Michael Lewis, author of bestsellers such as Moneyball, The Big Short, and The Blind Side, joins Zibby to talk about his latest book, The Premonition, which is now out in paperback. The two discuss some of the people in the book who predicted the potential catastrophe Covid has become and why their insights were ultimately unable to protect us. He shares the connection the book has to his Pushkin podcast, Against the Rules, which other crises like the pandemic could have been prevented with the proper communication, and why we often treat experts with such skepticism even when they offer life-saving information. Michael also talks about his late daughter, Dixie, and how his life has changed since her tragic death.


Zibby Owens: Welcome, Michael. Thank you so much for coming on “Moms Don’t Have Time to Read Books.” We’re going to discuss The Premonition and your life and your podcast and your new Pushkin podcast, “Against the Rules,” and everything. I am delighted to have you here. I can’t even tell you.

Michael Lewis: Happy to be here.

Zibby: I was just saying to you before this started, when I started my podcast, I had this wish list of some of my favorite authors who I would be over-the-moon excited. You have been on that list since day one, so this is a personal, super exciting moment for me, from Liar’s Poker days to now and everything.

Michael: I don’t really understand why it’s taken this long, then, because I’ve been here. You should’ve just called.

Zibby: I tried a while back, but you weren’t promoting anything or something. I don’t know. At least now I’m big enough that you want to talk to me or something. Why don’t we start with The Premonition? First of all, some of the characters in this — not even characters. Some of the people in this book, I can’t believe that — let’s talk about the young girl who started figuring this out as a science project and how she and her dad were so — I’m like, what are my kids doing that are going to change the world? Oh, my gosh, they can barely deal with themselves. I’m kidding. Tell me about this and her and Laura and her family and all of it.

Michael: This is how the book opens. The book opens with a thirteen-year-old girl in Albuquerque, New Mexico, named Laura Glass whose father is a polymath scientist at Sandia Labs, one of these guys who’s working in a national lab and is just a smart guy and has the attitude towards his girls’ science projects that most dads have towards their kids’ little league careers. That’s what he cares about. The two girls know that every year they have to enter the science fair. They like it because it’s something they do with their dad, but it’s sort of like, oh, we got to find something to do. Laura Glass is watching her dad play with a model that he had built, a computer model he built at Sandia Labs. This explains the cover of the book, actually. On the screen, there are all these green dots, except with one red dot. There are rules about how these dots are moving. It looks something like a video game. When a red dot hits a green dot, the green dot turns red. Slowly, the screen goes from all green dots until eventually all red dots. He’s explaining to her what it’s for. He’s explaining how he’s modeling how traffic jams happen or how financial crises happen. She looks at it. She says, “That looks like a disease spreading. Could you use it to figure out how, if the bubonic plague came to Albuquerque, New Mexico, how it would spread?” He said, “Yes. Let’s try to model that.” It starts when she’s thirteen years old. It goes on for years, four or five years. It gets more and more elaborate. She’s doing things like going out in the community and getting everybody — the lists of the social contacts they have every day to try to figure out how a disease might move that’s transmissible. They change the disease to the flu, something more like COVID.

By the time they’re done, they’re able to ask questions about what you might to do in a community to stop the spread of disease, what rules you might introduce. He sees that things like closing schools has this unbelievable effect on disease transmission. If you want to find the place, the laboratory where a bug moves around, that’s where it moves around. It’s because they’re in such close proximity to each other. He looks at it. He started to look around. He says, you know, the common wisdom in the world is you can’t really do anything to stop a communicable disease. It goes back to 1918. A vaccine, but before the vaccine, interfering in the society doesn’t do much. He gets frantic because he thinks, wow, this is not true. People need to know about this. He tries to get people in the epidemiology to pay attention to him. Nobody pays attention to him until another main character in my book, a doctor named Carter Mecher who’s brought into the Bush White House to answer just this question — what happens in our society if a pandemic starts? What do you do between the time the pathogen arrives and you have a vaccine? Can you do anything? The conventional wisdom was, not really. Nothing’s worth the trouble. Through a social connection, Carter Mecher hears about this little girl’s science fair project. They get the model into the White House. They use it as the tool to start to do the analysis that leads, eventually, to the United States’ plan, the CDC plan about what you do in a pandemic. It’s an amazing story.

Zibby: It’s an amazing story.

Michael: It’s an amazing story. I love it for a bunch of reasons. One of them is it’s such a different approach to science and education than I got when I was a kid. I can remember not understanding why I was lighting the Bunsen burner or cutting the frog up. I didn’t like it. There wasn’t a question I was really trying to answer. It was just trying to do what the teacher told you to do. This real investigation of a question in a rigorous, scientific way that leads a little girl to actually make a whole contribution to the world — we as a society didn’t really execute the plan that these guys wrote. They didn’t imagine it going down quite the way it went down. Other societies took our plan and really understood it and internalized it. It had a big effect in the world. I think anybody who was really close to it would say you can attribute some large number of lives saved during the COVID pandemic to the work that little girl did. It certainly contributed.

Zibby: Speaking, also, of women who are scientists or doing experiments like this, you also have, I think her name’s Charity, who is taking over —

Michael: — Charity Dean.

Zibby: Charity, who is taking over being a health advocate in Santa Barbara, a position nobody thought she would even want. Next thing you know, you have her outside operating on this potential TB patient in this graphic detail. I was like, oh, my gosh, I can’t believe it.

Michael: If the book had a trick, if The Premonition had something going on in it that was sort of a trick it was trying to play, it was a trick I wished that society had played the minute we got ourselves into the pandemic. It was to pay attention, much more close attention, to people who had actually spent their careers battling communicable disease on the streets. This is not the CDC. This is local public health officers. It wasn’t COVID. It was drug-resistant tuberculosis. It was measles. It was whatever it was. You could see the political problems, the logistical problems, the effect powerful people could have on a disease investigation. You see all the things that would manifest themselves in a much bigger way in our society in a Petri dish if you just looked at what these local health officers endured every day. In Charity Dean, I found not just a local health office, but a really badass local health office. She was in Santa Barbara County. At some point, she runs the whole state of California. It was the Santa Barbara County stuff that really interested me. For her, it wasn’t a job. It was a calling. She’s been obsessed with communicable disease since she was a little girl and had a really dramatic upbringing. The Tara Westover story, the Educated story, that’s a bit like her story. She was raised not to be educated.

She was raised in a very religious rural community that didn’t want her to go to college. She insisted on going and getting a medical degree and a degree in public health. It cost her — severed her relationship with her childhood. Basically, why I thought she was such a great character, at the center of her was courage, was this bravery. She was scared of a lot of things, and she faced her fears. She had to do that again and again just to do this job, do it well. Nobody should have to be so brave to do their job saving American lives. It just shouldn’t be that hard, but it was hard. The ways it was hard told you a lot about what was going to happen. The Premonition, the title of the book, it wasn’t just that she had this sense that one day we were going to face a pandemic — she did, but that could or couldn’t have happened. The real premonition was, she had a real sense grounded in daily experience that if we did have a pandemic, we were not going to handle it well. You could see it coming.

This is an odd thing to say about a book that’s about a pandemic. It was the most joyous writing experience I have ever had. I was aware of it when I was writing it. It was a total pleasure to write. I kept thinking, isn’t this weird. You’re laughing. You’re having fun. You can’t wait to get out of bed in the morning and write this thing. I had that feeling that you long for. I’ve had this other times in my career, where you feel like you’re just a conduit of the story. It’s just coming through you. Just get out of the way of the thing, which is an exhilarating feeling. I think it was because these characters were just absolutely thrilling as characters. I had the funny experience of, when the book came out, people picking it up, and it took to about page sixty before they could figure out whether this was fiction or nonfiction. Are these people real? The minute you collide with the Bush White House and they’re making the pandemic — then you know, well, this must be real. It’s the Bush White House. The kind of things that the characters were — what was happening, it feels made up. I love that. I love that, when reality deals you that kind of hand. In this case, reality dealt me that kind of hand.

Zibby: I feel like people say that about the pandemic too, that it all felt like science fiction. It felt like a movie. Could it really be real? Life being stranger than fiction, it’s all —

Michael: — I was trying to recreate that feeling. I appreciate you asking those questions because — this will tell you something about how books get out there in the world. This is a paperback, so this is out eleven months after I first published it. I’ve had fifty interviews, seventy-five interviews. I don’t think anybody’s asked me about that little girl. The book opens with it.

Zibby: Really?

Michael: It’s an amazing story. Nobody asks me about it. They want to ask me, how much do you blame Trump? How do you fix the CDC? Those sorts of questions. I do feel that that’s for the reader to think about. I’m just telling you the story of these people who I think could really lead you to some thoughts about what went wrong. Unless people have read the book, they don’t hear that story because people don’t ask me about it.

Zibby: Well, I’m glad. That’s what I found most interesting, is the people behind it. Why did Charity leave her surgeon husband? Tell me more. I wanted to go deeper into that. This book obviously dovetails nicely into your Pushkin-produced podcast about experts. Who do we listen to? Who are the experts? How do they become experts? I never want to file a medical claim again after listening to some of the interviews and everything. Tell me about that, the podcast and the third season of that.

Michael: It sounds like you’ve listened to episode one.

Zibby: I’ve listened to episode one, yes. That’s it.

Michael: It’s Six Levels Down, the L6. The big idea for the podcast — this is the third season — was to take a character in American life, like a role in American life, one that had been a little violate or controversial, and explore what had happened to American life through the role. The first season was about referees in American life. The second season was about coaches in American life. The third season’s about experts in American life. Each season, I think not by accident, inequality unfairness ends up sitting right in the center of the story. In the first season, what are the effects on inequality when you start to destroy the referee, undermine the authority for the referee or the regulator or whoever’s playing that role? The person in power has more power. The hope of the podcast is you take — we have seven episodes. You look at the problem from different angles. The particular problem this season, really, it did just grow out of The Premonition. It was sort of like, all right, we were easily the world’s most equipped society to deal with a pandemic. Authorities, experts had, before the pandemic, sought to measure each society’s, each country’s ability to deal with a pandemic. They were measuring knowledge. They were measuring microbiology labs and state-of-the-art pandemic plans and material resources to throw at the problem, all that.

Yet we had a little bit more than four percent of the world’s population and more than twenty percent of the world’s deaths. We really underperformed. Hundreds of thousands of people are dead who didn’t have to die if we just performed like an average industrialized democracy. It’s a tragedy. It’s a reflection of, I think, a deeper illness in the society. We’re not taking care of each other. There’s this other thing going on. We were unbelievably good at generating knowledge about disease, about how to track disease. The Human Genome Project is here. That should be at the center of the — we were unbelievably good at generating knowledge and really not so good at using it or internalizing it or spreading it. Generally, we’re good at generating these experts and not very good at using them and figuring out who they are. It was that disconnect that I wanted to play with in the podcast. The first episode rose right out of The Premonition. It’s this idea that in big organizations, big countries, big systems, complex systems, when there is a particular problem that arises, a crisis, very often, the person who has the expertise to answer the problem, to deal with the problem, fix the problem is buried way down in the organization, L6, six levels down. Mysteriously, the organization has horrible trouble surfacing that problem and surfacing that expert, figuring out who they are, getting them to the problem. In the case of my book, Charity Dean was six levels down in the state of California. It took them a while to figure out that she knew more than anybody about what they should do. It too much longer than it should’ve to get her into Gavin Newsom’s office. The question was, what is this about?

We take a story. This is generated by the person who found Charity Dean in the state of California, but in another iteration in his life. He was trying to solve a problem in the medical industrial complex. It was basically how to get paid by an insurance company. This is back in the nineties. He finds that medical billing is its own bizarre, complex expertise. Nobody’s ever treated these people as if they’re experts. You find the best one in the world, and you can build a business around her. She’s six levels down on the org chart of every hospital or every doctor’s office. It’s about that woman and how they create a billion-dollar company around her expertise. The bigger point is — this recurs in several of the episodes. We have this inequality in a society when you have imbalances of status, when you have hierarchy. It’s very hard for the people who are important and at the top to figure out what the unimportant, the little people know and take them seriously. Inequality exacerbates the problem. There are versions of this in the stories we’ll tell on the podcast.

The podcast is a different thing. It’s totally fun. It’s storytelling. It’s not just shooting the shit with somebody for thirty minutes or forty-five minutes. I write a script. I interview a whole bunch of people around some story. It’s like a movie script, and then perform it. For me, it’s been a gas. It’s like flexing a different muscle. It’s like cross-training. It’s a different sort of literary exercise that feeds back into the books. I saw it feed back into The Premonition. It feeds back in a very particular way. When doing this stuff for the ear, the ear is a very emotionally attuned instrument, much more so than the eye. If you aren’t telling a story with an emotional dimension, you’re missing a trick in an oral storytelling. It’s made me more aggressive in finding the emotional content of the story and also made me less patient with boring stuff. Maybe I’m doing it now, but when you bore people when you’re actually talking to them —

Zibby: — You’re not boring me.

Michael: You really pick it up. Whereas if you bore people when you’re writing a book, you can go off in your own fugue state and bore people for pages and not be aware that’s what you’re doing and lose a reader. It’s brought me closer to the reader to do the podcast.

Zibby: I love that. That’s very cool. Your show is super produced. It’s very different than this show where we talk.

Michael: Not thinking it’s a show. It’s a different thing.

Zibby: No, I know. I feel like there need to be different categories, different ways to describe. I’ve been calling it, not entertainment — I had some clever word, which of course, I can’t think of now. Some of these podcasts are really — it’s a different form of entertainment. That’s all. It’s something new that should be analyzed in its own bucket sort of to the side.

Michael: I think that’s right. Right now, nobody’s — it’s just all podcasts.

Zibby: Yeah. It’s not, though.

Michael: There are very different forms. The scripted form, it’s a version of This American Life. It’s those sorts of things which are really crafted, really time-consuming, hard to do. When they work, they’re magical. When they don’t work, they’re not, but when they work, they’re magical.

Zibby: Yes, absolutely true. To your point on experts, I felt like I used to have a healthy respect for experts until 9/11, honestly. I’m a New Yorker. I lost my college roommate and best friend on 9/11. I was here and in business school at the same time. All the experts were saying, no, no, no, it’s totally fine. It’s safe here. It’s safe. I’m like, it doesn’t feel safe, breathing and smelling. This goes against my common sense that everything is okay. Now of course, it wasn’t safe there. Everyone who was working down there got all these diseases. All these things are coming out. I’m like, I knew it. I knew that that wasn’t right, but I didn’t listen because I just listened to the experts and wanted to believe that they knew what they were talking about. Shame on me.

Michael: 9/11 itself was an L6 problem. Six levels down in the FBI in the Minneapolis branch, they had really clear early warning signs that these people were about to prepare some sort of attack. That information never reached the head of the FBI. The thing was preventable given what they knew in Minneapolis if they just followed it hard. The problem was getting the information up the org chart. The whole thing is a dramatization of this aspect of the problem of expertise. To your more general point about how sometimes the experts are wrong or misleading you, I still maintain, I think it’s a very healthy respect for experts. It’s sometimes hard to figure out who the expert is, especially when the subject is very complicated and it’s moving at TV speed. There is a general thing. I think it is a problem in the society. We have a show about expertise where the expert’s clearly getting better and better and better, but the people who are on the receiving end of the expert’s advice think the expert’s getting worse and worse and worse or at least are treating them as if they’re getting worse and worse and worse. You find this in a lot of weird places. Medicine is actually a really good example. You go to a doctor a hundred years ago, and he was more likely to kill you than help you. Medicine has become a science and has become — they know more and more and more. Even before the pandemic, before people started not wanting to take the vaccine and all that, if you had gone to talk to your doctor about — or nurse. What irritates you most about what’s going on in the world? They quite likely would’ve said, increasingly, people are coming in and saying, no, I don’t have this because I read this article on WebMD, or yes, I do.

The little knowledge that they’re able to get their hands on is leading them to think they know more than the doctor and really interfering with the doctor’s ability to do his job. Not that you shouldn’t participate in your own care. That’s not what I’m saying. There is a kind of wrench that’s been thrown into the relationship between the medical expert and the patient by the patient’s lack of respect for the medical expertise. There are other examples of this that are right under your nose. You don’t see them. If you talk to an old weatherman, someone who’s been a meteorologist for fifty years, as I did on one of the shows, he says, “You know, it was really funny –” The guy in Alabama. He said, “Fifty years ago, I didn’t know anything.” Fifty years ago, he’d go outside to see what the weather was and then go inside and, like Ron Burgundy on Anchorman, be very confident about what the weather was. His ten-day forecast was useless. He had no idea if a tornado was going to hit. He really had very little useful information. Today, he has a pretty good ten-day forecast. His three-day forecast is three times as accurate as it used to be. He can save people from hurricanes and tornados. He can work miracles. He said, “Today, I get so much more grief than I used to. If I’m wrong, people are all over me. In the old days, I was very confident, but I didn’t know. I got very little in the way of blowback. Now people bite my head off every day, and I’m mostly right.” That kind of thing has been happening in a lot of places where the technology information data has enabled us and experts and to know more and more, but people are more and more suspicious or skeptical or dubious about them.

Zibby: No good deed goes unpunished.

Michael: It’s a little bit of that.

Zibby: I don’t know if you’re comfortable talking about this or not. I’ve had a lot of loss in my life, now apparently two things caused by L6 six problems, 9/11, and I lost my mother-in-law and grandmother-in-law in the pandemic. So much for that. I just wanted to say how sorry I was to hear about your daughter and your loss of Dixie. I read this quote you had where you said, “It’s interesting to be admitted as a citizen to the kingdom of grief.” I just wanted to say my heart so goes out to you and wanted to talk to you for a minute about that and the grief and the randomness of it too.

Michael: I loved her so much. She was so admirable, so brave, fantastic kid. We left nothing on the field. We left it all on the field in our relationship. We were a very tight family. She was an athlete. She was a softball player, going to be a sophomore at Pomona College. I’d been her coach her whole life. She was killed in a car accident a little less than eleven months ago. Yes, the first thing I noticed is I had this new citizenship. It wasn’t the club of parents who had lost children. It was a much more general one. All of a sudden, people around me, even people I was quite close to, opened up for the first time about their losses. It made me realize that we don’t talk about it very much. It’s just an unpleasant subject for a lot of people. I started to see dimensions of people I loved that I was grateful to see. I thought of that as the first thing Dixie gave me after her death. I’m going to have this other life now that’s going to be different than the life I would’ve had had she lived. You’re not going to pretend it’s going to be better, but it’s going to be different. I’m going to pay close attention to the things that happen and the things I do because of her. That’s the first thing I paid close attention to. Oh, I now have this new relationship with my friend Nathan because he’s now talking about the death of his first wife who I never knew, all before I met him.

People long for an answer to the question of how to feel this, how to endure this. It’s unendurable at moments. There are, all around us, off-the-shelf answers you can grab, off-the-rack answers. I have found myself still trying to resist those, trying to see this as an independent journey that I have to go on. I can have companions on this journey, but it’s just going to be, in the end, my journey. I’m there alone in the beginning, and I’m going to be there alone at the end with this particular thing. I’ve got to figure out the most noble, bravest way to go on the journey and not resort to other people’s solutions for how they — it’s a bit of a lonely thing, but it has to be a bit of a lonely thing because it all turns on the nature of my relationship with that person, with that child. It’s so particular. It’s who she was. It’s who I am. It’s how we were together. No one has exactly the same experience. I want to preserve the uniqueness of the experience of loving her in how I grieve her. It’s hard. It is hard. It’s still hard.

As I told my other children, Walker and Quinn — Walker’s a freshman in high school. Quinn’s a junior in college. Dixie was in the middle. Right from the beginning, I said, “Here’s what I’m going to do. Feel free to use this trick. I’m going to keep a list of the things that make me feel better. I’m going to keep a list of the things that make me feel worse. I’m going to do the things that make me feel better. I’m not going to do the things that make me feel worse, and I’m not going to feel guilty about not doing them. Feel free to join me in this pursuit of happiness in life.” They’re kind of doing it. They’re doing it in their own way, but they’re kind of doing it. There’s another thing Dixie’s death has given me, is an incredible pride in my family because they’re trying so hard. Everybody’s trying so hard. Thank you for asking about her. Talking about her makes me feel good. It keeps her around.

Zibby: It’s beautiful. That’s really good advice. It sounds so simple. Just doing the things in life that make us feel better, why is that so hard? Why is that such a leap to accept and then act on? It’s beautiful. Your relationship sounds beautiful. I’m sorry for your loss, but it sounds like, wow, what a gift that you had that wonderful relationship too.

Michael: She was the best. Life is filled with accident and fortune, luck, good and bad. You’ve just got to accept that. I’ve always accepted that life was full of luck, and I’d always had good luck. Now I have to recognize that that’s not always the case, but I should learn to respond as graciously towards bad luck as I’ve tried to towards good luck. It’s hard, but that’s kind of how I think about it. There’s something really profound about the rules of improvisational comedy, that you don’t get to choose what is thrown at you. You do it well by accepting what’s thrown at you and then building on it as opposed to fighting it or being angry about it or resisting or trying to change it when you can’t change it. This is life. It throws things at you, good and bad. You try to just build on what it throws at you. That’s all you can do. I don’t really have another solution.

Zibby: I hope at some point you’ll write more about her so the rest of us can get to know her better. I feel like there’s just something magical in recreating someone on the page so that she touches the lives of people that she would never have met otherwise. I don’t know if that’s in the plan or whatever. Maybe it’s inappropriate to even suggest. Selfishly, I hope you’ll do that.

Michael: The time will come. It’s not yet, but the time will come.

Zibby: Michael, thank you. Thank you for taking the time with me today. Thank you for all of your work, not just the newest stuff, but your whole career of work that I have followed with such interest and respect. Thank you for all that you do and for taking the time to talk to me today.

Michael: Thank you, Zibby. See you down the road. Buh-bye.


THE PREMONITION by Michael Lewis

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