Poker? I Don’t Even Know Her! (And other horrible, rejected titles for my chat with STRAIGHT FLUSH author, Ben Mezrich).

mezrich-ggnoads

Mark St. Amant talks to Ben Mezrich about fame, manhood, kids, STRAIGHT FLUSH, and waking up under a pile of hookers in a Dubai hotel (or not).

Just gonna say it: Ben Mezrich’s characters are douche bags. A-holes. Misogynistic, testosterone-spewing ballers. How do you know this (besides their neon-green Lamborghinis and surgically enhanced “dates”)? Because they’re the types who’ll tell you they’re ballers, usually while calling you “Brah” and loudly bragging about “crushing” everything from workouts and overstuffed burritos to Aspen double-diamonds and the lady parts of countless sexual conquests…that is, when they’re not busy telling you how much their Patek Phillipe watches cost. (“More than you’ll make in ten years, brah!”)

But despite what they ultimately become, typical Mezrich protagonists began life as something wholly different: Nerds. They were the marginalized. The invisible. The wedgied. The friendless. The sexless. The undersized. The cashless. Twentysomething guys –- and to the chagrin of some critics, they’re always guys — who, if not for their own brains, balls, liberating lack of morals, and/or a few twists of fate, could just as easily have ended up driving to a cubicle job in a beige, used Camry. Which sounds a little like Mezrich himself, who was the proverbial 80-pound runt in high school and an admitted nerd who’s described his looks as “sickly” and once – wait for it — built a robot.

But unlike his protagonists, Ben is not –- I’m sad to report, because we like our more accomplished celebrities niiiiice and hateable here in America –- a douche bag. He’s a husband. He’s a proud father of two toddlers. He eats most of his lunches in the oh-so-glamorous Prudential Mall food court. And if you watch his interviews, he often seems both genuinely appreciative of and bemused by his fame, wielding self-deprecation like this recent reference to the disparity between him and his wife (New England Cable News host and fashion/jewelry designer, Tonya Mezrich): “My wife is WAY better-looking than I should be with,” he told talk show host Craig Ferguson. “When you see a photo of us, it looks like a hostage situation.”

So, no, he’s not exactly like his characters. But Mezrich, better than any writer of the last decade, knows how to suss out these amorphous ballers, deftly assimilate into their worlds and turn their underdog stories into page-turning bestsellers like UGLY AMERICANS, RIGGED, and SEX ON THE MOON
. But two books in particular propelled him to his current “celebrity author” status: 2003’s BRINGING DOWN THE HOUSE, the story of six Vegas-busting M.I.T kids that became the Kevin Spacey-helmed film 21; and 2009’s THE ACCIDENTAL BILLIONAIRES, his take on the founding of Facebook that became the Academy Award-winning The Social Network. And you’ve probably seen his latest release everywhere from beaches to airports this summer — Straight Flush: The True Story of Six College Friends Who Dealt Their Way to a Billion-Dollar Online Poker Empire–and How It All Came Crashing Down . . .
–- chronicling the rise and fall of online poker juggernaut AbsolutePoker.com, and the onetime Montana frat brothers who rose and fell along with it.

While he seems perfectly at ease with his high profile, his writing style is like catnip for critics who complain he plays too fast and loose with the truth, notably the New York Times’ Janet Maslin who’s called him everything from a “baloney artist” to “a vigorous storyteller in his crass, desperately cinematic way.” And she wrote that THE ACCIDENTAL BILLIONAIRES was “so obviously dramatized, and so clearly unreliable, that there’s no mistaking it for a serious document.”  (Hell, I’d take Janet Maslin calling me a physically repugnant, baby seal-clubbing, mouth-breathing illiterate if “vigorous storyteller” was in there somewhere.) Yet Mezrich, who seems refreshingly un-precious about himself and his craft — something that probably also angers literary critics — takes it all stride. “To me, all press is good press,” he told Bookish.com. “You would think, by now, the reviewers would realize what they were getting into when they pick up one of my books, but they always seem surprised by what’s inside.”

So, my good Good Men readers: are you Ben Mezrich fans? Are you okay with his writing style or do you think he crosses too often into that demilitarized zone between truth and fiction? Feel free to comment below…but not before reading a little Q&A with Mezrich on fame, manhood, kids, STRAIGHT FLUSH, bad money-management, and waking up under a pile of hookers in a Dubai hotel (or not).

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MARK: Your formative years were in Princeton, NJ and Boston (when you attended Harvard). Living in these two noted literary/education-centric towns, was it inevitable that you’d become a writer, or were there other career paths that you considered? 

BEN: I was born in Princeton, and came to Boston for college and then never left. I’ve wanted to be a writer since I was twelve, it was just a matter of figuring out what I was going to write. At first, I wrote thrillers, and I wanted to be Michael Crichton. Then I met the M.I.T. kids and that changed my path a bit. But no, this was the only career I ever really considered.

M: I sense you might’ve been a quiet, keeps-to-himself-devouring-books-and-taking-apart-transistor-radios kinda kid who, if not a writer, might’ve turned out to be a Xbox video game developer. Or a serial killer. True?

B: I was pretty much a nerd. I wasn’t quiet, however, I was pretty out there. I did pretty much every extra-curricular there was to do, theater, yearbook, etc, and I was also Vice President of the student body. I only weighed about 80 pounds and sucked at sports, but I wasn’t shy, I was always up to something.

 —

M: Your high school, Princeton Day School, has some famous alumni (from Phish’s Trey Anastasio to convicted parent-killers Erik and Lyle Menendez). Have you ever been asked to speak at graduation, and if not, what would be your message to students (besides “Please, if possible, try not to kill your parents”)?

B: I spoke at my last reunion, and have spoken to the students at the school a couple of times. I always try to be honest about writing as a career (it’s not easy, that’s for sure) and about what I’ve learned. I think the most important thing is to figure out what you want to do as early as you can.

 —

M: What two words describe your dad? How are you most like or unlike him?

B: My dad is incredibly smart, kind of a mad scientist. He switched careers from being an electrical engineer/inventor, to being a doctor (he was most recently Chair of Radiology at U Maryland). I learned to love books because of him. He reads everything, and made us as kids read two books a week before we could watch TV. I think I’m like him in the intensity of my work ethic, but I’m also much more into goofing off and watching TV for long stretches of time.

 —

M: You’ve clearly become the default “pitch guy” for every college dude with an insane story. Do you just get random emails reading, “Dear Ben, I’m an attractive, risk-taking Millennial running a million-dollar counterfeit Kid Robot ring out of my apartment in Medford and the Russian mob is trying to kill me”? And how do you spot the nutjobs? 

B: I do get those pitches, probably ten a week right now. Ninety percent of them are pretty ridiculous, but every now and then I look into one and if it seems real, I make some phone calls. Sometimes that’s as far as it gets, sometimes it goes a little farther; sometimes it goes all the way.

 —

M: What was the seminal moment, if there was one, where it suddenly dawned on you, “Wow, lots of people know who I am”?

B: Well, authors don’t really get famous like actors or athletes, so it’s usually pretty cool when people recognize me. And I’m fairly eccentric in person so I can get away with just about anything I want to do. I think people started to know who I was after The Social Network; that’s when I started to get random people coming up to me and saying hi. But pretty much everyone has been great, and it’s amazing that people are reading my books. I spent a lot of years in the trenches waiting for that to happen.

M: Ah, the trenches. They smell like feet and old nickels. You and I were both born in the late ‘60’s. My early memories of ‘manhood’ are of guys like Steve McQueen; pro wrestlers Bruno Sammartino, Big John Studd and Killer Kowalski; the 1970’s Big Bad Bruins; the Marlboro Man (you know, minus his eventual lung cancer). What are your earliest memories of manhood…someone who made you think, “THAT dude is a friggin’ MAN”?

B: That’s a good question. Certainly Arnold in all those movies, but I still go back to Hemingway and Hunter S. Thompson, both of whom were pretty screwed up, but were certainly more manly than me.

 —

M: What advice would you give the teenage Ben that you now know about life?

B: Invest in Apple; don’t invest in MySpace or Friendster. Actually, in general, don’t blow through your money like it grows on trees, save it. Also, having kids really is pretty amazing, as exhausting as they can be. And don’t ski a hill that’s beyond your ability. I learned that one the hard way.

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M: STRAIGHT FLUSH has gotten some good reviews. But it’s also received some typical barbs. The USA TODAY, for example, called your narrative “redundant” (while, I must add, hypocritically using shitty poker cliché’s in their own review : “[Mezrich] is playing with house money,” “[The book] makes you want fold your cards” and “Don’t ante up for the hardback.” Get it? Don’t ante up? Because it’s a BOOK ABOUT POKER!) Why do you think some critics hate your approach so much?

B: Hah, well it comes with the territory. I’m very open about my methods, and how I write, nobody should be surprised when they pick up one of my books. But still, there are journalists out there who simply hate the way I write nonfiction. I do think to some extent, there is an urge to try and make a story out of a review, and I think my honesty about my approach drives some of them batty, because it’s all right there out in the open, there’s no conspiracy to uncover. I write narrative nonfiction that reads like thrillers. Either you want to get on board with that, or you don’t.

M: Word association: “Kevin Spacey”? 

B: Brilliant, fascinating, extremely kind, he definitely helped jumpstart my career in Hollywood. Perhaps the greatest actor of his generation.

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M: STRAIGHT FLUSH contains some of your trademark tells (great, now I’m writing like a USA TODAY critic) – young kids take risks to get rich, bag previously unattainable women, take on a big institution of some sort, and watch it all come crashing down — but what do you think readers will find in your latest book that’s not in your others?

B: I think Straight Flush is kind of a blend of 21 and The Social Network. It’s also about the downfall of an industry, and a hypocritical use of the judicial system to go after something that I feel shouldn’t be illegal at all. It’s also a pretty wild story with some darker elements that weren’t in some of my other books.

 —

M: This web site is obviously about men, but it’s also about how men relate to the women in their lives. Your critics also complain that your female characters, as your old friend Janet Maslin wrote, “…tend to grin a lot and fill out teeny bathing suits in nifty ways.” You have a mother, a wife, a daughter – how do you feel your female characters are developed and portrayed? And how does Tonya feel about them?

B: Tonya loves my books…at least that’s what she tells me! My books do tend to have girls in bikinis, and in some cases they are certainly portrayed as objects — because the characters I write about tend to drive the story that way. I mean come on, Mark Zuckerberg and Eduardo Saverin weren’t hanging out with a lot of girls while they were creating Facebook. I do think there were a few fairly strong female characters in BRINGING DOWN THE HOUSE, but in STRAIGHT FLUSH there are certainly a fair amount of hookers, because some of the story takes place in a land filled with brothels. I understand the criticism, but I am writing my stories from the point of view of geeky guys who get rich, often because they were unable to meet girls in high school. This tends to lead to stories with women being objectified. I’d love to write a story with a female lead. Maybe someone will pitch me a good one, one of these days.

 

M: What’s the worst decision you’ve ever made – personally, professionally, or both — and how have you learned from it? 

B: I suck with money. I got into huge debt in my twenties—credit cards, taxes, etc. I learned to be more careful, and to let people who know what they are doing manage my finances.

 —

M: Of your myriad professional accomplishments, where do you rank your 2000 appearance as Mr. Massachusetts on FOX’s “The Sexiest Bachelor in America”?

B:  Hah, that was a pretty crazy experience. I think from Boston they wanted someone pale with glasses who went to Harvard. I fit that bill perfectly. I was the least in-shape person on that show; everyone else was a male model. I was the only one wearing glasses. Someone in the audience actually asked a friend of mine, “What’s wrong with Mr. Massachusetts?” because I looked so sickly next to the other guys.

M: How has becoming a father affected your approach to writing?

B: Kids are awesome, and incredibly exhausting. It’s like a constant circus, juggling everything that goes with two kids under the age of four. I can’t write all night anymore, and I certainly can’t lock myself in my office for days on end. You just have to be more directed in your work. Also, I don’t enjoy traveling like I used to, so I try not to be gone for more than a couple days at a time, even if that means flying a lot more.

 —

M: Are guys in their twenties – your typical protagonists — truly such different animals than us fortysomethings?

B: Guys in their twenties have so much more energy; trying to keep up with them is nearly impossible. Then again, when I was in my twenties I was a wuss then, too, so I haven’t changed that much in that respect. Young people do want everything right away, and as you get older you learn to be more patient. Which isn’t always a good thing, but that’s the way it works.

 —

M: What is your most cherished ritual as a guy?

B: I’m not sure I know what that means. I have lots of rituals, but they aren’t really related to being a guy. They are much more related to being a neurotic writer who likes living in a mall and tries to avoid the outdoors as much as I can.

M: Most would assume your typical day involves waking up under a pile of hookers and gold Krugerrands in a suite at the Burj Al Arab hotel, and then riding through the streets of Dubai nude on an ostrich while firing AK-47’s into the sky. But what IS a ‘typical’ day for you?

B: Hah, I’ve certainly had days like that in the past. But I’m now a mall-dweller in the heart of Boston and happily ensconced in that life. I don’t have a ‘typical’ day, but when I’m writing, I get up with the kids, hit the gym, then the food court at the Pru, then walk the dog, and then write until it starts to get dark. Then it’s helping with the kids again, and maybe more writing after they go down. I do travel a lot, often to Vegas, London, LA, and New York, so every other week or so I’m on a plane going somewhere.

 —

M: Do you always see yourself living in Boston? And how have you resisted the allure of glitzier places like LA?

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B: I love Boston, I don’t want to ever leave. It’s a great city with lots of smart, young people doing cool things. LA is fun for a few days, but the driving, the incessant sunshine, and all the bizarre people really wear you down. Boston is really the perfect place to be a writer.

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M: Word association: “Hemingway”?

B: Amazing writer, with the ability to tell a story with as few words as possible.

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M: Boston celebrities aren’t even celebrities in the traditional sense — they’re usually pro athletes, comedians and literary types, with the occasional Wahlberg or Affleck throw in. And right now, the biggest literary celebs have to be Dennis Lehane and you. So my not so dead serious question is: how much will you pay me to arrange a little “accident” for Lehane so you can get his movie deals?

B: I love Lehane. I’ve gotten to hang out with him a bit, and I’ve always been a huge fan of his, so that’s been really incredible. I went to a Sox game with him, and he’s very down to earth. A truly great talent. I’m just happy having my name mentioned in the same sentence as his.

 —

M: If you were to have a tabloid rivalry with any writer living or dead – a la Vidal vs. Mailer, or Oasis vs. Blur – who would you want it be and why?

B: Janet Maslin, certainly. Man, she hates me. Or loves to hate me.

But I do always look forward to her reviews. They are written with such gusto, I can’t help but enjoy them.

 

M: You’ve written thirteen books. But some might not know that only seven have been non-fiction, and two sci-fi books (SKEPTIC; THE CARRIER) were even written by “Holden Scott.” Where’s your thriller-writing alter ego these days?

B: I just sold a big book/movie project with Brett Ratner producing, to 20th Century Fox, which will be a series of thrillers a la the Da Vinci Code/Indiana Jones about the Seven Wonders of the World, so I’ll be returning to thrillers with that book. I also have a big children’s book coming out next summer, which is also fiction.

M: What lessons do you hope to pass down to your two kids (that don’t involve counting cards and/or being fugitives from justice)?

B: They should do what makes them happy, and hopefully what makes them happy also makes enough other people happy to give them a good living.

M: What’s been the best and worst (if there is one) part of your interaction with Hollywood?

B: I’ve been very lucky. Having great people involved with a project protects it to some extent, so I’ve been fortunate to have people I respect making my movies. The worst part of moviemaking is the waiting — it takes forever to get a movie made, and so many things have to fall into place for it to really happen. You get close again and again, and you have to not think about it because it’ll drive you crazy. When it does happen, it’s like lightning striking — it affects every aspect of your life.

 

M: You and I have a common passion – the Prudential Mall food court. I ate there a ton when I lived/worked in Boston (by “ate” I mean “mainlined free Paradise Bakery chocolate chip cookies”) and you spend an inordinate amount of time there. Is that your Fortress of Solitude where you get most of your writing done?

B: I love the Pru food court, I have over 1,000 checks on my frequent sandwich card at Paradise. My wife likes the new Chilean place and my kid loves Regina Pizza and the chicken place. I write in my office in the Back Bay, but also in hotels. I wrote BDTH in Vegas staying at a different hotel every night.

M: Who is the best man you know? And what, in your mind, defines a good man?

B: My dad, definitely, he has a very clear view of right and wrong and an incredibly strong personality and work ethic. A good man tries to do the right thing as often as possible, but also has a great sense of humor.

 —

M: Finally, to thank you for enduring these questions, next time I’m in town can I buy you some Chacarero? Panda Express? Some ColdStone for the kiddos?

B: Maybe Qdoba! But you won’t get off that cheap — you have to bring us to Mistral for a damn good meal.

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About Mark St. Amant

Mark St. Amant is the author of two books published by Scribner, Committed: Confessions of a Fantasy Football Junkie, and Just Kick it: Tales of an Underdog, Over-Age, Out-of-Place Semi-Pro Football Player. He’s also an award-winning, 20-plus-year advertising Creative Director, and a founding partner of new Boulder, CO agency, Grenadier. Follow him on Twitter.

Comments

  1. Straight Flush has been the first book of Ben’s I’ve read, and I’m eternally glad for the interview transcripted here: “Hunter S Thompson” – I knew it. Being an HST fan myself I couldn’t help but think that this fast paced book, revolving around wild times, and revolving around the fuzzy edges of the “Truth” was a lot like reading early HST – what a pleasure! Listening to him talk on the Book report radio show also confirmed my likeness for the guy – unassuming dude that goes along his own way doing exactly what he wants to be doing – writing. Thank for the interview.

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