An Interview with Brad Meltzer
Brad Meltzer writes heart-pounding thrillers that take you on wild rides through worlds of deception, conspiracy, and murder. His novel The Book of Fate debuted at No. 1 on The New York Times bestseller list. A longtime comic book fan, he also penned graphic novels in the Justice League of America and Buffy the Vampire Slayer series. On The History Channel, he hosts Brad Meltzer's Decoded, a new show that delves into unsolved historical mysteries.
His new novel, The Inner Circle, features young National Archives employee Beecher White who stumbles upon a hidden document. When its discovery leads to a murder, he unearths its connection to a secret organization -- the best-kept secret of the American presidency.
Meltzer spoke with Bookslut contributor Grace Bello about his latest novel; his love of Agatha Christie, Superman, and Elvis; and his childhood crushes (who sparked one of his most intriguing characters).
What inspired your new book The Inner Circle?
A couple of years ago, I got a call from The Department of Homeland Security asking me to brainstorm different ways for terrorists to attack us. My first thought was, “If they’re calling me, we have bigger problems than anybody thinks.”
What happened was they brought me in, paired me with a Secret Service guy and with a chemist. It was kind of the A-Team of geekery. They would give us major targets to destroy, and we would have to destroy them. It was one of these things where you go home not excited by what you’ve done, but terrified because you see how easy it is to kill us.
Basically, what I was so fascinated by was simply that idea that they were calling regular people -- ordinary people like myself -- that weren’t experts in anything. I write novels, and I write these fictional thrillers. But for the most part, we’re just regular people that have little expertise. I thought, “Where did that come from? Where did that start?”
I was able to trace it back to a guy named George Washington. He started his own personal spy ring. And George Washington’s spy ring -- this is actually pretty amazing. He was so tired of the military people giving out these secrets that he said, “Give me regular citizens. Give me ordinary people.” He started what he called The Culper Ring, this secret group that helped win The Revolutionary War for us. And I was so struck by that. I said, “You know what? That’s a really cool plot idea.”
I said to the guy in Homeland Security, I said, “What if we found out that George Washington’s spy ring still exists to this very day?” He said to me, “What makes you think it doesn’t?” That’s the moment where you go, “Well, what are you talking about?” He said, “Listen, it was one of his greatest success stories; why would George Washington ever disband it?” That’s when I said, “OK, I got the plot for the book.”
What if George Washington’s spy ring exists to this very day? And a young archivist in The National Archives finds out about it? Now, he has no idea who they’re working for, but the greatest secret about the American presidency is about to come out. And there’s The Inner Circle.
I really like the character of Clementine [in The Inner Circle]. Are your characters inspired at all by people who you know?
It’s not that she’s someone I know, but the experience is one that I very much know. I think everyone has that girl in their life or that boy in their life who scares them and thrills them at the same time.
For me -- I can speak for myself, but I think a lot of people are going through it… Because of Facebook, you are suddenly reconnected with all these people from your past. And I don’t care where you go or what you do, when you get that e-mail or that friend request from that girl who gave you your first kiss, you’re instantly thrown back into your past. I think America is going through -- and all across the world, we’re going through -- this resurgence with our own past that’s just amazing to me. That’s where Clementine came from, my own past.
So someone contacted you on Facebook, and you thought…
Yeah. It was the two girls that I used to have elementary school crushes on, one of them being my first kiss. I couldn’t help but be taken by that. In a way, I was amazed and kind of traumatized at how pathetic I was acting. But it was great to speak with her again. She was, in a strange way, just as I remembered her.
And it’s not that we care about other people so much. What we care about is ourselves, right? We care about what we ourselves were like back then. Were we as we remember ourselves or as we wish we were?
Yeah, definitely. Did she know that you were an author?
She figured it out pretty quickly because she was late to Facebook, and all of our other friends were kind of connected.
She also saw a story that I wrote about her a couple years ago. The two girls, actually. One of them was dating a guy that said, “You know a guy named Brad Meltzer?” “Oh, you mean Bradley Meltzer?” -- which is what I used to be known as in elementary school. “Yeah, he wrote about some crush he used to have on you.”
It’s fun when you can put embarrassing details on the Internet.
You write a lot about heroes, whether it’s civilians exposing the truth, comic book heroes, and [your nonfiction book] Heroes for My Son. So who are your literary heroes?
Listen, if you say to me, “Who’s your number one?” it’s still got to be Harper Lee. If I could put my name on any book and steal credit for it, that’s the one I’d steal credit for. To Kill a Mockingbird still kicks all kinds of literary butt.
I still think Moby-Dick is the first book I ever read that was well researched. But [my inspiration] would just as easily be Agatha Christie and just as easily be Woody Allen’s funny essays.
We steal from everywhere in terms of where we get tone. To me, there’s no such thing as highbrow and lowbrow, there’s just one “brow.”
You mention Agatha Christie. Which writers have inspired you in terms of pursuing thrillers or doing historical stuff?
I remember reading Murder at the Vicarage, which is an Agatha Christie book, when I was really young. I had to be 10 years old or 12 years old. I remember opening this book and -- to this day, I don’t know what a vicarage is. I don’t want to know what a vicarage is, don’t tell me, I don’t ever want to know. But I just remember opening that book and there was a dead body. There was a dead body and someone’s got to figure it out, and that was amazing to me. That one just blew apart my brain.
And in terms of research, certainly. When I read Melville, I remember just being like, “Oh, I want to go whaling.” And I’m Jewish; I have no business whaling! But I wanted to do it for that moment. So I think the research side came from that.
I think, in terms of other mysteries, it was Marv Wolfman and George Pérez writing stories for [the comic series] Teen Titans. They were as much an influence as anything else. Or Paul Levitz and The Legion of Super-Heroes: The Great Darkness Saga, which was one of the great mysteries of its time. And to me, it still is.
Cool. So you mention research. How much research do you do for your novels?
I spend about six months just going through and combing through every crazy detail I can find. And that doesn’t include -- when I get to every scene, I eventually have to bring someone else to help flesh it out.
I went to The National Archives [for The Inner Circle]. Archivists are really nice people. They have the patience of librarians. But I guarantee -- can you make an archivist angry? Yes, you can. Watch when you call them for the 95th time to say, “Does that door at The National Archives open toward you or is it a door you have to push away from you?” Ask that fifty times, and watch the answer you get. They did take me to the secret underground caves that they have, so that was pretty A-OK.
What’s your creative process like? What’s the ratio of research to actually hunkering down and writing?
I do about six months of research and about a year and a half of writing. It takes me about two years to write a book.
I’m just slow. My publisher would love for me to write a book a year, and I guess that’s what you’re supposed to do in this genre. But if I did, it would turn out to be garbage. And that’s the thing I’m most afraid of. I would never want to do that. So I would much rather put out the best book that I can put out. To me, it’s quality over quantity.
Yeah, definitely. Who reads your first draft?
My wife reads the first one. It’s not even written until my wife reads it.
How influential is she in editing your work?
She’s ruthless. And I mean that in a very good way. She’s not afraid to say to me, you know, “That’s not funny.” “That doesn’t work; I don’t believe it.” “Women don’t act like that.” Anything that I do that’s wrong, she -- for the most part -- won’t hesitate. And that’s what you need.
I think that some writers want someone to tell them that they’re geniuses at every point of the story. But if I want to hand in a book and everyone says, “Looks great,” my first reaction is sheer terror. Because nothing’s great at first. Nothing.
What is it like to work on graphic novels? I know you’ve written for The Justice League series and the Buffy comic, so how was that process different from writing a novel?
You know, to me, it’s just different muscles. But it’s the same thing; it has to be a good story. That’s it. At the end of the day, yes, it’s more collaborative because the artist can do the heavy lifting in some parts.
You can say to the artist, “Oh, this is going to be a scene where we’re in a really bad neighborhood. Draw a bad neighborhood.” And it’s much easier than trying to describe a bad neighborhood and not making it sound like one giant cliché. All that physical [description] stuff that drives me bananas when I write a novel because I see it in my head and I don’t want to take the time to describe it. It’s great to just pass off onto somebody else.
The nice part is when you get a drawing back of a scene [that you wrote] that was pretty interesting, but [the artist] turns it into something that’s just Rock ‘Em Sock ‘Em Robots because it’s so spectacular in its execution. And then you look like a giant genius when, in reality, I did nothing for it. I love that.
If you’re asking what the difference is between them or what they have in common I think -- at the end of the day, whether it’s Superman or whether it’s George Washington, it’s still part of the American mythology. And I don’t care that one was real and one was not. They are characters that tell us who we want to be.
Did you write comic books as a kid at all?
You know what I did, actually? I was so pathetic; I never wrote them. I don’t know; I just didn’t think about writing them. But I used to take tracing paper, and I would trace my favorite covers. So there was this amazing, oversized Justice League reprint that I remember that had The Justice League on one side and The Justice Society on the other. I think it was Dick Giordano who drew it. I started to take tracing paper to that. It was just one of those things where the characters were flying at you in some iconic way. And [I remember] thinking, after I traced it, that I “drew” it. I would take full credit for it, make no mistake.
Even though you were just a tracer.
Even though it was on tracing paper and really horribly done.
You mention pop culture -- Superman and all that -- and I mean this question earnestly: Do you have any plans to investigate pop culture conspiracies? Who killed The Notorious B.I.G.? Or whether Elvis is still alive?
To me, what we do on Decoded every week is we get to be explorers. We get to explore these different parts. But what we try to explore is something we can bring something new to. If we’re just going to regurgitate what’s already out there, I feel like we shouldn’t do it. When we did a show on D.B. Cooper [the mysterious Boeing 727 hijacker who escaped by parachuting away], it was because we found something that we felt was new and that we could contribute some part to that giant quilt that is history. I feel like if we could bring something new to something, I would love to do that.
I went to Graceland. I saw the three TVs. I saw the carpet on the ceiling. I would love to get back to that. But you’ve got to find something new. You’ve got to find a mystery there.
Yeah, that makes sense.
The great mystery could be, “Why does a man have carpet on his ceiling?”
[Laughs.] I read somewhere that The Truman Show is one of your favorite movies. So I was wondering if you have plans to explore some more psychological rather than political themes.
You know, it’s funny. In a strange way, that’s what I feel like I do. When I wrote legal thrillers, everyone was like, “Well, you’re a legal thriller writer.” Then I wrote a financial thriller called The Millionaires, and everyone said, “Oh, he writes financial thrillers.” And now I did this [The Inner Circle] and they’re like, “Oh, he loves history.” It’s just shorthand that the publishers use to make it easier to understand what you [the reader] are getting.
But to me, all the books are all about the characters. And the characters are always searching for -- they’re not fighting bad guys. The greatest battle we’ll all have is the battle within ourselves. And that’s what all of them are fighting. Every single one of them, in every single book I’ve done. But, because there’s no shrink in them, I don’t write “psychological thrillers.” But, you know, I’ll put a shrink in them, and then I’ll take that one.
What advice would you give to aspiring writers?
Listen, I got 24 rejection letters for my first book -- which still sits on my shelf, published by Kinko’s. There were only 20 publishers at the time; I got 24 rejection letters, which means some people are writing to you twice to make sure you get the point.
But I don’t look back at it and say, “I was right, and they were wrong.” I look back and think, “You know what? Life is subjective.” And whatever it is you’re doing, whatever it is you’re writing, it just takes one person to say “yes.” You’re just searching for that one person. I believe that you should never let anyone tell you “no.”
The week of my 23rd, 24th rejection letters is the week that I started The Tenth Justice, which became my first published novel. Again, I just think, “Don’t let anyone tell you ‘no.’”
Grace Bello is a writer based in New York. Her work has appeared in McSweeney’s, Flavorpill, and USA Today’s Pop Candy. Take a look at her online portfolio here.