Faculty Profile: Michael Lista

How a multidimensional writer mines the world for its inherent artistry

Michael Lista is known for blockbuster journalism. Soon, he may also be known for blockbuster television.

“The Sting,” his Toronto Life feature about a washed up detective’s elaborate scheme to make himself relevant again by nailing an innocent man for a 1974 murder, was recently picked up by Apple TV+ for a series that he’ll executive produce alongside Team Downey, the production company of Robert Downey Jr. and Susan Downey. Ironman himself may take a supporting role.

The vivid, stranger-than-fiction features Michael is famous for is just one facet of a multidimensional career that includes several books of essays and poetry and a stint as poetry editor of The Walrus

But it’s his robust body of literary criticism that makes him a great teacher of writing. Through this difficult, nuanced work — which can actually hinder one’s career — we can learn to zoom out on our own writing. By learning to ask the same questions and make the same judgements of the work we read, we can strengthen our own literary voices.

On Aug. 13, Michael will teach a class that covers why, and how, studying the artist will make you a better artist in turn. (Tickets are for Reading Like a Writer are available until Thursday, Aug. 13, 12pm ET.)

Ahead of his webinar, PanU asked him five questions about honing this esoteric skill, how he mines for the vivid details in his feature stories, and, of course, the Apple TV+ project.

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Why did you want to teach about reading like a writer?

Our illustrious Fake Dean, Omar, actually suggested it to me. It sounds like after my spring class, “(Write it!) Like Disaster,” where we read a bunch of disaster poems together, some of the students wanted a deeper dive on how writers read one another. I thought it would be a good opportunity to teach a crash course in literary criticism, a genre I love—and work in—that I think is misunderstood and undervalued. It’s a great quarry for your own writing, a roadmap of the past by which you can navigate your way into the future.

I’m curious about the process of becoming a literary critic. How did you get involved in it, and does it come with its share of imposter syndrome?

“Literary critic” is the sort of sobriquet you can’t self-apply. Someone else has to call you one. Alongside writing my own books, I enjoyed writing about other people’s. More than that though, I liked reading the stuff—writers thinking out loud about what they’d read. We call that genre “literary criticism,” which sounds fusty and highfalutin, but describes something innocent and simple, and really valuable: reading in public, for the public.

Of course it came with imposter syndrome; you should always distrust a writer who thinks they deserve their good fortune. I never did.

I did enough of it in my 20s that I got very lucky and was given a column in The National Post to write about books. And, of course, it came with imposter syndrome; you should always distrust a writer who thinks they deserve their good fortune. I never did.

Just last week, it was announced that your story “The Sting” will become an Apple TV+ series, which you will co-executive produce. How’d that happen, and how does it feel?

Talk about imposter syndrome! I wish I could say that this was the fruit of some elaborately plotted plan for myself, but it was, again, mostly luck. It’s like getting struck by lightning, or being hit by a very expensive car, for which I can take no credit.

I’ve had the good fortune of having some of my stories draw the unsolicited interest of producer but “The Sting” was something different. Almost immediately after it came out, a number of parties approached us wanting to turn it into something. Once I spoke to Adam Perlman, the brilliant writer and producer of Billions, I knew I’d found someone I trusted to take the story from the page to the screen.

When we hooked up with Robert Downey Jr., Team Downey and Apple, it all started to feel like a dream. (It still does.) I’m really happy though that they’re taking an interest in such a Canadian story—the “Mr. Big” sting at its heart is sometimes called the “Canadian Technique,” because it’s illegal in many other countries. I hope that viewers will be moved and heart-broken and humbled by the story in the same way that I was, reporting it.

The world is a much better artist than any one of us, but all you need is the right eye for its artistry to capture it.

Your journalistic work often includes vivid, spectacular details that can elevate a feature to the next level. Do you have any tips or tricks to share on getting those details?

That’s very kind of you to say. The great New Journalist Gay Talese said something wonderful about non-fiction feature writing. He said that you need to find the fiction in the fact. The world is a much better artist than any one of us, but all you need is the right eye for its artistry to capture it.

I always try to keep a soft eye out for those human details, easily discarded or passed over, that are a sort of a doorway onto the very real lives of the people I’m writing about, and the metaphors they’re making just by being alive: the fake flowers of the con man who was conning himself; the Mr. Big chocolate bars a murder victim’s daughter given to the Mr. Big detective and his team at court on Valentine’s Day; the necklace which fell from a little girl’s neck in the motel she checked into on her epic odyssey to flee Trump’s America. There’s a lot of noise when you’re reporting a feature, and the tiny human details are the signals which can be lost, but mustn’t be. They’re the portal to the story’s human heart.

Which books, movies or TV shows are getting you through the pandemic?

A lot of Nora Ephron movies. A lot of Martin Scorsese movies. Jill Lapore’s These Truths, her epic, surpassingly gorgeous history of America. And the Netflix reality TV show Too Hot To Handle, about a bunch of people who have to live together without touching one another, and just might turn out to be the great quarantine masterpiece.

The interview has been edited for clarity and brevity.

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