The Social Network of Ben Mezrich
Ben Mezrich has made a career out of chronicling the usually young, usually male, usually just-graduated wannabe, up against the entrenched forces of business and finance. He likens what he does to extolng the virtues of the "Robin Hood" figure who gets to keep the loot--and via books like "Bringing Down the House," and "The Accidental Billionaires" (which became the hit movie, "The Social Network," about the founding of Facebook), he has become one of the top-selling nonfiction writers around. He's also something of a celebrity--popping up at the Playboy mansion, hitting the TV circuit--which has led to him getting panned by the critics. We got him to talk about being in reviewers' crossfire, writing with his books' future film adaptations in mind and his focus on "young people pulling off wild schemes."
Bookish: Was there something about growing up in a hyper-competitive college town (Princeton) that drew you to your subject matter, i.e., gangs of college-age kids and/or academics setting out on a financial/business adventure?
Mezrich: Princeton was a great place to grow up, and in general, college towns are full of super-smart people dreaming up often bizarre schemes. I knew I wanted to be a writer from an early age, but I didn't focus on the college geniuses or the financial world until after I graduated myself.
Bookish: You often focus on little guys taking on big institutions, be it Vegas, the Asian markets, or as in the new book, the U.S. government. Is that by design? Given that some reviewers like to be super-snooty about you, do you feel a kinship with the underdog?
Mezrich: Yes, I've always been turned on by stories of people taking on authority, trying to do something risky and great in the face of long odds. I like underdogs, and I like stories where young, smart people triumph, or almost triumph, against giant institutions--Robin Hood, except they keep the money for themselves.
Bookish: You've taken flak for being a "celebrity author"--the Playboy mansion visits, "People" magazine's list of sexiest people. Do you give a rat's? From the outside it sounds like more fun than most authors are having.
Mezrich: Ha! Sometimes it is fun, though the day-to-day of being an author is sitting in a room staring at a computer. I don't think authors ever get to be real celebrities; we slink around the outskirts of Hollywood parties being ignored by the real stars.
Bookish: Why do you think the day of the larger-than-life author has gone away? It used to be that writers were mouthy public figures--I'm thinking Norman Mailer vs. Gore Vidal, as just one example. Why did it change (present company excepted)?
Mezrich: Well, that's a good question. Writers are now the lowest on the totem pole; you've got actors, directors, sports stars, chefs and, at the bottom, authors. I think it's because we've become a very visual culture and, let's be fair, authors aren't usually all that visually compelling. I've been fortunate to get on TV a fair amount, but authors aren't the center of attention that they once were. I'm doing my best to change that!
Bookish: Were you ever worried/did you ever care that being such a public figure might lead reviewers to be harder on you than other writers? Do you think that a more traditional author career might have made people like your books more?
Mezrich: Of course. Reviewers love to go after me. The bigger my books get, the more reviewers try to take them down. It's the nature of the beast. I also choose topics that are often controversial, and write them from the point of view of the characters themselves, which leads to more controversy. And I write with movies in mind, which some literary critics find upsetting. To me, all press is good press; I look forward to the reviews, no matter how crazy they get. You would think, by now, the reviewers would realize what they were getting into when they pick up one of my books, but they always seem surprised by what's inside.
Bookish: You've had a number of your books adapted for the silver screen, most notably "The Accidental Billionaires," which became "The Social Network." Do you write with the movies in mind? There was a moment in the new book where you say a beer can "arced upward like a Scud missile, hung in the air for a full beat, then spiraled down in a flash of aluminum"--that sounds tailor-made for a tracking shot.
Mezrich: Yes! I absolutely love movies, and when I sit down to write I am visualizing the story like a movie. I think I should get a screenwriting credit with each of my adaptations (smiley face). Really, I think there is an important and necessary synergy between books and movies; the best movies come from books and the best books, to me, read like movies.
Bookish: You've said that when you write you're not competing with other books, you're competing with the Boston Red Sox. Putting aside that in some seasons that's not saying all that much (wink), who's your ideal reader? Do you set out with them in mind?
Mezrich: Even when the Red Sox are bad, they are entertaining. But yes, I do consider myself in entertainment, not just writing. I want my books to be thrilling, exciting, visual--and the people who like my books are usually similar to me. My audience has expanded a lot since "Bringing Down The House," but my stories are usually adrenalin-filled romps, narrative nonfiction about young people pulling off wild schemes.
Bookish: How wrong do you think the government got it in "Straight Flush"? Do you think online poker gambling really needs to be so heavily prosecuted?
Mezrich: I think it's completely insane that a few weeks ago we were all lining up to buy Powerball tickets, but these guys are facing jail time for running an online poker site. The anti-online poker laws are bizarre, confusing and ridiculous. I think that we will soon see online poker becoming legal in most states.
Bookish: How do you go about re-creating scenes after the fact? Do you go by the characters' recollections, cross-referencing, and then go from there--or do you have scenes and let your imagination fly? You've said you'd like to have more freedom to be creative with your nonfiction--is that even possible post-James Frey?
Mezrich: I interview everyone involved; I get tens of thousands of pages of court documents; I put all the research together and then I write the scene, based on the facts, but in a thriller-esque, cinematic fashion. It's a true story told in a visual, dramatic way. Nonfiction doesn't have to be boring, or follow some archaic structure--nonfiction can live and breathe, and that's what I try to make happen.
Bookish: What's next? I have this image of a gang of six post-grad students inventing a jetpack that can be used to rob banks just praying you'll hear about it for your next book.
Mezrich: That would be awesome. I've actually just sold a big movie/book project to 20th-Century Fox with Brett Ratner producing, and I'm also working on a big, secret nonfiction book. And, I've got a children's series beginning next summer, a cool thriller aimed at the 10-15 set.