Michael Lewis versus ‘The Human Piranha’ in Aspen
March 12, 2015
If You Go …
What: Michael Lewis at Winter Words
When: Thursday, March 12, 6 p.m.
Where: Paepcke Auditorium
Tickets: Sold out. “Wait-list” tickets available at the door on a first-come, first-served basis beginning at 5:30 p.m.
More info: Lewis’s talk will be broadcast live on Aspen Public Radio. Read The Aspen Times Q&A here.
In Michael Lewis's breakthrough book, "Liar's Poker," he vividly chronicled his time as a Wall Street bond salesman and memorably captured the larger-than-life characters of the go-go 1980s at Salomon Brothers. Among those characters was the indomitable "Human Piranha," who proffered his expertise to Lewis's training class in "a steady stream of bottom-line analysis and profanity."
Lewis will join the Human Piranha – Aspen's Tom Bernard – on stage Thursday at Winter Words.
"He was somebody everybody was afraid of," Lewis recalled with a laugh in a phone interview last week. "You got the sense that if you said something stupid, he would let you know it. But from the minute I met him, I adored him."
Since his days at Salomon and a decades-long Wall Street career, Bernard has, by all accounts, chilled out and retired to Aspen, where he writes fiction and serves on the Aspen Words board. His debut novel was the 2007 financial crime thriller "Wall and Mean."
Lewis and Bernard have stayed in touch in the years since Lewis's tour at Salomon, as Lewis has become one of the most popular and acclaimed American nonfiction writers, with books on finance ("The Big Short," "Flash Boys") and sports ("Moneyball," "The Blind Side") among other topics. For years, Lewis said, he'd visit Bernard here and take a long annual bike ride together (one year, Lewis recalled, they rode from Aspen to Crested Butte, only to realize when they got there that they didn't have keys to the car Bernard had dropped off there to drive back).
So, when Lewis was invited by Aspen Words – the nonprofit formerly known as the Aspen Writers' Foundation – to speak at its Winter Words series, he requested Bernard as his interlocutor.
"Given that the last few books of mine have been Wall Street-related – the next few won't be, I'm moving on – but nevertheless, the last few have been, so he seemed like a really good person to sit down and talk to," Lewis explained.
After "Liar's Poker" was published in 1989, Lewis said, he and his former colleagues, like Bernard, bonded over the lively warts-and-all portrait of the '80s boys club on Wall Street.
"'Liar's Poker' didn't cost me any friendships," he said. "When it came out all of my friends thought it was funny. … Time has mellowed whatever hostilities there were when the book came out."
Lewis's most recent book, "Flash Boys," became a major news event in itself when it was published less than a year ago. In Lewis's signature crisp prose, it exposed the practices of high-frequency trading on Wall Street that have rigged the system for a select few. In it, Lewis follows a handful of men inside the system who seek to change the system and start their own exchange, IEX, that aims to put investors back on an even playing field.
After writing books like "Panic," on the 2008 financial crisis, and "The Big Short," about the housing crisis, he was less than excited to sink himself deeper into the intricacies of American finance. But characters like IEX founder Brad Katsuyama, he said, fascinated him enough to dig back in.
"Without them, I would not have written about it – I probably wouldn't even have written a magazine article about it," he said. "I would have just said, 'Well, the financial industry is doing something else screwy.'"
The book inspired investigations by the FBI, the SEC and lawsuits from the New York attorney general's office against banks. But if anything is going to truly change in regard to high-frequency trading, Lewis said, it'll probably be the market itself. IEX is set to become a full-fledged exchange this fall and if it successfully attracts enough big companies and mutual funds to trade there, it will shake things up, Lewis believes.
"They can wage full war with the system in a way they can't now," he said. "Right now they're still fighting with a hand tied behind their back and I would not be shocked to see a lot of movement once that happens. … It's really a situation where the market could drive the change."
Lewis is currently working on two projects – a book and a television drama for Showtime – but couldn't disclose details about them, other than to say they're not about finance or sports.
The next big Lewis-related release is likely to be the movie adaptation of "The Big Short," which begins filming in New Orleans – Lewis's hometown – this spring. Helmed by "Anchorman" director Adam McKay, the film will star Christian Bale, Steve Carell, Ryan Gosling and Brad Pitt. Two of Lewis' previous books, "Moneyball" and "The Blind Side," turned into acclaimed, Oscar-nominated films.
"It's interesting seeing what happens when they try to take a book and turn it into a movie," he said of the experience of seeing his work adapted for the screen. "Because eventually they figure out that a movie is not a book. A movie is a short story. … They've worked because the filmmakers said, 'I'm going to get rid of the book and do what I want to do.'"
His bucket list of future writing projects, Lewis said, includes a travel piece about skiing from Vail to Aspen through the 10th Mountain Division hut system.
On how he chooses his subjects, Lewis said, "It's some combination of ideas and characters. So, do I feel like the ideas are important? And do I feel like the characters are compelling? And does it feel like a challenge to get it down on the page? And then at some point when I feel like I have the ingredients, I have to ask, 'If I didn't write it, do I feel like I'd be doing the world a disservice?' If the answer is 'Yes,' then I write it."
Read more from Michael Lewis in our Q&A.