Does the world need two books this year about Elon Musk?
Biographer Walter Isaacson came out with his 688-page tome “Elon Musk” in September. Now comes Newton author Ben Mezrich, who describes his contribution — “Breaking Twitter: Elon Musk and the Most Controversial Corporate Takeover in History” — as the “book Elon does not want you to read.”
Mezrich is this week’s guest on the Globe’s Say More podcast with Shirley Leung. Listen at globe.com/saymore, and wherever you find your podcasts.
Isaacson had unprecedented access to Musk — the CEO of electric vehicle giant Tesla and rocket maker SpaceX, and now owner of X, the social media company formerly known as Twitter. Mezrich did not, but that doesn’t make his 336-page book any less relevant in understanding the billionaire whose purchase of Twitter in 2022 might be his undoing.
Fans of Mezrich — this is his 25th book — will recognize his jaunty, narrative nonfiction style, which Hollywood loves. Mezrich said that “Breaking Twitter” has already been optioned and will be made into a limited series.
Here are condensed excerpts from the podcast:
How long have you been watching Elon Musk and thinking he’d make a fantastic book?
I’ve been a fan of Elon’s for a very long time. Many years ago when Tesla was first getting its legs going, I always thought of him as this incredibly brilliant Edison-like figure who is driving us towards the future. I’d reach out to Elon many times over the years saying, ‘Oh, you know, I should write your book.’
So when did you think, ‘I need to write a book about him now’?
He takes over Twitter and very quickly things spiral out of control, both for the site and for Elon personally. Here’s a movie unfolding in front of us. What I do is I look for cinematic true stories. I would never set out even to write a book if I didn’t think it could live as a movie or a television show. I did start getting calls from Hollywood. That’s when I jumped in.
How would you describe Musk as a literary character?
He’s broken. The tagline of my book is: Elon Musk didn’t just break Twitter. Twitter broke Elon Musk. Everything we thought of Elon before no longer applies. This is a character who is larger than life, who was changing the world for the better, who got caught up in something he couldn’t control. He is failing for the first time in his life and career. It’s not at all the character of Walter Isaacson’s book. It’s really someone much more dramatic, Shakespearean and dark.
Speaking of Walter Isaacson, what did you think of his book on Elon Musk?
Walter is the biographer of our time, a wonderful writer who writes these big stories about really important people like Da Vinci, Einstein, and Steve Jobs. He chose to write about Elon before Elon took over Twitter. He was given incredible access and was writing the giant, glowing, encyclopedic biography you would expect from Walter Isaacson. Then Elon took over Twitter, and instead of Walter realizing, in my opinion, what is happening here and how this eclipses everything else, he sticks it in as a chapter or two at the end of the book.
That’s where your book picks up, right?
Yes. It’s really the book Elon does not want you to read. He’s turned one of the greatest brands that we’ve ever had into a cesspool. You look at Twitter today — X as it’s called — and it’s just hate. It’s outrage. It’s lies. It’s antisemitism, it’s racism. And this was supposed to be this beacon of truth, this global town hall.
So what happened to Musk? He created Tesla, an incredibly successful electric vehicle company. He has SpaceX and wants to send people to Mars. Then, in the last year, we have a completely different view of him as the owner of Twitter.
He came in with good intentions. He really believed that there was something wrong with Twitter, that Twitter was over-moderating conservative voices, that it was being taken over by what he called a “woke mind virus,” and he believed we’re in this window of time where we could get to Mars.
If Twitter became this place of suppressing free speech, it would throw us into the dark ages. It’s kind of a convoluted reason to take [over] Twitter, but that really was his reason. Then he takes over and realizes he’s paying way too much. He makes them a huge offer. They sue him because he tries to get out of the deal. He can’t fight the suit so he walks into Twitter angry, fires all the people there with cause so he doesn’t have to pay their bonuses, and starts burning things to the ground.
He retweets a conspiracy tweet about Paul Pelosi getting beaten up with a hammer, suggesting it was a gay tryst gone bad. And this immediately starts to chase away advertisers who are already skittish. And things spiral from there.
Why didn’t we see this side of Elon when he was running Tesla or SpaceX?
He thought when he walked in that you could engineer free speech, that this was as simple as building a rocket ship. The reality is that social media and free speech is way harder than building rockets. It involves people. Plus, Twitter is incredibly public. It’s a megaphone to the world.
A lot of what went on at Tesla was very dramatic. There were firings at the table, but not out in the open, and it didn’t involve social media. When the CEO of Tesla says something to his employees that might be bad, it doesn’t really change the value of Tesla. But when the CEO of Twitter tweets out something antisemitic, it’s going to affect Twitter.
Do you think Musk regrets buying Twitter?
100 percent. Elon reaches a point in the book, and this was something that I reported for the first time: He ended up so despondent after he tweeted a poll saying, “Should I stay CEO of Twitter?” And the poll came back, no, which totally shocked him.
He ended up locking himself up for a day in a conference room. People at Twitter were so concerned that they were going to call in a wellness check with the San Francisco Police Department. He was trying to kill himself. He 100 percent knows that this was not where he’s supposed to be. It destroyed his reputation.
I want to switch gears to talk a little bit about the craft. So you’re not quite a journalist, but you report, and you write true stories. So how do you describe the category of writing that you’re in?
I write narrative nonfiction that is cinematic. So my goal every time I set out to write a book is that it becomes a movie or a television show. I’m writing movies and TV as if they are books, or I’m writing books as if they are movies. They’re true stories.
I do all the interviews, I research, and I spend as much time with the characters as I can. Then I write it like you’re watching a movie. In some ways, I am a journalist. In other ways, I’m sort of more of the Hunter Thompson type…but without the guns and the drugs and the suicide.
So why not just be a screenwriter?
I grew up reading books. I love the idea of books. People should read books. And honestly, a screenplay is so limiting. The writer of a movie is only one little piece of a movie. I want to be the writer and the director and the actor, and to do that, I need to write the book.
You’ve already sold the rights to the book to be made into a series. Who do you think should play Elon?
Well, I would love Ben Affleck. He’s a perfect Elon. He’s big. He’s a wonderful actor. We’ve been talking about Sacha Baron Cohen. He would be amazing.
What’s next for you?
My book “Once Upon a Time in Russia,” it’s going to be a show on Netflix. It’s actually going to be Peter Morgan’s next show after “The Crown.” My book “Woolly” is being made into a movie. But I don’t have my next big book yet.
An obvious subject is convicted cryptocurrency king Sam Bankman-Fried.
Unfortunately, Michael Lewis got there first. I know [Bankman-Fried]. I had his phone number. I was ready to go. I called up my agent. My agent happens to also be Walter Isaacson’s agent and Michael Lewis’s agent.
And I said to my agent, “Hey, you know, I think I should do this SBF story.” And he was just silent, and I was like, “Oh, is Michael doing it?” And he’s like, “Yeah, Michael’s doing it.”
How do you go about searching for topics?
I’ve always got my eyes open. I get a lot of phone calls from Hollywood. Directors will call me, actors will call me, say, “Hey, have you looked at this story?” Living in Boston is actually a wonderful place for stories because there’s so many young, brilliant people. Everything kind of intersects through here.
I’m always a little nervous when I finish a book because it’s like, “When will that next story strike?” It has to be big. It has to be “Jurassic Park”-level big. I’ll find something in the next month or two.
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Shirley Leung is a Business columnist and host of the Globe Opinion podcast “Say More with Shirley Leung.” Find the podcast on Apple, Spotify, and globe.com/saymore.
Shirley Leung is a Business columnist. She can be reached at email@example.com.