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Big Week for 'Accidental Billionaires' Author Ben Mezrich

Posted by Scott Kirsner  October 19, 2009 07:15 AM

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I caught up with Back Bay author Ben Mezrich last week for a quick chat.

The forthcoming movie based on his book "Accidental Billionaires," about the founding of Facebook, starts shooting in Boston today. Then, on Saturday, he's one of the speakers at the inaugural Boston Book Festival. (Requisite disclosure: the Globe is one of several media sponsors for the festival.)

I asked Mezrich about his approach to writing, his sources for the book, what he thinks will happen with Facebook, and whether he thinks there was a chance the company might have stayed in Boston, rather than putting down roots in Palo Alto.

(In the photo, from left to right, are Mezrich, his wife Tonya, and Bill Brunetti, one of the producers of the Facebook movie.)

    Scott Kirsner: So the movie starts shooting soon. Why did they decide to call it "The Social Network," which is kind of a generic title, rather than "Accidental Billionaires"? And how are you involved with the film?

    Ben Mezrich: "The Social Network" is a working title. I obviously like "The Accidental Billionaires," and the paperback version will be coming out in May, which will reach large numbers of people, so using that title is a possibility that would certainly make sense.

    ["West Wing" creator] Aaron Sorkin signed on to adapt the book into a screenplay while I was writing it. It was a cool situation. I would hand him chapters as I was finishing them. David Fincher is directing it. It's their baby now. I probably will visit the set. With "21" [based on an earlier Mezrich book, "Bringing Down the House"], I was on set for the whole thing.

    SK: What first got you interested in the story of Facebook?

    BM: I used Facebook a little, and my wife was obsessed with it. One day I got an e-mail from a kid named Will. He was best friends with [Facebook co-founder] Eduardo [Saverin.] I went to have a drink with them at Bar10 in the Westin hotel. They told me this incredible story that no one knew about the earliest days of Facebook, about sex in the bathroom and the Winkelvoss twins. There were all these great characters. I'd gone to Harvard, and I wanted to write a story that took place in the dorms.

    SK: Who were your sources for the book -- just Eduardo?

    BM: Eduardo was my initial source, but as I got deeper, I began to talk to all the other principals -- everyone except for Mark [Zuckerberg]. I think Mark was too nervous about what I might write. I don't reveal exactly who all my sources are, but pretty much everyone talked to me, although Eduardo stopped talking to me after a while. I think if Mark does eventually write a book one day, it'll be a very different book. These stories, Mark would never tell.

    SK: There's been a lot of criticism about your approach to reporting the book, especially from people who work in newspapers and magazines. Can you talk about the way you work?

    BM: I've always been extremely clear. I interview anyone I can interview, and I get ahold of all the court documents and go through those. It's a true story, written in this narrative thriller-esque style. There's no reason not to see it as non-fiction. But it's definitely a new form -- I'm creating my own genre of non-fiction, but it kind of dates back to the new journalism, and people like Tom Wolfe and Hunter Thompson. The reality is, this is a true story.

    I completely understand why some newspapers don't like it -- but it's not a newspaper article. I don't mind the controversy -- it has always been a big part of my career.

    SK: Can you talk about what your current project is?

    BM: I'm circling something. I don't want it to leak out, which happened on the Internet with the "Accidental Billionaires" proposal.

    SK: A lot of people in the technology scene here wonder whether Facebook could have stuck around in Boston, or whether Mark was determined to do it out in Silicon Valley. What's your take?

    BM: Mark didn't intend to stay in California. He just wanted to spend the summer there, because he had always dreamed of being in Silicon Valley. It was never a decision to leave Boston. But once Sean Parker got involved, and once they started raising money out there, there was no turning back. It wasn't his intention to build a company in California, though.

    SK: So you wrote about gambling in "Bringing Down the House." Facebook has allegedly been valued as high as $15 billion. Do you think they're going to take some of their winnings off the table? I mean, do you think they'll be able to cash out on its success?

    BM: Well, that Russian billionaire already allowed them to take out some money. To be honest, I don't think Mark cares about money that much. When he was still in high school, he turned down a $1 million offer from Microsoft for a little MP3 player plug-in he'd written.

    There has to be an exit, though. The people who invested so far haven't done it out of charity, and I think the senior people under Mark want to be rich. I believe sooner or later, they'll cash out.

If you are interested in more early Facebook history, I'd point you to this post on Zuckerberg and Saverin by Larry Cheng, who is the one Boston-area venture capitalist I've been able to identify who evaluated Facebook as a potential investment before Zuckerberg moved out to California.

Incidentally, I asked Cheng back in August whether he'd been interviewed by Mezrich for "Accidental Billionaires."

"Never heard from him," Cheng told me via e-mail.

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1 comments so far...
  1. It will be interesting to see how the movie turns out. Having read "Bringing Down the House" and seen "21" the two are barely recognizable as being the same story once the initial premise was set. Hopefully, Hollywood won't butcher another interesting story.

    Posted by Jason Evanish October 19, 09 12:51 PM


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Scott Kirsner was part of the team that launched in 1995, and has been writing a column for the Globe since 2000. His work has also appeared in Wired, Fast Company, The New York Times, BusinessWeek, Newsweek, and Variety. Scott is also the author of the books "Fans, Friends & Followers" and "Inventing the Movies," was the editor of "The Convergence Guide: Life Sciences in New England," and was a contributor to "The Good City: Writers Explore 21st Century Boston." Scott also helps organize several local events on entrepreneurship, including the Nantucket Conference and Future Forward. Here's some background on how Scott decides what to cover, and how to pitch him a story idea.

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