The last time most of us heard of the Winklevoss twins—hell, the first time we heard of them—was in David Fincher’s acerbic 2010 movie, The Social Network. You remember: Tyler and Cameron (brilliantly portrayed by Armie Hammer), the righteous blue-blood twins who got screwed over by Mark Zuckerberg. Even if part of you felt bad for them, they were too insolent, too entitled to root for. After all, Zuckerberg’s story is the ultimate revenge-of-the-nerds tale, and the Winklevoss twins were the perfect stooges, the overdog jocks getting their comeuppance.
Well, they’re back—and right in the thick of the bitcoin revolution. You know bitcoin: the thing a fifth-grader can understand but nobody can explain in a way that makes any sense. Well, Esquire tasked Colum McCann, winner of the National Book Award for his 2009 novel, “Let the Great World Spin,” to figure it all out. McCann’s profile of the Winklevoss twins and their contentious place in the bitcoin world headlines Esquire’s new Money Issue.
We asked McCann to shed some light on what drew him to this inscrutable subject and the twin brothers who keeping looking forward, determined to be the masters of their own universe.
Esquire Classic: You write, “This story seems simple on one level, but nothing is ever simple, not even simplification.” What challenges did you face in writing about bitcoin, the online currency that at once seems remarkably easy to grasp but also is really hard to wrap your head around?
Colum McCann: I had no idea what bitcoin was when I first embarked. I was coming from a complete blank slate. I asked a lot of people, but very few were able to make sense of it for me. That’s probably my own lack of agility as much as anything else. But it fascinated me—the secrecy, the claims, the uproar around it. And then there were these two figures, the twins, out there, trying to legitimize bitcoin. They were quintessentially American and they were standing up for this currency, but they had been lambasted in the past. And part of my fascination was about repair.
EC: What drew you to this piece? Bitcoin or the Winklevoss twins?
CM: Originally I wanted to get to know the Winklevoss twins. I had a feeling that they were being maligned in certain circles. It was happening primarily on the web, or at least behind their backs—certainly a lot of the business and cultural people I talked to scoffed at their names. It was as if they didn’t really exist beyond their film representation. I felt that there was something deeper and more legitimate and more sophisticated there. I hope I found it. I at least wanted to embrace their contradictions.
EC: The twins are obviously aware of how they are perceived by the public. Did you get the sense that it really nags at them? Or are they more focused on what’s dead ahead of them?
CM: They are laser-focused on what is ahead of them. They have been burned before and they will be burned again, so they just take the attitude that they will push their own way through the fire.
EC: In one scene in the story, during a bitcoin meet-up at a dive bar some hardcore bitcoin believers told you the Winklevoss twins were phonies who shouldn’t be taken seriously. Do you think there’s credence to that argument, and more than that, do you think bitcoin will last?
CM: I hardly think my judgment counts for much, but I think bitcoin will last. It will shape and shift and help usher in a new era of finance. It might not be the ultimate currency in the end, but its underpinning code—the blockchain—will certainly help revolutionize the financial industry. In fact, this has already begun. People are only waking up to that now. The Winklevosses were in early. They recognized it and gambled on it, so far very successfully. I don’t think they’re phonies at all, but then again, the people in the smoky dive are not phonies either.
EC: This is the second major piece you’ve written for Esquire in the past year. The first, “Treaty,” was a gorgeous short story about torture and forgiveness (available to read free here). How does your writing process differ between fiction and nonfiction?
CM: I’ve often argued that the word fiction is dubious in many ways. Fundamentally it means to shape. And sometimes I find fiction to be “truer” than nonfiction, in the sense that it goes to a textural truth. In this case I was most definitely involved in a journalistic exercise. If the Winklevosses had been characters in a short story, as opposed to a report on the future of money, I would have handled it differently. I started out thirty years ago as a journalist in Dublin, but I think I now prefer the process of fiction.
EC: Were you daunted by the research and reporting required for a story like the Winklevoss profile?
CM: No. I do an awful lot of research for my fiction. I’m a little in awe of the fact-checking afterwards—it’s so meticulous and careful, but necessary too. There is not quite so much fact-checking in fiction.
EC: Do you feel sharper when writing about a subject—like bitcoin—that you come to with an empty slate?
CM: Curiously enough, yes, I do. I bring only the prejudice of my ignorance to the plate.
You can read Colum McCann’s profile of the Winklevoss twins, “Would You Trust These Guys with Your Money?” here, and his short story “Treaty” here. His new collection of short stories is Thirteen Ways of Looking: Fiction.