Barnes & Noble Review Interview with Brad Meltzer
"The news is always depressing, right? That's why we read thrillers." From the floor of BookExpo America, Brad Meltzer sat down to discuss humble beginnings, seeing himself on billboards, his take on political conspiracy theories, and why the best writing advice of his career came from his mom. What follows is an edited transcript of our conversation. Nick Curley
The Barnes & Noble Review: I'd be hard-pressed to name any other author here at BookExpo who is soon releasing massive books for two different publishers. As I was walking up here this morning, there was an enormous billboard of . . .
Brad Meltzer: . . . my giant head. Right? Did you see the other side? [Presents photograph on his phone of the back of a billboard, revealing both the back of his head and back of The President's Shadow in their respective majesties.] It's like me re-posing the pose.
BNR: Even at fifty feet high, it's very slimming.
BM: That's all I ask for.
BNR: What is your reaction when you see something like that?
BM: Do you know what my first thought is? "My friends are going to give me such crap for this." Which probably tells you more about my friends. I feel blessed that they went and did something like that. But you can't take that seriously. You have to laugh. If there are any car accidents this weekend, it's because my family is there taking pictures of the thing nonstop.
BNR: Do you have an earliest memory of writing a story?
BM: In fifteen years, no one has ever asked me that. I don't want to give you a fast answer. I want to give you the right answer.
I remember writing a lot. For me it actually started with art. My first stories were comic books, and Agatha Christie-style mysteries. They were very pop-culturey. I used to take tracing paper and put it over Superman and Batman, because I couldn't draw, but I wanted to create, and I didn't know how. So I would just trace every line. Like a maniac. Like a crazy person.
Oh, you know what? I got one better than that. Now my synapses are firing. I'll tell you that one, too.
I applied to only one college. My family didn't have money to apply to a lot of colleges, so it was basically kind of like, "Pick one and we'll give you the money to apply to that one." I applied to the University of Michigan, which is where I wound up going.
Instead of writing an essay that tells you about yourself, I wrote a love letter. I said, "Dear University of Michigan, I love you." I'm risking it all, I don't care, maybe a disaster, but this is what I've got. I really still think to this day that I got in because of that essay. My grades were fine, but this essay was like, "This is where I am, this is who I am; I'm going throw it down, and either this is going to be a big disaster that they frame and say, "This is what you should never do" or . . .
BNR: There had to be some grateful admissions officer out there . . .
BM: . . . who was getting fifty million essays about how your mother is your inspiration. But I didn't know that.
Before that, the Miami Herald had a contest to talk about your favorite vacation place. Again, we didn't have a lot of money, so we didn't go on vacations. My family didn't do that. So I made up that my favorite vacation was a University of Michigan football game. I had never been to a football game at the University of Michigan. Total fiction, masquerading as truth. I think I got second or third place. Dave Barry and all these people were the judges, and the Herald gave me about fifty bucks. A ton of money to me. I knew when that happened: "Wow, they believed that."
BNR: You're writing in a variety of different mediums for unique audiences. Is there a particular time or place that you write best in? What does your workspace look like?
BM: I don't need a place. The only thing I need is for the place to be the same, over and over. Most of the time, I write at home. I wrote my first book in a closet, in a crappy apartment. It was a walk-in closet that I said was "my office." I had no windows. All I could squeeze in there was a chair and a bookshelf.
BNR: You were living with author Judd Winick at the time. BM: Yeah, in Boston. We had a two-bedroom apartment. Each of us had a closet, and both of us made the closets our offices. Imagine your closet. Imagine me writing in there for a year. As long as it's the same place, eventually the walls fall away, and then I'm in my magical mystery place.
I once had something happen in my house, and so for months I wrote The Millionaires in the library. On the first day, I can't help but stare and look around, but by day ten . . . As long as it's the same place, everything fades. You want everything to disappear. I could even write here eventually, as long as I'm here every day.
BNR: The President's Shadow follows The Inner Circle and The Fifth Assassin as the next Beecher White tale. How do you think an author finds new life in a returning character? How does that character evolve through recurring books?
BM: I never wanted to do a series character. When I started my career, I remember thinking, "If you're doing a series character, it's because you can't come up with new ideas." I know it's because I was young and stupid. Then the truth was, when I wrote Batman [comic books], I realized that when you do a series character, you can find so many beautiful layers you never saw before. For me, that was the fun. I always knew Beecher's full story, and this is where you see the payoff of it. To me, those three books are really one book. I see them as one adventure.
BNR: This particular book delves further into "the Culper Ring," the secret society to protect the president. Readers are drawn into this notion of a shadowy, secret Washington behind the curtain. Do you personally subscribe to the notion that there are underground contingents going on within government operations?
BM: I don't think there's some guy stroking his cat, twirling his moustache, trying to take over the world. But here's what I know. Years ago, I got a call from the Department of Homeland Security, asking me to come and bring in some different ways that terrorists could attack the United States. My first thought when that happens is, "If they're calling me, we have bigger problems than anybody thinks." But I was honored to be part of the Red Cell program. They paired me with a Secret Service agent and a chemist. They would give us a target, like a U.S. city, and we would destroy the target. When I traced it back through history, I saw that the method traveled back to one person: George Washington. Washington had his own secret spy ring made up of regular, ordinary people. When I said to my friend in Homeland Security, "Wouldn't it be cool if you found out that George Washington's spy ring still exists?" he said to me, "What makes you think it doesn't?"
I don't think governments lie. People lie, and they lie for very personal and sometimes selfish reasons. So I am not the subscriber of grand, vast conspiracies, because I think people can't keep their mouths shut that often. I do think there are people doing very horrible things. But it's never as complex as the movie makes it out to be.
The fact that they called me, and I volunteered, and no one knew about it for years, because we couldn't talk about it that all happened. I lived it. So I know that there are things happening in the government that nobody knows about.
BNR: Be it a series or be it a stand-alone book, do you a great thriller has certain components, or common ingredients?
BM: A good story is a good story. That's it. That's the only rule. When I did my first book, it had humor. The characters were young, and they were cracking jokes. It seems very obvious now, but at the time there were people saying, "You can't do a thriller like this; they have to be scared and running." I thought, "Why can't they be like us?" But back then, fifteen years ago, the Washington Post said it was breathtaking. "Fresh new ground" or whatever they called it.
Whether it's a thriller or literary fiction, the best one that's going to be written is being worked on right now by some woman in her garage that none of us had ever heard of. She is going to present a brand-new way to do this that none of us has ever thought of. I love that. What will it be at the end of the day, when you really boil it down? It will be a good story, and that's what it should be. A good story will have a good character, someone you care about, and that's pretty much all you need.
BNR: In crafting a Washington-based series, has it changed your view of the way the system works or the way politicians work at all? Do you find yourself more optimistic or more pessimistic about our current climate?
BM: Listen, the news is depressing. The news is always depressing, right? That's why we read thrillers. But as I've gotten older, the one thing I've struck by is just how human the people in power are. When I started my career, I never wrote the president as a character. I wrote a whole book about the White House, and the president doesn't have a line of dialogue. Because I didn't understand the president. He just seemed like this cliché who would run around. People would say, "Yes sir" and "no sir." It wasn't a real person. But then, after being fortunate to be able to meet a couple of U.S. presidents, you see they are just as human as us. They are great, sad, amazing, weak just like all of us are all those things.
I used to think that there were good people and bad people. But what makes a great conspiracy is that all of us are a little good and all of us are a little bad, and it's much more complex than you think when there's a problem. That to me makes for a better story.
BNR: Given your abundant body of work, one question that you perhaps receive from readers that may apply here is: do you sleep?
BM: I don't even really write any more. I just pay some kids in Malaysia to do it for me. Look: I have one rule. That is, you have to love everything you're working on. If I love it, I'll find time for it. If I love the children's books, I'll find time for it. If you love what you do, you'll find time to do it.
Whatever your hobby is in your life, that thing you're passionate about, no matter how busy you are in your life, whether it's gardening or coin collecting or comic book collecting or dressing up as Wonder Woman at night, whatever your thing is, you find time for it. Why? Because you love it. That's how I approach everything I work on. So whether it's a kids' book, a thriller, a television show, whatever it might be, I have to feel passionate about it. No matter what, I've got to keep doing it. And then I'll find the time. And then at four o'clock, even when I want to just take off and be done, I'll say, "No, I'm going to do this, because this story needs to be told."
BNR: Is there a genre or medium that you've not yet had the opportunity to try your hand at that you sort of have in mind?
BM: Young Adult. I know the story I have to tell. I know what I want to do. But I just haven't physically felt the time yet. I've got to make the time. But I want to do Young Adult.
BNR: I was talking to Paulo Bacigalupi of The Water Knife and The Windup Girl, and one thing that he was saying about writing for young adults is that the propulsion of the story is such that you have to keep your audience interested on every page.
BM: Every page.
BNR: In closing, can you recall a memorable piece of advice that you received as a writer?
BM: My second book had come out and hadn't done very well. My publisher was shutting down, and I thought this was the end of my career. I called my mom terrified and I said to her, "I'm just worried it's over; that I'm finished." And she said to me, "I'd love you if you were a garbage man." And she wasn't taking a crack at garbage men. My uncle was a garbage man. She was saying, "I don't care if you're the king of England or the guy who sweeps the floors; it doesn't matter. I love you. I'm here for you." To this day, every day that I sit down to write, I say those words in my head, just soaking in my mom's love for me. It's what gives me perspective.
I got twenty-four rejection letters on my first book. There were only twenty publishers. I got twenty-four rejection letters. I think the advice that I'd give to anyone is, "Don't let anyone tell you no." Whatever you do, whether you want to write a book, or you're a teacher, lawyer, doctor, stay-at-home mom or dad: don't let anyone tell you no. That is exactly how you can get what you want. You have to keep telling yourself yes.
BNR: That's such a resonant idea for me, in that people - - particularly artists stave off their own happiness. Young writers are guilty of saying, in so many words, "I'll be lovable only after I've published my book."
BM: That means you're looking for love on an accomplishment. That will never bring you happiness. Your happiness will never come from some outside accolade. You love yourself first, and then you can be loved.
August 12, 2015