A Conversation with Brad Meltzer
Brad Meltzer is a mere mortal with a superhuman catalog of accomplishments to his name. He’s the New York Times bestselling author of nine political thrillers, including The Fifth Assassin, which “layers history, politics, and murder into a masterful tale that grabs the reader from the opening pages and does not let go.” He’s a winner of the prestigious Eisner Award, given for creative achievement in American comic books. He’s the host of Brad Meltzer's "Decoded", a mystery and conspiracy theory investigation television series. And let’s not forget his Non-Fiction work, or his new children’s book series illustrated by Christopher Eliopoulos. Ahead of the release of "I Am Rosa Parks", editorial manager Simon McDonald spoke with the best selling author about his children's series, the power of stories, and heroes.
Brad, when you see your career summarized in a single paragraph like that, what’s the one accomplishment that most stands out for you or that you’re most proud of?
Of everything I’ve been lucky enough to do, there’s nothing like seeing my work parodied in Mad Magazine. That was a true life highlight. For the next week, I wanted to dress up as Spy vs. Spy.
You’re on record as saying you never planned on being a novelist, you came to it by chance; but years later, what keeps you writing, and what drives you to explore such a variety of genres and mediums?
I believe in the power of stories, and over the years, I realize that’s my true love. If I have a good story, I want to share it. If someone tells me a good story, I want to pass that along too. Even in college, for expository essays, I’d ask the professor if I could answer the question in a fictional story format. In a psychology class, I did an essay on Freud by showing him get into a fistfight. Stories can come in any format, but for me, that’s the way I know how to communicate.
The idea of heroes – that everybody has the potential to be one – permeates through much of your work. Many of your thrillers pit unlikely heroes against seemingly impossible odds, while your Non-Fiction work, Heroes for My Daughter and Heroes for My Son, have served as inspiration to countless children as they explore the notion of heroes, and what it means to live good, fulfilling lives. Does your love of heroes stem from a childhood reading comics or is there more to it than that?
I think all heroes stem from a need deep within you. You show me your hero, and I’ll show you who you are. So for me, that need to inspire comes from my own fears as a child. My own loss. Not to get all Freud on it, but when I was 13 years old, my family lost everything. Dad lost his job. We had no place to live, almost no money saved, it was all gone. I was saved by my heroes. And yes, that enhanced my addiction to them. The best story we’ll all tell is our own
How does your writing process vary from project to project? I would imagine scripting an issue of Justice League of America or Batman is vastly different to writing your thrillers; and writing your new children’s series in tandem with Chris Eliopoulos must exercise different creative muscles, too!
The best part of having an artist to lean on is, well, that you can lean on them. In our Amelia Earhart children’s book, I told Chris to draw “the greatest ride of all time.” Clearly, I’m a master of description. From there, it was up to him to bring it to life. Also, the one thing that pictures can do so much better than words, is simply silence. I love silence in a visual format. So much in our world is conveyed in silence, but in a novel, it’s so much harder to show that subtlety. In a visual format, you can just see the heartbreak on someone’s face. I didn’t need to use a single word.
You’re clearly a fan of real world mysteries and conspiracy theories. You’ve explored them in both your fiction and in your television series, Decoded. How much liberty do you take in your novels when weaving authentic details into a pulse-pounding narrative? Have you ever struggled on a particular plot point because the facts did not substantiate the direction your character was headed in?
The best part of a novel is you can make it up. I can change history. But when it comes to deciding what a character should do, I always listen to the character. That has to come before the cold facts of history.
You’ve partnered with Chris Eliopoulos on a new children’s book series, which began with I Am Abraham Lincoln and I Am Amelia Earhart, and continues with I Am Albert Einstein and I Am Rosa Parks. What inspired you to pen the series?
For me, it isn't just a book series. It's my dream for my daughter, my dream for my sons, my dream for all of us who need to see the power of an ordinary person, and the power and potential in each of us. The series was born because I was tired of my daughter thinking that reality TV stars and loud-mouthed sports players were heroes. I tell my kids all the time: That’s fame. Fame is different than being a hero. I wanted my kids to see real heroes...and real people no different than themselves. For that reason, each book tells the story of the hero when THEY were a kid. We see them as children. So it's not just Amelia Earhart and Abraham Lincoln being famous but them being just like us. Look around. We live in a world that is starving for heroes. This is our solution. No pressure, right?
What were your favorite books as a child? And have you tested their longevity with your own children?
My daughter just told me that her favorite Dr. Seuss book was Fox in Socks, which is my favorite Dr. Seuss book. At that moment, I realized my work as a parent was done. Can’t wait to give them Agatha Christie.
And finally, Brad, on your website, in your personal note to readers about your new children’s book series, you asked: “What do you actually stand for? What do you represent? Or to ask it more bluntly: if you disappeared, what would people remember you for?" Decades from now, Brad, how do you hope to be remembered?
A nice guy. That’ll do just fine.
Check out Brad's Must-Read Books, too!