Sometimes life can be stranger than fiction…even science fiction: a prehistoric fish previously thought to be extinct turns up in a fisherman’s net; a captive female shark has a virgin birth; an ant colony takes over the entire word. When you add human behavior to the mix, things are bound to get a little crazy. Ben Mezrich’s Sex on the Moon is the story of one of the strangest heists in scientific history: a man who stole valuable moon rocks from NASA to place under his mattress to have “sex on the moon” with his girlfriend. Mezrich, perhaps known best for his books The Accidental Billionaires (the inspiration for the movie The Social Network) and Bringing Down the House (the inspiration for the movie 21) recently spoke with me about the unbelievable story behind this great new book.
How did you first learn about Thad Roberts and his heist, and when did you decide that this would make a good book?
Over the years I’ve become the go-to guy for every college kid who pulls off a crazy heist. This time around, it was mutual friends of Thad Roberts’ who contacted me because they were fans of my work. Thad had recently gotten out of prison, so I flew to Utah where he was on probation. It was such an amazing story, full of all the stuff I like to write about, so I knew immediately it would make a killer book and movie.
Was NASA very cooperative while you were writing Sex on the Moon?
No, NASA wasn’t pleased I was writing the book, because this was one of their own who had robbed them, and they had done their best to keep it out of the news. But I still managed to get a deep inside tour of the space center and lots of great sources within the organization.
What about Thad himself? Did you speak with him? Has he read the book?
I spent a year interviewing Thad, as well as many of the other characters in the book. I also got the FBI files, the court documents, etc. Thad liked some of the book, and didn’t like other aspects of it.
I know that Thad had help in the theft. Was it difficult unraveling the story of how this heist went down?
It took a year to get to the real story, to dig into everything I needed to dig into and to find all my sources. It also took a year trying to understand Thad’s motivation. He’s a very complex guy.
While the title of your book indicates that having “sex on the moon” was one factor in the theft of the moon rocks, the fact that Roberts attempted to sell them indicates a financial motive was in play here as well. Was selling the moon rocks an impulse decision? Were the thieves unaware of the lengths that NASA investigators will go to in order to recover specimens?
I think it was a mixture of things. Definitely out of love, but also a little out of money. And yes, Thad thought it was sort of a big college prank, that NASA would be angry but he had no clue it would go down the way it did- 7.5 years in prison is a long, long time.
What led you toward writing nonfiction as opposed to fiction? When did you know that this might be something you could do for a living?
I was a thriller writer, I loved SF growing up and was actually doing ok as a thriller guy- I had published 6 medical thrillers, had written for The X-Files, and had had a tv movie made out of one of my medical thrillers. But then I met the MIT kids in a bar and started hanging out with them, going to vegas every weekend. I was blown away by how cool the story was (which was made into the movie 21), and I decided to write it even though it was true.
What kind of skills are needed to be a good nonfiction author?
You need to be able to get inside a story, to get sources to trust and like you, and to write in a compelling way. You need to be obsessed with the story because you’ll be spending a year, or more, of your life on it.
Are you a fan of any nonfiction authors, past or present? Who do you like?
I love Sebastian Junger, I loved Hunter S. Thomspon, i’m a fan of Michael Lewis.
I’ve got to end this interview on a less than serious note. We’ve heard about Thad Roberts, so what’s the craziest thing you’ve ever done to impress someone you fancied?
Hah, I’ve done plenty of crazy things for love. I’ve taken the same bus route for weeks because I saw a girl I liked getting on it once. I tracked down an impossible to find Beanie Baby for a girl- who eventually became my wife. I even once looked through a Boston phone book because I had the first name of a girl, trying to find her number. I’ve done it all.