fried’s bail was revoked over allegations of witness tampering] and since then he’s been inaccessible to everybody but his lawyers and his parents.
Are you concerned that you’re going to be called to testify at his trial?
I was afraid the prosecution might call me. If the defense calls me, it’s very easy to hide. You don’t have to go. If you watch the criminal justice system up close, you can’t quite believe how it works. It’s not exactly a fair process because the prosecution has all sorts of invisible powers that the defense does not.
I know. Donald Trump talks about that all the time.
Well, he’s right! I mean, just look at the odds. Last year something like 99.6% of criminal cases ended either with a guilty plea or a conviction. You’re going to lose, and the reason isn’t that the prosecution is so great at identifying criminals.
I thought the prosecutors might subpoena the book. They asked for it back in July, but it wasn’t finished, so we didn’t give it to them. They didn’t get the book until everybody else did.
Why did you end the story before he goes to trial?
Because then you’re telling the reader what the story is about. I think the story is about this dreamlike ambition that Sam had, and once it all collapses, the ambition is dead. No question, there is a separate story in the trial, but I think the trial is either a short book or a long magazine piece. It’s the criminal justice system colliding with Sam Bankman-Fried.
Speaking about the trial in another interview, you said that you don’t have an innocent story for Sam Bankman-Fried. You have a guilty story and a sloppy story. Do you have any prediction of what the outcome will be?
I would have told you even before it started that he is going to be convicted. I mean, just think of it this way. What’s the likelihood that this collection of facts belongs in the 0.4% of criminal defendants who get acquitted? Not great. For Sam, I think best possible outcome would be some sort of hung jury. Then the question is what the punishment is, and that ends up being a matter of discretion for the judge.
The two stories in the courtroom are simple criminal fraud versus incredible sloppiness, and I think wherever you land on that, the story makes no sense unless you understand him, and understanding him is breathtakingly difficult. That’s why there’s a book.
You said you got into this in part because you wanted to understand cryptocurrency. Is crypto going to revolutionize finance or is it all a mirage?
I didn’t actually want to learn more about crypto. What interested me was the social effects of the $3 trillion in new wealth that crypto had created by the end of 2021. The technology of crypto always seemed to me like a solution in search of a problem. It doesn’t feel like it’s figured out what it’s for, and because it has told stories about what it’s for that have been proven not true, it has been discredited. The only thing it’s really been useful for is gambling. It has been very good for that.
But I don’t dismiss crypto entirely. There is a long history of technologies being invented, and it takes a while for them to find their footing. I would not be surprised if 20 years from now stock exchanges are running on blockchain. But it will be invisible. People won’t be thinking about the technology, like they don’t think about the plumbing of the internet. So, I think it still could be important, it just isn’t yet.
Interview conducted and condensed by PAW senior writer Mark F. Bernstein ’83.