Mezrich is the author of “Bringing Down the House,” which was the basis for the hit film “21.” He also wrote “The Accidental Billionaires,” the story of the Harvard students behind the creation of Facebook, which became the Oscar-winning film “The Social Network." His new book,“Sex on the Moon,” again tells the true story of bright young people.
Ben Mezrich always wanted to write thrillers. He started right out of Harvard. He wrote them, sent them to publishers, got rejected, then wrote more, sent them to publishers and got more rejections.
“I wrote nine novels in my room on Marlborough Street, but couldn’t sell them,” said Mezrich, sitting in the living room of his Back Bay apartment, which has a stunning view of the Charles River. “Then I wrote a medical thriller called ‘Threshold.’ It was published in 1996, but I never made it as a thriller writer.
“It wasn’t until I met the MIT kids that I found my voice,” he said. “That changed my life dramatically.”
Mezrich is referring to “Bringing Down the House,” the true story of the MIT card-counting team that invaded Las Vegas, which was the basis for the hit film “21.” Then he wrote “The Accidental Billionaires,” the story of the Harvard students behind the creation of Facebook, which became the Oscar-winning film “The Social Network.”
Mezrich’s newest book, “Sex on the Moon,” again tells the true story of bright young people. But this time he gets much closer to his thriller roots. His main subject is Thad Roberts, a brilliant, ambitious but debt-ridden loner who, after his family disowns him over religious differences, set his sights on becoming an astronaut. He was well on the way to realizing that dream when greed and love got in his way. After an amazing ordeal, one that was actually covered up by NASA, Roberts decided he wanted his story told.
“I’d always wanted to write about NASA,” said Mezrich. “I’m fascinated by NASA. Coincidentally – about a year and a half ago – I got a phone call from a buddy of mine in Colorado saying there’s this kid who wants to reach you. He said he’s got a story, that he stole a safe-ful of moon rocks from NASA. So I literally hopped on a plane to Utah to see him, and I ended up interviewing him for a couple of hours that day.
“Later on I searched on the Internet and there was only one article about him. So I spent a year doing the research.”
The result is a pulse-pounding tale about the plan to steal some astoundingly valuable moon rocks – which are regarded as national treasures – from the Johnson Space Center in Houston, then sell them to rock collectors over the Internet.
Suffice it to say, things went wrong.
Mezrich wasn’t surprised to get the call.
“It’s because of the stuff I write,” he said. “Since the movie ‘21,’ every kind of young genius who pulls something off looks to me as the person who could tell their story. I think Thad knew what I’d write and how I’d write it. With what Thad did, I think the fun of the story would have been lost if it had been written by a crime journalist. It’s exciting. I don’t condone it, but it’s exciting. It’s like ‘Ocean’s 11.’ It’s like ‘21.’ It’s a heist. It’s a college prank that went too far. Of course, that’s not how NASA sees it, but that’s how Thad sees it.”
Mezrich knew right away that there was a book to be written. And he knew how to get started.
That initial interview – one of many – was the first step in getting Thad to trust him and in getting himself to trust Thad. Then he started reaching out to get in touch with other characters in the story, some of whom were eager to talk with him, along with others who weren’t. Because there was quite a bit of FBI involvement, Mezrich gained access to thousands of pages of files through the Freedom of Information Act.
But he had no luck with NASA.
The organization wanted nothing to do with him, and NASA employees were directed not to speak to him. But Mezrich is a crafty fellow, and he took part in a bit of subterfuge.
“I went to the Johnson Space Center and did a Level 9 tour of NASA. I just showed up. You sign up for the tour and they take as many as 12 people a day. But while I was on the tour, I was texting with Thad, who had spent a lot of time there. I’m like, ‘OK, I’m in the cafeteria.’ And he’d write, ‘I used to sit at table whatever,’ and I would go sit there so I could see what he saw. Then we were at the big swimming pool where the astronauts train, and he’s going, ‘OK, this is where I used to go.’ So I’d be wandering around and he’d be telling me where to go and where to look. That’s how I got all the detail. It was an amazing sort of research situation. I was sneaking around, but I didn’t do anything illegal. I had a ticket. They didn’t know who I was.”
It won’t surprise anyone reading “Sex on the Moon” that the book has already been optioned to be adapted into a film. That’s fine with Mezrich. He’s been quite happy with the two film versions of his books so far.
“What they captured in ‘21’ really well was the spirit of these young people in Vegas,” he said. “Because now every 21-year-old kid watches that before they go to Vegas. I think the director was really good at painting this young fun story. And they got a lot right in ‘The Social Network.’ The scene with the Winklevoss twins in Larry Summers’ office was perfect, exactly the way I pictured it. The scene in the restaurant with Eduardo and Sean Parker and Mark Zuckerberg and the girlfriend – awesome, perfect, it was just dead on.”
Mezrich admitted that he’s always set out to write books as movies, to make them cinematic.
“I learned how to write from a book called ‘Writing the Blockbuster Novel’ by Al Zuckerman,” he said. “I dedicated my life to becoming a writer, so I got every ‘how to write’ book there is. I also learned from screenplay books. I learned the three-act system, when to introduce a character, when to introduce romance. If you read my earlier fiction, they read like movies. So as I moved into nonfiction, that didn’t change. I write in a process where I just close my eyes and see the scene.”