Mike Sager’s Tips for Storytelling

Many of us were disappointed Mike Sager couldn’t make it to the 2014 AAN Convention in Nashville as planned. So I caught up with Sager via phone to talk about the upcoming re-release of his renowned Rolling Stone story “The Devil and John Holmes,” a multi-platform collaboration with Creatavist. Sager talked about reporting and writing the John Holmes piece, and provided some profanity-laced pointers on how to craft kick-ass stories that linger.

Mike Sager was 32 years old when Robert Love, his Rolling Stone editor, assigned him to write about one of the most vicious mass murders in Los Angeles history. The resulting piece, “The Devil and John Holmes,” went on to inspire the films Boogie Nights and Wonderland. It also inspired the documentary Wadd: The Life and Times of John C. Holmes, which won Best Documentary Feature at the South by Southwest Film Festival in 1999.

If you haven’t yet read the story, stop now and go do it—Longform.org has posted the story as it appeared in the May 1989 edition of Rolling Stone. Sager’s story details the spectacular, drug-fueled downfall of John C. Holmes, one of porn’s most prolific and public stars, and his role in LA’s brutal Wonderland murders. “The Devil and John Holmes” is not just about the Wonderland murders or about a fuck-up with a huge dick. It’s also a story about the mainstreaming of porn, the crack epidemic, and the AIDS crisis of the 1980s.

“The assignment scared the fuck out of me,” Sager says. “I saw it almost like World War II, because there were these three fronts that had to be fought: the story of Wonderland and the crack problem, the story of porn becoming part of mainstream culture, and the story of AIDS in the ‘80s.” Rolling Stone editor and publisher Jann Wenner would later call Sager’s piece “one of the most terrific sagas we have ever published.”

Around the 25th anniversary of the story being published, Sager began talking with the folks at Atavist (parent company of the Creatavist software platform) about revamping and re-releasing the John Holmes story. Using old documents and drafts, Sager has restored his original story that was cut for print—while the Rolling Stone piece ran at 12,500 words, the new piece clocks in at 20,000 words (Sager provided me a copy of the new version; it’s awesome). Sager and Cass Paley, the director/producer of Wadd, plan to screen the documentary in select cities across the country. Clips from Wadd, old John Holmes posters, crime scene footage, and an introduction from Sager detailing the story-behind-the-story will run with the revamped piece on the Creatavist website.

Below are some lessons from my talk with Sager about reporting and writing “The Devil and John Holmes.”

Wait, invest, and be rewarded

Deep-dive reporting is “like following the fucking Stations of the Cross,” Sager tells me.

“You can’t plan for that great line. That line that just fucking comes out. That lead, the little flourish, the things that make a story magical.” The telling details and subtle nuances that make a story sing all come from rigorous reporting, transcribing, doing that extra interview, “or just hanging out a little bit longer than you want to.”

Sager continued: “It’s like, the secret of journalism is that you get rewarded. You get fucking rewarded for going extra… Forget the fact that you have a life. This is your job. You stick around, attend, and shit happens. It always does…The reader never sees the six months that you were walking around, knocking on doors on Wonderland Avenue, facing dejection after dejection. All they see is the fruit of all that effort and persistence.”

You get what you pay for

Okay. So this one’s more for the publishers and editors out there than it is for writers.

Sager thinks John Holmes was his third or fourth major story for Rolling Stone. He was hardly the established national magazine writer he is today when he took on the project. And to his recollection, he made something like $2,200 for a story that took 9 months of reporting. Not exactly bankin’ it…

But here’s what made “The Devil and John Holmes” work: Rolling Stone invested good money in Sager’s reporting. His editors paid for the time in crappy motels in Laurel Canyon. They paid for him to photocopy any court or police documents he needed. They paid for his rental car.

“As I go to these writers conferences and journalism conferences, I keep hearing that people are hesitant to pay expenses,” Sager says. “But that’s exactly why John Holmes was so good…Rolling Stone bought and paid for that reporting. When they paid for my hotel, my car, for documents, they were paying for content. And it turned out to be fucking good content.”

Content. Content. Content. That’s the message, Sager says. “The pot of gold at the end of the rainbow, the thing that generates that rainbow of thumbs up and Facebook likes, it’s good-ass content. You can only quip so much. It’s the reporting and sweat equity. And that takes time and money.”

Sometime in the early stages of reporting “The Devil and John Holmes,” Sager learned that Holmes actually had a wife before his porn days. It took him some six months of digging and prodding, but one day she finally showed up at his motel—with Holmes’ longtime mistress. “We sat down in a cheap motel that smelled like Indian food, sat down at this cheap dinette table, and just talked for like twelve fucking hours,” he says. “And they just told me this unbelievable story.” The story they told him about Holmes’ life would become the basis for much of Sager’s article.

“Had I not had the time, the inclination, and the encouragement and financial support from my bosses, I never would have arrived at that part of the story,” Sager says.

Building a voice takes time

So after months of reporting and outlining, how do you write up the material in a way that breathes life into the story?

“First of all, I must say that with John Holmes, after writing the first sentence I just quit. I got up and said, ‘Well, I guess I can always be an editor,’” Sager says. “Then I walked around the house for the whole day.”

Early in his career, Sager says, “writing was an incredibly difficult process…you try to figure out that lead, and writing that lead means you either do or don’t understand your material.” Over time, Sager began to take an almost cinematic approach to his stories. “I began to learn how to visualize the material I was working with—to figure out the movie version of it.”

With time, and with the help of good editors like Robert Love, Sager began to play with elements of good storytelling, like foreshadowing and withholding. “I like to tease the reader…I see a lot of crime stories that start with the crime,” he says. “Why the fuck would you do that? Build a climax in your story. Don’t cum first. What’s that?” Editors like Love beat watery transition paragraphs out of his writing, insisting on full stops.

Eventually, Sager says he began to move from descriptions to characterizations of the people in his stories. “Over time, you gain insight, you begin to understand metaphor, and you start to discover the right words to describe something different on a deeper level,” he says. “It’s then that you start to really find your voice.”

How long does that take? “It was only around 2003 or 2004 that I really started to read what I was hearing…that I’d begun to clear a path to my fingertips,” Sager says.

“So, I guess the lesson is it’s better to be a writer than a basketball player,” he jokes. “As writers, we’re only going to get better as we grow older.”

Michael Barajas was a 2014 AAN Convention Scholarship recipient and will be starting a position as Managing Editor of the Houston Press soon.