Ben Mezrich loves it when the nerds win. The Boston-based author seems to specialize in books where the hyper-intelligent take on the system and, using nothing but their brains and tanker-sized loads of bravado, manage to recalculate the odds. That was the case with his nonfiction debut Bringing Down the House, following a group of students as they mastered the art of counting cards. And it was definitely at the core of The Accidental Billionaires, the story that became the foundation for The Social Network.
Read more new and notable nonfiction titles for July.
Mezrich’s latest, Sex on the Moon, is no different—geek gets a job at NASA, finds a loophole in the system and walks out with potentially billions of dollars in moon rocks. Except this time the system strikes back.
How did you hear about Thad Roberts, the main subject in Sex on the Moon, and what made you think this was a story worth telling?
It came out of the blue. This kid was in NASA and in a co-op program [college students work for a semester at NASA headquarters] there. He falls in love with a girl there and to impress her he breaks into this vault and steals moon rocks…He did something foolish, almost like a college prank in his eyes, and the federal government just buried him for it.
When he got out of prison he reached out to me. He contacted me through a buddy of mine in Colorado. He said, “Hey, this kid wants to talk to you.” I flew out there and met with him. He fascinated me. Coincidentally, I had wanted to do something on NASA. But there was that moment. I literally met a guy who just spent seven years in a federal prison. I was a little scared. But he was really nice.
Do you have to even find these stories anymore?
Every book since Bringing Down the House has been people calling me. I get 20 to 25 tips a week. I have a phone that I call “The Crazy Phone” where people can contact me. In the last couple days there have been two ideas that I’m looking into that might be another book.
That’s a good position to be in.
It is. Sometimes you parachute in and parachute out—see if there’s something there and then be willing to abandon it. But look for certain elements. It’s got to have this adrenaline to it, and it’s got to have some really smart people involved in it. It can’t be just a caper story.
You’ve taken a lot of criticism for the way you write, but how are you any different from Tom Wolfe following Ken Kesey?
I’m not, really. I’m a controversial author. Every time I write a book there’s going to be journalists who attack me for not being perfect, but I lay out in editors note every time. There’s no hoax going on, no trick here. I’m very straightforward about it. I write in a very cinematic style. But the amount of research I have is enormous. I have thousands of pages of court documents. I have the tapes of when they took down with Thad. I understand the controversy. I just go at it head on. This is how I write. But you’ll have John Stewart’s fake history of America at No. 1, and I’ll be at No. 3 and people are nervous about my book?
A lot of your work ends up in Hollywood. How do you deal with someone else putting their stamp on your stories?
It’s definitely an interesting process. You sell your process and give up control of it to someone else. You can still consult, but they make the movies. But I have some really good guys that I work with like Kevin Spacey and Scott Rudin. And each movie I’ve done is very different. People make the movie they want to make…you aren’t the lead guy anymore. As an author, that’s hard to accept. You walk on set and you stand behind the camera and you have nothing to do. That’s pretty wild, but it’s also great.
I hear Sex on the Moon is already in the works as film as well with Easy A director Will Gluck attached.
Yep. It will have the same producers as The Social Network, and Sony Columbia will release it. I’m psyched to work with everyone again.
Finally, I need to ask you about this: You represented Massachusetts in the 2000 Sexiest Bachelor in America Pageant. Done any pageant work recently?
I was Mr. Mass. It was a show on Fox. We had to do a walk with banners. It was just one of those funny things. My wife, who was my girlfriend of the time, saw an ad in Cosmo and entered me. Then all of the sudden I’m doing this thing. It was funny. I was the palest man to ever appear on television.
But I was also in People magazine in 2004. I was the author in the sexy magazine issue. That was my Pulitzer. I always dreamed about that. And it showed that I was pretty sexy for a few years there—I’m still sexy.
You’re the George Clooney of authors.
That’s better than what Facebook called me—the Judy Collins of Silicon Valley. I’ll definitely take being called George Clooney over that.