tv Book Discussion on Once Upon a Time in Russia CSPAN October 11, 2015 11:15pm-12:05am EDT
and the billionaires who seized these opportunities. packed with corruption and car bombs, this reads like a fast-paced fictional thriller but it is all the more important because it is true. ben mezrich is the author of exchange books including the accidental billionaires which was adopted into the film called social networks. he has made countless television appearances as guest and host. doesn't, no surprise that several of his other books are being produced for film and television including once upon a time in russia.
please welcome ben mezrich. >> hello everybody, thank you for coming out on a friday night. it's getting getting a little chilly but it's still nice out and i appreciate everyone coming on a friday night. i will get to once upon a time in russia in just a few minutes but i know whenever i go see a band i always hate it when they never play the hits. i want to do a little bit of the hits first and how i got to the story. i never set out to be a nonfiction writer or a journalist. as a kid i always hated nonfiction and i didn't read much of it. i was obsessed with television and bad tv like say by the bell m3's company and all of that crap. my parents, fearing the worst, made a rule at home that we had to read two books a week before we were allowed to watch tv. so at a very young age i became a speed reader so i could watch tv. i watched everything. by the time i graduated from college i knew i wanted to be a
writer. i wrote and i wrote and i wrote nine novels in a year. i don't recommend that for anyone here that wants to be a writer. i got rejected by everyone in publishing. i had 190 rejection slips take to all my walls. i looked like a serial killer in my apartment. i was even rejected by a janitor the janitor took it out of the garbage and then rejected me. i wasn't really getting anywhere. eventually and editor took pity and said go read john grisham and come back any year. i read all these thrillers and i decided i would write a thriller. this was the don of er and my dad is a doctor so i decided to
write a medical thriller. that led to a second book called reaper. it was a book about a computer that people started getting sick from their computer. i hope number none of you have ever seen it. sorry to the underwear model from melrose place. he played a surgeon which was very believable casting. there was a great scene in the movie that i remember watching with my dad. there's a scene where he is leaning over the patient's chest and he said we have a hematoma. he said you know that's in the head, right? i ended up writing for the x-files. i i wrote a book called skin about a skin transplant gone bad and they investigated and the
skin came from a murderer and then he started murdering people and he follows the skin all the way back to thailand. that's what i was writing. then i would hang out at a bar called crossroads in boston and i was introduced to this group of mit kids. they were these regular geeky mit kids but they will have a lot of money. it was all 100-dollar bills. in boston you don't see 100-dollar bills often. so i said why do you have so much money. he took me to his house and in his laundry there were $250,000 in stacks of 100's. he was geeky and nice and he was asian. i thought he must've been a drug dealer but i didn't think there were asian drug dealers p he was just a nice kid.
six of his friends flew with me to vegas. there was a limo and they took us to this huge suite. the kids pretended they didn't know each other. they walk into the room and they start piling up money and they had $100 million in cash. they said we are the mit blackjack team. i had heard of this but the reality is this had been going on in secret for 25 years. one group of students would train the next group of students who train the next group of students. this group had one $6 million of playing blackjack. i was blown away and i wrote the story which became my book which became the movie 21. that took me to the next page where i was waiting for the movie to come out we were going to have a a big premier. i got a rdom e-mail in the middle of the night and it said my best friend founded facebook and nobody ever heard of him. i thought that was a cool email to get. i said i'll go meet this guy. i went to a bar in boston and in walks the social network
founder. he looked like a dog who had been kicked and he stopped the conversation by saying mark to zach or berg screwed me. that's to start a conversation. i was immediately intrigued and he told me the whole story that they weren't good at meeting girls and they were kind of geeky. they were both kind of geeky and they wanted to be members of the finals club at harvard. ed wardle got into one of them but mark couldn't. he went on a date and the date didn't go well. he hacked into the computers of harvard and made a website where you can compare the girls to see which one was hotter. you could also compare them to farm animals. when he got in trouble for it he had a snarky comeback. he got in big trouble and then caught the attention of other
developers. you couldn't make this stuff up if you wanted to. they say if you turn 30 and you haven't made your first million, they give you a million dollars. i don't think that is true but it's cool. they were working on the harvard connection.com and it was a website to help harvard girls meet harvard men. this was their plan. i remember meeting them for the first time in a hotel room. they were really good looking guys and they turned me and said you look at us and you think we must be the bad guys in the story. if this was an 80s movie we would be dressed up as karate skeletons chasing the karate kid down the gym. after the movie came out, ralph dimaggio called me up.
they hired mark as their geek. mark didn't think much of their idea but he'd love hanging out with the cool kids on campus so he was excited to do that. he pretended to work with them and he went to his friend and told him about the idea. it's just two guys in a dorm room there's no legal contracts. they build the facebook and it becomes thing in the world. mark moves out to california where he meets sean parker. sean parker joins the party. they start building the company
and edward o feels like he's being left behind. so he freezes the bank account. he gives them half $1 million in size who is this guy who gives you a half-million dollars. they decided to get rid of him. he shows up in california and they tell him sign these document and he sues facebook. the other brothers sue facebook. that's when i came into the story. i thought this was a great story so i wrote a book about it and i sent it to my agent and it leaked onto the internet onto a website called gawker.com. everything went crazy at once. facebook tried to settle with him. they sent him a settlement agreement which gave him $4 billion.
and part of the agreement said you may never speak to ben mezrich again. my parents are here and i'm pretty sure for $4 billion they would consider never talking to me again as well. >> he broke he broke up with a girl he was dating and moved to singapore and was never heard from again. they said what are you writing. they couldn't control what i was going to write and they knew the brothers were talking to me and they didn't like them either. then they sought on mine and they said i want this to be my next movie. i was so excited except i hadn't written the book yet. so i lock myself in my room and i wrote and wrote and wrote for three months. then he came out and wrote the screenplay in three months after that. throughout this whole story, i had made a friend.
he was a producer and did hercules and the rush hour movies. he's an interesting guy. he was a producer on 21. he almost directed it. over the years he always pitched me things. one of them was about drug dealers and all these dangerous and scary things. on a scale of one to 10i said how dangerous is the story? he said it's an eight. i said i don't want to do and eight, i want to do is for. two years ago he calls me up out of the blue and said been there some people in london i want you to me. i said who are they. i said i'm not going to tell you they are. come to london and i have a story to tell. so i flew to london the next day. i flew all the way to london and i show up but the bar and there's tons of security. there's men and suits and cars and four limos out front. everybody's got guns. it looked really scary. i walk into this bar and there
is a russian oligarch and a lot of other russian people and immediately i say no way. i don't want to do this. i don't know anything about russia. this is to big for me. i write about bacchus and facebook. these guys are a little scary. they start to tell me this incredible story about russia. i was blown away by it. it was everything i looked for, exotic, money, the biggest creation of wealth in the history of the world, really, and i was really, really into it. i decided i have to write the story pi worked on on this book over the course of the year with them. they love that movie of social network and they said if anybody's going to tell our story will be the guy who wrote that. a cap meeting with them and eventually we sold the movie and the book simultaneously. so it will be a movie as well.
i don't know how many people know about russia. it really takes place in the 90s when communism fell and capitalism was placed there. it was forced into place into a society who didn't have capitalism before. the president of russia was ranking and dying throughout his presidency. he was worried about communism coming back. his idea and the people around him, thought that if we could quickly privatize the whole country and forced capitalism here by giving away most of the assets of the country to other people, if all the businesses are private, communism goes away. that was really his idea. they handed the country away to these very ambitious men who came from nowhere. the main character of this book is a guy named boris berezovsky. he was a mathematician, an outsider, he was jewish and
wasn't allowed to go to regular schools or regular jobs because of his after the city. ethnicity. he was a car buyer. he would buy a car and say i'll pay you a year prior now. he built a massive fortune this way. he had car dealerships all over the country. in 1994 he was a big businessman and got into his limo and his limo was blown up. someone attempted to assassinate him. his driver was decapitated and he was burned but he survived. at that moment he decided the only way to be safe is to be a politician as well as a businessman. he became a billionaire by worming his way into the kremlin
and worming his way into the family. roman abramovich is the other main character. he comes to the story a little bit later. they meet on a yacht in the caribbean. he is a toy maker from siberia. he has an idea of privatizing the oil industry. they go and partner up. there's no shares, there's no lawyers but they create the second largest oil company. in exchange, roman abramovich makes this huge payoff. boris berezovsky would call and they would send over this huge suitcase of cash. that was their relationship. that is kind of the beginning of the story. once they get bigger and bigger and bigger, then the president
starts to fade. he is starting to die. at this .7 oligarchs control russia. these seven men owned most of the country. they decided we need to install someone who is the next president who we can control. somebody who is a low-level guy who we can groom and then we own the country. so they found a guy name vladimir putin. he was not a high-level guy. he was the mayor of st. petersburg. he set up a car dealership. that's how boris berezovsky knew him. they thought he was a very loyal man. they basically installed him as president. the previous president handed the seat to him. the oligarchs had made a miscalculation.
vladimir putin was not a weak man. the minute he became president he invited them to stalin's old house. all of the oligarchs who were billionaires were sat at a table and he came in front of them and said you've all done very well, you've made a lot of money, you can keep your money, just a out of my way. that was the beginning of the change in everything. some of the oligarchs said you're okay but some said no. boris berezovsky was one of them. he went against vladimir putin. he used a television station to go against him. vladimir putin decided he needed to get rid of boris berezovsky so he went into the news and said the oligarchs who rule this
country are going to be put in jail. so boris berezovsky fled to london. he handed him a huge sum of money and said let's end our relationship, here's your money, were no longer partners. boris berezovsky took the money at the time but then decided it wasn't enough. he then sued roman abramovich in england, the largest lawsuit in history for $5.6 billion. that lawsuit ended with boris berezovsky losing in a horrible fashion. i don't want to give away the ending of the book, i know some people know it, i will say one person ended up hanging from a bathtub dead.
the other character i haven't gotten into yet is victor. he was a kcb agent who when boris berezovsky was almost murdered, he was his security guy. shortly thereafter, he was given an order by his own boss to murder tran four. he went public. he said we need to clean up the kcb g. he was -- no one yet has been proven guilty of that. on his deathbed he blamed the vladimir putin personally. there is a lot of mystery over what really happened to him and a lot of that is discussed in the book.
it was kind of a linchpin to everything that happened in the story. this is a pretty cool and big story for me. i talked to my story and said this is kind of my first adult book. i was doing a bbc interview the other day. and they were asking big questions. before i open it up to questions i want to read a little bit so you get a taste. this is from -- november 2, 2006. silvery dust, no bigger than a grain of sand suspended in a microscopic gel. this existed all of nature in plant and soil and human cell. but at this form in this way could only be created in process in a handful of laboratories.
a molecule like this is so rare that only three nations have the ability to manufacture it. it's spectacularly uncommon and wasn't discovered until the 19th century. she had found herself so intrigued that she named it after the country of her birth. they grew together into an atomic cloud. alpha particles swell and buy a pair of neutrons and a pair of protons. yet within the confines of the human body, it leaves a cloud of devastating powder anywhere from the ability to dress troy every cell it touched.
as they go into the stomach and into the gastric pit, ripping the cells apart and on it went through the dying stomach lining. into the bloodstream, spreading to each and every organ one by one, the lid of her, the kidney, this again. and eventually the heart. one fleck of silvery dust through the body of the man as he sweat next to his ballroom dancer in the suburb of north london. >> that is a scene. thank you very much. dad, i hope i got the anatomy correct as i went through the body. i'll open it up for questions at this point.
don't feel shy. >> so mark and i have a complicated relationship. i spent six months trying to get him to talk to me about the book and he didn't want to. eventually, when the movie came out, he kind of liked it. his tune changed a little bit. i know sharon sandberg. she's a wonderful person. i went to college with her. i thought she was going to be mad at me but she said we were mad at you for a year, but then in the end we decided to embrace it and everything worked out. then i was at a dinner with with the number ten employee at facebook and i said does mark kate me? he texted mark right there and mark started making jokes and everything was fine. i don't believe mark hates me anymore. they would say ben mezrich is
the jackie collins. >> i think the movie ended up making him look very good. i think it helped facebook a lot in the and, everyone did well. the book club came out and there were a couple articles that came out and it was the one book that will never be on the facebook book club. i have nothing against the guy. >> i had heard that many of them had been high ranking bureaucrats in the industry and the anarchy that occurred, they were able to seize these companies. your description seems to be
against that idea. >> there were two types of oligarchs. there were a handful of people who were red directors who ran state sanctioned companies. his daughter, tatiana, who was a very important part of his life and made decisions for him, she was like a party girl and knew everyone in the social scene in russia. she was handpicking people to move in to these companies. a lot of her friends were people from nowhere. most of the oligarchs turned out to be outsiders and not red directors. almost all of the oligarchs were jewish, people who were not in the party because they were jewish and not allowed to be a part of that. if you look at the oligarchs and their names, it's hard to find one that wasn't jewish. the ones who made it were not people who are in the government beforehand.
>> in some ways i'm very impressed by these people. i know some of them were bad guys and there were a lot of bodies along the way. but in the end, they they were people who came from nothing. they were they weren't people who had everything handed to them. >> what you think vladimir putin thinks of your book. >> i heard he may have a copy of it. this is a little controversial, this is probably the most pro-vladimir putin book that you are going to read because in the scope of the story, he is not a bad guy. what was going on in russia with this chaos and turbulence where these men were walking away with huge fortunes and russian people were being destroyed by this.
their resources were being taken away by this handful of men. when he took over, he said i am going to try and fix this country. his goal originally was to stop the corruption. he was going to be the only one who would make these decisions. he basically took down the whole oligarch system single-handedly. what happened "after words" was a pyramid from the top. his goal initially was actually very pro- russia and pro his people. people underestimated him from the beginning. he was loyal but what he was loyal to was the idea of russia, the idea of this strong nation. i know that's a little controversial because people do see vladimir putin in different ways. i do agree, a lot of what he does is horrible, but in the scope of the story, it is not a negative portrayal. >> i i don't know what he is
going to think about it. i don't know if it will come out in russia. >> i don't know how this book will fit into the trial going on in london. >> i'm in a wait and see what he thinks. if i get a phone call -- i will say the phone rings and brett gets on the phone and it said we just got invited by vladimir putin and where to go tomorrow. >> i said no identical go tomorrow. >> he kept this up for 20 minutes on the phone and finally i'm sweating and he says i'm kidding. in the end, i think it will be well received. boris berezovsky was seen as a demon in russia. people hated him for various reasons and vladimir putin really hated him. toward the end he was a despondent, miserable individual
who was suicidal and fell apart. he wrote a letter to vladimir putin on his last days and it said i'm sorry, let me come back to russia and i'll just teach math and stay away. vladimir putin never responded to his letter. >> anybody else? maybe you can answer this question, but is vladimir putin the head of the russian mafia? >> that's a great question and i really can't answer. the story is not about the mafia i think there is really a distinction between oligarchs and the mafia. these are men who built big businesses but they are two separate institutions.
two equate the oligarchs to the mafia is a very different thing. vladimir putin at this point is one of the wealthiest man in russia. people say he is probably the ultimate oligarch at this point. the others are considered to be his cash register. when they want something like a olympics, olympics, they pay for it. >> he's a president and a leader and he has built it like a peer amid right now. i would make a distinction between the mafia and the oligarch. >> from the research you did on this book, do you think vladimir putin will be president until his death? >> great question. i been getting asked that a lot. people are like all these sanctions that were doing, will that forced the oligarchs to take out pollutant vladimir
putin? vladimir putin is above the oligarchs now. it's not a question of whether the oligarch will take out vladimir putin, it's the other way around. he is incredibly popular leader. his popularity is way more than any president we have ever had. he is very strong and wrestling bears and winning hockey games. russia is a place where people like strength. they have horrible winters and they look at strength is something that's very important to them. i don't think he will be hurt by
the sanctions are as much of these people want him to be. i think he will stay until he doesn't want to be there anymore. i'm not the expert, there are better people to ask that question. i don't want to say that i'm an expert on this. my opinion is that he will remain president. i could be wrong. >> how much of your research did you do in russia? it sounds like it is london-based. now that you've written the book, even for a journalist to go to russia to be dangerous. >> everything is in london much. i had a lot of people there and i got a hold of thousands of pages of court documents. all these depositions from the trial the trial of boris berezovsky is documented. most of my research is that in
the subjects living in london. i don't look at this as a dangerous project because what i wrote and when you read it, it's a thriller. it really is like a god father meets james bond kind of book. i'm sure the new york times will have other things to say because it is written as a thriller and not a russian history. it reads like a movie in a lot of ways. we did have a fun meeting and he said are we going to get killed for writing this?? and he said you watch too many movies. and brett said what if we say the wrong thing? and he said don't say the wrong thing. [laughter] was an open situation. they were telling a story of something that happened, the same way people love the sopranos, i think people will like this book. nobody comes out bad. everybody has a sympathetic
character in a way and i wasn't trying to uncover things that were hidden or negative or smoking gun. you have to read it and tell me if you think it was a scary thing to write. i wrote it like a thriller, like my other thrillers. i think the fact that i sit on that bridge and i write nonfiction but i write it like a thriller, i write books that i like movies, it's the kind of situation where i can tell a true story in a positive way. it's hard for me to tell you
whether or not someone will like it or not. >> is the research that a writer does on something like this, how much of your research guides your story and how much of your story guides your research and when do you know you have enough? >> that is a great question. when do you know you have enough i have friends who are writers who spent ten years because they don't feel like they have enough i always feel like i have enough. when i sit down to write a a story like this, the way that it starts is a main character telling me his story. i really sit down with him and i let him talk. he talks until he told me the story. then i go back and i outline it. i come up with an outline structure. it's a true story but i fit it into a three act structure. you will find that all real life actually fits the movie structure. you start off, you want something and there's obstacles and then suddenly something horrible happens and it leads
you into the second act and then something really big happens and you see the ending and you make it. that's the thing that happens in all of life. we all live through that. basically i go through it and i break it into a three act system then i decide what i need to know and that's when the research section begins. my wife gets very involved and she helps me research it. we get all the information together. i get all the court documents which is usually very helpful. in this case i was at a meeting with a bunch of russians and i was standing there in a very large man walked up behind me and put his hand in my pocket. i was like well, what are you doing and he said don't look until you get back to your hotel. i went back to my hotel and i
get back and i take it out and it was a computer key card. i take it out and it was 1000 pages of court documents. i didn't know what it was her if i was supposed to have it and now i have to fly back to the u.s. with it. i have a lawyer on call just in case something happened. it was this amazing resource that i had. i flew back. when i was writing the facebook story, a similar thing happened. i won't say who but i was in a dark alley and somebody handed me this much court documentation. you get things because people want to tell their story. you get a hold of everything you can. you have thousands and thousands of pages and you sit down and you start writing. once i start writing i'm done with research. how i know i have enough pressure mike i want to have enough color in every scene. sometimes that means what color was the couch in that room. they always are like why you
asking me that. i want to get that specific because i'm trying to re-describe something that happened ten years ago. once i feel like i can draw every single scene, i start writing and i don't research again. even if i'm missing things i'll finish the book. even if i'm missing things i keep going and then i go back and look into it. this is a much bigger story in some ways. that is my process. >> i don't necessarily think all writers work the same way. for me i've never spent more than six months on a a book so this was a very different experience for me. >> how did you choose the characters that you put in the
book? >> it was based on who wanted to tell me their story. this was the story that i had. i also think there's this incredible drama between these men. he was a very complicated and complex individual. then you also have this guy from nowhere who builds an empire and suddenly the young dashing guy has to say goodbye to the older guy. i think that it is an amazing kind of thing to base a story on. i do think it's a good story. i don't know much about it but i'm not a political person. i'm not writing a a protest book. i'm writing a thriller that takes place in a certain area. the oligarchs are buried. when i approach this book i knew it was a vast subject but i'm not going to write a vast book. i'm going to write this thriller that takes place in this setting. hopefully through the story you
will learn a lot about everything. there really for main characters and those are the main characters and you see it from all their points of view. in a lot of paces i have to figure out what their point of view might be. >> do you have any idea will be her next project? >> i do. i have four movies in the development stages. i wrote a book called seven wonders which is an indiana jones style thriller which is being made by fox and i wrote a book called sex on the moon which is being made into a movie as well. i just sold a new project which
was going to be my book and movie next called the 37th parallel. i haven't talked much about that story. it's similar to close encounters of the third kind but it's true. it's about a guy in colorado who was a sheriff deputy who became obsessed with ufos. it's not about ufos but he had a family and gets in an rv and starts going to these ufo sites in his off time. he kind of uncovered something really strange. it's really wild and i don't ago too much into it because it's a secret at this point but the book is due in october. it will come out next june. any other questions you asked if i sleep. i also have two little kids so no, i don't sleep. it's weird. i always look back and think how did i write this book, when when did i write this book. and sometimes i'm like i don't remember writing the scene. we always joke, it's like the
movie big eyes where she writes the books and i take credit for it. i think it just happens as i go. i've learned to write very, very quickly. i think it dates back to my speed reading to watch bad tv. i still like bad tv and i like to write quickly and i write 14 pages a day. if it takes 14 hours i write 14 hours. i always try and write the same amount of pages. i think that's how young writers should go at it. don't think about time, think about about pages. you can take a year to write two pages or you can write two pages in a minute. it all depends on how you're doing with the book. don't think about it as i'm gonna sit here until i finish it i think that ends up working but i i don't know. somehow it ends up happening. i do sit in a room a lot. there's not a lot of glamour in the writing process.
there is a lot of hours sitting in the room. but, it works. so far so good. how much rewriting do you do? >> i will say over the years it has changed. i don't really rewrite. when i finish the book it's finished. i sent it to the editor and they might have a couple comments but usually there are no changes. there really haven't been any changes to my books when i hand them in. the process of writing for me involves a lot of thinking. i've been doing a lot of dictation writing using dictation software. i wrote about 50% of of all of my books by dictating them. the software is not great but what it forces you to do is fix the mistakes and then you're kind of rewriting as you go back through it.
i have a friend who's a writer, we lived together for many years. he and i are the exact opposite types of writers. he takes ten years to write a book and he hates everything he does. he feels miserable about it and he's a genius by the way. he finishes it and he hates it. he writes a thousand pages. he handed in a book that was 6000 pages. the editor said what the hell am i going to do with this. he cut it down to 1000 pages and it's brilliant and he hates it. i love everything i do. he calls me delusional. he calls me a delusional writer and i call him a pessimistic writer. our systems are very, very different and i think it has to
do with our upbringing. my parents with the jewish upbringing always said i was great. if i would go to class and i wouldn't get in a it was because the test was broken. something is wrong with this test. she would go to the school and yell at the teachers. he said if he took a test and he got something wrong his mom would say work harder. we came out different i guess. scott's a genius and his book is awesome. i will say i've always just written it and said great and sent it off. i've written so many books and i think what happened is i honed myself. most writers write one book nine times. then i wrote six books that didn't go anywhere. i wrote 15 books before this. a lot of times this is like my 25th book. i've i've been writing and writing and writing to get to a point where i know what works. i know exactly what i'm gonna write before i write it so a lot of that probably happens before i write it. >> anybody else?
and now "after words" on booktv. former meet the press moderator david gregory discusses faith and religion in his book "how's your faith" interviewed by sally quinn the founding editor of on faith. >> host: david, tell me how you came to the title of your book, "how's your faith." >> guest: welcome it was a question posed to me by president bush to ask me that question numerous times. i wrote about this in the book before i got the job at meet the press. he had heard through a mutual friend that i was studying with, someone we both know, erica brown, developers caller --
biblical scholar -- but i was trying to deep in my faith. i have been meeting with him in the oval office and we were talking about the economy, and he was giving advice on how to whether public scrutiny and then he said gregory, how is your faith? every time he asked me to be that question, i found it to be such a penetrating question. i think people find it startling he would ask a reporter covering the white house that question but i never found it inappropriate. there was context, he heard that i was studying. and i said to him i'm studying the bible, i'm trying to deepen my feet and better connect to my wife's restraining tradition i think it can only make me a better husband and father and he shared his own path and talks about being in the bible every day and that it strengthened him and that he has relied on his strength and belief in god to the darkest days in the presidency. so, his own spiritual journey