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Q&A with alum and author Ethan Lou, author of Once a Bitcoin Miner

By: Ben Shelley
December 13, 2021

Ethan Lou, a 2015 graduate of the School of Journalism, has released his new book, Once a Bitcoin Miner: Scandal and Turmoil in the Cryptocurrency Wild West. The book provides a look into the world of cryptocurrency and also follows Lou’s journey, from discovering Bitcoin to attending a cryptocurrency conference in North Korea, told through a first-person narrative.

Below, Lou answered some questions on Once a Bitcoin Miner.

What made you decide to write this book?

The lazy answer is that I'm a guy who writes books, and this is what I do. But why specifically this book — I feel there are a lot of books about Bitcoin and cryptocurrency that come at it either from a monetary policy or computer science perspective, and not only can that be dry but unwelcoming to the uninitiated. This book is a work of creative nonfiction. It distills the complex topic into a light (but not light-hearted), accessible, and fast-paced narrative, combining the meticulous research of nonfiction and the storycraft and literary style of a novel. It's not overwhelming on the technical stuff, and I think this is just a much easier way into this subject.

Do you think writing a book centred around cryptocurrency through a more human-focused lens helps it appeal to a wider audience?

Yes, but only so. I think even for the hardcore crypto folks, they'll come away from the book having learned something. Among highlights, I was in North Korea in 2019 with Virgil Griffith, the Ethereum executive soon to be sentenced in the United States for teaching blockchain to the totalitarian state. The book offers an exclusive look into what happened in North Korea. At the same time, there is a human-condition aspect to the world of crypto that I think everyone in this world feels but perhaps can't readily articulate, and this is the vehicle for that sentiment.

You've been working on the book for a while - what were some of the biggest challenges you faced in writing it?

The book is an investigative work and features people who don't want to be written about. As journalists, getting comment from people about whom we write is both an ethical and legal requirement. I had to repeatedly make overtures to those I knew disliked me and would not treat me with much courtesy. That was very unconformable — but it was also a necessary uncomfortableness. How a journalist feels in that moment of seeking comment is a reminder of the heavy responsibility of holding sway over people’s lives and reputations—an inverse memento mori of sorts. If the experience is easy and pleasant, you would not remember it.

Did writing the book during COVID have any impact?

So, this wasn't actually written during COVID. It's a funny story. The deal for the book was struck in 2019, and I handed in my manuscript toward the end of that year. It was supposed to be out in fall of 2020. But then COVID-19 hit. I was unexpectedly caught amid the travel disruptions while going to China to see my grandfather, who was dying at the time. That spawned a COVID book, Field Notes from a Pandemic. That was clearly far more timely, so that pushed the Bitcoin book to 2021. 

What can readers expect to take away from the book?

Well, I hope they take away that I'm a damn good writer.

Is there anything you'd like to add about the book or the process of writing it?

Well, I'd expand on that uncomfortableness while seeking comment from people who don't want to be written about. I actually wrote about this in Literary Hub, external link, so I will let that do the talking: "In Game of Thrones, northern customs dictate, “The man who passes the sentence should swing the sword”—to take a life is a serious, drastic move; if you as the liege lord are not willing to bear the discomfort of killing, then perhaps the person before you does not really deserve to die. Similarly, if you’re not willing to look people in the eyes to put forth whatever you’re writing about them, then perhaps their lives do not deserve to be laid out publicly like that. It should be uncomfortable."