In 1997, The Tenth Justice, the first novel Brad Meltzer published (and the second one he wrote) hit the bestseller list. Himself a recent grad of Columbia Law School, Meltzer wrote a book about a mistake made by a conscientious clerk for a Supreme Court Justice and the deepening crisis that unfolds from that mistake. This month, he publishes his tenth novel, THE PRESIDENT’S SHADOW. It is a fast-paced, high-stakes thriller that begins with the discovery of a severed arm in the Rose Garden of the White House. At the center of the story is a nerdy National Archivist who holds his own among characters trained in violence and steeped in betrayal.
Meltzer’s stories are often about consequence and trust, with plot twists that leave a reader reeling. Yet the expectations he may be best at toppling are about himself. He leaped out of the box of legal-thriller writer early and crafted high-stakes suspense stories that draw on fascinating research revealing secret societies and hidden people and places that may seem too good to be true—yet often are. The line between truth and fiction is hard to pin down in a Brad Meltzer book. While turning out novels that reach the top of the New York Times bestseller list, he writes comic books, nonfiction about children’s heroes, and television series, and he hosts a television show called “Brad Meltzer’s Lost History.” He is also active in organizations promoting literacy in the state of Florida, where he lives with his wife and three children.
For The Big Thrill, Meltzer explains his character choices, shares his research approach and the secret to his daunting balancing act, and talks about the mistake he made early on that turned him into a more fearless writer.
The protagonist of THE PRESIDENT’S SHADOW is Beecher White, returning from The Fifth Assassin and The Inner Circle. When did you first realize that a young archivist would make an ideal main character?
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 is just his brain? He couldn’t fight, couldn’t fire a gun. But he’s smarter than all of us. And didn’t feel the need to show you.
Throughout the book, you play with the reader’s perception of the personality and lifestyle of an archivist, a dedicated researcher. Is that part of your mission with these novels, to reveal how an archivist could be a new variety of action hero?
That’s just me telling the truth. Go to the National Archives. There’s a beautiful type there. I was just reporting what I saw. Bookish introverts with obsessive love for the arcane. In that, I found the archivists—and of course myself.
The Secret Service plays a critical role in the book. How did you research the details of their jobs? Was it easy to get access? And have the recent news stories about the failures of the Secret Service surprised 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 hive mind that looks for and finds every flaw the instant it happens.
With House of Cards, Scandal, and Homeland, Washington, D.C. is currently the setting for some very compelling TV series. You clearly revel in political plots. Why do you think that in both the thriller genre and in television drama, politics is so hot now?
It’s 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.
You’ve written TV series. How is working with a TV production company different than working with a book publisher? Do you have more control or less?
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. 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, et cetera 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.
You work in so many different mediums. How do manage your time so that each project gets the needed mental focus? And do you work with different teams in your fiction, your television work, your comic books and your philanthropy? If so, how is this possible!?
I have one rule: Write what you love. If you love it, you’ll make the mental room for it. You’ll have no choice. So when I took on the kid’s books, it was because I felt like I needed to do those for my kids. Same with TV. I just was obsessed with the opportunity to look at so many historical mysteries. Yes, it’s made my schedule a little more insane, but who wants to do the same thing every day forever? This way, it’s always different. And as for different teams, no one—and I repeat—no one has been luckier in terms of who I’ve been blessed enough to work with. The thrillers, kids’ books, nonfiction, comics, TV, the charity work, these people are my family. They come into my life and help me achieve what I could never do alone. I can tell you about each one of them, who just had a child, who lost a husband, who has cancer. That’s what you do with family.
Some critics feel that comic books have taken over feature films to the detriment of film as an art form, and that the deeper and more challenging stories are to be found on television. As an award-winning comic book author, how do you feel about that perception?
See above. The one thing I despise more than just about anything else is snobbery. Ask anyone who knows me. It’s the one thing that gets me really angry. Quickly. In every medium, ninety percent is crap and ten percent is gold. Same in books, comics, TV. There’s greatness everywhere. And do superheroes kill independent film? For now. But it’ll be back. People always want to tell stories. For now, that’s raced to TV…and actual comics too. But a good story can never be ignored. Not for long.
THE PRESIDENT’S SHADOW begins with a shocking jolt. How difficult is it to begin a thriller with the car going at top speed and keep the pace flowing without the reader feeling numbed by too many action beats?
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.
THE PRESIDENT’S SHADOW works on three different timelines, with rotating POV, yet as a reader I never lost the thread of the story. Is that something you’ve worked up to as a novelist with developing your craft or were you always able to execute a complex plot?
Sometimes I’m better than others. Last book, in the early draft of The Fifth Assassin, the editors kept saying they were lost with the multiple POVs and time shifts. So I learned. This time, I let the reader settle more and get their bearings. Once they’re locked in, seatbelt on, then we jump. Nothing that looks easy is ever that easy.
How difficult was it to tap President George Bush as a research source? Do you think it bothers President Bush that your president is such an ambivalent figure—in fact, it could be argued that he IS one of the bad guys? Or does he get a kick out of it?
Years ago, 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. As for my President, he seems to like the character because he knows it’s not him. 🙂
One of the antagonists in this book suffers from what seems like real mental illness. Did you worry about feeding into public prejudice about violence and mental illness?
Nico is based on years of research into real psychosis and real patients and real case studies. He doesn’t mustache-twirl. He’s real. That’s why I think he’s so scary. Is that how everyone with mental illness is? Of course not. I think people understand that. But what I’ve always told my wife: These books are never just Beecher’s story. They’re Nico’s story. He’s not the villain. He’s the hero.
I’ve read that you created one of the first author websites. How many ideas did you have to go through until you were happy with your site, and how do you feel about the “state of the industry” when it comes to author websites?
Back then, we just threw stuff up and created it ourselves, because we’d never seen one before. I’m still proud of it. The Q&As with the fictional characters are still on my site under each early book. As for now, like anything else, some are staid, some are great. The best ones are where you feel the author’s voice. It’s no different from a book.
You have a successful author brand. How much work did that require?
Far more than I could ever explain in a few sentences. It’s a lifetime of work paired with a lifetime of help from amazingly generous people. They deserve the credit. There’s one name on the cover of every book, but only a fool thinks it’s a one-person show.
As a novelist with a passion for history, I sense that you feel the same way. Do you ever have to stop yourself from doing more research—when do you get the feeling of “I’ve got it” in a certain area, or do you sometimes feel you could keep going forever?
Every day. 🙂
I was recently in Alexandria, Virginia, and the sight of the soaring Masonic Temple across from the train station gave me a delicious chill. What is it about us that we are so drawn to secret societies—and how do you harness that fascination in your work?
We will forever want to know what we don’t know. But what we can’t know? That’s what we obsess over. The mystery mixes with fear and, well…now we really have something we NEED to know. Plus, c’mon, the Freemasons are just cool. Especially when you see the secret rooms in the headquarters. (See what I did there?)
I did, and I love it! Okay, many up-and-coming thriller writers want to ask a bestselling author this question and here it is: How different is your career now, when you are calling the shots on what books you want to write, from those first contracts?
For me, those first contracts were where I was most afraid. I’d worked so hard and was so scared to lose it all. So when I was working on my second novel, I ignored my own original, risky idea and did a book that my editor wanted. One that was: more like the first. It was a mistake. I’m proud of the book, but it took part of my soul. And the book did terribly. When it was done, I told myself I’d never do that again. So the next book, I followed my gut and that book became the biggest one I’d put out. So. Never underestimate how much more fear “successful” authors have. It’s far easier to be brave when you have nothing to lose. But the only way to find your true voice is to risk it all every time and just do what you love. Be brave. If you don’t, you’ll be putting out churned-out garbage.
Brad Meltzer is the #1 New York Times bestselling author of The Inner Circle, The Book of Fate, and seven other bestselling thrillers including The Tenth Justice, Dead Even, The First Counsel, The Millionaires, The Zero Game, The Book of Lies, and his newest, The Fifth Assassin.
In addition to his fiction, Brad is one of the only authors to ever have books on the bestseller list for Non-Fiction (History Decoded), Advice (Heroes for My Son and Heroes for My Daughter), Children’s Books (I Am Amelia Earhart and I Am Abraham Lincoln) and even comic books (Justice League of America), for which he won the prestigious Eisner Award.
He is also the host of Brad Meltzer’s Lost History on H2 and Brad Meltzer’s Decoded on the History Channel. The Hollywood Reporter recently put him on their list of Hollywood’s 25 Most Powerful Authors.
Photography Credit: Andy Ryan