Interview Date: 08/06/2010
Run Date: 12/01/2010
If you know Brad Meltzer’s name, then you know that he’s a writer. What varies, however, is the manner of his writing with which you’re familiar. Granted, the majority of Meltzer’s readership has come to him through the various thrillers he’s written: “The Tenth Justice,” “Dead Even,” “The First Counsel,” “The Millionaires,” “The Zero Game,” “The Book of Fate,” and “The Book of Lies.” Earlier this year, however, he entered the realm of non-fiction with “Heroes for My Son,” in which he submitted a collection of individuals to whom his son, Jonas, should someday offer his respect and admiration, including everyone from Abraham Lincoln and Rosa Parks to Jim Henson and Muhammad Ali. Meltzer’s not just about books, either: he’s also written quite a few comics in his time, including “Green Arrow,” “Justice League of America,” and “Buffy the Vampire Slayer: Season Eight,” and he was the co-creator of the one-season wonder that was The WB’s “Jack and Bobby.” Now, more than half a decade later, Meltzer’s finally returning to television as the host of a new History Channel series entitled “Brad Meltzer’s Decoded,” and I had a chance to chat with him during the summer TCA tour – yep, that’s how far in advance the promotional wheels begin to turn with these shows – about the various facets of his career.
Bullz-Eye: Well, given that you and I have traded E-mails in the past, you already know that I’m a big fan of your work…
Brad Meltzer: …and I appreciate that! (Laughs)
BE: …and therefore I also know that this is certainly not your first foray into the world of television.
BM: So you were one of the viewers that we had for “Jack and Bobby,” then, eh?
BE: (Laughs) You had at least four or five, didn’t you?
BM: No, we actually had three. Two of them I was related to, and then you’re the other one.
BE: There must have been four, then, unless you’re related to the writer of the piece about the show that Entertainment Weekly did.
BM: You saw that, huh? Yeah, actually, you’re right: that woman was our fourth. But, technically, it’s still three, because if you remember, she didn’t watch it then. She only just discovered the show. Basically, I blame every person personally who didn’t watch “Jack and Bobby,” and I think I hold a bitter animosity to each and every one of them. But thank you for watching…and thank you for mentioning my greatest failure. (Laughs)
BE: Well, you know, I like to start each of my interviews by putting my worst foot forward. (Laughs) So how did “Brad Meltzer’s Decoded” come about?
BM: This show came about…and TV works in magic ways…but David McKillop, one of the heads of The History Channel, read “Book of Fate.” They were kind of working on some level of this show, not knowing what it was, and he at the same exact time read that book. And when I met him, he said, “I love what you do with these books. I love how you take these real events and show us not just the fictional side of it but the real side of it.” I mean, I could take the Freemasons and turn them into the silly, overused bad guys that they are in every other book out there, but what he appreciated was…he said, “You show us the reality. You don’t just say that they’re out taking over the world and stealing your bicycle and killing your children. You actually say, ‘Here’s what true, here’s what’s not, here’s what’s fascinating about them in history, and here’s what’s just total exaggeration.’” And I think in today’s world, where we have access to more information than any society in history, it is really hard to find the truth anymore. It’s just hard to…I mean, go put the word “freemason” or “illuminati” in Google, and good luck in trying to find out what’s true, right? They are killing your dog right now, according to Google.
BE: Well, sure. That’s what Freemasons do…or so I’ve been led to understand, anyway.
BM: So he started talking about, “How do we make a show where we get to take the best parts of the novels, taking the real side and forgetting the fictional side?” And I mentioned that since the day that I started writing...well, when my first book was bought, my editor gave me a leather book as a present and said, “Write all your ideas in here.” And I filled up that book. And when I filled it up, my mother gave me another one, saying, “Here’s another one, because I know you liked writing things down in the other one.” And, basically, what we figured out was, why don’t we take the best ideas from the books, the real ones that we haven’t been able to do in a novel, and explore those? And they’re ones that I think are fun, terrific ideas, but I just never been able to work them into a novel. That’s really what this show is. And now, thanks to The History Channel, we’re getting the resources to solve those secrets and great historical mysteries that I think are so fascinating.
BE: So, now, do you actually host the show? Because I haven’t actually seen it yet.
BM: Join the club! (Laughs) Yeah, I’m the…I don’t even know what I am. They keep calling me a host, but…
BE: Moderator, maybe?
BM: (Uncertainly) Yeah, uh, my wife…okay, well, first of all, let’s get one thing out of the way: the fact that it’s called “Brad Meltzer’s Decoded” is ridiculous. I say to my wife, “Honey, what are we have for Brad Meltzer’s Dinner tonight? Because yesterday we had Brad Meltzer’s Chicken, and tonight I’d like to have Brad Meltzer’s Pasta.” So anything that involves calling me the host…? It just amuses me to no end, because I’m just so convinced that someone’s going to come in and say, “Why is that pasty white bald guy on TV?” Basically, I’m the set-up guy. We have three researchers who are amazing…and we should talk about them, because I think they’re going to bring a lot to the show. They’re the meat of the show. But I come on and set up the show, explain the mystery, explain what we’re looking for. In one of the episodes…one of the things I’ve found that I’ve been saving for years, trying to figure out how to use it, is the White House Cornerstone. When the White House was built, the cornerstone was the first piece of the White House, and it was laid down in this great ceremony in the middle of the night, and 24 hours later, the cornerstone was missing. And for 200 years now, it’s been gone. Nobody knows what happened to it, nobody knows where it went. Harry Truman went looking for it when they redid the Truman Balcony and did all the renovation of the White House and couldn’t find it. Barbara Bush went looking for it when they had the anniversary of the White House and couldn’t find it. And the question is, where is it? So I go to the team and say, “Here’s the mystery, here’s the secret, now what’s inside it? Is it a real stone? Is it a foundation stone? Is George Washington’s frozen head inside it?” And that’s basically the show. And we have these three researchers – (Christine) McKinley, Scott (Rolle), and Buddy (Levy) – who go out and call on my contacts. All of the people you see in the show are people that I use for the books, and they’re resources and amazing connections that I’ve developed over the years and have been lucky enough to be involved with. So they go out and try to find it.
BE: So what can we expect from the show beyond that episode?
BM: Let’s see…we do the White House cornerstone, which I love, because it’s still just one of those great things that shocks me. I mean, how is something that’s so important, so vital, and part of one of the greatest institutions in the United States still missing? How is it still gone, and how is it that, in 200 years, no one has been able to find it? And we do a search for the missing Confederate Treasury, which…I don’t know if you know the story, but…
BE: (Laughs) Yeah, actually, I went to school in Danville, Virginia, so…
BM: There you go! Well, then, you probably know personally that there are still people right now digging every day for it. (Laughs) But the question is, when The History Channel gives you three people, a entire research team, and all the resources they have, can you come out with a different result? So we go out looking for it, and we found a really amazing new take on where it might be, and something that I’m absolutely going to rob from this show and put it in my one of my next novels, because it’s so amazing what they uncovered.
BE: Did you actually go to Danville yourself?
BM: I actually didn’t. The best part of this whole thing, if I could just explain it to you for one second, is that they report in. I’ve always done my own research. I’ve never once had anyone do my research for me. And I just thought, “Okay, this’ll be fun, and it’ll be a great exercise, and they can go out.” But suddenly I was getting reports back, going, “This is what we found,” and I was, like, “This is great!” My wife is, like, “It’s like ‘Charlie’s Angels,’ and you get to be Charlie!” (Laughs) I always liked Charlie. But my obsession with “Charlie’s Angels” is that I always wanted to know Charlie’s motivation. Forget about the girls. I wanted to know who Charlie was. (Hesitates) Well, actually, Farrah Fawcett’s hair kind of obsessed me, too. There’s also a show on the Statue of Liberty. What happens is that, over the years, people E-mail me or go on Facebook – and you can see it all the time if you follow me on there – and offer the craziest stories. When you start writing about these things, people tell you stories. I was contacted by one of John Wilkes Booth’s relatives. Now, when someone E-mails you and says, “I’m John Wilkes Booth’s great, great grandson,” you pay attention.
BE: “You have my attention.”
BM: And then a guy contacts me and says he’s the lawyer who’s trying to get John Wilkes Booth dug up. Then someone E-mails me and tells me that there’s actually a hidden message in the Statue of Liberty that no one’s ever seen. So I’ve been collecting these stories. We’re doing the Statue of Liberty. We’re doing John Wilkes Booth. We’re going after these amazing stories that I’ve never had the resources to answer. It’s fun. It really gets me at my geekiest. It’s really fun to get the answer.
BE: You say it gets you at your geekiest, but, of course, there’s absolutely no precedent for you having been a geek in the past.
BM: No, no, not at all. (Laughs) You’re a comic reader also, right?
BE: Absolutely. I’m the go-to comic guy on the site.
BM: What are you reading now that you like?
BE: (Hesitates) Honestly, my budget for the past few years hasn’t allowed me to buy much more than trade paperbacks.
BM: They ought to put you on the comp list.
BE: They really should. (Laughs) I’m kidding. Well, mostly. I mean, I used to make a regular Wednesday afternoon comic-shop stop, but I’ve got a 5-year-old, and, you know, the funds go where the funds must.
BM: E-mail me. I’ll see if I can get you on DC Comics’ comp list. If I can do nothing else, let me try to get you free comics. I love getting to feel like I’m an ambassador for comics.
(Writer’s note: Not only did Brad prove to be as good as his word, but his actions served as the impetus for Bullz-Eye to launch its own comics blog. It’s still in the early stages, but keep your eyes on Real Men Read Comics!)
BE: I was a huge fan of the stuff you did for “Identity Crisis,” but I really loved your “Green Arrow” arc.
BM: Oh, I loved that book. It was such a great back-and-forth with Phil Hester, the artist for that book. He’s amazing.
BE: Well, now that we’re on the subject, let’s keep it going: what was your original introduction into writing comics?
BM: You know, it was much like “Decoded.” I feel like my entire career has kind of been…I don’t know if it’s been blessed or cursed, but I stupidly never plan and then just hope and try and, when the opportunities come to me, reach out. Sometimes I jump right, sometimes I jump wrong. And that one was… (Hesitates) Well, look, I read comics more than I do most anything else. More than I read novels, more than I watch TV shows, more than I watch movies. I just know that world, and I’ve known it since I was eight years old. Since I could read, really. As far as back as I can go. I’ve always been hiding comic book references. I just love codes, as you can tell, and I love hiding things. I love hidden secrets. That’s what “Decoded” is all about. So in the same way that I think there are hidden things out there that we don’t see every day, I would put hidden clues in all of my novels. There are actually some things that people have never found, but I’ve put superhero names into the books.
BE: Well, I spotted the last names of JSA members as the last names of some of your characters.
BM: Oh, you caught the JSA, huh? Good for you! And there are harder ones than that, but that’s a hard one. A lot of people did not get that. Finding the Watchmen were easier (Meltzer uses their last names for the Supreme Court Justices in “The Tenth Justice”), but I did the Watchmen before…I did it in 1997, and one guy came to a signing and said, “You’ve got the Watchmen in here.” And I was, like, “Thank you!” So, anyway, one of DC’s editors, Bob Schreck, noticed it, and when Kevin Smith was leaving “Green Arrow,” it was the number-one-selling superhero book. He said, “If we bring in another comic writer, everyone’s going to go, ‘Where’s Kevin Smith?’ But if we bring you in, you may sell some novels, but nobody knows you in comics.” Nobody back then was coming from different places. I know it sounds crazy now, but no one was coming from different mediums and going into comic books except for Kevin, God bless him. And they said, “Would you be interested in coming in? You’ll either fail on a big stage or you’ll succeed on a big stage, but you’ll be the guinea pig.” And I said, “I’ll take the shot.” So the opportunity was kind of the same as “Decoded.” David knew my love of this world, and he came to me and said, “Do you want to take a shot?” We should be so lucky as to be as successful this time around…which I guess is the guarantee that lightning will never strike twice, but there you go.
BE: Had you been a Green Arrow fan from way back?
BM: Oh, yeah. I like the heroes that I can be. I mean, that’s why I love…I mean, it’s why I love George Washington and Thomas Jefferson. They’re us. Their best attributes are my ideals and aspirations. And it’s no different with Green Arrow, and it’s no different with Batman. I like the characters that I can relate to. I’ll probably never be a great marksman…but I could be. And I can be stubborn. And that to me is the best part of what those characters are. I can’t lift a car over my head, I don’t have heat vision, but I can definitely be a guy who puts underwear on the outside of my pants. On any given night, you can look for it. (Laughs)
BE: Is there any hero you haven’t yet tackled that you’d like a shot at? I mean, you had the helm of “Justice League of America,” so I’d guess that gave you a lot of your favorites to work with.
BM: Yeah, “Justice League” let me have just about everybody.
BE: Plus, you had “Identity Crisis,” too.
BM: Yeah. I don’t think there’s anyone left. The only thing that I really tried to do, and I said this when the book came out, was that I really wanted to get Cyborg into the Justice League. That was the one thing. But the truth was…if I would’ve stayed on for another year, I would’ve done it, but I felt like with Roy (Harper, a.k.a. Arsenal, Green Arrow’s former partner), I didn’t want to turn it into Teen Titans all at once. But I think…I’d still love to do a Titans book. I’d love to do “Justice League” again. I’d still love to do “Legion,” too. I love those team books. I love “Avengers,” I love “X-Men.” I love teams. Again, “Decoded” is all about the team. I love the team dynamic. Every book I write is a team. Every comic I write is a team. Even when I did “Green Arrow,” I immediately turned it into a team, because Roy was there. And “Decoded” is the same exact way. We have this team. We have Scott, we have this guy who’s a military prosecutor and brings this great… (Starts to laugh) Not to turn this into the Justice League of History, but it really is! We really went out and looked for people that would bring different things, the same way any team dynamic in a comic is. So Scott brings this great investigator side and a prosecutorial mind, and McKinley is just this great…she’s got that engineer’s kind of brain, that math brain that makes you really look at facts as opposed to the dreamy nature of things. She gets to play Scully. And Buddy is a historian, so he grounds us in that world, asking, “What does history really say about this?” And to me, if you don’t get the team dynamic right…I don’t care how good the story is, the characters have to be good, so when we put the show together, it was vital to have those characters be someone we’d really want to follow and be able to understand.
BE: So how many episodes have you done so far?
BM: We have 10 episodes, and we’re filming Episode Three right now. We’ve filmed two of them already, and we’re working on the third right now, so hopefully by the fourth quarter we’re going to have a bunch more than we have right now.
BE: To jump back to “Jack and Bobby” again, you obviously would’ve liked for it to have gone longer, but were you happy with the show creatively insofar as what you got out of it?
BM: Hey, listen, like you mentioned, a writer with Entertainment Weekly just blogged about how it was a great show that they wished they could’ve saved…and it’s how many years later? More than five years, and I still get at least an E-mail a week saying, “I loved ‘Jack and Bobby.’” And now that it’s available via OnDemand, we have this whole other audience…and I couldn’t be more happy. And you know what? There’s some great irony in being canceled after one season, because what happens is that you can call yourself a cult classic, even if you weren’t one. (Laughs) Because when you get canceled, you get that “cult classic” love…and we bathe in that pure love every night.
BE: Plus, people are realizing that you had a couple of “Mad Men” in the cast.
BM: Yeah, we’ve got John Slattery and now Matt Long doing “Mad Men.” And, actually, you’ve got Jessica Pare now, too! Plus, we’ve got Christine (Lahti), who’s amazing, we’ve got Logan (Lerman), who’s doing “Percy Jackson.” We’ve even got the Faceman himself: Bradley Cooper! Bradley was on the show, too. I mean, awesome, right? It’s, like, “My gosh, how did nobody watch this show? We had everybody on it!” (Laughs)
BE: Just keep telling yourself, “It was a great training ground.”
BM: I wish we could take credit for them, but they were all amazing then, and anyone who sees the show understands that. But, yeah, it feels like Second City when you watch it. Of course, my wife is, like, “You schmuck, how did you not introduce me to Bradley Cooper when we were on the set with him?” And I was just, like, “I don’t know. We were too busy working…?”
BE: She probably wouldn’t have known who he was then, anyway.
BM: Oh, no, she was well aware of who he was. (Laughs) Mark my words. And she was well aware of John Slattery, too!
BE: Jumping topics, how did you get all of those guys to appear in the trailer for “The Book of Lies”?
(Writer’s note: If you can’t be bothered to click on the link, Joss Whedon, Damon Lindelof, Christopher Hitchens, and A.J. Jacobs all turn up in the brief video presentation.)
BM: I was friends with all of them. Joss Whedon I knew from…I guess we were just E-mail pals. No, wait, I think we were actually talking. Yeah, in fact, we were already planning “Buffy” at that point, so he’d already contacted me about “Buffy,” and we met somewhere along the way. Damon Lindelof I also know because we’re E-mail buds. A.J. Jacobs is an old friend that I know from the publishing side, from the books. Who else was there? Oh, Christopher Hitchens. You know what? I met him because we have the same publisher, and I happened to be in the building one day when he was in the building, so we met, and…I just kind of reached out, and he was kind enough to do it.
BE: That was a really fun trailer.
BM: Hey, listen, we’ll never be able to top that. Even “Jack and Bobby” didn’t have that many good people in it.
BE: Were you pleased with the reception for “Heroes for my Son”?
BM: Absolutely. I mean, I was just blown away by the response to that. We launched that book with an advertising budget of zero dollars. Zero. We had incredible press, we had incredible media coverage of it, and we had the usual invisible army that kind of helps with the books and has just been amazing to my entire career. I credit it to these amazing people who have been so supportive over the years and helped and supported me on these different projects. But what we had more than anything were the heroes themselves. I mean, that book had nothing to do with me. People loved Martin Luther King, Jr., Rosa Parks, Mr. Rogers, and Jim Henson, and those stories are incredible. People said, “I want to share this with my son,” “I want to share this with my father,” “I want to share this with my mother-in-law.” I’m still getting…just yesterday, somebody said, “I want to send you a box of these books, so you can sign them and I can give them out as baby gifts.” People don’t do that with my novels! (Laughs) The response is just humbling. But, again, it’s the heroes who are incredible.
BE: Were there any heroes that you thought of after the fact that you wished you could’ve included?
BM: Well, I ran out of room for some, but I’m also doing “Heroes for My Daughter.”
BE: Excellent. Lastly, what’s the word on “Inner Circle”? Or is it “The Inner Circle”? I know you asked your fans for their opinion on which they preferred.
BM: You know what? Look, I actually think “The” is killing the non-“The.”
BE: Good. (Laughs) I can’t really explain why, but it just seems like there’s something more intriguing about “The Inner Circle.”
BM: I agree. My wife is, like, “I like it without the ‘the.’ You’ve done all these books with a ‘the’ at the beginning. I like it without.” But I still like the ‘the.’ So we’ll see…(Post-script: “The Inner Circle” is set for release on January 11, 2011. Brad wins!)