Skip to main content

Interview: January 23, 2004

January 23, 2004

In this interview with reviewer Joe Hartlaub, Brad Meltzer discusses some of the dramatic plot lines and compelling characters in his latest thriller THE ZERO GAME. He also talks extensively about his other projects and how he was able to overcome rejection early in his career to become a New York Times bestselling author.

BRC: THE ZERO GAME begins with a couple of appropriations committee staffers engaging in some clandestine betting on the outcome of Congressional votes. You were an intern on Capitol Hill when you were nineteen. Did this type of thing actually occur? And, to the best of your knowledge, does it still?

BM: THE ZERO GAME is based on a real story I heard when I was an intern on Capitol Hill: two Senate staffers who were so sick of picking up their Senator's dry cleaning decided to put the words "dry cleaning" in their Senator's speech as a bit of revenge.

("Although many people think of the environment as an issue that is dry, cleaning it should be our top priority.")
"You can't do that," one of them said.
"Sure I can."
"You can't," the first insisted.
"Wanna bet?"

Right there, THE ZERO GAME was born.

As for it happening, to be honest I made it up. But so far, two different government employees have told me they've seen a smaller variation being played (i.e., people betting on how many votes will be cast for a certain bill). That's just scary. Also, I'm honestly amazed by how many staffers on the Hill, when they hear the plot, say, "I wouldn't be surprised if someone was doing that right now." God bless America!

BRC: One of the plot elements of THE ZERO GAME that continues to stick with me is the twist that occurs less than 70 pages into the novel. I'm being deliberately vague here, as I do not want to give it away, but I don't recall ever --- ever --- reading a novel where the author did something like this. Did you agonize over whether to do it --- and that should probably be "IT" --- and did you encounter any resistance to it?

BM: Yeah, it's the big surprise of the book, and to be honest I don't think it's ever been done before --- which was exactly why I thought, "I have to try this --- let's see if I can pull this off." It's either the best part of the book or the worst, but so far, reader response has been amazing. For me, you have to always try new things as an author; otherwise you just start churning the books out.

BRC: Some of the most dramatic events in THE ZERO GAME take place underground, whether it's a supposedly deserted mine in South Dakota or in the nether reaches of the Capitol building. Obviously you had the opportunity to explore the basement of the Capitol during your stint as a Capitol Hill intern. But you demonstrated an equal level of familiarity with deserted mines while describing the action in the Homestead Mine in South Dakota. Did you do on-site research for that particular portion of the book?

BM: I did. I went down 8,000 feet into an abandoned gold mine. The first time I went, because of a flood, we could only go down two thousand feet. I went back two weeks later and they took me to the very bottom. Two weeks after that, those miners got trapped in that Pennsylvania mine. They were 240 feet down; I was 8,000. That's six Empire State buildings straight down. I'm a moron for doing that one, but I think it makes for one of the scariest scenes I've ever written. My wife wanted to kill me --- but for my readers, I'll risk my life.

BRC: Martin Janos was an extremely interesting character in THE ZERO GAME, kind of a cross between James Bond and Michael Myers --- the Halloween protagonist as opposed to the actor. What was your inspiration for Janos?

BM: I just wanted a real, true villain. No faceless government entity as the bad guy ... or some mega untouchable corporation. I wanted a villain. A real villain. One who was smarter than anyone in the book. And one who loved antique cars. Janos was born.

BRC: You mention Senatorial hideaways in the Capitol Building. Fact or fiction? And did you ever personally see one?

BM: Fact --- I saw many from the outside and one from the inside. They're the secret places the Senators and Congressmen use to hide from staff, etc. But one really did have a dimmer switch --- all those details in the book are real.

BRC: John H. Campbell is widely regarded as the father of modern science fiction. He published a story in the magazine Astounding Science Fiction in the early 1940s, which, unbeknownst to him, came uncomfortably close to describing an atomic bomb. He was visited by U.S. Intelligence agents who were extremely interested in how he came to acquire his knowledge of what was called "The Manhattan Project." You apparently had a marginally similar experience when you were doing research concerning a possible connection between neutrinos and plutonium for THE ZERO GAME. Can you tell us about that?

BM: As you know the book is fiction, but as I researched neutrinos and called scientists, I eventually started asking about the subatomic connection between neutrinos and plutonium. That's when my source at one of the government's top scientific facilities, and my best source, stopped returning my calls. A few weeks later, the source asked that his name --- and the facility's --- be pulled from my acknowledgments. That was just scary. It's one of those moments where you start listening for clicks on your phone to see if your phone's being tapped.

BRC: Your web site contains a "lost chapter," so to speak, from THE ZERO GAME. You have named it "Chapter 4.5." Can you tell us why this portion of THE ZERO GAME wasn't included in the published novel?

BM: To be honest, it just slowed the book down at a point where it needed to speed up. I always have a hard time balancing the "character" parts and the "thriller" parts because I prefer the "character" parts. But with the Internet, voila...the lost chapter is free for everyone to see at

BRC: You recently had a very eventful week involving work in films, television and comic books. What happened, and what can we look forward to from you in those media?

BM: In one short period:
- we got the green light on the pilot for a new TV series called Jack & Bobby, about a young boy who will grow up to be President (which I'm working on with Greg Berlanti, Scoop Cohen, Vanessa Taylor and Tommy Schlamme, who did The West Wing).
- we sent in the outline for the TV series I co-created with Scoop Cohen and Frank Spotnitz of The X-Files, called The Thirteenth Floor, about a law firm that defends dead clients who are fighting to avoid hell and get into heaven.
- I saw the arrival of the script (by director Justin Lin) for the film version of THE TENTH JUSTICE, my first novel.
- we had our new comic book, "Identity Crisis," (the Superman, Batman, Wonder Woman murder mystery I'm writing for DC Comics) crowned "The most anticipated comic book project for 2004" by Wizard magazine.
- And now I have a new novel, THE ZERO GAME, that has been released (with film rights sold to Kathy Kennedy and Gary Ross, the team that did Seabiscuit).

Trust me, it still seems silly --- I just feel blessed to be involved with any of these projects.

BRC: Between THE MILLIONAIRES and the publication of THE ZERO GAME you wrote several issues of the comic book GREEN ARROW. How did you become involved in that project?

BM: They asked me. I thought about saying no. My wife reminded me I'd been waiting my whole life to do this. I --- as always --- listened to her. And she --- as always --- was right. Otherwise, taking over the book from director Kevin Smith was one of the true highlights of my professional career. The only reason they asked me was because Green Arrow is named Oliver in his secret ID --- and Bob Schreck, GREEN ARROW editor, saw that I had named the main character in THE MILLIONAIRES "Oliver" after Green Arrow. He realized my love for all things Oliver and made the offer.

BRC: With the screenplay for THE TENTH JUSTICE, the television series Jack and Bobby, and DC Comics' "Identity Crisis" it would seem that you have been pretty busy. Do you have any ideas for your next novel. And have you started working on it?

BM: If I don't, my publisher will be plenty mad, so...uh...yeah, I got it all worked out.

BRC: What sort of daily work routine do you practice? And do you do anything in particular for inspiration?

BM: I do sit down every day and take some time to remind myself how lucky I am to being doing this for a living. I got twenty-four rejection letters on my first novel. It's still sitting on my shelf, published by Kinko's. I had twenty-four people tell me to give it up --- that I couldn't write. But the day I got my twenty-third and twenty-fourth rejection, 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. So whatever you do with your life, as cliché as it sounds, don't let anyone tell you "No."

BRC: What books have you read in the past six months that you could recommend to our readers?

BM: I finally read KAVALIER & CLAY, which I bought when it came out but never read (out of spite for all the people who told me I HAD to read it). But they were right. I loved every page. I also read WHERE THE TRUTH LIES by Rupert Holmes and THE EYRE AFFAIR by Jasper Fforde. All original. And loved them all.