Q. How’d you get started writing?
It wasn’t until I graduated from college. I was coming out of the University of Michigan and I had a job offer from the man who used to run Games magazine. He told me, “If you love the job, you’ll stay. If you hate it, you’ll leave a year later with some money in your pocket.” Since I had some debt to pay off, that seemed like a fair deal. So I moved all my stuff to Boston. But when I got there, the publisher left the magazine. (Surprise!) The whole reason I went there was to work for him. I thought I’d wrecked my life. I had no idea what to do. So I did what all of us would do in that situation. I said, “I’m gonna write a novel.” And I just started writing. Every day, I just fell more and more in love with the process.
Q. Did you always know you wanted to be a writer?
No, but I always liked writing. Even back in high school, I tried to write all my papers using tons of dialogue. But it never hit me until I left college. Where I grew up, writing wasn’t “a real job.” And, thankfully, it still isn’t.
Q. Where do you get your ideas?
Research, research, research. You can invent all the stuff you want, but if it doesn’t smell real, readers will know in a nanosecond (and rip your head off). To me, fiction is at its best when it has one foot in reality. That’s why I need to go out and see the places myself. I need to see what they look like, and smell like, and taste like (yum, hamburger)—and those details drive the ideas. Everything else is a gift from God.
Q. Locations like the White House, Congress, and the Supreme Court, even Disney World—how do you research these places?
Call up and ask. Seriously. If there’s one thing I’ve learned (besides that ice doesn’t get gum out of your hair), it’s that people are genuinely nice. Once they realize you’re writing fiction, and not looking for an expose, they love to talk. And that’s the only way to get the details real. Also, try to find people who recently left the job you’re trying to research. Those’re the ones you want to meet (funny, honest, and no longer worried about impressing the boss).
Q. How did you handle rejections from publishers?
I gave their e-mail addresses to my mother. You don’t know pain until you’ve met Teri Meltzer. Fear it.
Q. How long does it take to write a book?
About a year, to a year and a half. I spend about two months doing character sketches (Who are these people? What are they like?) and anywhere from two to six months researching. The rest of the time, I’m writing (and playing Parcheesi).
Q. How do I get an agent?
First off, write the best book you can. Period. After that, you can find a list of agents in books like The Guide to Literary Agents. As a trick (which I recommend), you should pick out a few authors you like and check the Acknowledgements section of their hardback books. Most, if not all, writers thank their agents—and that’s one way to get a list of agents who have actually sold things.
Beyond that, write a short (short!) cover letter to send out to prospective agents. As someone once told me, write it like you’re writing the inside flap copy for the book. (Don’t say, “In Chapter One, this happens; then in Chapter Two, this happens; then in Chapter Three…). They get hundreds of letters. And the sad truth is, agents want what they can’t have, and whatever they can have, they don’t want. Also, there’s a fine line between enthusiasm and desperation. What does that mean? Don’t be a nudge (I know, because I was—and none of those agents wrote me back). Just be concise and clear, and send out the best book you can.
Q. Do you know the ending when you start?
I know what happens to the main characters simply because I have to. Each book is a journey. Ben, Sara, Michael, Oliver, Charlie, Harris, Matthew, Viv, Wes, Rogo—each of them is a different person by the time the last page hits. So I need to know where they’re going. Still, a novel is a process. It takes me over a year. During that year, I’m constantly changing my mind, adding new twists, and moving things around.
Q. Do you outline?
Only about fifty to a hundred pages at a time. That way, I’m in control, but there’s still plenty of room to let the creative process happen. If I just start typing and say “Let’s see where the day takes me,” I’ll just meander around and it’ll be a rambling mess.
Q. How do you edit?
I give it to my wife, she tears it apart, then I pick my heart up off the linoleum and go to bed.
When I’m finished with the first draft, I start over again and continue layering, always trying to add more to the characters. A good plot is fine, but if the characters aren’t real, no one’ll care.
Q. What do you like to read?
While I’m writing, I won’t read in the genre and I try not to read novels. It’s the only way I can keep my voice my own. Still, I love to read, so I consume graphic novels. Alan Moore, Brian K. Vaughn, all the usual suspects. I eat that stuff like candy.
Q. Advice to other authors?
Don’t let anyone tell you “No.” I got twenty-four rejection letters on my first novel. It’s still sitting on my shelf, published by Kinko’s. I had twenty-four people tell me to give it up—that I couldn’t write. But the day I got my twenty-third and twenty-fourth rejection, I said to myself, “If they don’t like this novel, I’ll write another, and if they don’t like that one, I’ll write another.” Why? Because I fell in love with writing. A week later, I started the book that became The Tenth Justice.
Does that make everyone who sent me objections wrong? Not a chance. The best and worst part of publishing is that it’s a subjective industry. All it takes is one person to say “Yes.” You just have to find that person. If you love what you do, it’ll show on the page. If you don’t, it won’t. That’s the x-factor in every book. And that’s what helps you move forward as a writer.
Q. Do you get the plot…then the characters, or do the characters create your plot?
I start with a nugget. In The Tenth Justice, it was a Supreme Court clerk. In Dead Even, it was married attorneys. And in The First Counsel, it was a White House lawyer. Then I take the characters and throw them into the plot. If I’m doing it right, I hit a point where I stop telling them what to do, and they start telling me what they want to do. If all else fails, it’s back to Parcheesi.
Q. What’s a typical day like for writing? (Do you commit to finishing a particular scene or commit to x amount of pages?)
I get up, I walk around the block, and then I sit down with my imaginary friends. At the end of the day, I try not to count pages, but I can’t help myself. I’m sad that way.
Q. What’s going on with Hollywood? Are they making a movie?
Right now, The Tenth Justice rights are about to revert to us, which makes me happier than you’ll ever know. And The Zero Game is sold. Does that mean we’ll see a film? No. Would I love them to make it? Of course. But as far as I’m concerned, movies are icing on an already great cake. If it happens, I’m thrilled. If not, there’re more important things to worry about in life.
On the TV side, co-creating the TV show Jack & Bobby was on of the most amazing, humbling, rewarding, frustrating, fantastic experiences of my life. And the best part? Once you get cancelled that fast, you get to call yourself a cult-classic and no one argues.
And in terms of Dead Even, The First Counsel, The Millionaires, and The Book of Fate, we still own the rights to all of them.
Q. If you had to cast the movies, who do you see?
Honestly, I never see anyone. Personally, I don’t want to write someone else’s characters. I want to write mine. For that reason, I can tell you what every single character looks like, but it’d be no one you recognize. Ben, Sara, Jared, Nora, Oliver, Charlie, Harris, Matthew, Viv, Wes, Rogo—to me, they just look like people.
Q. Any new comic book projects in the works?
Buffy. Coming soon. Oh yeah.
THE INNER CIRCLE
Q: Where’d the idea for The Inner Circle come from?
It all came from a private conversation I had with a former President of the United States. I’ll never forget it. We were talking about how hard it was to keep a secret and make sure you’re not overheard when you’re in the White House. And when a real President whispers something like that to you, you pay attention. But as I looked back through history, I realized the problem dated back to George Washington himself, who devised a secret group that would serve just the President. They weren’t military men. They were regular citizens. Just like us. Washington called them The Culper Ring — and they were the secret weapon of the Revolutionary War, even though they were never in most history books. You’re telling me the first president of the US had a secret spy group that saved our country? I’m interested. And as I talked to my National Security folks, we kept coming back to one idea: who says this secret group was ever disbanded? Who says it doesn’t exist today? When someone in National Security said to me: “I wish we had The Culper Ring today” — that’s when I know I had the plot for the book.
Q: Your previous novels have been set in Washington, DC, in places like the White House and the Supreme Court. What made you decide to use the National Archives as the setting for your upcoming novel?
I came to visit and fell in love. Truly. Lost history…secret documents…long-forgotten letters from Presidents and other big shots—all of which tell the true history of our nation. How could a history nut not fall in love? Plus, they let me hold the Declaration of Independence.
Q: So it was all based on a visit to the Archives?
A few years back, I got a call from Homeland Security asking me if I’d come in and brainstorm different ways for terrorists to attack the US. My first thought was, “If they’re calling me, we’ve got bigger problems than anyone thinks.” But they’d seen the research in my books. And they know I have good sources, so they invited me in. I was honored to be a part of the Red Cell program. They’d pair me with a Secret Service guy and a chemist — and they’d give us a target — and we’d destroy major cities in an hour. It’s not the kind of day where you go home feeling good. You go home terrified, because you see how easy it is to kill us. On lunch breaks, I’d be talking to all the national security folks — and they’re the ones who helped me tease out the plot of The Inner Circle. They’re the ones who taught me what else every President needs — plus I had what one former President gave me. But once I saw the Archives, I knew I had a place to tell that tale.
Q: One of the recurring themes in your novels is how greatness comes from choices ordinary people make everyday. (“I don’t believe in destiny. I believe in history” – a great line from The Inner Circle). What do you think is the origin of this ethos?
Blame my parents. My Mom especially. She grew up poor (though she’d hate that term and never use it). She didn’t make it past high school. But she was the most amazing person I ever knew. Once, I took her to the White House — and as a decorator, I couldn’t wait for her to be impressed by the decor. She took one look around and said, “Unga patchke,” which is slang for “Overdone. Feh.” It was the White House! She hated snobs, she hated phonies, she hated rich obnoxious jerks who can only talk about what kind of car they drive. And when she died and I’d see the nurses or the waitresses in places she went, all they’d say is, “Oh, your mother was the best.” As one receptionist reminded me, “Not everyone is nice like that.” The truth about you is what people say behind your back. And I love my mother so much for that: From the Queen of England to the janitor in the bathroom, she’d treat you the same.
Q: You write with such authority about the Presidency and Washington DC. Where does that come from? How do you get real Presidents to help you?
It’s funny, I feel like I never used to write about the President. I always wrote about the staffer you’d never see — the one who knew how to stay two steps out of the picture. And then one day, I got the best fan letter ever, from former President George H.W. Bush, saying he liked my novel, The Millionaires, and could I sign one for him. I’d gotten another couple of notes from President Clinton as well. And that just makes it a little easier to say, “Can I spend some time with you for research?” The best part is, because I write fiction, I always get to see far more than what they’d show a reporter who’s out to burn them.
Unlike so many conspiracy buffs I’ve met through the years, you’re not jaded, not cynical, not angry. Where does that come from? Again, blame my family. My grandfather spent his whole life wanting to be a policeman. It was his dream. And he couldn’t be one because of some dumb medical reason. But he was the toughest, strongest, most amazing tough guy around. And the nicest. What I remember most about him was when he used to give all our old used toys to kids that had no money. And this was from a guy who had no money. The true toughest guy knows he doesn’t have be the tough guy.
Q: President Wallace is mesmerized by the written word, as so many of us are. I know your grandmother spent countless hours in the public library with you, devouring Judy Blume, Agatha Christie, Dr. Seuss. Stories change our lives, don’t they? What does the written word mean to you, and what would you like readers to take from your books?
If readers could take one message from my books? Don’t let anyone tell you “No.” Also, as Mr. Rogers taught me, remember how special you are. Corny for sure. But, to steal a line from The Inner Circle, we should never forget that history is a selection process. It chooses all of us. Every day. The only question is, do we hear that call?
Q: The reader follows your main character, Beecher, into the vaults and stacks that visitors don’t see. But there is very little mention of the documents that most people associate with the National Archives—the Constitution and Declaration of Independence. Was this a deliberate omission?
It was. Anyone can see the gasper documents—the documents that make you gasp. Every single tourist can see the Constitution and Declaration of Independence. What I want to show you are the places you can’t go. The places only an insider sees. And yes – that underground storage cave at the end is real. I went there. Scaaaary. What was the most surprising job that you saw a National Archives staff member doing? I was most amazed by the fact that you still have people combing through documents from the founding of our country. In my google-influenced brain, I thought everything had already been read and catalogued. I love that there are new Lincoln letters — and new secrets — being found every single day. You’ve taken your love of secrets, mysteries, and conspiracies to the next level. You have a TV show about them. How did the show come about? Again, I got lucky. One of the heads of the History Channel read my thriller — The Book of Fate — and he enjoyed all the Freemason secrets and the Thomas Jefferson code that was in there, and simply said, “We should do a show like that.” So Brad Meltzer’s Decoded as a TV show is just me doing exactly what I do in my novels, looking through history and trying to solve its greatest mysteries. One of my favorites is about the very first piece of the White House, which was laid in an elaborate ceremony in 1792. Within 24 hours, that cornerstone supposedly went missing. President Truman went looking for it. So did Barbara Bush. But for 200 years, no one knows where the very first piece of the White House is. Needless to say, I want to find it.
Q: What’s a secret about you?
I can say the alphabet backwards. Faster than anyone.
Q: Where did Heroes For My Daughter come from?
Six years ago, on the night my daughter was born, I began writing this book for her. I did the same for my sons when I wrote “Heroes For My Son.” And yes, for two years now, my daughter’s been asking, “Where the heck’s my book?” But as for where this book actually came from, in these past few years, my mother died after losing her battle with breast cancer. And in the past year, I also lost my Dad and my grandmother (who’s one of the heroes in here). It’s been a heck of a year. And as I wrote this book, I was forced to look to the world for women (and men) who, like my own parents, could serve as ideals for my daughter.
Q: What are some of the attributes you wanted to emphasize for your daughter over those you did for your son?
To be honest, I really thought both books would be the same — as a dad, I wanted to treat my daughter and sons exactly the same. But when I handed in the manuscript for my daughter’s book, the editor came back with a surprising reply. She noticed that I kept overusing one word throughout the manuscript. That word? Fighter. By my editor’s count, fourteen of the fifty profiles had the word “fight” or “fighter” in it.
As she pointed out, “Some of them, like Abigail Adams, Winston Churchill, Hannah Senesh, Thurgood Marshall, were literally fighters, so of course the term should stay there.” But I also used it with Audrey Hepburn, Helen Keller, Teddy Roosevelt, Nancy Brinker—even with Lisa Simpson and the Dalai Lama. The Dalai Lama! Even in the pacifist, I sought a fighter. And yes, that probably highlights my lack of descriptive ability. And how overprotective I am. But it also shows that — and I’m just being honest here — I do want my daughter to learn how to fight.
It’s the dream that links every single hero I picked for her. As I now often tell my daughter Lila, no matter what stage of life you’re in, when you want something — no matter how impossible it seems — you need to fight for it. When you believe in something, fight for it. And when you see injustice, fight harder than you’ve ever fought before.
Q: Was there anything that you found out from talking to readers of Heroes For My Son on book tours or over the web that you’ve applied to this book?
My readers know the best heroes. So many of the ones they sent me — through Facebook, or Twitter, via email or on book tour — so many of those heroes made it into the book. Alexandra Scott…Wangari Maathai…I’d never have heard of them if it weren’t for my readers.
Q: Who was the most unlikely hero that you included in the book, and why were they included?
The Three Stooges. Oh yes — I put them in there. My wife hates them. But what people don’t know is they were the very first ones to take on Adolf Hitler in film. These three subversives. Gotta share that with my daughter. (Though my wife still thinks they’re not funny).
Q: A point was made to not only include women in this book, but to also include men. Why was this so important for you?
I included women like Mother Teresa and Anne Sullivan in the book for my son. Would I really be doing any justice for my daughter if I told her only women could be heroes? Plus, I gave her really good ones. Like Ben Franklin. Few men are as cool as Ben Franklin.
Q: Were there any heroes that your wife (or daughter) specifically wanted in the book?
I did 50 brand new heroes for my daughter. But there were six heroes that I felt were worth repeating from Heroes For My Son — a sort of hall of fame that I felt needed to be there for my daughter: Rosa Parks, Amelia Earhart, Abraham Lincoln, Gandhi, Eleanor Roosevelt and Lucille Ball. Plus I again included my Mom. C’mon. It’s my Mom.
Q: There’s a great deal of care given to the selection of the images used for both Heroes books, can you talk about that process?
For me, the stories we tell about the heroes isn’t about just their accomplishments. It’s also about how ordinary their beginnings were. Indeed, no one is born a hero. So when it came to pictures, I always look for ones that aren’t the “usual” ones. I like the ones that remind us they’re just like us. And thanks to the research for my novels — and for Decoded — we have great friends at the National Archives and the Library of Congress who were willing to dig for ones few people have seen before.
Q: If the book was one page longer, who would have made it in?
My wife’s grandmother, Sara Flam, who my daughter is named after. But I already had my own grandmother and mother in there — plus my wife. I couldn’t make it a family album.
Q: Any heroes you’re particularly proud of?
Sheila Spicer — my ninth grade English teacher. The first person who told me I could write. I owe her forever for that.
Q: As an idea, where did Heroes For My Son come from?
It began the night my first son was born. I was stuck at a red light, and I remember looking up at the black sky and thinking of this baby boy we were just blessed with. That’s when I asked myself the question for the very first time: What kind of man did I want my son to be? I have three children now. I’ve long ago realized I have little say in the matter. But at that moment, I decided that I wanted to write a book over the course of my son’s life – and then when I eventually gave it to him, he’d realize what a brilliant father I was. I’d assumed Norman Rockwell would of course be resurrected to paint the moment, because it would be that perfect.
But the book was just a list of silly platitudes — until a friend of mine told me this story about the Wright Brothers: Every day Orville and Wilbur Wright went out to fly their plane, they would bring enough materials for multiple crashes. That way, when they crashed, they could rebuild the plane and try again. Think about it a moment: every time they went out – every time – they knew they were going to fail. But that’s what they did: Crash and rebuild. Crash and rebuild. And that’s why they finally took off.
I loved that story. I still love that story. And that’s the kind of story I wanted my son to hear: a story that wouldn’t lecture to him, but would show him that if he was determined…if he wasn’t afraid to fail…if he had persistence (and a side order of stubbornness), the impossible becomes possible.
Since that time, I’ve been collecting heroes for this book, which has been one of the most rewarding projects of my life.
Q: Who were some of your heroes growing up?
My Mom and my grandfather. After them, Jim Henson and Mr. Rogers always led the list. Sure, there are tons of others in the book — from Rosa Parks, to Gandhi, to Muhammad Ali — but Jim Henson and Mr. Rogers just always had the biggest impact on me. Maybe it was their kindness. Maybe it was Kermit and that idea of “making millions of people happy.” Maybe it was just my obsession with idealistic puppets. But the idea of being the top of your game — at the cutting-edge of entertainment — and you can do anything, but instead, you give all of that to children’s public television…? Yes. My heroes.
Q: Who were some of the people that didn’t make the book?
Mussolini. And Hitler. No question, Hitler was at the top of the list of people we didn’t want in the book. But as for people that were actually close to making it, it’s hard. Especially when you’re looking at people who are still alive. I mean, with one bad news day, even the biggest hero can suddenly become Tiger Woods (who I will say was never in the running for being in the book). And the last thing I want is to have someone like that in a book for my sons. Of course, there were other heroes like Winston Churchill, Susan B. Anthony, and Benjamin Franklin — some of whom we ran out of space for, and some who I saved for the book I’m doing for my daughter.
Q: What do you think is the overall message of the book?
There’s a line I just wrote for my next novel. It says: History doesn’t just pick people. History picks everyone. Every day. The only question is, do you pay attention…do you put in the hard work…do you hear that calling? Yes, I know that sounds all new age-y. And I’m not new age-y. I just believe in hard work and regular people. That’s how the very best historic changes take place.
Q: How much time did it take to compile the list of heroes?
My son was born eight years ago. So it’s taken me far longer than I ever anticipated.
Q: Who was the first hero you selected for the book and why?
The very first one was my grandfather, Ben Rubin. When I was little, my grandfather knew I loved hearing Batman stories, so he’d always tell me this one story that went like this: “Batman and Robin were in the Batmobile. And they were riding along the edge of a curving cliff. And up ahead of them was a white van, which held the Joker, the Penguin, the Riddler, and Catwoman. And as they drove along this cliff, Batman and Robin caught them.”
That’s when I’d look him right in the eyes and whisper, “Tell it again.”
He’d smile at me and say, “Batman and Robin were in the Batmobile… It was the same story every time. Just four sentences long. Batman and Robin were in the Batmobile… But he told me this story over and over simply because he knew I loved hearing it. That’s a hero to me. In that action, he taught me about love and compassion and dedication. He taught me the power of creativity. He opened the first window of my imagination. And most of all, as I looked back on it, he showed me the true impact of a well-told story. That’s what I wanted for my son.
Q: How was writing non-fiction different from fiction?
I have to say, it’s far easier to make stuff up. But there’s also nothing more inspiring than knowing the story really happened.
Who were some of the people who influenced the writing of this book? Not necessarily heroes in the book but other authors or people aside from your son that you thought about when writing this book?
Whenever I read non-fiction, or watch something on the History Channel, I forget most of it. I forget nearly every detail. But I always remember at least one little nuggetone detail that’s just goldlike finding out that when Thomas Jefferson wrote the Declaration of Independence, he never took credit for writing it, even when he ran for President. I wanted this book to be filled with gold like that. Gandhi. John Lennon. Mother Teresa. Amelia Earhart. These wouldn’t just be the stories about great people. These were the moments that made each person great.
Q: The book uses a lot of photos, was there anything you found in the photographs of these heroes that influenced the book?
I was amazed when John Lennon’s people said they didn’t like the photo we picked (we didn’t change it). And when we unearthed the Mr. Rogers photo, which hasn’t been seen by the public in decades. I just love that shot.
If you had to pick one quote from the book, what is your favorite quote?
There are two:
- “In a gentle way, you can shake the world.” – Gandhi
- “Not everyone is nice like that.” – The receptionist in my Mom’s doctor’s office, when she heard my Mom had died from breast cancer. Always remember: The truth is what people say behind your back.
Q: What is going on with the Heroes For My Son Blog and on facebook? What are you doing there?
Finding more heroes. People send us new ones every day. I love sharing them with the world. If you have one, please send him or her along.
Q: Is there another book we can look forward to after Heroes For My Son?
I have a daughter. I’ve been working on hers since the day she was born (let it be known she asks every day, “Where’s my book?”). So Heroes For My Daughter is coming soon.
Q. THE BOOK OF LIES is based on two true stories that remain mysteries: the murder of Abel by his brother Cain and the unsolved murder of Mitchell Siegel, whose son went on to, create Superman. Why do these two murders fascinate you and how are they connected in your mind – and in this new book?
Every writer has a story they’ve been waiting their whole life to tell. This is mine. We are a country founded on our own legends and myths, and in this election year, where everyone is pushing hope, what’s crazy to me is that we still don’t know which of these myths are real. Cain is known as one of the world’s worst villains, but maybe he’s not the bad guy in the story. And why did the world get Superman? Because a little boy named Jerry Siegel heard his father was murdered and, in grief, created a bulletproof man. These stories — about Cain and Abel, about Superman — are not just folklore. They’re stories about us. Our heroes and villains tell us who we are. And sometimes we need to find the truth, even if it means revealing our own vulnerabilities.
Q. How did his father’s murder lead Jerry Siegel to create the man of steel and why did he never talk about this during his lifetime?
For the past 70 years, the public has been told that Superman was created by two teenagers in Cleveland. And that’s true. Action Comics was published in 1938. But what no one realizes is that Superman was actually created in 1932, just weeks after Jerry Siegel’s father was killed in a robbery. So why does no one know the story? Because Jerry Siegel never told anyone. In the thousands of interviews he gave throughout his life, where they asked him where he got the idea for Superman, Jerry never once—not once!—mentions that his father was killed during a robbery. To this day, half the family was told it was a heart attack, while the other half says it was a murder. The story goes back to the two other versions of Superman that were created before the hero we now know and love—one of them, the first version, even has Superman as the main villain. In fact, even in the current version of Superman, when he was first introduced, Superman couldn’t fly. He jumped. He didn’t have heat or x-ray vision. All he was was strong—and bulletproof. The one thing young Jerry’s dad needed.
Q. As a comics books author in addition to your work as a novelist, how has the legend of Superman influenced your work and why is it the perfect myth for America?
For me, the interesting part has never been the Superman story; the interesting part is Clark Kent — the idea that all of us, in all our ordinariness — can change the world. That theme is in every single thing I’ve ever worked on, from the novels, to the comics, to “Jack & Bobby.” I believe there is greatness in all of us and once you find what you love, and accept yourself for who you are — that greatness comes out. In every novel, that’s always the journey. They don’t win until they lose — and finally accept themselves for who they are.
Q. You do extensive research for each of your books. Tell us what was different about your research for THE BOOK OF LIES and how did you learn some of the arcane information that you include here?
Research isn’t magic. It’s just legwork. I spoke to Jerry Siegel’s family, as well as his widow and his daughter, who told me that in all the years that people have written about the Siegels, I’m the first one to actually call and speak with all of them. During the research, I went back and searched through the old newspapers from 1932 just to see what was going on when Jerry’s father was killed. You won’t believe what’s in there.
It’s the same with Cain. According to most modern Bibles, Cain thinks God’s punishment is too much—‘My punishment is greater than I can bear’ is what the text says, which is why Cain is seen as such a remorseless monster. But when you go back to the original text—like in the geniza fragments from Cairo—that same passage can just as easily be translated as My sin is too great to forgive. See the difference there? In this version, Cain feels so awful…so sorry…for what he’s done to poor Abel, he tells God he should never be forgiven. That’s a pretty different view of Cain. Of course, most religions prefer the vicious-Cain. A little threat of evil is always the far better way to fill the seats. But sometimes the monsters aren’t who we think they are.
Q. The father-son relationship is at the heart of the Jerry Siegel story and, frankly, at the heart of most of your books. What was your father’s greatest influence on your life and how does that infuse your writing?
When I was thirteen years old, my father lost his job and moved us from Brooklyn to Florida. He called it the do-over of life. He was forty years old, had two kids, no job, no place to live, and barely $1,200 to his name. Once we got to Florida, we couldn’t afford babysitters, so we’d go on the job interviews with my Dad. I still remember sitting in a Wendy’s while my he was being interviewed for an insurance job — we had to pretend we didn’t know him, and all I could think was, “I can’t believe my life is being decided in a fast food joint.” From there, my parents used a fake address to get me into the good local public school, and it was there I first started thinking about college. Seeing all those rich kids, and their cars and houses, and how little they appreciated it all…that made a mark in me. It made me hungry, and it gave me my most leaned-on, overused point-of-view: as an outsider. I’ve never been part of the in-crowd. And I never want to be (except on my weakest days). But in that mix of mess that built my life, all the blame and credit began with those poorly planned decisions by my father. It’s an easy joke, but I’ve been writing books to deal with it since.
Q. And your Mom?
This book was born at the same time my mother was diagnosed with (now fatal) breast cancer. Every novel is shaded and filled with whatever issue the author is personally wrangling with. My mother’s impending death was clearly mine. She read this book faster than any other, and I read her the final dedication on her deathbed. My mother’s the one who gave me faith in myself and in people and in just simply being who you are. That’s all she knew how to be. The woman who was still shopping at Marshall’s on the day I called her and told her we hit #1 on the bestseller list. It was her best lesson: never ever change for anyone. So it’s no surprise to me that my mother’s best lesson — and the issue of losing a parent — is the strongest theme in the book.
Q. You are a bestselling novelist and comic book writer and you write for television, your most recent venture being a new show that you’ve been working on with Avenue Q creator Jeff Marx. How as a writer do you cross over to different mediums and what is the biggest challenge with each of these?
When I write a novel, I paint with one palette: the palette of words. It’s just me and my editor, who keeps me from riding off the cliff. But in a comic book, you’re painting with a brand-new palette. Now you have words and pictures. And you have another person — the artist — who’s affecting the final picture. The artist can take the worst scene and draw the best picture for it, and suddenly I’m a genius. Or they can ruin my carefully concocted geekiness and turn it to mush (which never happens). And then you have TV. There you paint with the palette of…everyone. In a TV show, it’s like trying to push water. You don’t control it. Directors, actors, studios, networks, show-runners, editors, etc all grab the brush. So for a novelist, it’s far harder to release that control. But in the end, all the palettes rely on character. That’s the core of any craft. Today, we all love to rank which is cooler: books, TV, comics, film. But that’s just snobbery. It’s not a hierarchy. It’s a continuum.
Q. You are working with Sony on a soundtrack to go with the book. Tell us about that…
Does a book really need a soundtrack? No. And neither does a movie or a TV show. But when you pull on those manipulative strings that music tugs on, you sometimes get something that’s just mesmerizing. And so we built a soundtrack. Sony Music had someone score the key chapters of the book — they sent me the songs — and I rejected most of them. Then we fought and pulled each other’s hair and finally settled on songs that truly evoked the mood of the novel. You can go to a certain chapter, hit PLAY, and read along with music that I believe perfectly represents that chapter. And that’s cool to me. Plus, there’s nothing, just nothing like sitting in a room and hearing someone sing the title track to your own book. That’s neater than Play-Doh.
Q. You are the driving force behind the campaign to save Superman’s house – the house in Cleveland where Jerry Siegel grew up and where he created Superman – and are launching a website, www.OrdinaryPeopleChangeTheWorld.com, so that others can join in your crusade. How is this going?
My wife jokes and says this website is my new religion. And maybe it is. But I really do believe in it. I believe ordinary people change the world and I believe that enough of us can join together to keep Jerry Siegel’s house from destruction. I’m just a guy who went to Cleveland, Ohio and saw that the house where Superman was created was falling apart and a total wreck. So now we’re saving it. We don’t need grants, or political favors, or skeevy politicians. All of those entities let it languish. We’ll save it. Or we’ll at least try. And how could I not believe in that?
Q. And we have to ask: is this house really painted red and blue as you describe in The Book of Lies?
know it sounds hard to believe, but yep, Superman red and blue. You can’t miss it. Even if you want to. However, when we restore it, we’ll return it to the true colors when Jerry Siegel lived there.
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Q. The Book of Fate begins with a bang. What inspired this thriller?
To me, each novel is first about the character, then the plot. So The Book of Fate began with my own sense of frustration from feeling like I was about to rewrite a character I’d already written many times before. That’s what terrifies me most as a writer – being one of those novelists who just starts churning it out. At the same time, my father was diagnosed with cancer – and in the surgery that saved his life, he received an unavoidable scar that now marks his entire forehead. That’s when the light bulb blinked. I just remember thinking: instead of writing yet another thriller with yet another young perfect hero, what if I took that hero, shattered and broke him in chapter one, and then tried to see if that shattered character could do the same things that his former self did so easily? I wasn’t sure of the answer, so that’s what excited me as a writer. At the same time, I received a letter from former President Bush saying that he liked one of the novels. It’s a fun letter to get. And it put me on my current obsession with studying former presidents. The loss of power is fascinating. So maybe in the end, it was all just fate.
Q. Can you give me a thumbnail sketch of the book in your own words?
The one sentence on the back of the book will probably say something sexy like: Wes Holloway is a young Presidential aide who helplessly watches as fellow aide Ron Boyle is killed in an assassination attempt—but eight years later, Wes learns that his so-called friend Boyle is actually alive. I’m sure there’ll be lots of exclamation points in there—and words like gripping and stunning and brilliant. And for sure they’ll mention the decade-old Presidential crossword puzzle and the two-hundred year old code created by Thomas Jefferson. But I think The Book of Fate is actually about the loss of power and the struggles we all have when we think we haven’t reached our personal potential. Wes, the President, Lisbeth, Rogo, Dreidel, the Three, even Nico – all of them have fallen short from what they’d planned. And The Book of Fate grapples with each of their personal theories for why that’s happened: that it’s an accident, that it’s someone else’s fault, that it’s the circumstances of the moment, that it’s their own fault, and of course—the one all of us in America love to reach for—that it’s fate. All books are a reflection of the time they’re written in. And The Book of Fate is, to me, a reflection of our current world: a world where we all search for heroes—and especially after 9/11—where we realize that the super-perfect-idealized hero doesn’t really exist anymore. In WWII, we were a country of supermen. Now we’re a country of spider-men: people who want to save the day and do it all perfectly, even though we realize we’re all a bit scared and terrified like teenagers inside.
Q. You’ve obviously gotten some unusual access to former presidents George H.W. Bush and Bill Clinton. How did that come about and what has it contributed to the book?
It came from a simple letter I got in the mail from former President Bush. He wrote to say he liked one of the novels—and then put up with me when I asked if I could come out there to see what life was like. As for former President Clinton, I’d met him when The Tenth Justice was published, so was happy when he signed off on me visiting his staff in Harlem. As for what the visits gave me, it gave me every one of the true details in the book that makes you think “that’s exactly how it is.” Because that’s exactly how it is (though the book is all fiction!). My favorite was former Presidents being required to plan their own funerals right when they leave office (what a nice was to say thanks).
Q. What are some of the interesting things you’ve learned about the life of presidents and former presidents?
How absolute the loss of power is. Clinton said it best—when you leave office, “you lose your power but not your influence.” But man, you lose your power. For me, though, the one thing that amazed me was how little we actually use our former presidents. Only recently—with the tsunami and Katrina relief—have we called upon these great men for service. They ran the entire country—and yes, they’ve earned the rest if they want it—but for the most part, we send them on their way and treat them like second cousins, only calling them on anniversaries and birthdays. As for what else I learned, my favorite details are in the book: from how some presidents race to get their morning briefings as their last tie to power, to how others miss the spotlight so much, they travel abroad because that’s when they get briefed by the CIA. It’s a subculture shared by four men. Current Bush will soon make it five. It’s the greatest most elite club in the world.
Q. How does Wes Holloway compare to the heroes of your previous novels?
I hope Wes is the homonym to my other characters: he sounds and is spelled the same, but he has an entirely different meaning. Of all my characters, I think I feel the most for Wes—especially because of his link to my own father. And let’s be honest, every one of my books is really about my father.
Q. You seem to be diversifying away from your earlier legal-based thrillers. Did you make a conscious decision to aim for a larger market with The Book of Fate?
It’s odd—when The Tenth Justice came out, I never thought of myself as a legal thriller writer. But the publishers and press liked that box, and they thought it would sell books, and I was 27 years old, so I was more than happy to go along with it. But the books I’ve written have always been designed to transport readers into a world they couldn’t go otherwise, from the Supreme Court, to the White House, to the Capitol, to prestigious private banks, to the world of former presidents and secrets about our founding fathers and the Masons. The books are always steeped in historical research, not law—and I’ve proudly never written a true courtroom scene. I was a history major and I’ll always be a history major. So to me, I’m doing what I always do—simply writing about worlds that fascinate me.
Q. Could The Zero Game really happen, and do you think that right now, there’s a “Zero Game” being played on Capitol Hill?
To be honest I made it up, but so far, two different government employees have told me they’ve seen a smaller variation being played (i.e., people betting on how many votes will be cast for a certain bill). That’s just scary. Also, I’m honestly amazed by how many staffers on the Hill, when they hear the plot, say, “I wouldn’t be surprised if someone was doing that right now.” God bless America!
Q. On the site, you have a “deleted chapter” from The Zero Game. How much of what you write never makes it into the final book?
I wish I could say all of it makes it into the final version, but that’s just not the case. For me, it’s the early chapters of a book that get cut down the most. When I’m done with my research and ready to start a new novel, I’ve got so much I want to put in there, I just vomit it all out in the opening chapters. Those are the same chapters that all my family and friends read and say, “Nice research, but can you get on with the book?” So the early chapters get cut. In The Zero Game, the first seventy pages were originally a hundred and twenty. And the scene in the mine was another thirty pages longer. Welcome to the cutting room floor.
Q. Did you really go down into that mine?
Yep. Probably not the smartest move, but I did—eight thousand feet straight down. The first time I went, because of a flood, we could only go down two thousand feet. I went back two weeks later and they took me to the very bottom. Two weeks after that, those miners got trapped in that Pennsylvania mine. They were 240 feet down; I was 8,000. My wife wanted to kill me—but for my readers, I’ll risk my life.
Q. How hard was it to write the character of Viv?
Far harder than I thought. Viv is a young, black female Senate page. So let me put it this way: There are three things that, no matter what I do, I know I’ll never be in my life: young, black and female. But I just didn’t want to write a walking cliche, so I spent months researching…talking to friends…interviewing people…anything that would put me in that character’s brain. The gender part I could manage—the race issue was tougher. I hope I did her justice.
Q. What was the most fun you had researching this book?
Tie. Crawling around the basements and attics of the Capitol—and going down into the mine (c’mon, they let me wear that hat with the flashlight—what beats that?).
Q. Is Charlie real and can I date him?
No, he’s not real—so save your smutty come-ons for those porn sites. He’s a pure figment of my imagination, with far more hair than I have. And can you date him? Sure, right after your date with the Tooth Fairy.
Q. The Millionaires centers around two brothers. Do you have a brother?
Nope. I have a sister (the Charlie to my Oliver and the Oliver to my Charlie)—but to write the book, I spent months interviewing all my friends who had brothers, trying to pick out the subtle things only brothers can share. In the end, Charlie and Oliver just came to life in my head—and I still think about them, if that makes sense.
Q. The climax of The Millionaires takes place in the underground tunnels under Disney World. Are those real or just urban legend?
Real. Real, real, real (creepy, ain’t it?). And after researching books on the White House, the Supreme Court, and the Capitol, I can honestly say that Disney keeps its secrets better than all of them combined. No lie. You wanna know who should be the head of Homeland Security? Michael Eisner. I love the place, but they don’t play around. They’ll throw you in Mickey-jail without batting an eye. Scarier than Oz.
Q. Is that really your Grandmother’s condo in the book?
Could I possibly make that up? Of course it’s her condo. When I was little, they wouldn’t let us jump in the pool, but I never held a grudge. (They’ll pay one day, though.)
Q. In this book, you used first person narrative (telling the story from Oliver’s point of view). Did this present problems since you had two main characters?
Point of view is always tricky. Get too cute and you risk losing your reader. In fact, when I wrote the first draft of the book, I had each chapter alternating between Oliver’s and Charlie’s POV—but it quickly got so confusing that I switched to just one. It was the hardest decision I made with The Millionaires, but I still think the right one.
Q. What was it like writing Miami for the first time?
Great. When I needed to know what restaurant was on a particular corner, I just called my Dad. He majors in restaurants.
Q. Were you thinking of any President in particular when you wrote this book?
No—I was thinking of all of them. Sadly, you don’t get to be President by being Father of the Year.
Q. While you write thrillers, most people think of you as a “legal thriller” writer. However, this book really deals more with politics than the law. What was the reason for that decision?
It really wasn’t a decision. I just try to write the best book I can. When I researched this one, I thought, “Hey, this White House place is pretty keen.” That was it. As for genres, that just seems silly. Genres can be great, but they’re also a trap. Don’t write for genres. Write for yourself.
Q. Let’s talk about The West Wing. What’s the story? Do you watch it?
Ah, The West Wing. First, it’s a brilliant show, and yes, I love the writing. Second, I’d be a liar if I said it didn’t make me nuts. Why? Here’s the history: The week I started researching The First Counsel was the same week the Monica Lewinsky scandal broke. The Washington Post then wrote this big story about how the Washington thriller was dead, and how no one could compete with reality. And there I was, thinking, “Oh, God—I’m about to start a Washington thriller. How can it be dead?”
Little did I know that two years later, The West Wing would be one of the best shows on television. Of course, by the time it aired, I was already in the editing stage. Then I watched the first show. They deal with the census. In The First Counsel, the opening meeting talks about the census. Their President’s name is Bartlet. In The First Counsel, the politician running against the President is named Bartlett. I almost ate my remote right there. Obviously, it was just a coincidence (the census is always a good, solid, play-at-any-time issue), but it was still nuts. As for Bartlet, that was just freaky weird. Yes, I could’ve changed it—there was time—but that was the name I picked and I wasn’t changing it for anyone. Now, in the book, it just seems like a inside joke.
Q. Is Nora based on a real first daughter?
No (and even if it was Yes, I’d lie).
Q. Rafferty is an evil character. Do you find writing this type of antagonist therapeutic? And is a character with that base level of psychology (pure evil) more difficult to write than a character like Sara, who finds herself faced with moral ambiguity?
Rafferty was actually much harder to write because he was always the bad guy. That’s what he did. Name: Rafferty. Occupation: Bad Guy. Sure, he’s there to scare, but as a character, I’m far more interested in his back story as a loser kid from Hoboken (which only appears on two or three pages).
And is it therapeutic? I’m betting I saved at least seventy-five bucks worth of shrink’s bills just on the final scene alone.
Q. Both yourself and your wife are lawyers. Were the characters of Dead Even based on you and your wife?
No. Okay, that’s a lie. I’ve known my wife since ninth grade. I know how we interact. The opening scene—where Sara and Jared take on the coupon lady? Pretend it didn’t happen in a bagel store; pretend it was in Bethesda, Maryland; pretend Jared had a lot less hair. But are Sara and Jared us? Not a chance (which I can only prove by the fact that half our friends say I’m Jared and that my wife is Sara, while the other half say the reverse).
Q. Was this your first book?
No. The first book I ever wrote was a book called, Fraternity. It got twenty-four rejection letters, and still sits on my shelf. Will I ever go back to it? I don’t know. It’s kinda like a ‘68 Mustang. You can clean it up, and put in a new engine, and install new air conditioning and a CD player, but on some level, when you do that, you rob it of its soul.
What I love about Fraternity is that, whatever I think about it, it’s a book with a soul. It’s me figuring out how to write. And on every page, it has the passion of someone who’s falling in love with the process. That’s what’s great about it. So, yes, I can take it, update it, and put in the new CD player, but sometimes, AM/FM is more than enough.
Q. Are the roommates in the house based on you and your friends?
The funny, handsome ones are me. All the losers are my friend Chris.
Q. How does writing novels compare to playing god with Superman and Batman in the bestselling Identity Crisis, or in Justice League of America?
Superman is easier to write because he’s so well defined-for almost 70 years, writers have been defining him for us. But the difficulty is that you can’t do WHATEVER you want to him. In The Book of Fate, I can do anything I want to any character. I own them. They’re mine. And when you don’t have that power, beyond my own ego, there are creative limits to that.
Q. What’s the biggest difference between writing a novel and writing a comic book?
You have to learn to shut up. When I write a novel, if I want to say someone is nervous, I paint with one palette: the palette of words. Now admittedly, I have an infinite number of words I can use. I can say, “He was sweating.he was tapping his foot.he was scratching his head.” But that permutation of words—even if it’s subtle—is the only way for me to get that idea across. But in a comic book, you’re painting with a brand-new palette. Now you have words and pictures. So for example, in the comic book script, I’ll write the instructions to the artist and I’ll say: Panel one: extreme close-up on Superman. Just on the spit-curl—I just want to see his brow. Panel two: Still tight on the brow, but now show a bead of sweat coming down Superman’s forehead. Panel three: Close-up even tighter on that bead of sweat. Panel four: I want to be so close, we should see the reflection of who he’s talking to in that bead of sweat.” On the page, I haven’t used a single word. But there’s no doubt every reader knows that Superman is terrified. So in a comic, you have to learn to rely on your artist. It’s far more freeing that you know. But you have to take advantage of it—and most writers don’t.
III. THE FUTURE
Q. What are you currently working on?
New book. Yes, it’s a thriller. A sequel to The Inner Circle and The Fifth Assassin.
Q. Will you come speak at my school/charity/corporate event?
Sorry to say, if I did all the speaking requests I’m offered, I’d never see my own family, or write my next book. So the time I allot for speaking in schools tends to get transferred to my work with City Year, which helps put mentors in the country’s neediest schools. As for corporate events, my speaking agent Brenda Kane at APB Speakers can help you. They price me at a ridiculously high rate so that I won’t leave home.
Q. Is there anything you’ve written, where after you saw it in print, you wished were different?
All my author photos. Real quote from someone: “Who taught you how to smile? Mussolini?”
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