Brad Meltzer Interview by Malcolm Hillgartner
MALCOLM HILLGARTNER: Welcome to Downpour.com’s interview series. I’m Malcolm Hillgartner, and today it’s my pleasure to be speaking with Brad Meltzer. Brad is the #1 New York Times bestselling author of numerous mysteries, thrillers, and nonfiction books, including The Inner Circle, The Fifth Assassin, The Book of Fate, The Book of Lies, Heroes for My Son, Heroes for My Daughter, and more. He is also the #1 bestselling author of the critically acclaimed comic books Identity Crisis and the Eisner Award–winning Justice League of America series. Brad is the host of Brad Meltzer’s Decoded on the History Channel and one of the co-creators of the TV series Jack & Bobby. His latest work is as editor of the Mystery Writers of America Presents The Mystery Box. Blackstone Audio is publishing the audio version simultaneously with the hardcover on April 30, 2013. Welcome Brad. Thanks for joining us today.
BRAD MELTZER: Thank you.
MH: I’ll just start right away with a quick question about your latest project, Mystery Writers of America Presents The Mystery Box. Now, that’s an anthology of twenty-one original stories from today’s prominent mystery writers. Can you tell us a little about the authors and stories included and how you got involved in this project?
BM: Of course. I got suckered is how I got involved. And I mean that in the very best sense. The way you get suckered is when people promise you something’s going to be simple and easy, and the leaders of the Mystery Writers of America, the MWA, which is a wonderful organization for mystery writers across the country—across the world really—puts out an anthology every year of the best short stories written by mystery writers. What they said was, “We need you to come and edit it. You’re going to be our main name editor.” I thought, “What’s the catch?” They said, “It’s going to be really easy.” And I said, “What’s the catch?” They said, “You have to ask your friends.” I thought, “Wait a minute. You’re telling me I don’t have to do the writing, I get the best writers in the world, who are my friends, to do all the heavy lifting, and you’re going to put it all together and put my name on it? Sign me up right here.” And true to their word, it really was their hard work that made it happen, but I got to invite friends like Steve Berry and Laura Lippman and Tom Rob Smith. Even R. L. Stine and Jan Burke, Katherine Neville, Joe Finder and James Born, who are just some of my favorite writers across the country, and all submitted stories around the theme that we got to decide on.
MH: Now, you may be best known as an author of political and national security thrillers and host of Decoded on the History Channel, and you’ve also consulted for the Department of Homeland Security. How have your interactions with the White House and presidents influenced your fiction novels? Have any real life stories showed up in your thrillers?
BM: They always do. I was very lucky a number of years ago. I got letters from both Bill Clinton and George H. W. Bush, who read the books over time, and it’s just very humbling to be honest. In fact, when former President Bush senior wrote to me, I thought it was a practical joke, because when I was younger, people used to play those jokes on friends. We used to write them letters. When I was an intern in the Senate Judiciary Committee, I used to write to my college friends on the letterhead and say, “You’re being deported,” and they would think they were being deported. So I got these letters and thought they were fake, but they were real and I was lucky enough to spend nearly a week in Houston with the Bushes, spend time in Clinton’s office in Harlem when he was out. Of course, I use those details. So sometimes, when you see the description of what’s on the President’s desk, I didn’t make that up. That’s from a real president’s desk. And when I describe what it’s like to eat in the President’s private dining room in the White House—there’s a scene in my novel The Inner Circle where you see that—when I was invited to eat in the White House, I absolutely used everything I saw when I was there. I love letting those real details feed their way into the novels.
MH: Speaking of The Inner Circle, we find the hero, Beecher White, returns in The Fifth Assasin. So did you originally plan to include this character in more than one book or will there be a series?
BM: I did, I did. I always knew that Beecher was going to come back. In fact, when I started The Inner Circle, it was always designed to be at least three books and perhaps more. Beecher is an archivist. He spends his time around old documents and old books and old history. And many people always think, “Oh, that sounds like you Brad,” and it is, but Beecher isn’t just kind of my alter-ego. He’s my protector. When I looked at what happened in The Fifth Assassin, a thriller about a serial killer who’s meticulously recreating the crimes of all the presidential assassins from John Wilkes Booth to Lee Harvey Oswald—That’s a thriller. That’s a plot. It will hopefully have you turning the pages, but for me when I finish writing the book, there’s things you put in the book that you know you’re putting in and then there are the things you just put in inadvertently. When I looked at the first draft of the book, I realized that Beecher, my main character, was growing up, so the book was really about this character growing up. This is the first book I had written since both my parents had passed away. I had no choice but to spend the last years of my life growing up, so Beecher really protects me from those things that I’m scared of dealing with in my real life and I wind up working them out in the books.
MH: Speaking of growing up, I know that Heroes for My Son and Heroes for My Daughter are probably your bestselling nonfiction books which you wrote for your children that feature stories of heroic figures. You say on your website that Heroes for My Daughter took you six years to write and that it was the most emotional book you’ve written. So what prompted you to write Heroes for My Son?
BM: If you write a book for your daughter and your sons catch wind of it, then they ask, “Where’s my book?” So you’ve got to first deal with the important thing, which is to keep all family animosity at a low level. But the truth is when I was born, my dad bought a bottle of champagne and the day I was born he said, “I’m going to open this up when he gets married.” And when I was whatever age when I got married, he opened the bottle of champagne and it was great, but when my kids were born, I said, “I don’t care about champagne. I’m a writer. I want to write a book for them. That’ll last their whole lives and I can present it to them and they’ll think I’m the greatest dad of all time.” I had this big parade planned for myself. It was going to be wonderful, and then the truth was I didn’t know anything about being a dad. I just loved my kids, no more than anyone else does, but I wanted them to be good people. And a friend of mine, Simon Sinek, told me this amazing story about the Wright Brothers that every time the Wright Brothers would go out to fly their plane, they would bring enough extra materials for multiple crashes, which means every time they went out they knew they would fail. They would crash and rebuild and crash and rebuild, and that’s why they took off. I love that story. I wanted my son to hear that story and I wanted my daughter to hear that story, and I said, “That’s the book I want to write.” Not a book of rules, but a book of heroes. And that’s what Heroes for My Daughter and Heroes for My Son really are. We just in fact did the audio version of it, which I loved. I narrated it myself and just loved doing that, where I can share the heroes of Rosa Parks and Amelia Earhart and Jim Henson and Mister Rogers and Abraham Lincoln and George Washington, and show them great people and what it means to be a great person and provide them with real-life heroes.
MH: So in terms of selecting these remarkable heroes to highlight, you’ve mentioned some of the probably more obvious choices but what were some of the more unexpected choices you found to include in the books?
BM: It was vital to me that this book reflect my own personal philosophy. I have one philosophy that runs through all my novels, fiction, through Decoded on the TV show, through our nonfiction, which is my core belief: I believe ordinary people change the world. I don’t care where you went to school, how much money you make. I believe in regular people and their ability to affect change on this planet. So you’ll see stories not just of Abraham Lincoln and Jim Henson and Mister Rogers or Rosa Parks, but you’ll see stories of a little girl named Alexandra Scott—Alex Scott—who was diagnosed with cancer before she was a year old. When she was four years old, she decided to open up a lemonade stand in her front yard. She wanted to give the money to help doctors help other kids with cancer. Within a single day, Alex’s lemonade stand raised two thousand dollars. But here’s what I love. Soon, other lemonade stands start popping up with Alex’s name on them. Eventually, she sets a new goal and says, “Let’s raise a million dollars.” On June 12, 2004, hundreds of lemonade stands open up in every state in the country—ordinary people selling water and sugar and lemons to help kids with cancer. It wasn’t soon after that Alex died. She’s nine years old, but before she dies, she says, “Next year’s goal should be five million dollars.” To this day, Alex’s Lemonade Stand has raised over fifty million dollars. It’s still going strong. One dream, one idea, one girl. That’s a hero for my daughter, and you better believe I included her in that book, and I loved reading about it. When I was doing the audio, my daughter was actually in the room with me doing the audiobook, and just to watch her listen to these stories was just magical.
MH: You said you loved narrating Heroes for My Son and Heroes for my Daughter. Was that the first time you’ve narrated one of your books?
BM: It was the first time I’ve narrated a book. I’ve never done it before, and I have newfound respect for my audiobook narrator. He really kills himself to play characters and play roles. I was playing myself and it’s amazing how long it takes to read a book. It’s one thing to read a couple chapters, but to read an entire book, so I joked with him when he was down. I called him up and said, “OK. New respect for you because that was a killer book.” I had my own advantage, which is I brought my kid into the recording booth with me. So when you listen to the audiobooks of Heroes for My Son and Heroes for My Daughter, the last entries in the book are my mother and my grandfather and they’re very personal ones. My mother died of breast cancer. My grandfather passed away many years ago, but you get to hear my kids talk about them with me and let me teach them right there what those stories are. I love that I get to share that with the world and they get to hear that, but the most important pages in the book are the last pages because the last pages are blank. They say, “Your hero’s story here.” And, “Your hero’s photo here.” I promise you when you buy the book or buy the audio, when you give it to your kid and you play that audio and you say, “Here’s my hero,” that’s the most important hero in the book, and I love that people get to hear that.
MH: Your novels and nonfiction books have become quite popular. Why do you think they resonate with so many people out there?
BM: I can say what I think and what I hope, and I don’t think I have any clue for what I think, but I certainly can give you what I hope. I hope that people really do believe in the power of an ordinary citizen. I think that’s what they get when they read these books. I have teachers write to me all the time and say, “I use Heroes for My Son/Heroes for My Daughter in the classroom.” Someone just put on Facebook that they’re playing them in their classroom. They’re using the audiobooks, using the regular books, and that they can share them. I think the reason they resonate with people is not because of me. It’s because of these stories. To hear the story and the power of a regular person is just incredible to them. When they hear that and they realize they can teach their kids that and share that with their kids, that’s an unstoppable super power. That’s the real hero—the parent who will share that with their child or the grandparent who will share that with their grandchild. I think people are just starving for heroes as a country today. I think that’s what people want to know.
MH: I read here that you actually earned credit from Columbia Law School when you were writing your first book, which became The Tenth Justice. What made you segue from the law into writing full time?
BM: I actually am not one of those self-hating lawyers. I love the law. I found it intellectually interesting and fascinating, but for me you have to follow your passion and my passion was to write. Again, even when I got to the Heroes books or to the fiction side, I love sitting and writing and sharing a story. To me stories are not what did happen. They’re what could happen, and that’s the power of a well-told story. And I mean that even for nonfiction—showing people what you’re capable of. Heroes for My Son and Heroes for My Daughter, they’re not just stories of famous people or people you’ve never heard of. They’re stories of what we’re all capable of on our very best days. For me, I was passionate about that. So passionate in fact that when I wrote my first novel, I got twenty-four rejection letters on my first book. There were only twenty publishers at the time and I got twenty-four rejection letters, which means some people were writing me twice to make sure I got the point. But I love doing it and wouldn’t change it for an instant.
MH: So what comes first when you write a novel, the story or the setting, a specific character or a certain situation? What tends to trigger one of your books?
BM: I feel like for me it’s a little bit of plot and a little bit of character. It has to be both. For instance, The Fifth Assassin, yes, because of the kind of books I write and because of Decoded on the History Channel, I get the craziest emails of anybody. Someone once brought me the Holy Grail at a book signing of mine. So sometimes you get crazy and sometimes you get actually amazing people contacting you, and a guy, longtime reader and a friend, said, “You have to come to this museum in Washington, D.C., that almost nobody knows about.” I said, “Tell me what you have there because I can’t come. I’m dealing with the Holy Grail right now.” He said, “No, no, you have to come. We have pieces of Abraham Lincoln’s skull, the bones of John Wilkes Booth, and the actual bullet that killed Abraham Lincoln. You want to come see it?” “Yes, I want to come see that.” I went to the museum, it, and they didn’t just have artifacts from the Lincoln assassination, but they had pieces of some of the other assassinations as well, and I just became obsessed. I’d been working on the plot for a long time of a serial killer imitating the presidential assassins, but when I saw those pieces and where they were, now I had a way to link them all together. Then I started asking myself, what if they weren’t just four lone wolves? Throughout history there have been dozens of assassination attempts on the President of the United States, but only four have been successful. So I thought what if they’re not four lone wolves, but they’re all working together for the same secret cause over the course of a century. Then I was real excited and that’s where the book came to be, but it wasn’t until I had Beecher’s side of it—the main character’s side of it—and what he was going to learn in it that the book really came together. And that’s how The Fifth Assassin really gets born or any of the books get born is the middle of those two things.
MH: So as a writer, describe your process and your style—how you developed your style. Who were your biggest influences perhaps?
BM: I know when they ask “Who’s your biggest influence,” you’re supposed to say some fancy-smancy writer and impress readers with how smart we are. Maybe pick some really obscure people so you think we’re really on the edge. But the honest truth is I grew up reading comic books and one of my favorite writers of all was the very first mystery writer I ever read, which was Agatha Christie. I remember the first book I read from her was called Murder at the Vicarage, and to this day I don’t even know what a vicarage is. I don’t even care. I don’t want to know. But I know when I was a little kid and I read that book—because I used to devour books when I was little—there I was in one of those first chapters. I turn the page and there it is: a dead body. Boy, did that affect me, because suddenly I started asking myself that key question that’s been haunting me for all those years, decades since, which is “whodunit?” And that’s what I do for a living. It was nothing more than being obsessed with that moment, and that really influenced me in a way that I never even realized. My grandfather used to tell me stories he used to make up for me and I always loved that. It just entertained me. We didn’t have a ton of money when I was growing up, but he was telling me stories and my grandmother took me to the library and gave me books by Agatha Christie and it really did change my life. My parents always promoted what I was doing. No matter what they loved themselves, they always loved whatever I loved, and they made sure I had plenty to read and I loved that about them. Even though they were buying comic books, they just knew that’s what I was consuming.
MH: Glancing at your bio, you’ve written across a broad range of genres and media as well, from TV to books and comic books, but I’m curious. Your bio says you co-wrote the swearing-in oath for AmeriCorps. How did you become involved in that project?
BM: Yeah, that was great. That was one of my favorite writing assignments ever. I was working for AmeriCorps, the President’s National Service. This was the launch of it, the Corporation for National Service. It’s like a PeaceCorps for the United States. Here we are sending all these kids out to do volunteer work for their country for a year, and they wanted a brand-new oath to launch AmeriCorps. A guy named Eli Segal was the CEO of the Corporation for National Service, and he was a mentor to me and asked me to take the first crack at writing that new oath. I actually co-wrote it with two other people who were on staff and we put it down together. I just loved researching and writing it. I write books today that get read by a few people here and there, but there’s nothing like watching the President of the United States raise his right hand, say repeat after me, and watch your words come out of the President’s mouth. It was pretty humbling. I’ll tell you the best part of the story. A few weeks before that happened they actually said we want you to write a speech for the President. That’s the President of the United States, so I’m excited; I’m all ready to go. This is years ago, decade ago, and I’m all gearing up and I write this amazing speech that I think is moving and just going to have people in tears. It may just change the course of history—my words here at this moment. Back then, it was pre-Internet, so the only way you could find out how the speech went—it went from me to my boss, they made a couple changes, sent it over to the White House, made a couple changes, and it goes to the President, we find out the event’s happening. The only way—you know it wasn’t instant, you couldn’t stream stuff live on TV—so every morning the next day, someone had typed up what the President’s remarks were. So here I raced to the fax machine and I can’t wait to see all the parts that the President and the White House kept of my speech. And I look through the speech; I don’t think there was a single verb, adverb, or noun that was in that speech that I wrote. I learned a very valuable lesson that day, which is everyone wants to write the President’s speech. So they didn’t keep a word of mine, but I was still proud of what I wrote. I think they used the words “the” and “in” and those were the only words I could find that were the same.
MH: Before we wrap things up—I mean, it’s just been great talking to you today—but any early ideas what might be coming up next for you in terms of projects? Anything you can preview for us?
BM: I can. We’re doing a new Decoded book for the TV show that will be coming out in October, counting down the top ten mysteries throughout history. You’ll see the top ten conspiracies throughout history, so you’ll see our top ten of those. The fun part of the book is it’s not just counting them down. On each chapter you can open up a little secret passage and you pull out the real documents. When you see John Wilkes Booth’s will, he left his last will and testament, you actually pull it out of the book and you examine the evidence yourself. I love that you get to do that so it becomes this interactive book even though it’s just a really great gift book. Then we’re launching a line of children’s books that go along with Heroes for My Son and Heroes for My Daughter, called Ordinary People Change the World is kind of the imprint we’re doing: I Am Amelia Earhart and I Am Abraham Lincoln, and picture books with Chris Eliopoulos, the great artist who’s going to do those, and I’m loving it. In fact, I’m staring right now as I talk to you at some of the artwork that’s just coming in for it. The truth is the newest project really is Heroes for My Son and Heroes for My Daughter on audio. We waited actually a long time until I could actually record them. I don’t even think they’ve been out a week now, but we’re just so excited for people to get these audiobooks and share them and download them and put them on in their car. You can listen to lots of things when you’re with your kids in the car. So you can either hear the Wiggles for the ninety-fifth time, or you can hear about Amelia Earhart. And to me, it’s no question.
MH: Well, this has been great Brad. Thank you for joining us today. We’re really excited about the audiobook releases of Heroes for My Son and Heroes for My Daughter and really looking forward to Mystery Writers of America Presents The Mystery Box in the audio version. Thanks again.
BM: Yeah, thank you so much.
MH: Thank you for joining us for this Downpour.com interview with Brad Meltzer. You can find Mystery Writers of America Presents The Mystery Box, Heroes for My Son, Heroes for My Daughter, many of Brad Meltzer’s other titles, and much more at Downpour.com.
This interview was recorded in April 2013.
Disclaimer: This audio and transcript have been edited slightly from the original recording for quality and readability.
Mystery Writers of America Presents The Mystery Box
There’s nothing more mysterious than a locked box. Whether it’s a literal strongbox, an empty coffin, the inner workings of a scientist’s mind, or an underground prison cell, there are those who will use any means necessary to unlock the secrets of The Mystery Box.
With this anthology, bestselling author Brad Meltzer introduces twenty-one original stories from today’s most prominent mystery writers. In Laura Lippman’s “Waco 1982,” a young reporter stuck with a seemingly mundane assignment on lost-and-found boxes unwittingly discovers a dark crime. In Joseph Finder’s “Heirloom,” a scheming neighbor frightens the new couple on the block with an unnerving tale of buried treasure. In R. L. Stine’s “High Stakes,” a man on his honeymoon gets drawn into a bizarre bet involving a coffin, a bet he may pay for with his life.
From the foothills of Mount Fuji to Georgia’s Okefenokee Swamp, from a physics laboratory in wartime Leipzig to an unusual fitness club in Boca Raton, these sometimes terrifying, sometimes funny, and always suspenseful tales will keep you riveted.