Author Talk: January 14, 2011
Brad Meltzer is the bestselling author of eight critically acclaimed thrillers, including his latest, THE INNER CIRCLE, which follows a young government archivist who stumbles across a long-lost treasure, only to find himself caught in a deadly web of deception, conspiracy and murder --- one that leads to a secret dating back to the birth of America itself. In this interview, Meltzer gives the scoop on the conversation with a former President that inspired his new novel, elaborating on national security issues and George Washington’s top-secret civilian spy group --- which may or may not exist today. He also shares the story of how he got to hold the Declaration of Independence (and why he deliberately left it out of THE INNER CIRCLE), reveals how he got several ex-Presidents to help him with his research, and explains why he believes that our everyday choices are the most important ones we make.
Question: Where’d the idea for THE INNER CIRCLE come from?
Brad Meltzer: It all came from a private conversation I had with a former President of the United States. I'll never forget it. We were talking about how hard it was to keep a secret and make sure you're not overheard when you're in the White House. And when a real President whispers something like that to you, you pay attention. But as I looked back through history, I realized the problem dated back to George Washington himself, who devised a secret group that would serve just the President. They weren't military men. They were regular citizens. Just like us. Washington called them The Culper Ring --- and they were the secret weapon of the Revolutionary War, even though they were never in most history books. You're telling me the first president of the US had a secret spy group that saved our country? I'm interested. And as I talked to my National Security folks, we kept coming back to one idea: who says this secret group was ever disbanded? Who says it doesn't exist today? When someone in National Security said to me: "I wish we had The Culper Ring today" --- that's when I know I had the plot for the book.
Q: Your previous novels have been set in Washington, DC, in places like the White House and the Supreme Court. What made you decide to use the National Archives as the setting for your upcoming novel?
BM: I came to visit and fell in love. Truly. Lost history…secret documents…long-forgotten letters from Presidents and other big shots --- all of which tell the true history of our nation. How could a history nut not fall in love? Plus, they let me hold the Declaration of Independence.
Q: So it was all based on a visit to the Archives?
BM: A few years back, I got a call from Homeland Security asking me if I'd come in and brainstorm different ways for terrorists to attack the US. My first thought was, "If they're calling me, we've got bigger problems than anyone thinks." But they'd seen the research in my books. And they know I have good sources, so they invited me in. I was honored to be a part of the Red Cell program. They'd pair me with a Secret Service guy and a chemist --- and they'd give us a target --- and we'd destroy major cities in an hour. It's not the kind of day where you go home feeling good. You go home terrified, because you see how easy it is to kill us. On lunch breaks, I'd be talking to all the national security folks --- and they're the ones who helped me tease out the plot of THE INNER CIRCLE. They're the ones who taught me what else every President needs --- plus I had what one former President gave me. But once I saw the Archives, I knew I had a place to tell that tale.
Q: One of the recurring themes in your novels is how greatness comes from choices ordinary people make everyday. (“I don’t believe in destiny. I believe in history” --- a great line from THE INNER CIRCLE). What do you think is the origin of this ethos?
BM: Blame my parents. My Mom especially. She grew up poor (though she’d hate that term and never use it). She didn't make it past high school. But she was the most amazing person I ever knew. 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.
Q: You write with such authority about the Presidency and Washington, DC. Where does that come from? How do you get real Presidents to help you?
BM: It's funny, I feel like I never used to write about the President. I always wrote about the staffer you'd never see --- the one who knew how to stay two steps out of the picture. And then one day, I got the best fan letter ever, from former President George H.W. Bush, saying he liked my novel, THE MILLIONAIRES, and could I sign one for him. I'd gotten another couple of notes from President Clinton as well. And that just makes it a little easier to say, "Can I spend some time with you for research?" The best part is, because I write fiction, I always get to see far more than what they'd show a reporter who's out to burn them.
Q: Unlike so many conspiracy buffs I’ve met through the years, you’re not jaded, not cynical, not angry. Where does that come from?
BM: Again, blame my family. My grandfather spent his whole life wanting to be a policeman. It was his dream. And he couldn't be one because of some dumb medical reason. But he was the toughest, strongest, most amazing tough guy around. And the nicest. What I remember most about him was when he used to give all our old used toys to kids that had no money. And this was from a guy who had no money. The true toughest guy knows he doesn't have be the tough guy.
Q: President Wallace is mesmerized by the written word, as so many of us are. I know your grandmother spent countless hours in the public library with you, devouring Judy Blume, Agatha Christie, Dr. Seuss. Stories change our lives, don’t they? What does the written word mean to you, and what would you like readers to take from your books?
BM: If readers could take one message from my books? Don't let anyone tell you "No." Also, as Mr. Rogers taught me, remember how special you are. Corny for sure. But, to steal a line from THE INNER CIRCLE, we should never forget that history is a selection process. It chooses all of us. Every day. The only question is, do we hear that call?
Q: The reader follows your main character, Beecher, into the vaults and stacks that visitors don’t see. But there is very little mention of the documents that most people associate with the National Archives --- the Constitution and Declaration of Independence. Was this a deliberate omission?
BM: It was. Anyone can see the gasper documents --- the documents that make you gasp. Every single tourist can see the Constitution and Declaration of Independence. What I want to show you are the places you can’t go. The places only an insider sees. And yes --- that underground storage cave at the end is real. I went there. Scaaaary.
Q: What was the most surprising job that you saw a National Archives staff member doing?
BM: I was most amazed by the fact that you still have people combing through documents from the founding of our country. In my google-influenced brain, I thought everything had already been read and catalogued. I love that there are new Lincoln letters --- and new secrets --- being found every single day.
Q: You’ve taken your love of secrets, mysteries, and conspiracies to the next level. You have a TV show about them. How did the show come about?
BM: Again, I got lucky. One of the heads of the History Channel read my thriller --- THE BOOK OF FATE --- and he enjoyed all the Freemason secrets and the Thomas Jefferson code that was in there, and simply said, "We should do a show like that." So Brad Meltzer’s “Decoded” as a TV show is just me doing exactly what I do in my novels, looking through history and trying to solve its greatest mysteries. One of my favorites is about the very first piece of the White House, which was laid in an elaborate ceremony in 1792. Within 24 hours, that cornerstone supposedly went missing. President Truman went looking for it. So did Barbara Bush. But for 200 years, no one knows where the very first piece of the White House is. Needless to say, I want to find it.
Q: What’s a secret about you?
BM: I can say the alphabet backwards. Faster than anyone.
© Copyright 2011, Brad Meltzer. All rights reserved.
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