Ben Mezrich #60


Bringing Down the House

The Accidental Billionaires (The Social Network)

Once Upon a Time in Russia

There were maybe a thousand businessmen murdered in the '90s in Russia. These guys built their wealth, and essentially built Putin along the way. It was one of those things from which you can't turn away.

Why did you write about Russian oligarchs? 

I had no knowledge or intention of writing bout Russia. I had done a project with film director Brett Ratner who directed Rush Hour and recently directed Hercules. He is a really phenomenal director and producer and I had done a project with him called Seven Wonders, which is an Indiana Jones thriller. He basically called me up out of the blue and said, 'I want you to come to London and meet some people. They have a story to tell. So I went to London not knowing whom I was going to meet. When I first heard this story my response was 'no way. I don't want to do this. I don't want anything to do with this. It's intense, huge and scary.'

I'm surprised you flew there blindly from the start!

Brett always pitches me ideas and I know he's a big enough entity that his projects will be intense. I've always wanted to follow him wherever he wanted me to go, so it was cool. It was one of the biggest stories that I've ever heard and I felt it was worth writing.

I was nervous even reading the novel! Were you nervous writing it?

There is a big body count by the end of the first fifty pages. This was the greatest creation of wealth in history in a very short period of time and a lot of murders. There were maybe a thousand businessmen murdered in the '90s in Russia. These guys built their wealth, and essentially built Putin along the way. It was one of those things from which you can't turn away.

The whole process of writing this book was intense, crazy and terrifying – not in a 'nervous for my life' sort of way but more in that this is a much bigger story than I'm use to telling but I wrote it in a small way.

When you read the book, it's a thriller. It's really written to be almost like The Godfather or James Bond. Most Russian books you read are these massive thousand page histories and that is not what I do. I told the story of two men: Abramovich and Boris Berezovsky and their battle.  Through them I tell the whole story of this sort of privatization of Russia, the rise of oligarchs and the rise of Putin. In a lot of ways it's not an anti-Putin story at all. Putin is not a bad guy in this story. In the scope of the story, these oligarchs are come up against him but what he's attempting to do is very pro-Russia. He's very much a man of the people, chasing away the worst elements in the oligarch world. It’s a wild story and I come at it as an entertainer – as a writer who writes thrillers and not as this journalist trying to uncover things. 

Which characters did you actually meet?

I can't really go into that. My sources are all people who don't want to be known. I was very in depth in this story and talked to a lot of people who are involved and then the thousands of pages of court documents to build the story. There were multiple sources.

Were there any bizarre stories in the interview process?

There were a lot of really intense stories going back and forth to London. Most of my research was done in London. Most of this story takes place in Russia and in London. I would meet with these people in restaurants and there'd be 50 or 60 security people and there'd be lots of large Russian people who would walk around behind you and things like that. There were a lot of dark alleys and back rooms and stuff like that and information being passed to me in little computer key cards. I often felt like a spy when writing this book.

At one point I was interviewing someone and another person came up behind me and stuck his hand in my pocket and said, 'don't look at that until you're in your hotel' and when I got back it was a key card full of documents and so it was that kind of research. It was pretty intense.

How does Russian culture differ from American?

I'm not an expert on Russian culture by any means. The people that I was working with are the wealthiest people in the world. It’s a whole other level of wealth than we see around us. They are people with massive boats and planes and security details and houses everywhere and vineyards and whatever they want. They live in a very rarified place. Russians as a whole are a very vibrant, lively group of people. I'm not an expert really on Russia but in the scope of the story, these personalities are much larger than life.

How is Berezovsky different from Mark Zuckerberg?

As different as one could be. Berezovsky is a guy who was an outsider. He was Jewish in an anti-Semitic culture and an opportunist. As Russia was falling and communism was falling and capitalism was rising, he was someone who was able to take advantage in ways that very few people could and he went from being a car dealer basically to being one of the wealthiest men in the world. He was known as the godfather of the Kremlin. He's a guy who's much older than Zuckerberg. He wasn't one of these closed off, socially distant people. He was someone who was very social and who was very talkative. In fact, he never stopped talking, never stopped moving, never stopped working. His skill was the ability to get people to do things that he wanted them to do. I think that's a very different skill than someone like Zuckerberg who was locked in a room in front of a computer.

These oligarchs, on the whole, were people who could use the system and work within the system and were also willing to do whatever it took. There's a lot of violence in this world simply because violence worked. This was a world in which if you killed the right person, you could get wealthy and so the people who were willing to take that extra step were the people who succeeded.

Are the rarified levels of society that much different in Russia than in America?

I would definitely say you should not be looking at Russia in the '90s and comparing it to America in the '90s. Russia in the '90s compares to the Wild West era of America.

It was a very short window. Yeltsin took over from Grobachev in '91 and re-elected in '96 through 2000 when all of this craziness happened. We had a good five to six year period in which you had communism become capitalism and these seven men essentially gained fifty percent of Russia's GDP over that period. Seven men own fifty percent of the country's resources, which is an incredible statistic! The wealth was just on a whole other level as they arrived there not through education, nor through connections or through growing up in a wealthy family. These were people who came from nowhere. They were outsiders. They were people who were on the edges and fringes of society, who suddenly became the wealthiest men in the country. It was a spectacular rise.

Yet Berezovsky was a mathematician so was there possibly some skill to his business insight?

Yes. He was a brilliant mathematician but he was also someone who was not allowed to go to the regular schools and not allowed to get a regular job because he was Jewish. Russia was a very anti-Semitic society where you couldn't go to a university if you were Jewish. There were special schools you were allowed to go to and special jobs you were allowed to have and a lot of these guys essentially became black marketers or started to work in these fringe areas and that's why when communism fell, they were in the right place and the right kind of people to go into business because they were the only people who really knew that type of business.

I wanted to understand that so I had to go back and reread the section where he profited off inflation. It seemed 'right time, right place' combined with financial skill? 

He knew what he was doing. It's interesting. In America, that would obviously be illegal, but at that time in Russia, it was unclear what was legal and what was illegal. These guys were doing things in an area where there were no real laws or laws were changing very quickly and people, who were willing to go with that, were able to make fortunes.

Should we as a society care about what you’re writing about?

I think that this is in a lot of ways my first important book. I would say the Facebook story is an important story but when I sat down to write it, it was really a thriller about a couple of kids in college, who did something really amazing. I wasn't trying to make a big point about society. I think The Social Network ended up doing that but that was never my intention.

I think with this book, I knew going in that this was a very important story. I don't normally write important stories. So, this one was intense, in that respect. I do think there are a lot of comments about life and society when you read a book like this. It has to do with risk and the ability and the willingness to take risk and the type of people who do this sort of thing and unfettered genius and all that. Those are the things I like to write about.

You write very little about Berezovsky’s family. Was that intentional?

Yes. This is not a story about people's families and people's wives and people's relationships. This is really a story about a couple of men who were locked in this incredible battle at this incredible moment in history. The story is really about how they built their fortunes and how, in Berezovsky’s case, his fortune collapsed and it is essentially that arc. It’s not delving – nor are any of my books really. When you look at the Facebook story, it's not delving into Mark Zuckerberg's relationships and, well, the MIT kids don't have any relationships. They're MIT kids, right? That's not what I write about. I'm not Cormac McCarthy. That's not who I am, nor Nicholas Sparks, sadly. I'd be a lot richer if I were Nicholas Sparks. I write thrillers that are somewhat guy-oriented.

Do you think you've invented a genre of nonfiction? Are there any mentors from whom you draw?

I write a form of nonfiction that not a lot of nonfiction writers write and there's certainly a lot of controversy around it. I take a nonfictional story – a true story – and I write it like a thriller.  When one of my books comes out, there are always going to be articles that are like, 'is this nonfiction? Is this fiction?' I feel that it is very much nonfiction and I trace myself back to Hunter S. Thompson who is one of my idols and who I think is a phenomenal writer. I think Sebastian Junger's a phenomenal writer who is a really intense and powerful guy who can write stories that I would be terrified to write and the way he does his research is unbelievable.

I think Michael Lewis is another idol of mine who does Wall Street better than anybody does Wall Street. It's very sad to me because my little brother's favorite author is actually Michael Lewis and whenever I write a book, he's like, 'it's pretty good but it's no Michael Lewis.' Makes me upset. (Laughs)

I also like entertainment and I feel I'm somewhere in that middle range. I'm not a journalist. I've never called myself a journalist. I've never had any journalistic training. I wrote a true story because it was exciting and awesome and I get thrown into it and that's sort of been the course of my career. Each book has been similar to that.

I have a Graduate Degree in Journalism and I would say you are pretty thorough. You seem to do an incredible amount of research?

Oh, thank you, but at the same time I could never write for a newspaper. I've a lot of respect for people who really can follow and chase down a story. Fortunately for me, the stories come to me. I get thrown into them and I follow the main character around and live with it as much as I can. But, really, I'm being guided by the characters themselves. I'm not coming from the outside, which I think is something a lot of journalists can do.

Did you ever hit failure? What did you learn from failure?

There's so much failure along the way. I think rejection is the big name of the game. When I started out, I basically locked myself in an apartment in Boston and I wrote nine novels – in this apartment, actually! I was not selling them and book after book after book and rejection after rejection after rejection would come in. I have 190 rejection slips. I’d have them taped to the walls. Everyone in publishing rejected me. It wasn't until my tenth attempt at a book that I actually sold a book but even then it failed. The next five or six books I wrote all kind of bombed. Nobody read any of them. 

I used to write fiction – medical thrillers. I wrote for the X-Files, I wrote a TV movie. I was making good money. I was succeeding in that respect but nobody was reading anything I was writing. It wasn't until Bringing Down The House, which was essentially my seventh published book when people actually read my work. I had a lot of rejection and failure along the way but I think that's the process and I loved it. I loved every minute of it. In many ways, that rejection period was the most fun, noble period in my writing career because once you succeed, it becomes much more of a business.

That's the promise.

Exactly. It's exciting, and it's fun and it's awesome. I remember, I’d go to the post office and I would know all the postal workers. They all knew me and I'd show up with my books and I'd say, 'here's another one' and they would say, 'good luck this time' and I would go back to the post office to get my rejection letters. It was a weekly kind of occurrence.

What did you learn from that failure?

I learned a lot. One of the big things I've learned is to be much more careful with money. I went massively into debt. At 26, I owed almost two million dollars. I had credit card debts of over $100,000. To the IRS, I owed $750,000 because I was being paid extremely well for these books but nobody was reading them. I kept spending and then when I'd sign the next book deal, I’d spend the money. I was living my own crazy '90s period. Right before Bringing Down The House, I actually had a stack of business school applications. I was like, 'this writing thing is not going to work out. I'm getting deeper and deeper into a hole and that is when I met the MIT kids. That book changed my life, but yeah I was on the brink of disaster before I found that story. 

What's it like having Aaron Sorkin be your scriptwriter?

It was an amazing situation. Sorkin is a genius. He can be both difficult and brilliant and the story just explodes. I had written a fourteen-page book proposal having met Eduardo. Essentially an email came to me right before 21, the movie, came out. It was an email from a Harvard senior saying, 'my best friend founded Facebook and no one's ever heard of him.' We went out for a drink and it was Eduardo and he tells me this whole crazy story. I hung out with him and then wrote a fourteen page book proposal that leaked onto the Internet and Aaron Sorkin saw that and said, 'I want to write this movie.' Fincher saw it and said, 'I want to direct this movie.' It was all great, except I hadn’t written the book.

Sorkin came to Boston as I wrote and then I handed him pages and he turned it into a screenplay. It was amazing. It was one of those things that happened very quickly. I think we had a movie within a year, which is very unheard of in Hollywood.  When Fincher signed on, he said, 'I'm only going to do it if we do it right now because who knows if Facebook will be around in a year.' That really drove it to happen quickly. Sorkin's script was unbelievable and he wrote it in a very short period of time and I remember reading it the first time and went, 'wow, this is brilliant.' He's a brilliant writer. It was just awesome. It worked out great.

Has Once Upon A Time in Russia been optioned?

I sold the movie and the book simultaneously. The book is with Warner and Brett Ratner is producing it. It’s out to a very big writer right now and there are some big stars interested. I think it'll happen very quickly. You never know but it looks good right now. 

Hemingway is remembered as the writer who drank in bars. How do you feel about that image I have for you as the writer that meets his sources in dark bars in clandestine set ups? 

I will say that my process is to essentially become a part of the story as much as possible. I'm not a journalist walking in with a tape recorder and a microphone. I don't have my notebook and my pen with me and I am not meeting people in their office, for the most part. I'm usually following them around or I'm meeting them in a bar or a restaurant or on an airplane or wherever it is we're going. I want to be a part of it. I want to live vicariously through the story and so a lot of times it's late at night – it's three in the morning – it's wherever they happen to be that night and I track them down. That has definitely been true with this book.

If they call and say they're ready to talk, do you jump?

People pitch me stories and when I know it is a story I really want to write, I try and make myself accessible, but not too accessible. I want to control the situation because a lot of times it can be dangerous and you have to own the whole process. If I'm interviewing someone, I'm going to decide when and where I'm going to interview them. You create a relationship with these characters over the time while you're writing the book and you have to figure out how best to do that and how far it's going to extend into your life.

The MIT kids? I'm buddies with them. I love those guys. It was six months of going back and forth to Vegas with these guys and it was awesome and amazing. With the Zuckerberg story – Eduardo and I became very close over six months and I got to know Sean Parker and the Winklevoss twins very well and going to New York to hang out with the Winklevoss brothers or going to San Francisco to follow Sean Parker. Eduardo was here in Boston and he ended up dating one of my wife's best friend and so we were kind of hanging out socially, which makes things a lot easier.

So it was very friendly?

The best way to write these stories is to get to know them socially, as much as you can, because that's when people will really tell you stuff. Two in the morning drunk in a bar is when you're going to hear the best stories. It’s not when they're on guard and you're sitting there in their office. That's the goal. 

You have the pedigreed background of someone who doesn’t play in the grey edges of life. You were born in Princeton, NJ, graduated Magna Cum Laude from Harvard and are now a very famous writer. What is it that drew you into this type of writing? I have to wonder if there is something bigger at play that you are trying poetically to tell the world?

First of all, I always say I stumbled into this form of writing. I really wanted to be Michael Crichton. I wanted to write Sci Fi medical thrillers.

I don't believe you.

Well, if you read my first six books, they were straight up medical thrillers about viruses and they were crazy, over-the-top thrillers and then I ran into the MIT kids and that was when I realized this storytelling is amazing.

I will say, if there's anything I'm trying to do, it is to tell these stories of people who are risk takers. To tell the stories about these high stakes people who are brilliant – not criminals – but people who are pushing the boundaries, who don't like authority, and who are trying to do something different, and real, and wild and cool. They don't want to be the sheriff. They want to be Robin Hood. They want to be Zuckerberg. They want to be the hacker who changes the world because the world doesn't fit them and they want to make the world fit them.

It’s the people I'm fascinated by and I want to be like them. But really, I did stumble into these stories. It's not like I ever set out to do this when I first started writing. It’s an accidental career, to some degree.

Would you say you have empathy for these characters?

I definitely think in Once Upon A Time In Russia, there's no bad guy. You're going to like Putin. You're going to like Berezovsky. You're going to like, or feel sorry for, some of these characters along the way and I think Abramovich is basically the hero of the story to some extent, although maybe not. It all depends on how you look at it. Everyone's point of view is different but there's no good guy or bad guy. It's like this is what they did.

How do you stay empathetic when some of them do pretty terrible things? 

I like everybody. I have no set opinions about anybody. When I sit down to write a story, I don’t differentiate with 'this is a bad guy, this is a good guy.' 

When a movie gets made, there needs to be a bad guy but if you read the books, there is really not a bad guy. One has their reason for doing something. No one sees himself or herself as the bad guy. No one wants to be that. They want to do what works for them, or they want to do what makes them successful and makes them happy. Sometimes it ends up being bad.

What if Hollywood picks a bad guy for this book? 

They will. It will be interesting to see how the screenplay is written. If you look at the Facebook story, Sean Parker definitely comes out as the bad guy but he's not a bad guy. He's actually a good guy. He just wanted to build a company in the way he thought would work. He didn't go after Eduardo in the book as roughly as he went after Eduardo in the movie. I can see how it would be interpreted that way and I think it will be a similar thing in that you’ll probably see Berezovsky as the bad guy, or maybe you won’t. Although he's a sympathetic character to some degree. Maybe you'll see Putin as the bad guy? I really don't know. It'll be interesting to see how it's written.

What topics can we look forward to you unraveling next?

I have a television show in the works at FX based on my book Ugly Americans, which is about Wall Street bankers living in Asia. It's a group of expats who ended up in Tokyo and that show is being made with Jerry Bruckheimer, which will be really, really cool and I'm working on a new book right now that I just sold. I sold the movie version of it first which is called The 37th Parallel. I won’t go into too much about what it's about but think Close Encounters, but real.  

Can you tell us anything more about it?

It’s nonfiction about someone obsessed with something otherworldly. It's a pretty wild story. That will be my next book, in a year. And my children’s book, Bringing Down The Mouse, comes out in paperback this summer and I have another one in that series in the works. The series is about a group of kids who use math and science to beat carnival games. It's a really fun story aimed at kids in the seven-to-fifteen age range. 

Event you're most looking forward to?

My daughter's third birthday is in two weeks. We're doing a Frozen party and I know Tonya my wife got a Frozen piñata. I'm very excited to see how the kids tear into that.  

Favorite place for a cocktail?

It’s still Mistral. I love Mistral. I don't say cocktail so much as eating there. I love the food. I think it's phenomenal. And Serafina just opened up in Boston. I've been spending a lot of time there. That's a very cool spot.

How do you get your news?

Online. I read The Boston Globe every morning but for other news outside Boston, it's probably Gawker or Google News.

Did you have a Russian source for news?

I did. With Russia, it was a lot of the English papers. The UK is much more obsessed with Russia than America. If you read the London tabloids and newspapers, you learn a lot about Russia. And the English version of the Moscow Times is pretty interesting.