Two years ago, writer Po Bronson started hanging around with the computer geeks, software marketers and assorted visionaries who populate Silicon Valley. For six months, he was a fly on the digital wall. He sat in on company meetings, interviewed eccentric engineers and mentally downloaded the culture of the country's hottest industry.
Then, before information overload could stifle his creativity, Bronson, '86, set about turning his research into a satirical novel. The result, The First $20 Million Is Always the Hardest, made a national splash when it came out last spring. It's still riding Bay Area best-seller lists, including the Stanford Bookstore's.
The book's depiction of computer biz intrigue seems to be dead-on. More than a few Valley hotshots are sure that certain characters in the book are, well, not entirely fictional. As Time put it last spring, "Half of the San Francisco Bay Area, it seems, is busy playing pin-the-tale-on-the-programmer with pre-release copies of what may turn out to be the Primary Colors of Silicon Valley."
Over lunch at a Middle Eastern restaurant in San Francisco's Haight-Ashbury district, Bronson admits that he's been reveling in what he calls "the name game." But despite its well-crafted verisimilitude, he insists that $20 Million's characters and story are all made up. Sort of. "What's funny is that even people who don't like the book think it's about them," he says, between bites of garlicky baba ghanooj and spinach pie. "But they don't realize that their story is not so unique."
This former econ major's novel turns out to be a retelling of the real-life sagas of thousands of computer start-ups: A group of creative people sets out to build a business on a good idea. Through the zigs and zags of innovation, they stumble on a breakthrough that shakes up the industry. And that's when the silicon sharks start circling.
In Bronsons's comic and suspenseful version of this modern fable, 26-year-old Andy Caspar breaks away from a stodgy computer research center in Stanford's back yard and, with his team of techno- wonks, tries to create a $300 device they dub the VWPC (for Volkswagen personal computer). Their path to digital glory leads straight to mystery, betrayal and way-cool machines.
Bronson has made a specialty of turning the mundane inner workings of business into compelling fiction. In 1995, drawing on a brief stint working for a San Francisco investment bank, he published Bombardiers, a witty satire that laid bare some of the absurdities of Wall Street. It sold big in the United States, Britain and Australia and has since been translated into 13 languages.
But as a San Francisco writer of a certain age--he's 33--it was only a matter of time, he says, before he was drawn into writing about the information age. Most of his writer friends are working for computer magazines or have written books about cyberspace or video gaming. "I felt like, gee, five years from now, if I don't write about this stuff, its hype will be here and gone, and I'll feel like I missed this chance."
Bronson hasn't missed out on much. Besides producing two best-selling novels, he's worked as a high school teacher, founded a greeting card company, published a newsletter on San Francisco politics and worked six years as associate publisher of Mercury House, a small literary publisher in San Francisco. He has also served (since 1991) as chairman of Consortium Book Sales & Distribution, a St. Paul, Minn., independent press book distributor. And his journalism on the intricacies of venture capital and the manic energy of futurist writer George Gilder have lent a touch of literary class to Wired magazine's coverage of the electronic frontier.
Bronson attributes part of his success to his willingness to market himself and his books. His good looks haven't hurt either. One online magazine aimed at teenage girls and young women, www.riotgrrl.com, offers a virtual Po shrine complete with photos. "It's a way to sell books, and it certainly gets my picture in magazines," he says with a slightly embarrassed smile. "I'm a businessman and a bit of a con artist, so I like playing the marketing angles."
But don't get him wrong. Bronson is no cynic. In fact, he's joined a handful of 30-something novelists who are making a conscious effort to avoid the reflexive irony fashionable among young writers. "It's very easy to sort of be a jerk on the page," he says. "It's easy to be cynical. It's different to be funny, to be comic, to make people laugh rather than smirk."
The author has spent a fair amount of time thinking about such things. He put in seven years studying creative writing (part-time) at San Francisco State, receiving an MFA in 1995. But he started writing at Stanford, doing a few columns for the Daily. He was inspired to take up fiction seriously after the 1986 publication of The Golden Gate, a novel in verse by Vikram Seth, MA '79. "He was an econ grad student," Bronson says. "I figured, if he could do it, I could do it--and I did." His first novel, written while he was living with his then girlfriend in New York City in the summer of 1986, has never been published.
These days, Bronson takes a workmanlike approach to his art. He shows up every day at his office, a kind of writers' cooperative dubbed "the Grotto" in San Francisco's South of Market district. The members of the group--which includes novelist Ethan Canin, '82, writer Ethan Watters, writer and monologuist Josh Kornbluth and filmmaker David Munro--bounce ideas and manuscripts off each other. And having a place to go--an official workplace outside the house--somehow makes it easier to get the writing done. "There are days as a writer you just don't get anything done," he says. "But if you go to the office, then at least when you come home you can say to yourself, 'Hey, I went to the office today.' "
Listen to Bronson talk about his work long enough, and you'll catch him referring to writing a novel as "building a book." In fact, he says, his forays into the world of software engineers helped him see some of the connections between building computers and creativity. "A lot of what they do is very similar to what a writer does," he says. "Except, at some point, they know whether or not the software works."
Bronson is already at work researching his next novel, a story of San Francisco immigrants. But you probably haven't heard the last of his Silicon Valley story. He's sold the film rights to director Harold Ramis (of Ghostbusters and Groundhog Day fame). Asked how much those rights fetched, he politely declines to name a figure. He might just say that the first $20 million is always the hardest.