Nonfiction master who finds most nonfiction boring

Ben Mezrich sees real life as a thriller plot, and likes books that are page-turners. Ben Mezrich sees real life as a thriller plot, and likes books that are page-turners. (Tracy Aiguier)
By Amanda Katz
Globe Correspondent / February 27, 2011

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Ben Mezrich has more than most riding on tonight’s Academy Awards: Aaron Sorkin’s Oscar-nominated screenplay for “The Social Network” was adapted from his account of Facebook’s founding, “The Accidental Billionaires.” Mezrich, who published a number of thrillers before turning to nonfiction with the bestselling “Bringing Down the House,” grew up in New Jersey, went to Harvard, and now lives in the Back Bay.

What are you reading?

I’m just finishing “The Passage” by Justin Cronin. It’s fantastic — I love it. I’m not that into vampires, but it’s so well done.

What kinds of books do you usually read?

I read all sorts of fiction. I went through a phase of reading lots of science fiction, but then I’ll switch over and read thrillers. I have to say, I really liked the “Hunger Games” trilogy. It was completely out of my element — it’s young adult with a female main character — but it was well written and fun.

I pretty much avoid nonfiction.

Why is that?

Most of it’s pretty boring. Often they’re very heavy books, very long-winded, and they don’t tell the story in a way that’s that readable.

I like Sebastian Junger a lot. I think he’s fantastic. I like Michael Lewis. They keep the eye on their audience — they’re not writing to get into every single detail. But those are pretty much the two nonfiction writers I like. All those political books and economics books, they’re just overwhelming. A continuous stream of massive tomes on every detail of the political machine.

What do you look for in fiction?

Something where you can’t stop turning the pages. It doesn’t really matter what realm it’s in. I love Michael Crichton. He’s one of my heroes, and I’ve read everything he did. There’s a Boston guy, Joseph Finder, who I read a lot. I’ve read a lot of Stephen King, which is great stuff. I thought Grisham had a few really good books.

In your nonfiction books, you superimpose a thriller plot onto real life — which is often actually chaotic, or boring . . .

Well, I don’t think I’m superimposing it. It’s there. All good true stories have this structure, with this main character who has to overcome obstacles to get somewhere. If they didn’t, no one would write them, and no one would read them. That’s what works.

In presenting reality as a thriller, what do you gain or lose?

What you gain is a readable book. There’s dozens of ways to tell any true story. It all depends how you put the facts together. I don’t choose to do an encyclopedic listing of the facts — I find the thread of the story that’s worth reading.

I realize that generates controversy, stylistically. Readers don’t have an issue, and in terms of publishing or movies, there’s no issue. It’s just there are certain journalists who are old-school and want all people to write in one way.

What I do is write the story the way it appears to me. That ends up being very visual and thriller-like. But that’s how I see the world. When I get on the subway and ride to the airport, it’s a thriller from beginning to end.

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