Thriller writer Brad Meltzer has written 32 books. Most of them are children’s books, many are thrillers, 2 are ‘How-To’ books, 1 is a TV book and his latest, is the non-fiction, First Conspiracy: The Secret Plot to Kill George Washington, the author’s first foray into adult non-fiction.
Last week, we brought you part one of Under/Cover’s interview with Meltzer about how that book came together. In part two of his interview, we spoke with him about the journey to become a writer, and what he learned along the way.
Under/Cover: What’s your advice for people who feel like they have a story in them?
Meltzer: For me, my first novel, I will tell you, got 24 rejection letters. There were only 20 publishers at the time. I got 24 rejection letters. That means some people were writing me twice to make sure I got the point. But I was like, “If they don’t like that book I’ll write another. If they don’t like that book I’ll write another.” And the reason I tell you that is for anyone out there who’s writing a story. Life is subjective. And we all know, especially in your world, that sometimes it can take one single person, one single piece of information to change everything. And your job is just to find that person, find that information. And it’s the same thing as a writer. Your job is to find that one person who says yes. So, my one piece of advice is not to let anyone tell you no. And keep going.
Under/Cover: You’ve been doing this for quite a while now. Any regrets, would you do the same thing all over again?
Meltzer: Yes. Someone just asked me, “What advice would you give yourself in the past?” And I said, “I wouldn’t give myself anything, it would screw it all up.” I’m the first in my family to go to a four-year college and I never ever thought I was ever going to be a writer. I didn’t know anything. It’s not a real job, it doesn’t put callouses on your hands, it doesn’t put dirt under your fingernails. I never thought I would have this job. And look, President George Bush and president Bill Clinton read my books, you know? President George H.W. Bush, before he died, they brought me in, they were bringing in some of his favorite writers to read to him. And I went in and they warned me, they said, “You’re only going have about 10 minutes, because he’s going to fall asleep, he’s sleeping a lot these days.” And on his desk, among a stack of about five or six books, was a copy of The First Conspiracy. And it was dog-eared. He gave us one of the blurbs on the back of the book, I sent it to him nearly a year ago to read an early edition. But it was so dog-eared like it had been read so many times. And he fell asleep within 10 minutes and I was reading to him one of my favorite scenes in the book where George Washington helps to present the Declaration of Independence for the first time to our troops. And I get to that line, “We hold these truths to be self-evident that all men are created equal.” And President Bush’s eyes open up, he pops awake and he’s locked on me, with pure clarity and I said, “Sir, do you want to read another chapter?” And he nodded yes. And a full hour goes by. And to be able to read the book that I’m working on about our first president to at that point, our oldest living president, was one of the most humbling moments of my life. So, I can’t possibly not be thankful for this life that I’ve been blessed enough to have.
Under/Cover: You’ve probably done a lot of research over the years for your thrillers and you’ve probably met a lot of interesting people. Is there anybody in real life who you always wanted to meet but have never had the chance to meet?
Meltzer: You know, it’s funny, years ago I got a call from the Department of Homeland Security, asking me to come in and brainstorm different ways that terrorists could attack the United States. It was after 9/11 of course, and they were doing red cell programs. And I said to my friend at Homeland Security, I’m like, “Why me? Why did you pick me? You have everybody. You have access to everybody.” And I traced it back through history and it traced back to George Washington, who of course, had his own private spy ring during the Revolutionary War, called the Culper Ring. Washington knew the value of regular and ordinary citizens. Why? Because everyone knew his military guys. He knew that no one looked twice at an ordinary person. And I said to my friend at Homeland Security, “Wouldn’t it be cool if you found out that George Washington’s spy ring still exists to this very day?” And he said to me, “What makes you think it doesn’t?” So, I did a fiction book called The Inner Circle based on that. And when I was researching the sequel to The Inner Circle, I met with one of the top people at the CIA, that guy was top background in there. Met privately with him and I said, “I’m doing research on a book, it’s about what happens if the George Washington spy ring still exists to this very day.” And he says to me, “Yeah, I hear they’re still around.” So, my answer to your question is I want to meet whoever is running the Culper Ring now. If they’re out there, I don’t even know if it’s true, but if they’re out there, they’re on my list.
Under/Cover: What haven’t you accomplished that you still want to accomplish?
Meltzer: I’d love to do a movie. I’d love if they could make a TV show, I’d love to do other things, but that’s icing on an already great cake. And if I just get to write my books and tell the stories that I’m passionate about telling, that’s it. That’s fine by me.
Under/Cover: What do you think the secret is with cracking into to Hollywood and the movie thing when you’ve written a great book?
Meltzer: It used to be that thrillers were always turned into movies. We grew up going to see the next John Grisham movie. But those aren’t made anymore. Because what’s big at the box office are things with capes and utility belts. The biggest movies this year are The Avengers and Jurassic Park and things that are big budget, big spectacle. And that’s what does well overseas and that’s what does well here and so those smaller quiet, intellectual kind of challenging thrillers that you see, maybe one gets made a year. But for the most part, those movies aren’t made, they’ve gravitated to television. And it’s just much harder, it’s not about cracking the matchbook code. It’s either you’ve got to be the million selling blockbuster or that lucky one that they say this is the one for film. But to me, I really don’t get caught up in that. I haven’t been out to pitch a book in Hollywood in … I can’t even tell you how long because I just feel like I just want to write my books. If you like the book, call me.
Read Part 1 of Meltzer’s interview here…
If you don’t want to miss any clues of your own on the great new national security focused reads in 2019, sign up for the Under/Cover newsletter. It’s free.