Interview: January 26, 2001
January 26, 2001
Brad Meltzer is an author extraordinare --- not only can he write hair raising legal thrillers full of complex characters and enticing plot lines, but he can also conduct interviews in cars on his cell phone during a hectic author tour. Bookreporter.com's Senior Writer Joe Hartlaub wrote the in-depth questions and managed to impress the author in the midst of traffic. Find out the details about Meltzer's new book, THE FIRST COUNSEL, how he dug up so much dirt on the White House, where you can find his cleverly inserted references that our eagle-eye reader Joe already discovered, what he has planned next, and much more.
BRC: One of the many highlights of THE FIRST COUNSEL is the incredibly detailed description it contains on the White House. Assuming that your description was accurate --- and it certainly had the ring of truth to it --- how did you manage to acquire this information, especially that about First Daughters?
BM: THE FIRST COUNSEL is actually one of the most intensely researched books I've ever attempted and that's why it took longer for me to write than anything else [three years]. I started by trying to track down every former First Daughter that was out there. I became obsessed with First Daughters, I contacted as many as I could find and every single one of them slammed the door in my face expect for the one who actually agreed to be a source. She's the one who gave me details about what life is like in the White House. I know the big question is: who is she --- but I'm not saying. And it's not because she said, "Please don't say anything," it's because after two years of researching First Daughters, I realized that these girls get their lives ripped apart. If I said her name then I'd be part of that. Also, people might assume that my character Nora is based on her, which she is not, and I felt I owed this daughter more respect than that.
As far as the secrets, I got those from friends who worked in the White House and took me around and showed me everything, as well as from a former secret service agent, who had actually read THE TENTH JUSTICE and was very amenable to helping me.
BRC: THE FIRST COUNSEL deals with an interesting concept --- a First Daughter given to extreme mood swings and behavioral excesses. Nora Hartson was not, however, reminiscent of any particular first daughter; I actually was reminded more of an infamous intern than anyone else. Given that you began writing THE FIRST COUNSEL shortly before the Lewinsky scandal broke, what was your inspiration for this story? Was it influenced at all by the Lewinsky scandal?
BM: Not at all, it kind of creeped me out. I designed Nora way before I started writing the book and I always knew what I wanted her to be like. Nora on some level is every president's daughter. Each one of them reaches a moment when she wants to scream, but the problem is you don't scream in the White House, you can't scream in the White House --- but in THE FIRST COUNSEL you actually see and hear the scream.
BRC: THE FIRST COUNSEL is written in first person present which works very well for the book. Did you experiment with different voices for THE FIRST COUNSEL, or was it obvious to you from the beginning that this story could only be told in that voice?
BM: I was determined when I started the book that it would be in first person. The other books I've done have always been in third person. I really wanted to try it out. My agent warned me and said, "You think it's going to be easy, but it's not." I found it very freeing since I love to write dialogue, and the whole book becomes a conversation with the reader, so on that level I was concentrating on my strengths. The hard part about writing first person, especially in a thriller, is that your reader never gets to peer over the shoulder of the villain. In every thriller you have that moment where you look over the villain's shoulder; you see him stroking his cat and thinking about taking over the world. In this one I had to think about how to scare the reader without counting on the formulaic tricks.
BRC: On a similar note, did you heavily outline THE FIRST COUNSEL before you began writing it, or was this a novel that moved you along as much as you moved it?
BM: The second is definitely the better way to describe it. When I outline I only do 50-100 page installments, after that you have to let creativity turn the pages. If you outline the whole book at once you lose the spontaneity.
BRC: I'd like to spend a little time on your penchant for inserting --- quite cleverly --- little references in each of your books for readers to pick up on. Joel Westman, for example, is referenced not only in THE FIRST COUNSEL but also in THE TENTH JUSTICE and DEAD EVEN. Similarly, Richard Rubin is a (very) minor character in each book. Do you have any plans to make either of these people a major character in a future novel?
BM: Wow, you are the first person to find Joel Westman, I'm very impressed! I look at it this way --- Joe Westman is the person who links all of us together in the web of life and he's meant to be that person. One day I'll tell his story but not now. But there are some things you may not have noticed... He's Ben's co-clerk IN TENTH JUSTICE, Sarah's upstairs neighbor in DEAD EVEN and Ben's next door neighbor in the FIRST COUNCIL. I do have plans for him, but not yet. Richard Rubin is mentioned for a personal reason and so far no one knows why --- yet. That's all I'm saying.
Close readers will also notice that the law firm that Ben is recruited by in the TENTH JUSTICE is the same law firm that Jared works at in DEAD EVEN. And the best one of all is that there's a moment in DEAD EVEN where Jared's secretary is giving him a pep talk and says, You won this case and that case and the Wexler case --- Wexler is the real name of Rick, who is the villain of THE TENTH JUSTICE. So at that moment it's revealed what happened to the villain --- Jared is the lawyer who gets him off.
BRC: I was also knocked out by the fact that you paid quiet homage to Alan Moore's graphic novel THE WATCHMEN by naming the justices in THE TENTH JUSTICE after each of The Watchmen. I've read elsewhere that you are a big fan of graphic novels. Which other ones have you enjoyed?
BM: Anything by Frank Miller or Neil Gaiman. Garth Ennis also. But DARK NIGHT is still one of the best ones, I reread it every two years or so. If you want more references see if you can figure out who the President's senior staff are named after in THE FIRST COUNCIL.
BRC: You also named one of the justices in THE TENTH JUSTICE after your wife, your high school sweetheart and also a lawyer. Does she have any inclination toward writing a novel?
BM: No, but I think if she did I would love it. Right now I drive the both of us insane enough as it is. As a lawyer she does the real writing, I do the make believe.
BRC: You are presently in the midst of an author's tour in support of THE FIRST COUNSEL, and have a really interesting contest going on your website (www.bradmeltzer.com). You are letting visitors to your website vote for the final stop of your book tour. I love this idea, and have already cast my vote. What led to this idea? And if you were picking the stop, where would it be?
BM: Hawaii! But my publisher told me it had to be one of the 48 continental states. My mom, of course, is voting for Florida every day. Right now it looks like I'm going to Austin, Texas, which is fine by me. I'd love to go to Austin.
BRC: Are there presently plans to adapt any of your novels to film? Is there one you'd particularly like to see on the big screen?
BM: THE TENTH JUSTICE rights have been bought by Fox 2000. And I think it would make a great movie, but to me Hollywood is icing on already great cakes. I'm just happy people pay me to write novels. As far as which one would make the best movie, THE TENTH JUSTICE or THE FIRST COUNCIL, and I'm not sure which, it depends on who does it.
BRC: I have read elsewhere that you are presently working on a new novel, which is ---good news! --- a thriller. Will the new novel have a legal theme, or are you going to venture into uncharted waters?
BM: All I'll say is that it has a lawyer, it is a thriller, but not how you think....
BRC: You and your wife are quietly but extremely active in a number of charities, one of which is highlighted as a subplot of THE FIRST COUNSEL. Could you tell us a little about some of the charities you work with?
BM: Sure, the Arc is a charity that deals with people who are mentally retarded and it helped me do a lot of research for THE FIRST COUNCIL, but beyond that it's one of the most extraordinary organizations I have run into. Their work is absolutely humbling and I'm honored that I get to be mentioned in the same sentence as them. You can find them at http://www.thearc.org
We're also involved with Big Brothers Big Sisters and I had a Little Brother who I still volunteer with. This is why Sarah had a Little Sister in DEAD EVEN.
BRC: Could you share with us your working habits when you are writing a novel, from beginning to end?
BM: I always start with a nugget, in this case a White House lawyer. Then I start doing as much research as I can --- going into the White House, snooping around, meeting with anyone who will talk to me, contacting former presidential daughters, etc. Based on the research I'll hone the plot a little more, and in this case it's --- What if a White House lawyer was dating the President's daughter? From there the most important part of the process is building the characters. I'll spend weeks determining everything I know about the characters --- from what foods they like, what their favorite movies are, what their home life was like, what kind of cereal they eat --- because it's the minutia of life that makes us who we are. And when I finally figure out who they are I throw them into the plot. If I've done my job I don't have to tell them what to do, they tell me what they want to do. From there I work from 9AM to whenever I peter out, sometimes 4PM sometimes 7PM. Writing is like squeezing a sponge --- you can only squeeze so much before it goes dry.
BRC: What authors have been a primary influence on you, both personally and professionally?
BM: Neil Gaiman, Frank Miller, Garth Ennis --- I don't read novels within the legal thriller genre, in fact, I don't believe in genres. I think genres are a trap. On some level the legal thriller lives and dies in the courtroom. I think there are things we've seen a hundred thousand times already and if we keep seeing them no one is going to care. I'm proud to say I'm a legal thriller writer who has never written a true courtroom scene. Even in DEAD EVEN they're only in court for two minutes. That's all on purpose. The only way to keep any genre alive is to do what hasn't been done before. As long as there is some young writer out there who is clicking away at her keyboard or playing around with something new, the genre will always have a future.
BRC: So you don't read legal thrillers --- do you watch any court related television dramas?
BM: I actually don't watch any courtroom TV shows, but I do watch The West Wing, and they do a really good job. But it made me nuts when I was finishing THE FIRST COUNCIL and that show suddenly came on the air :)
BRC: Can you tell us a little about your educational and professional background?
BM: I went to college at the University of Michigan, studied history, took one Great Novels class and a few creative writing classes. Then I went to Columbia law school and learned how to write like a lawyer. Add six months. Add 24 rejection letters. Get lucky. Get a novel published. Mix. There you have it.
BRC: Are there any books you have read in the past six months which you could recommend to our readers?
BM: I finally read TO KILL A MOCKINGBIRD. It's cliche and obvious to say it's great, but it's just that good. And then I also read PEDRO AND ME by Judd Winick about the Real World San Francisco cast member's experience with fellow house mate Pedro, who died from AIDS-related complications after the show aired. Read it; you'll thank me later. Judd is actually my old college roommate. There's a reason why one of the law firms in DEAD EVEN is called Winick and Trudeau.
Check out Brad's website at http://www.bradmeltzer.com