On paper, Boston-based author Ben Mezrich is not unlike the characters of his wildly successful bestsellers: a Harvard nerd who struck it big with a new idea, was maligned for it, married a beauty, and became rich and famous. And just as Mark Zuckerberg can be seen wearing the same old hooded sweatshirts and sneakers from his pre-Facebook days, Mezrich appears to be the same wallflower writer who spent years grinding out sci-fi thrillers under the pen name Holden Scott. The main difference today is that when Ben Mezrich finishes a book, top Hollywood studios pounce on it before the ink even has time to dry.
Mezrich pops his head out from his office apartment in a high-rise on Boylston
Street and invites us in. He slides into a seat at the head of a long mahogany table next to floor-to-ceiling windows that look out over the Esplanade. All-night poker matches have unfolded in this room as well as marathon writing sessions. It’s a man cave with a view. Movie posters from The Social Network and 21 are stacked in the corner of the room like giant playing cards, and a large portrait of the author hangs crooked behind him. Upon closer inspection, it appears that Mezrich is wearing the same shirt in the photo as he is today. Must be lucky.
Mezrich’s luck started just over a decade ago when he stumbled upon the story of a group of MIT students who “took Vegas for millions” by counting cards in blackjack. Bringing Down the House skyrocketed up the New York Times Best Sellers list and was adapted to film by Oscar-winning actor Kevin Spacey. The next thing he knew, Mezrich was attending the Golden Globes as Spacey’s plus one, rubbing elbows with the who’s who of Hollywood. He’s been the darling of the silver screen ever since.
The forty-five-year-old now occupies a sweet spot in the literary world where his books are optioned for movies before he’s even finished writing them. With his 2009 telling of the story behind Facebook, he handed off his chapters directly to screenwriter Aaron Sorkin. Sorkin turned Mezrich’s Accidental Billionaires into The Social Network, which won three Oscars in 2011. For Mezrich, the movie reels start turning before the printing press, earning him a level of fame uncommon amongst writers, what he describes as “the last rung of Hollywood.”
Yet despite all his success in nonfiction, Mezrich is trying to break away from the genre and return to his first love of writing fictional thrillers. Many a struggling writer might look at this move and throw up their hands. Why mess with success? To understand his motivation, you need to take a closer look at his brand of nonfiction and the price he’s paid for it.
Critics regularly berate the author for graying the lines between fact and fiction. He’s been accused of creating characters, sensationalizing events, and not always sticking to the truth. Moreover, the subjects of his books have been some of the most powerful people on the planet. When Facebook co-founder Eduardo Severin signed his multi-billion dollar settlement deal with Mark Zuckerberg, one of the conditions was that he never speak to Mezrich again. As for Mark Zuckerberg himself, let’s just say he won’t be sending the author a friend request any time soon.
All that aside, Mezrich says that his main reason for returning to fiction is that finding another true story as big as Accidental Billionaires might be impossible. Every week he receives dozens of pitches, but it’s hard to top the story behind Fa- cebook. He’s not at liberty to talk about the only nonfiction story that has made it into his pipeline. “I hope I don’t have to publish it,” he says crypti- cally. From what little Mezrich does say off the record about the project, if he publishes it, being on Zuckerberg’s blocked list would be the least of his worries.
What he is willing to talk about is his two latest books of fiction, Seven Wonders and Bringing Down the Mouse. Due out in September, Seven Wonders is a “Da Vinci Code, Indiana Jones thriller” that was inspired when Hollywood director Brett Ratner called up Mezrich saying that if the author could come up with a story around the Seven Wonders of the World, he could sell the film. The book and movie will be promoted together, achieving a marriage in Hollywood that hasn’t been done before. Seven Wonders is being written as a trilogy and could give way to a film franchise. “If Seven Wonders does well,” Mezreich says, “I’ll write these kind of books for the rest of my career.”
His other work of nonfiction is a children’s book version of Bringing Down the House in which a group of kids outwit a Disney World-inspired theme park. Now a father of two, Mezrich is tapping into a whole new generation of readers.
Both these books are gambles, but that’s how Ben Mezrich rolls. Will his legions of fans follow him into the realm of fiction? Will Hollywood keep champing at the bit for books that don’t revolve around gambling, sex, and billionaires? The only way to find out is to play his cards and see what comes on the flop, because if his break- out book Bringing Down the House taught Mezrich anything it’s that you can’t win what you don’t put in the middle.