An Interview with Brad Meltzer
How did you get started writing?
It wasn't until I graduated from college. I was coming out of the University of Michigan and I had a job offer from the man who used to run Games magazine. He told me, "If you love the job, you'll stay. If you hate it, you'll leave a year later with some money in your pocket." Since I had some debt to pay off, that seemed like a fair deal. So I moved all my stuff to Boston. But when I got there, the publisher left the magazine. (Surprise!) The whole reason I went there was to work for him. I thought I'd wrecked my life. I had no idea what to do. So I did what all of us would do in that situation. I said, "I'm gonna write a novel." And I just started writing. Every day, I just fell more and more in love with the process.
Did you always know you wanted to be a writer?
No, but I always liked writing. Even back in high school, I tried to write all my papers using tons of dialogue. But it never hit me until I left college. Where I grew up, writing wasn't "a real job." And, thankfully, it still isn't.
Where do you get your ideas?
Research, research, research. You can invent all the stuff you want, but if it doesn't smell real, readers will know in a nanosecond (and rip your head off). To me, fiction is at its best when it has one foot in reality. That's why I need to go out and see the places myself. I need to see what they look like, and smell like, and taste like (yum, hamburger) and those details drive the ideas. Everything else is a gift from God.
Locations like the White House, Congress, and the Supreme Court, even Disney World how do you research these places?
Call up and ask. Seriously. If there's one thing I've learned (besides that ice doesn't get gum out of your hair), it's that people are genuinely nice. Once they realize you're writing fiction, and not looking for an expose, they love to talk. And that's the only way to get the details real. Also, try to find people who recently left the job you're trying to research. Those're the ones you want to meet (funny, honest, and no longer worried about impressing the boss).
How did you handle rejections from publishers?
I gave their e-mail addresses to my mother. You don't know pain until you've met Teri Meltzer. Fear it.
How long does it take to write a book?
About a year, to a year and a half. I spend about two months doing character sketches (Who are these people? What are they like?) and anywhere from two to six months researching. The rest of the time, I'm writing (and playing Parcheesi).
How do I get an agent?
First off, write the best book you can. Period. After that, you can find a list of agents in books like The Guide to Literary Agents. As a trick (which I recommend), you should pick out a few authors you like and check the Acknowledgements section of their hardback books. Most, if not all, writers thank their agents and that's one way to get a list of agents who have actually sold things.
Beyond that, write a short (short!) cover letter to send out to prospective agents. As someone once told me, write it like you're writing the inside flap copy for the book. (Don't say, "In Chapter One, this happens; then in Chapter Two, this happens; then in Chapter Three ). They get hundreds of letters. And the sad truth is, agents want what they can't have, and whatever they can have, they don't want. Also, there's a fine line between enthusiasm and desperation. What does that mean? Don't be a nudge (I know, because I was and none of those agents wrote me back). Just be concise and clear, and send out the best book you can.
Do you know the ending when you start?
I know what happens to the main characters simply because I have to. Each book is a journey. Ben, Sara, Michael, Oliver, Charlie, Harris, Matthew, Viv each of them is a different person by the time the last page hits. So I need to know where they're going. Still, a novel is a process. It takes me over a year. During that year, I'm constantly changing my mind, adding new twists, and moving things around.
Do you outline?
Only about fifty to a hundred pages at a time. That way, I'm in control, but there's still plenty of room to let the creative process happen. If I just start typing and say "Let's see where the day takes me," I'll just meander around and it'll be a rambling mess.
How do you edit?
I give it to my wife, she tears it apart, then I pick my heart up off the linoleum and go to bed.
When I'm finished with the first draft, I start over again and continue layering, always trying to add more to the characters. A good plot is fine, but if the characters aren't real, no one'll care.
What do you like to read?
While I'm writing, I won't read in the genre and I try not to read novels. It's the only way I can keep my voice my own. Still, I love to read, so I consume graphic novels. Alan Moore Neil Gaiman all the usual suspects. I eat that stuff like candy.
Advice to other authors?
Don't let anyone tell you "No." 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. All it takes is one person to say "Yes." You just have to find that person. If you love what you do, it'll show on the page. If you don't, it won't. That's the x-factor in every book. And that's what helps you move forward as a writer.
Do you get the plot then the characters, or do the characters create your plot?
I start with a nugget. In The Tenth Justice, it was a Supreme Court clerk. In Dead Even, it was married attorneys. And in The First Counsel, it was a White House lawyer. Then I take the characters and throw them into the plot. If I'm doing it right, I hit a point where I stop telling them what to do, and they start telling me what they want to do. If all else fails, it's back to Parcheesi.
What's a typical day like for writing? (Do you commit to finishing a particular scene or commit to x amount of pages?)
I get up, I walk around the block, and then I sit down with my imaginary friends. At the end of the day, I try not to count pages, but I can't help myself. I'm sad that way.
What's going on with Hollywood? Are they making a movie?
Right now, Fox 2000 owns the rights to The Tenth Justice. They're working on a script, they're rewriting that script, and they're doing everything they should be doing. The people on it are some of the nicest people I've encountered but does that mean we'll see a film? I have no idea. Would I love them to make it? Of course. But as far as I'm concerned, movies are icing on an already great cake. If it happens, I'm thrilled. If not, there're more important things to worry about in life.
As for The Zero Game, it was recently bought by Universal for producer Kathleen Kennedy and director Gary Ross, who recently did Seabiscuit.
On the TV side, we've recently sold a TV show called Jack & Bobby to the Warner Brothers TV network, which we're developing with Steve Cohen, Greg Berlanti, and Tommy Schlamme and another show to F/X called The Thirteenth Floor, which Steve Cohen and I are developing with Frank Spotnitz of the X-Files.
And in terms of Dead Even, The First Counsel and The Millionaires, we still own the rights to all of them.
If you had to cast the movies, who do you see?
Honestly, I never see anyone. Personally, I don't want to write someone else's characters. I want to write mine. For that reason, I can tell you what every single character looks like, but it'd be no one you recognize. Ben, Sara, Jared, Nora, Oliver, Charlie, Harris, Matthew, Viv to me, they just look like people.
Any new comic book projects in the works?
Yes a brand new one called "Identity Crisis" from DC Comics, which'll come out in June of 2004. It's a murder mystery set in the DC Universe and will star Superman, Batman, Wonder Woman and just about everyone else I could get my hands on. Without a doubt, I'm as proud of it as almost anything I've ever written. And with Rags Morales and Michael Bair on art, and Alex Sinclair on colors...oy, I can't wait. Please, like they really had to twist my arm to get me to write Superman, Batman, and oh, you'll see...
II. THE BOOKS
The Tenth Justice
Was The Tenth Justice your first book?
No. The first book I ever wrote was a book called, Fraternity. It got twenty-four rejection letters, and still sits on my shelf. Will I ever go back to it? I don't know. It's kinda like a 68 Mustang. You can clean it up, and put in a new engine, and install new air conditioning and a CD player, but on some level, when you do that, you rob it of its soul.
What I love about Fraternity is that, whatever I think about it, it's a book with a soul. It's me figuring out how to write. And on every page, it has the passion of someone who's falling in love with the process. That's what's great about it. So, yes, I can take it, update it, and put in the new CD player, but sometimes, AM/FM is more than enough.
Are the roommates in the house based on you and your friends?
The funny, handsome ones are me. All the losers are my friend Chris.
Rafferty is an evil character. Do you find writing this type of antagonist therapeutic? And is a character with that base level of psychology (pure evil) more difficult to write than a character like Sara, who finds herself faced with moral ambiguity?
Rafferty was actually much harder to write because he was always the bad guy. That's what he did. Name: Rafferty. Occupation: Bad Guy. Sure, he's there to scare, but as a character, I'm far more interested in his back story as a loser kid from Hoboken (which only appears on two or three pages).
And is it therapeutic? I'm betting I saved at least seventy-five bucks worth of shrink's bills just on the final scene alone.
Both yourself and your wife are lawyers. Were the characters of Dead Even based on you and your wife?
No. Okay, that's a lie. I've known my wife since ninth grade. I know how we interact. The opening scene where Sara and Jared take on the coupon lady? Pretend it didn't happen in a bagel store; pretend it was in Bethesda, Maryland; pretend Jared had a lot less hair. But are Sara and Jared us? Not a chance (which I can only prove by the fact that half our friends say I'm Jared and that my wife is Sara, while the other half say the reverse).
The First Counsel
Were you thinking of any President in particular when you wrote this book?
No I was thinking of all of them. Sadly, you don't get to be President by being Father of the Year.
While you write thrillers, most people think of you as a "legal thriller" writer. However, this book really deals more with politics than the law. What was the reason for that decision?
It really wasn't a decision. I just try to write the best book I can. When I researched this one, I thought, "Hey, this White House place is pretty keen." That was it. As for genres, that just seems silly. Genres can be great, but they're also a trap. Don't write for genres. Write for yourself.
Let's talk about The West Wing. What's the story? Do you watch it?
Ah, The West Wing. First, it's a brilliant show, and yes, I love the writing. Second, I'd be a liar if I said it didn't make me nuts. Why? Here's the history: The week I started researching The First Counsel was the same week the Monica Lewinsky scandal broke. The Washington Post then wrote this big story about how the Washington thriller was dead, and how no one could compete with reality. And there I was, thinking, "Oh, God I'm about to start a Washington thriller. How can it be dead?"
Little did I know that two years later, The West Wing would be one of the best shows on television. Of course, by the time it aired, I was already in the editing stage. Then I watched the first show. They deal with the census. In The First Counsel, the opening meeting talks about the census. Their President's name is Bartlet. In The First Counsel, the politician running against the President is named Bartlett. I almost ate my remote right there. Obviously, it was just a coincidence (the census is always a good, solid, play-at-any-time issue), but it was still nuts. As for Bartlet, that was just freaky weird. Yes, I could've changed it there was time but that was the name I picked and I wasn't changing it for anyone. Now, in the book, it just seems like a inside joke.
Is Nora based on a real first daughter?
No (and even if it was Yes, I'd lie).
Is Charlie real and can I date him?
No, he's not real so save your smutty come-ons for those porn sites. He's a pure figment of my imagination, with far more hair than I have. And can you date him? Sure, right after your date with the Tooth Fairy.
The Millionaires centers around two brothers. Do you have a brother?
Nope. I have a sister (the Charlie to my Oliver and the Oliver to my Charlie) but to write the book, I spent months interviewing all my friends who had brothers, trying to pick out the subtle things only brothers can share. In the end, Charlie and Oliver just came to life in my head and I still think about them, if that makes sense.
The climax of The Millionaires takes place in the underground tunnels under Disney World. Are those real or just urban legend?
Real. Real, real, real (creepy, ain't it?). And after researching books on the White House, the Supreme Court, and the Capitol, I can honestly say that Disney keeps its secrets better than all of them combined. No lie. You wanna know who should be the head of Homeland Security? Michael Eisner. I love the place, but they don't play around. They'll throw you in Mickey-jail without batting an eye. Scarier than Oz.
Is that really your Grandmother's condo in the book?
Could I possibly make that up? Of course it's her condo. When I was little, they wouldn't let us jump in the pool, but I never held a grudge. (They'll pay one day, though.)
In this book, you used first person narrative (telling the story from Oliver's point of view). Did this present problems since you had two main characters?
Point of view is always tricky. Get too cute and you risk losing your reader. In fact, when I wrote the first draft of the book, I had each chapter alternating between Oliver's and Charlie's POV but it quickly got so confusing that I switched to just one. It was the hardest decision I made with The Millionaires, but I still think the right one.
What was it like writing Miami for the first time?
Great. When I needed to know what restaurant was on a particular corner, I just called my Dad. He majors in restaurants.
The Zero Game
Could The Zero Game really happen, and do you think that right now, there's a "Zero Game" being played on Capitol Hill?
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!
On the site, you have a "deleted chapter" from The Zero Game. How much of what you write never makes it into the final book?
I wish I could say all of it makes it into the final version, but that's just not the case. For me, it's the early chapters of a book that get cut down the most. When I'm done with my research and ready to start a new novel, I've got so much I want to put in there, I just vomit it all out in the opening chapters. Those are the same chapters that all my family and friends read and say, "Nice research, but can you get on with the book?" So the early chapters get cut. In The Zero Game, the first seventy pages were originally a hundred and twenty. And the scene in the mine was another thirty pages longer. Welcome to the cutting room floor. (BookBrowse note: You can read the deleted chapter at Brad Meltzer's website)
Did you really go down into that mine?
Yep. Probably not the smartest move, but I did eight thousand feet straight down. 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. My wife wanted to kill me but for my readers, I'll risk my life.
How hard was it to write the character of Viv?
Far harder than I thought. Viv is a young, black female Senate page. So let me put it this way: There are three things that, no matter what I do, I know I'll never be in my life: young, black and female. But I just didn't want to write a walking cliché, so I spent months researching...talking to friends...interviewing people...anything that would put me in that character's brain. The gender part I could manage the race issue was tougher. I hope I did her justice.
What was the most fun you had researching this book?
Tie. Crawling around the basements and attics of the Capitol and going down into the mine (c'mon, they let me wear that hat with the flashlight what beats that?).
What are you currently working on?
New book. Yes, it's a thriller. And no, it doesn't have a lawyer. Wait actually, that's not true. There's one really cool lawyer, but not how you think.
Is there anything you've written, where after you saw it in print, you wished were different?
All my author photos. Real quote from someone: "Who taught you how to smile? Mussolini?"
Unless otherwise stated, this interview was conducted at the time the book was first published, and is reproduced with permission of the publisher. This interview may not be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the copyright holder.
Blood at the Root
"A gripping, timely, and important examination of American racism."
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