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How to Do Investigative Biographies When Your Subject Won't Talk to You

Fredric Alan Maxwell, Author of Bad Boy Ballmer (William Morrow, 2002), a profile of one of Microsoft's top executives, Stephen Ballmer, born in 1955, who became friends with Bill Gates in his Harvard days.

Transcribed by Shel Horowitz from an interview at Book Expo America, Chicago, June 2004.

It originally started as another book, Rich Kids from Birmingham, about seven kids from my home town, who've since gone on to fame and fortune. Birmingham, Michigan is a small Detroit suburb, population about 20,000.

The seven are Ballmer, his chief rival Scott McNealy, CEO of Sun Microsystems, the journalist Michael Kinsley, and four actors: Laurie Innis from ER, Christine Lahti, Oscar and Emmy winner, Tim Dick, dope dealer who served 28 months, changed his name to Tim Allen, and Robin Williams.

I got 30 rejections from publishers and agents. I ran out of names to call them.

As an author, with regret, to give up a love--you realize it's not going to sell. So what am I going to with a year and a half of research? I decided to concentrate on Ballmer. I took some time off from fine finish work on yachts, wrote the 17-page proposal really quickly.

This was the second book my agent had agented, she said it was fantastic. We fine-tuned the proposal over six weeks. You have battles over words, because every word counts. I was broke and living on a friend's couch; we didn't have a phone. So I got an e-mail at the library, I have an offer, call me. $75,000 for worldwide rights--and I don't think we should accept it. She thought they would go higher. We got $100,000

Before the word went out that he wasn't cooperating, I talked to probably a dozen of his classmates from high school. We'd gone to different schools at the same time. A lot of people talked to me off the record I had a source inside Microsoft, conducted over 15-0 interviews, including with his aunt and uncle. I spent 18 months researching. I went to Harvard Library. There were so many public records, with all the lawsuits. One of the jokes was Microsoft's new application was SueUs. One of their mantras is to ask for forgiveness rather than permission. Ballmer said stuff like "to hell with Janet Reno." I trace that arrogance back to high school, to the petri dish.

I'd written a bunch of articles: Newsweek, Harper's, New Yorker--they did a Small Talk profile on me, December 1992. I've been called a library activist, on a campaign to keep the Library of Congress.

Next book: Steve Jobs. He made $95,000 the first year, $940 million the fifth year. I'm doing Jobs as the artist/CEO. Most businesses don't like artists. As Jobs aged and came back to save the company, he's become more of a businessman. When you have nothing but success and you have so much money at a young age--success teaches you some things, but failure teaches you so much more. Expected from Penguin, spring 2005.

When you have big public figures, they've been targets for so long, there are lawsuits, and so many people have done articles about aspects of their business. You pull on their work and take it farther. The disadvantage of being an investigative reporter is that neither Jobs nor Ballmer will talk to me. Their friends won't talk to me, by proxy.

A lot of it is like writing history. I'm on an interesting angle with a story about my job. Ballmer's father worked under Justice Robert Jackson, the chief prosecutor at Nuremburg. When I got his Nuremburg transcript, I went oh, wow. He had said neither of his parents went to college. Why did he lie about that?

The truly shocking think was that Justice Jackson had headed the Department of Justice's anti-trust division for two years. His great passion was going after German industrialists who conspired with Hitler to block their competition. And 50 years later his son is convicted of the same crime by a different Judge Jackson. That was totally from historical records. I talked to a former Nuremburg prosecutor.

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