Usually I can pinpoint the moment where an idea comes from. For this one, I just woke up and it was there: One morning in the White House Rose Garden, the First Lady uncovers a severed arm buried in the dirt. How did the hand get there? How’d they get past security? And most important, what’s the secret puzzle that’s hidden in the hand? That was the mystery I wanted to solve. So from there, I gave the plot to experts in the Secret Service and other places, and I asked them: What would you do first? The answers will surprise you.
Exactly. In this book, I got to find one of the real places where the government took Abraham Lincoln’s killers. Beyond John Wilkes Booth, there were eight other co-conspirators who plotted to kill Abraham Lincoln. Four were hung. Four others, including Dr. Samuel Mudd, were secretly shipped via boat to Devil’s Island aka Fort Jefferson aka the Dry Tortugas. I live in Miami and had no idea this island even existed. So I did what any other history nerd would do: I went to visit. In the book, you’ll see what’s there.
I love this. To me, it’s not a jolt. That opening scene is a slow little character piece that reveals, over the course of this intimate moment, a severed arm in the Rose Garden. If I just came in, guns blazing, buildings falling, you wouldn’t care. You care because it’s quiet and small. And that’s all it should be.
It just cycles. You can’t predict it. When the Lewinsky scandal broke, the Washington Post did this big story on how the White House thriller was dead and that only a fool would be trying to do one now, since the Lewinsky story was so insane. At the time, I was working on The First Counsel, a White House thriller. I didn’t care. That was the story I wanted to tell. Then a month before it came out, a little show called The West Wing came on the air. It was amazing for me. I looked like a genius. But really, I just got lucky. In the end, power is endlessly fascinating.
When I met my first archivist. They just had all the nerdy goodness I wanted to give Beecher. And the real goal was: can I build this hero whose superpower was just his brain? He couldn’t fight, couldn’t fire a gun. But he was smarter than all of us. And didn’t feel the need to show you.
A decade ago, during my first meeting with a Secret Service agent, I sat down with him and thought: “There’s no way he’s telling me anything. The word “Secret” is in the job title.” Then he looked at me and said, “I liked your book The Tenth Justice a lot and I want to help you.” From there, it was just about trust. They’ve helped me with half a dozen books now. Sometimes they’ll say, “We can show you this, but you can’t write about it — but you need to understand it so you can write about this other part.” I always keep that trust. I respect what they do so much. As for recent news, listen, no one wants to see a security lapse. Especially them. But they’re made just like the rest of us. Human. In my mind, these holes in security were always there throughout history. Agents in every agency will always screw up somewhere, all of us will. It’s just that now, we’re this relentless hivemind that looks for and finds every flaw the instant it happens.
Those places remind me to never forget where I came from. Ever. Every day when I sit down to write, the one thing I do is I remember when my true first novel was out there trying to be sold. I went to New York to have these meetings with two editors who were like, “We really like it, we think we’re going to buy it,” and my agent said, “I’m going to call you tomorrow and tell you how much they’re going to pay for it.” And I was like, “Oh my gosh, the offers are coming in!” And I picked up the phone and she said to me, “Sorry, kiddo.” They both bailed, and the book never sold. Every day that I sit down to write, in my head I paint that scene again, and I picture that crappy Formica desk, I picture that lint that was floating through the air, I picture the corded phone that was in my hand, I picture every detail of that moment, and then I picture my agent saying to me, “Sorry, kiddo.” Because the moment you think you’re done, and the moment you think you’ve made it, you’re finished. The best motivator is to remember what it’s like to have nothing at all–to keep yourself hungry.
Read more Q&A with Brad here.