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May 24, 2011

An Interview with Ben Mezrich

Ben Mezrich

We caught up with Ben Mezrich, author of The Accidental Billionaires (the basis of the movie The Social Network) in Las Vegas, where he was guest at “the ultimate bachelor party” for one of his friends…and one of the featured characters in his 2003 book Bringing Down the House: The Inside Story of Six MIT Students Who Took Vegas for Millions (made into the movie 21). He’s soon to be on the road for his new book Sex on the Moon: The Amazing Story Behind the Most Audacious Heist in History. coming to The Music Hall for Writers on a New England Stage on Thursday, July 21. Here’s his report from the fast lane…

Ben, how “in the flow” are you with the people you write about?
Usually the stories I write pick me. I get random emails and phone calls all the time. I have a listed phone number with a voicemail attached to it, and I have feelers out all over the place. Friends pass me things as they go. I met the MIT guys [the crafty gamblers in Bringing Down the House, or BDTH, as Mezrich calls it] through a Harvard connection, a girl who hung with the geekie MIT guys. They always had so much money and I couldn’t figure it out….

How did your writing career take off?
Everything comes to me because of BDTH. I’d written and published a book a year since 1996 but I wasn’t getting read before BDTH. In 2003, I was a million dollars in debt. I was highly paid for my first books but I blew it all and didn’t pay taxes. What did Hemingway say, you go bankrupt, “two ways, gradually and then suddenly.”

People loved BDTH. It’s a true Robin Hood story. These were smart guys but they weren’t criminals. Anyone who is geeky or nerdy sees their success as the ultimate triumph. The business community also loved BDTH.

How did you arrive at writing The Accidental Billionaires (The Social Network)?
A Harvard connection also brought me this story. One day I got a phone call from a guy who said “My roommate at Harvard founded Facebook.”

Tell us about your new book, Sex on the Moon.
This is the coolest thing. It’s the story of a brilliant college kid in the co-op program at NASA who, to impress 19 yr-old-girl, steals a safe full of moonrocks, one from every moon landing since 1969. It’s amazing, it’s unbelievable. He wants to give his girlfriend the moon. He lays them out the bed [hence the book title]. It’s an incredible American story that’s never been told.

What happened to him?
The feds caught up with him. He had contacted a Belgium gem dealer named Axel who realized something was amiss. Eventually he became the point man for 100-agent sting operation. In gratitude NASA named an asteroid after Axel.

Why do you think your work is so popular?
I have been accused of writing “Dick Lit” [a parallel to “Chick Lit”]. In many ways I am creating my own genre – about high stakes and kids who are pulling things off. The idea that two college kids in a dorm room could become millionaires is very appealing. This is the new American dream, to become a millionaire with an overnight caper that makes you famous and rich.

How does the ‘overnight caper’ theory apply to you as a writer?
The caper has worked out for slowly for me, over ten years. I’ve wanted to be a writer since I was 12. I have always written books. I wrote through high school and college. Right out of Harvard I did odd jobs. The good thing about Boston is you can live cheaply if you want. It was two years of PBJ sandwiches. My parents were nervous so I applied to law school and deferred and deferred. Before I sold anything I got 190 rejections slips [from publishers. In terms of overnight capers,] The Social Network is one of those things that exploded. It was an amazing moment when Aaron Sorkin [who wrote the screenplay] announced on stage “I share this Oscar with Ben Mezrich.”

You can hear more from Ben Mezrich when he appears at The Music Hall as part of our Writers on a New England Stage series July 21.
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