What does it take to write a bestselling thriller? For Brad Meltzer, it takes a passion for storytelling and a whole lot of paranoia.
Meltzer is, of course, the author of #1 New York Times bestselling books The Inner Circle, The Book of Fate, and nine other thrillers. His latest is The House of Secrets, which explores a historical mystery surrounding George Washington and Benedict Arnold. Meltzer’s novels are the perfect combination of history, law, and mystery he loves so much.
But what you might not know is that Meltzer’s writing career goes far beyond just fiction. In fact, he is one of few authors to ever place books on the non-fiction (History Decoded), advice (Heroes for My Son and Heroes for My Daughter), children’s (I Am Amelia Earhart and I Am Abraham Lincoln), and comic book (Justice League of America) bestseller lists. Justice League even won him the prestigious Eisner Award.
This busy and diversified storyteller also hosts two popular TV shows; the acclaimed 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.
With Brad’s recently launched line of children’s books, he brings together inspiring tales about some of our biggest heroes including I Am Martin Luther King, Jr., I am Albert Einstein and I Am Lucille Ball. These beautifully illustrated stories were written for his own children, to give them better options for heroes to admire.
With the upcoming release of his next illustrated book, I Am Jim Henson, Raising Nerd sat down with the novelist to learn more about his craft and what inspires him.
RN: Your career spans multiple touch points: law, writing, and TV. As a child, what did you first want to be when you grew up?
Brad Meltzer (BM): Batman. That’s all I wanted to be as a kid. Every single Halloween. But the real truth was, I never thought I’d be a writer. I thought I’d do what everyone I knew did: graduate high school and go to work. My life changed when I became the first in my family to go to college.
RN: Were you always a storyteller? At what point in your life did you realize this was going to be your calling and how did you develop that skill?
BM: I never thought about writing as a skill until my 9th grade English teacher changed my life with these three words, “You can write.” She was the first person who told me I could write. I owe her forever for that.
RN: Your body of work revolves around a wide range of heroes. Who were your heroes as a kid?
BM: When I was little, my grandfather knew I loved hearing Batman stories, so he’d always tell me this one story that went like this: “Batman and Robin were in the Batmobile. And they were riding along the edge of a curving cliff. And up ahead of them was a white van, which held the Joker, the Penguin, the Riddler, and Catwoman. And as they drove along this cliff, Batman and Robin caught them.”
That’s when I’d look him right in the eyes and whisper, “Tell it again.”
He’d smile at me and say, “Batman and Robin were in the Batmobile…”
It was the same story every time. Just four sentences long. But he told me this story over and over simply because he knew I loved hearing it. That’s a hero to me. In that action, he taught me about love and compassion and dedication. He taught me the power of creativity. He opened the first window of my imagination.
RN: At Raising Nerd, we often talk about failure as a fuel for learning and success. Have you ever started a story and simply realized it wasn’t going the right direction or wasn’t as good as you hoped? What got you through that challenge and what advice would you give aspiring authors to help them get through similar challenges?
BM: Don’t let anyone tell you “No.” I got 24 rejection letters on my first novel. It’s still sitting on my shelf, published by Kinko’s. I had 24 people tell me to give it up — that I couldn’t write. But the day I got my 23rd and 24th rejections, I said to myself, “If they don’t like this novel, I’ll write another, and if they don’t like that one, I’ll write another.” Why? Because I fell in love with writing. A week later, I started the book that became The Tenth Justice.
Does that make everyone who sent me objections wrong? Not a chance. The best and worst part of publishing is that it’s a subjective industry. All it takes is one person to say “Yes.” You just have to find that person.
RN: How much do you draw from your own law background/experience or real life news/conspiracies when devising plots for your thrillers vs. letting your imagination run wild?
BM: All thriller writers are paranoid. If a thriller writer says they’re not paranoid, they’re lying. But, yes, I love drawing on my own experience. So when I write about secret tunnels below Disney World, you better believe it’s because I went there (read the ending of The Millionaires).
RN: For the dedication in one of your Justice League books, you call your mom “the true creative one in the family.” In what ways? And how did/does her creativity inspire your work?
BM: My mom was an interior decorator. She barely had any education, but she used to tell us: “You can’t teach taste.” Once, I took her to the White House — and as a decorator, I couldn’t wait for her to be impressed by the decor. She took one look around and said, “Unga patchke,” which is slang for “Overdone. Feh.” It was the White House! She hated snobs, she hated phonies, she hated rich obnoxious jerks who can only talk about what kind of car they drive. And when she died and I’d see the nurses or the waitresses in places she went, all they’d say is, “Oh, your mother was the best.” As one receptionist reminded me, “Not everyone is nice like that.” The truth about you is what people say behind your back. And I love my mother so much for that: From the Queen of England to the janitor in the bathroom, she’d treat you the same.
RN: When and how did you get involved w/ DC Comics and did Comic Books play a big role in your creative development as a future storyteller?
BM: I’d spent a decade hiding comic book references in my thrillers. So an editor finally approached me and offered me the chance to write Green Arrow. I told him, “I’ve been waiting my whole life for someone to ask me that.” Comics were what I read. And still do.
RN: Which genre (thriller, kids picture book, or graphic superhero novel) is the most challenging for you to develop and why? Most satisfying and why?
BM: The picture books are my soul in book form. They let me give kids real heroes. But the thrillers are really the house I build with my own hands. There’s nothing like looking at that blank page and having to create a whole world.
RN: How does one go from writing political thrillers to writing historic biographies for young readers (i.e., what got you interested in doing the I Am… series and Heroes books)?
BM: Blame my kids. This series was born because I was tired of my kids 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 — it’s them being just like us.
RN: Your newest I Am… book is about Jim Henson. Did you ever have a chance to meet him? What inspired you to write about him?
I never met him, but his family has been so nice to us as we put the book together. But of all the hero books we’ve done, this is the very first where the person was truly my hero growing up. For me, it was always Jim Henson and Mr. Rogers. Those were the ones who changed my life. They taught me there’s good in all of us.
Sure, we’re all different. Some of us have beards, or no hair, or blue fur, or green flippers. But goodness lives within each of us. And best of all, you can use your creativity to share it with others.
RN: If you could have dinner party with all of the subjects of your I Am… books, which two people’s conversation would you most like to eavesdrop on?
BM: Lucille Ball and Jim Henson. Just imagine it. We’d get art from that!
RN: Here are two questions from my editors’ daughters — both of whom read I Am Jane Goodall AND I Am Albert Einstein. RN Jr. asks, “Can you give us any hints as to who your next subject will be?”
BM: Yes – Sacagawea!
RN Jr.: Who decided which famous people you’d write about – did your kids help you pick?
BM: I pick the people I want my kids to learn about. One son likes sports, so he got Jackie Robinson. My other son is creative, so he got Jim Henson. And my daughter needed to have a female entertainment hero who wasn’t just famous for being thin and pretty. So she got Lucille Ball.
RN: If you had one piece of advice for aspiring Nerds, what is it?
BM: I got 24 rejection letters on my first book. Keep going, keep going, keep going!