For his latest (soon-to-be) bestseller, “Once Upon a Time in Russia: The Rise of the Oligarchs and the Greatest Wealth in History,” Ben Mezrich turns his laser-like gaze to the high-stakes story of two Russian oligarchs. The rise and fall of Boris Berezovsky and Roman Abramovich may seem more like a Robert Ludlum novel than a Ben Mezrich-crafted true-crime account, but Ben, who lives and writes in Boston, covers this new turf like a seasoned foreign correspondent. The author of a dozen books, including “The Accidental Billionaires” (which became the Oscar-winning film “The Social Network”), Ben sat down with our own Carol Beggy just a couple of days after the book’s release to talk about his “first grown up book,” what he learned while researching some of the world’s wealthiest (and most corjrupt) people, and what his next project is going to be. And, yes, he talks about his next Hollywood deal.
(Ed. Note: Ben’s wife, Tonya, is styleboston’s chief fashion correspondent.)
Video produced by V-Neck Media
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Breakfast at The Betsy with literary minds from Miami and Boston—not something you normally associate with South Beach, a sprawling beach community that has become the go to place for everyone from basketballers, rap stars, and winter snowbirds.
How did we end up here?
In December, we had a lovely dinner at the BLT Steak restaurant because my father in law is obsessed with steak, and thought it would be a great kid friendly place to bring the whole family. It was in fact, all of the above. On my way to the ladies room, I noticed a sign on the door which said “Writer’s Room”. A lightbulb went off in my head, my husband was a writer, could he use this writer’s room? I needed to learn more. I headed to the front desk to inquire about more information. The gentleman was very excited to tell me that the owner’s grandfather was a famous poet and because of this, literature and writing were always an important part of his life. He felt that it was important to support other writers-so on April 1st 2012, he developed the Writers in Residence Program at The Betsy, an opportunity for emerging and established writers alike to stay on the premises in a room designed for writing to occur. I toured the room, to see what it was all about, and discovered a well appointed cozy room, with a couch bed, antique desk (that had belonged to the grandfather of the owner), and a brightly lit bathroom with a TV embedded in the mirror. Who knew, maybe TV while you showered was a way to get inspired.
Fast forward two months, the present:
As part of the program, we set up a Literary Breakfast Salon with Ben. The Betsy sent out invitations to their community and within minutes of going live, the breakfast was filled, and they had to close the guest list—something that made us feel proud, because we were told that this has never occurred in the past!
The salon was held in BLT Steak around a long “L” shaped table. Deborah Plutzik-Briggs, sister of The Betsy owner Jonathan Plutzik, and VP of Marketing, Philanthropy and Programs, moderated the Salon, having the over 30 guests in attendance, introduce themselves. We had quite a diverse Salon, from heads of Florida International University, to restauranteurs Seth Greenberg and wife Sasha with the youngest attendee, their 5 month old son; club owner Sharrokh Reza and wife Dianna, to Margaret McNeill of Boston/Fisher Island, who brought Real Housewife friend Adriana DeMoura, and PR agent Olivia Wolff, and of course close Boston friends Adriana Hassan of The Tannery, and Alex Winston and his wife Dr. Daniela.
Everyone had interesting comments and questions for Ben, but the bulk of the conversation centered around Ben’s new book Once Upon a Time in Russia: The Rise of the Oligarchs—A True Story of Ambition, Wealth, Betrayal, and Murder, which is scheduled to be released June 2nd, 2015. For the first time, Ben discussed the process of writing this book, and how book writing is transitioning from a process where the movie idea comes first and then the book follows. This is a stark difference from the past where books were always developed first then movie options were taken, then eventually movies were made (if you were lucky). Sorry, but I have to brag a little about my hubby, because having had two number one box office smash hit feature films made from two of Ben’s books is a feat that no other non-fiction author has accomplished.
Seeing his books transformed into movies was a topic that attendees of the Salon were interested in, as one asked Ben if he was satisfied with how the movies turned out. Ben talked about working with Aaron Sorkin, in Boston at the Four Seasons Hotel, and how a daunting but finally fortuitous leak on gawker.com lead to David Fincher and Sorkin both discovering the project.
Ben also discussed meeting Eduardo Saverin and how at the time he had only known of Facebook because of me. He told the story about how Eduardo eventually signed a contract with Facebook that said he would never speak to him, which lead to his subsequent breakup with my friend, de-friending of us on facebook, and how he subsequently got billions of dollars. He touched on the Winklevi, Sean Parker, and Justin Timberlake.
Guests of the Salon were also intrigued by the way that Ben has always seemed to be able to predict what is going to be “hot”, as in the case of his bestsellers Bringing Down The House, Rigged, and The Social Network. Ben explained that the process of writing a book starts about 2 years before a book is actually published, so a large part of deciphering what is going to be relevant is about picking a subject matter that appeals to him, and also having his pulse on what is going to be hot.
I personally think that the key to being a good writer comes from Ben’s innate ability to observe, decipher and make excellent judgement calls. He describes his ability to write as stemming from his view of the writing as equivalent to what a terminator is in James Cameron’s The Terminator: This is what he does , this is all he does, and he absolutely will not stop.
In medieval times, knights fought the battle between good and evil, light and darkness, right and wrong…today, some young, modern-day knights are facing an even tougher battle.
CALLIE THE CONQUEROR
Callie Herschfield is a tiny wisp of a thing, standing less than five feet tall and weighing only 80 pounds. The 14 year old from Scituate has a soft voice and sweet smile, but don’t let this fool you; she is one tough young lady.
“She’s a warrior,” said Donna Green.
Callie’s “warrior” status isn’t because she’s dressed a little bad-ass this day in a black Aerosmith T-shirt, jeans and black boots, or because she’s wearing funky, oversized aviator sunglasses. It isn’t even because she casually strapped on a helmet and climbed on a big — really big — motorcycle with her dad Ken.
Callie is a warrior because she kicked cancer’s butt — at a place called Magical Moon Farm.
Magical Moon is a 160-year-old farm on five acres of land in Marshfield. Quite literally, it is a magical place where wind chimes echo down the stone path to the butterfly garden and fairy figurines peak out from among the flowers. It’s where massive sunflowers tower over the chicken coop and a lone peacock deigns to live among the many hens and roosters there.
Adding to the mystical scene, towards the back of the farm, up a small incline are twelve brightly colored chairs in a semi-circle in front of a fire pit. The wooden chairs have high backs reminiscent of medieval times – sort of a Knights of the Round Table, but through a child’s eyes.
The property was once a sea captain’s home, then a boarding home, before becoming an auction house, but in it’s latest adaptation, the farm, with its organic gardens and whimsical air, is a haven for children facing cancer; a place where they can feel strong, empowered, and not alone. [huge_it_slider id=”5″]
Donna Green, famed illustrator of an edition of the children’s book classic, The Velveteen Rabbit, bought the property 15 years ago. She was looking for a big barn in which to store her books, what she found when she first saw the place was a huge four-story barn and an even bigger vision of what she must do with the property.
“The property had an essence when I first came here,” she said. “I saw it completely done with orchards and gardens, animals and fun things for kids to do. I envisioned children learning about healthy ways to become survivors of life-threatening diseases and conditions.”
Her vision was to bring sick children here and give them something else to focus on: gardening, writing, music, good food, the arts and learning ways to survive.
She would also invite the child to take on a mission, a project to make the world a better place. The project would help the child focus on something other than chemo, radiation and hair loss. The goal: knighthood and finding their inner strength.
ALISON THE AWESOME
Alison was the child of one of Green’s friends, and the first “knight” of Magical Moon Farm. She was 19 years old and battling leukemia.
“She was a beautiful artist,” said Green. “She felt like my own daughter, I felt like my own soul was inside of her.”
Alison was the inspiration for a beautiful butterfly garden on the farm. Her picture stands at the gate, in her memory. Alison the Awesome became an Angel Knight in 2008.
CALLIE THE CONQUEROR?
“I wasn’t really into it, I didn’t care. I was…not really happy.”
Not exactly a magical reaction to the farm, but an honest one on the part of a sick kid. Callie, then 10 years old, was in the midst of chemotherapy, had no hair and was brought to a farm where she didn’t know anyone.
Slowly, she became part of it. She started working with Green on painting the things she loved. She adored sea life and Green sent her to Woods Hole Oceanographic Institute on Cape Cod to go below with scientists and learn about endangered sea life. Callie got to feed a sea turtle and that was the subject of her first painting. Since that time she’s painted numerous others. She always gravitated to the animals at the farm. “She has a way with animals that is magical,” said Green.
“I would just go there and there would be other people to hang out with, other kids who would make you feel better,” said Callie. “Some of them were sick, some of them were just there. Everyone knows what’s going on but they’re all here to support you.”
Callie’s dad Ken noticed a big transformation in his daughter after she started going to Magical Moon.
“She was young and quiet, (then) I think she got more confident,” he said.
And that is why Callie and her family support Magical Moon Farm, by riding a motorcycle.
On a hot Sunday afternoon, too hot for the end of September, 200 bikers gathered in an Elks Lodge parking lot in Weymouth to take part in a special ride to raise money for the Magical Moon Foundation. Despite 80-degree temperatures, many wore jeans and leather. Black was the popular color and multiple tattoos the norm. On the outside, this looked like one tough crowd, on the inside though, it was all mush. The ride took them past the magical farm they were supporting, where the children waited on the side of the road to cheer them.
Green said the kids at her farm often times feel like misfit toys. “Bikers can be misfit toys too,” said Green. “These big, tough bikers in leather had tears in their eyes.”
Callie the Conqueror rode tall and proud behind her father on that very big bike. She rode to celebrate four years cancer free and also for the other kids at Magical Moon Farm, facing what she faced and hoping to beat it too.
Green has lost some of her knights; you can see the sadness deep in her eyes, but instead of focusing on the sorrow, Green turns it around and teaches her knights-in-training to be strong and to be survivors.
“I focus on the positive, that’s what I tell the children, ‘Focus on the positive, detach from negativity and turn every challenge into an opportunity,’” said Green.
“Yes, it’s difficult, but it’s all about living — it’s not about dying.”
Learn more about The Magical Moon Farm
If you’ve even turned on your TV in the last month you’ve seen the ads with Jason Bateman, Tina Fey and the amazing Jane Fonda hyping the release of the film “This is Where I Leave You.” But the real buzz for this film began months before Jonathan Tropper’s novel of the same name was released.
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