“The X-Factor On Every Page Is Whether The Writer Loves What They’re Doing” 5 Insider Tips With Brad Meltzer
I once wrote a book that my editor was more excited by than I was. I’ll never do it again. Stay true to your voice.
I had the pleasure of interviewing Brad Meltzer, the #1 bestselling thriller writer who does so many different things, it’s a bit intimidating. In addition to his thrillers, Brad hosts his own TV series (Decoded), writes kids books (the mega popular I AM series like I AM MARTIN LUTHER KING, JR., I AM JIM HENSON and I AM JANE GOODALL, and even used his TV show Lost History to help find the missing 9/11 flag that the firefighters raised at Ground Zero. His newest thriller, The Escape Artist is out now.
What is your “backstory”?
On the day that I was born, my father went to the liquor store, bought a bottle of champagne, and said, “I’ll open up this bottle on the day my son gets married.” Pretty good plan, right? The hitch came when I was 13-years-old. I came home from school and my dad told me: He lost his job. To be clear, my dad wasn’t good with money. So at 39 years old, he decided this would be his do-over of life. He put us in the car and moved us to Florida. He had no job, we had no place to live. He only had $1,200 left to his name. We stayed in my grandmother’s one-bedroom apartment — four of us, plus my grandmother and grandfather. One bedroom.
When we moved to Florida, there were all the things that we gave to the movers ⎯ our furniture, our clothes ⎯that’s your stuff. Then there’re those things you keep for yourself — the things that’re so important to you, you don’t let the movers touch it. That’s your life. For my father, when we moved down from Brooklyn to Florida, I remember one thing: That behind our head-rests in the back seat, there were two bottles of champagne (one for me, one for my sister) rolling back and forth in the Florida sun.
My dad did not know squat about taking care of champagne. But me and my sister? We were his life.
Twenty years later, we did open that bottle of champagne at my wedding. It was the foulest, nastiest bottle of champagne I ever tasted. But it was the greatest glass of champagne I ever had.
And that was my life — or at least my start. My mom and dad had great love for me. Stupendous love.
But my life changed in my 9th grade — thanks to my English teacher. When I was in ninth grade, Ms. Spicer told me I was in the wrong class.
“You can write,” she said.
From there, she tried to move me to the honors class, but because of a conflict in my schedule, it wouldn’t work. So she took me aside and told me: “For this entire year, I want you to ignore everything I do at the blackboard. Ignore all the homework assignments I give. Ignore all the discussions. Instead, you’re going to sit here and do the honors work.”
And I did.
What she was really saying was: You’ll thank me later.
A decade later, when my first novel was published, I went back to Ms. Spicer’s class and knocked on the door.
“Can I help you?” she asked. (Of course she didn’t recognize me; the last time she saw me, I had a full head of hair.)
“My name is Brad Meltzer,” I told her, handing her a copy of my first novel. “And I wrote this book for you.”
Within seconds, she was crying. When I asked her why, she told me she was thinking about retiring because she didn’t feel she was having an impact anymore.
“Are you kidding?” I asked. “You have thirty students. We have only one teacher.”
Looking back, Ms. Spicer was the first person who ever told me I could write.
Can you share the funniest or most interesting story that occurred to you in the course of your writing career?
Back when I was fourteen years old, my first job was scooping ice cream. I worked at the Haagen Dazs in the Aventura Mall. By the time I was 17, a friend and I convinced the owner to let us be the managers of the store. And one day, this woman came up and snapped her fingers at me. “You need to serve me!” she barked.
“Ma’am, I’ll be right with you,” I told her.
“Now!” she said.
We go back and forth, and eventually I tell her, “Ma’am, I’m not serving you.”
She goes ballistic and yells, “I want to see the manager!”
“You got it,” I tell her. [I turn away from the podium and turn right back] “How can I help you?” I ask her.
“You’re not the manager!” she yells.
“Yes I am. And I’m telling you, we’re not serving you.”
And she screams at me: “You’re going to be working at this miserable ice cream store for the rest of your miserable life!”
And I calmly told her, “Ma’am, even if I am working here for the rest of my miserable life, you’re still never getting any ice cream.”
For years, I used to tell that story, laughing, saying, “It never even bothered me.”
But I need to admit, it did bother me. It terrified me. It made me see what happened to my dad as my own future — it made me feel like my life would be small or somehow limited. But I now also realize…that fear? That fear this woman brought out in me? It fueled me. It drove me.
Remember what scares you. When you’re jealous of something, afraid of something, enraged by something…that’s your body telling you you care, deep within you, about whatever it is that’s eating at you. So figure out what it is, embrace it, let it be your own rocket fuel.
What are some of the most interesting or exciting projects you are working on now?
I sneak into secret places for a living. The secret tunnels below the White House. The labyrinth below the US Capitol. That’s what I do. But as I was researching my newest thriller, The Escape Artist, the government gave me access to a place I never thought they’d let me into.
“You’re sure?” I said. “You’re gonna let me in?”
“We’ll see you next week,” my contact replied.
It’s a ride that took me from a secret warehouse near Washington, DC, where the government stores its most valuable possessions (think of the end of Raiders of the Lost Ark)…to secret mission rooms inside of Dover Air Force Base…and even to the halls of the Library of Congress, where they showed me the actual donation that Harry Houdini bequethed just for them.
These buildings are full of mysteries…and surprises…and yes, more secrets than you can imagine. Plus one place that held something I never thought I’d see.
What was it?
C’mon…you really think I want to ruin the very first chapters?
This marks my 20th year of writing thrillers — and I’ve never been more excited to share two brand new characters with you: one is named Zig; the other is the mysterious Nola. As the opening page says:
1898, John Elbert Wilkie, a friend of Harry Houdini,
was put in charge of the United States Secret Service.
Wilkie was a fan of Houdini and did his own tricks himself.
It is the only time in history that a magician
was in control of the Secret Service.
That last part is true. The secrets are about to be revealed.
Who are some of the most famous people you have interacted with? What was that like? Do you have any stories?
I’ve gotten very nice fan letters President George HW Bush and also from President Clinton. But the absolute best was getting invited to a private lunch at the White House. I’m not talking about the big public area. I’m talking about the President’s private dining room. It was a small group. They tell you where to sit. And they give you a beautiful engraved nameplate that says: MR. MELTZER — THE WHITE HOUSE. My first thought was, “I’m totally stealing my nameplate.”
Which people in history inspire you the most? Why?
I’ve written I AM ABRAHAM LINCOLN, I AM JIM HENSON, even I AM JANE GOODALL. All of those people inspire me. But I think my favorite story is this: Every time the Wright Brothers went out to fly their plane, they brought enough extra materials for multiple crashes. This meant that every time they went out, they knew they would fail. They would crash and rebuild, crash, and rebuild.
And that’s why they took off.
I wanted my sons to hear that story. I wanted my daughter to hear that story. I wanted everyone to know that if you dream big, and work hard, and you have a good side order of stubbornness, you can do accomplish anything in this world.
What advice would you give to someone considering a career in Hollywood?
My whole life, my biggest fear is reliving what happened to my father. Not the loss of something stupid like money — I’m talking about the loss of stability — the fear of not even knowing where we’d live. That fear is what scares me. It’s what terrifies me. But it’s what absolutely drives me. It is the fire in my soul. Our greatest strengths are our greatest weaknesses. But never forget that our greatest weaknesses, if harnessed correctly, can be our greatest strengths. So if you want to entertain, you must embrace that.
How have you used your success to bring goodness to the world?
We do a ton of charity work with places like City Year and Sharsheret. When you buy my books, you support those charities too. And I tell the stories of goodness, of decency, of kindness in all my books. That’s what the entire I AM series is about. I do it in my thrillers too. The Escape Artist began with my own life, after a USO trip taught me about the secrets of Dover Air Force Base — a place I never thought the government would let me into. The Dover scenes in the book are all based in reality: Dover is home of the mortuary for the US government’s most top-secret and high-profile cases. On 9/11, the victims of the Pentagon attack were brought there. So were the victims of the attack on the USS Cole, the astronauts from the space shuttle Columbia, and the remains of well over fifty thousand soldiers and CIA operatives who fought in Vietnam, Afghanistan, Iraq, and every secret location in between. In Delaware of all places, at Dover Air Force Base, is America’s most important funeral home. In their building, as you see in the book, they make sure our most honorable soldiers are shown the dignity and respect they deserve. In addition, the people there know details about hidden missions that almost no one in the world will ever hear about. Dover is a place full of mysteries…and surprises…and more secrets than you can imagine. As someone who writes thrillers, it was the perfect setting for a mystery. But in today’s world, we need real heroes. The people here are the real deal. I believe you must put that good in the world.
What are your “5 things I wish someone told me when I first started” and why. Please share a story or example for each.
- The most authentic story you’ll ever tell is your own story.
Every book I write holds a lesson I need for myself. Every one.
2. The X-factor on every page is whether the writer loves what they’re doing.
I once wrote a book that my editor was more excited by than I was. I’ll never do it again. Stay true to your voice.
3. The more it hurts, the more you need to use it in a book.
All good writing is free therapy. Enjoy it.
4. Write, write, write, write, bang head against wall, write some more.
As someone told me, if it were easy, everyone would do it. I got 24 rejection letters on my first book. In one of my novels, the editor wrote, sideways on the page, the comment: I’m so bored right now, I wanted put a gun in my mouth!
5. When you get a bad review, watch this: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ZaDdj42HdPo
This last one speaks for itself.
Some of the biggest names in Business, VC funding, Sports, and Entertainment read this column. Is there a person in the world, or in the US whom you would love to have a private breakfast or lunch with, and why? He or she might see this. :-)
Bill Gates. One of the true people making history every day.