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Lewis details reporting, relationship-building that led to ‘Moneyball’

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PHOENIX – Not every writer knows when an article will turn into a book. Sometimes a moment, an experience, a strike of inspiration can transform what was supposed to be a magazine feature into a full-blown novel.

For Michael Lewis, who received the Society of American Business Editors and Writers’ Distinguished Achievement Award on Friday, that moment was when he saw the Oakland Athletics in their locker room – naked.

Lewis was working on what would eventually become his best-selling novel “Moneyball,” though at the time Lewis thought he was working on a magazine-length feature story. He had learned about sabermetrics, data analysis that General Manager Billy Beane and other members of the team’s management used when choosing players, and wanted to hear what the players thought.

Waiting in the locker room, Lewis encountered the professional baseball players coming out of the showers. What surprised Lewis, however, was how little these professional athletes looked like professional athletes

“If you lined up all those naked bodies up against a wall and asked people what those young men did for a living no one would guess they were professional athletes.” Lewis said.

Lewis brought this up with members of the team’s management, who said quality players didn’t need to look like athletes.

“Billy’s second in command said ‘That’s exactly the point. We’re in the market for finding people who don’t look like baseball players because if they look like baseball players the market values improperly.’”

That night, Lewis sent his publisher an email saying he was going to write a book about baseball, and its title would be “Moneyball.”

In a conversation with business journalist and author Diana B. Henriques as part of SABEW’s spring conference, Lewis said he turned a one-hour interview with Beane into a year-long conversation by never becoming a nuisance.

“You never want your subject thinking, ‘How am I going to get rid of this guy?’” Lewis said. “You want to leave while they still want more questions. So the minute they get interested in the conversation you go, ‘Ah, got to go.’

“The mindset of a journalist is always, ‘I gotta get it now,’ but you don’t have to get it now. You’ve got to build a relationship of trust so you get it, and it’s not going to happen in an interview.”

Lewis said it’s important to be honest with interview subjects. For example, if you’re talking with someone and they start telling you about something they want on background, you put the notepad away. Lewis also said sharing your honest thoughts and opinions about the interviewee can help establish the trust necessary for a good interview.

“If you go in knowing very little with a line, you’re not going to win anybody’s trust and you’re not going to learn anything,” Lewis said. “But a lot of journalists do that, and people like Billy Beane know to watch out for that and smell it out and realize when you’re dealing with a faulty intelligence.”

An audience member asked Lewis for advice on how writers can get people interested in publishing their stories.

Lewis’ answer: Put it on the Web.

“Write letters to a bunch of people who you think might likely publish it,” Lewis said. “If they won’t publish it, put some of it up on the Web.

“The wrong state of mind is, ‘The world does not understand.’”