Ben Mezrich is not the kind of author who worries about artistic or journalistic niceties, and even less about the opinions of critics. Janet Maslin, a reviewer for The New York Times, blasted one of his “nonfiction thrillers” by wryly noting his skill at “making up conversations he did not hear, sexing up parties he did not attend,” and other writerly techniques of which she does not approve. At a recent Breakfast Salon at the Betsy Hotel, where he was Writer in Residence, Mezrich laughed off barbs like that with no trace of bitterness or resentment.
“I never set out to be an artist, I set out to be a working writer,” Mezrich said, adding that he’s not a journalist, either. “I hew as close to the truth as I can, but I’m writing a nonfiction thriller.” His approach may provide the template for writers of the future. With 18 books to his credit, including several bestsellers, Mezrich has pioneered a career strategy that relies on Hollywood to pay for his writing.
“I don’t go into a story unless I think it’s filmable,” Mezrich said. “For the last five books, I sold the movie rights before I wrote the book.” Thus far, two of Mezrich’s books have been made into big-budget movies. Bringing Down the House became 21, while The Accidental Billionaires became The Social Network. He currently has five projects in the works, including a TV series in development with uber-producer Jerry Bruckheimer. “You have to have that TV or movie component to be successful now.”
Mezrich delighted the 15 or so guests at the Betsy that morning with his relaxed wit and candor. As one of the few literary hotels in the world, the Betsy hosts a continuous stream of writers’ events, most of them free and open to the pubic. The guest list featured several FIU professors; John Stuart, an architect and FIU’s Dean for Cultural and Community Engagement, friends of the author, and members of the general community. Mezrich and his family (wife Tonya Chen and two small children) had been in Miami for several weeks, dodging Boston’s historic winter.
In college Mezrich aspired to be a novelist of the Bret Easton Ellis mold. He wrote nine novels in one year, amassing 190 rejections, before an agent suggested he try thrillers. He struggled at that genre, too, until by chance he met some MIT math whizzes who moonlighted as Las Vegas card counters. That story became Bringing Down the House, his breakthrough. “But suddenly I was a nonfiction writer,” Mezrich said.
Ben Mezrich has created his own highly addictive genre of nonfiction, chronicling the amazing stories of young geniuses making tons of money on the edge of impossibility, ethics, and morality. He has written fifteen books, with a combined printing of more than 4 million copies, including the wildly successful Bringing Down the House: The Inside Story of Six M.I.T. Students Who Took Vegas for Millions, which spent sixty-three weeks on the New York Times bestseller list, and sold more than 2 million copies in 15 languages. His book, The Accidental Billionaires: The Founding of Facebook, a Tale of Sex, Money, Genius and Betrayal – debuted at #4 on the New York Times list and spent 18 weeks in hardcover and paperback, as well as hit bestseller lists in over a dozen countries. The book was adapted into the movie The Social Network –written by Aaron Sorkin and directed by David Fincher.
Chauncey Mabe is a seasoned journalist with a 20-year legacy of exemplary literary criticism for South Florida’s Sun Sentinel. This Spring, with funding from The John S. and James L Knight Foundation, The Betsy Hotel-South Beach has engaged Mabe in a project to document literary programs from the inside out – sharing the creative viewpoints of wide-ranging writers who connect with Miami’s literary community through residencies in The Betsy’s Writers Room (betsywritersroom.com) during March, April, and May, 2015.