“That was the best beginning line of all time!” Brad Meltzer tells me, in a tone of genuine appreciation. “That was a great one!”
The wildly successful suspense novelist, comic book writer, children’s author and television personality—whose latest Washington thriller, The President’s Shadow, hits a Barnes & Noble near you on June 16—wasn’t bragging about one of his nine previous potboilers, all of which but one have been huge bestsellers, with two reaching the No. 1 position on the vaunted New York Times list.
“‘Brad Meltzer’s Lost History’ might be a tolerable show if Brad Meltzer weren’t in it,” the article began, and went on to describe the host/author as “grating,” “irritating” and “overwrought.”
After nearly two decades in the public eye—starting with his first published beach read, The Tenth Justice, in 1997—the bald-pated Meltzer prides himself on his thick skin, the PR equivalent of rhinoceros hide.
His birthday happens to fall on April Fools’ Day, and five years ago when he turned 40, his wife, Cori, a Florida attorney, wrangled a group of fellow famous authors and popular artists to celebrate with a litany of comically cruel disses. To wit:
David Baldacci: “For the sheer level of purple prose, inept plotting, snotty-nosed characters and the overall pathetic quality of his entire oeuvre, Meltzer stands alone. He is our Lincoln of crappy fiction. Happy 40th Birthday, Brad, and save some trees.”
Nelson DeMille: “Brad’s writing is both good and original. However, what is good is not original and what is original is not good.”
Nora Roberts: “I don’t really have time to waste on a guy who single-handedly lowered the level of the political thriller to zero. Basically, Brad Meltzer sucks out loud.”
And so on and so forth.
On the occasion of the paperback edition of The Book of Lies, his seventh bestseller, Meltzer produced a video in which kids from the Little League team he coaches in Hollywood, Fla., and residents of his grandmother’s assisted-living facility recited choice phrases from the nation’s top literary critics.
Notably: “sophomorically implausible” (Los Angeles Times), “unfailingly juvenile dialogue” (Kirkus Reviews), and (from one of his loyal fans at The New York Times), “The hollow banter of these narcissists is about as funny as pre-op jokes from your oral surgeon.”
“This was one way I could take charge and provide what years of therapy could not provide,” Meltzer says about the unusual video, which certified his status as critic-proof. “It was the most cathartic thing I ever did.”
Meltzer is big enough in the publishing biz these days to merit a humongous double-sided billboard hyping his latest title across from Manhattan’s Javits Center, the scene of this past weekend’s BookCon convention. But that didn’t stop him from tweeting a video of himself asking a hotdog vendor standing just below the outsized advertisement if she’d ever heard of him or The President’s Shadow. She hadn’t the foggiest, of course—a humblebrag to beat all humblebrags.
By now, it should be clear that whatever curmudgeonly critics might say about his novels, nobody could slight Meltzer’s genius at self-promotion. Even before the official publication date, he has already begun what many authors might consider a grueling book tour for The President’s Shadow, but Meltzer actually seems to be enjoying himself.
“Anyone who complains about their book tour, someone should take their book and hit them in the head with it,” Meltzer says. “Any author who complains about their book tour is spoiled. Other authors would kill, they would give their left and right arms, to be paid to go and meet the people who are reading their books.”
Meltzer—who graduated from the University of Michigan and then made law review at Columbia University as he was writing The Tenth Justice and securing a six-figure advance—was not always so invulnerable.
He recalls being crushed on reading a scathing review of The Tenth Justice in USA Today. “The headline was something like, ‘Make The First Book Your Last,’” he says. “And my mother told me, ‘Don’t worry, nobody reads that paper.’ Of course,” Meltzer adds with a laugh, “it was the No. 1 newspaper in the country.”
When his second published novel, Dead Even, fell short of sales expectations, “I was terrified,” he says. “I called my mom and said to her, ‘I’m worried that this is the end of my career.’ And she said to me, ‘I’d love you if you were a garbageman.’ She wasn’t taking a crack at garbagemen. My uncle was a garbageman.”
Meltzer, who grew up in a family of modest means, sharing a bedroom with his sister in cramped rented apartments in Brooklyn and then Florida, says that recalling his late mother’s comforting words (Teri Meltzer died of breast cancer in 2008) is part of his daily ritual before he sits down to write on his Mac. The other ritualistic thing he does to prepare himself, every day, is to force himself to remember in vivid detail a phone call from his longtime literary agent, Jill Kneerim.
After Washington lawyer/agent Robert Barnett declined to represent Meltzer, explaining that his hefty fee would bankrupt an unknown first-time author, Meltzer says the Boston-based Kneerim had agreed to take him on and sell his promising first novel, The Fraternity, which ultimately prompted two dozen publishers’ rejection letters.
“My agent said to me that I had interest from two editors, and that they’re gonna call back with offers, and to be at the phone at whatever time,” Meltzer recalls. “I was excited. I had about $30,000 in loans to pay off, plus another $10,000 in loans from college, so I was sitting by the phone, waiting for her to call and tell me the magic number of how much money we made. And all she said was, ‘Sorry, kiddo.’”
Meltzer adds: “So, after thinking about my mother every day when I sit down to write, I am thinking about that phone call. I picture the kind of phone I was holding in my hand. I picture the room I was in...in D.C. I picture the balcony. I picture the fire station across the street. I picture the parking lot below the balcony—all to re-create that moment when I had nothing. Because if you don’t do that, you’re going to get spoiled, and the moment I’m spoiled, I’m done. I re-create that moment so I can reignite the fire.”
Meltzer has been dauntingly prolific over the past two decades, writing and producing several television series, creating story arcs for D.C. Comics and other comic-book publishers, and writing three non-fiction books and six children’s books—to say nothing of his 10 novels.
“I love doing the TV shows, I love doing the children’s books, but the novels are like the house I build with my own hands,” he says, noting that novel-writing is solitary work and his other projects are collaborative.
Meltzer says that when he launches a novel, he usually knows how it will begin and how it will end—The President’s Shadow begins with a severed arm buried in the White House Rose Garden and ends at Fort Jefferson in the Florida Keys, where several of Abraham’s Lincoln’s assassins were imprisoned—but he plots what happens in between at 50 to 100 pages at a time. “I once outlined a book from start to finish and it was a disaster,” he says. “It was my second book and there was no spontaneity to it.”
Once he has an idea for a storyline, he subjects it to months of intensive research, often consulting with friends in the CIA, FBI, and Secret Service, he says.
When I ask what literature has most influenced Meltzer in his own work, he answers: “I guess I’m supposed to impress you and say I loved Moby Dick and whatever other writers are supposed to say, but the truth is I love Agatha Christie and I love Judy Blume.” He also mentions the celebrated British graphic novelist and comic book creator Alan Moore.
As a tween in Brooklyn, using his grandmother’s library card in Sheepshead Bay, Meltzer became smitten with Christie’s Murder at the Vicarage. “To this day, I don’t know what a vicarage is, and I don’t want to know. I never looked it up,” he says. “But I do remember that I was attracted to the book by this amazing thing that I saw right there—a dead body. And then there was that question that I’ve been asking myself ever since, which is, ‘Whodunnit?’”
By the way, that problematic first novel, The Fraternity, “still sits on my shelf, published by Kinkos,” Meltzer confides. “Every time we move, I open it up and look at it. And I’ll see just horrendous mistakes and novice errors, but also the naïveté of someone so young, falling in love with writing. There is just an energy on the page. I have no idea what I’m doing, but I’m driving it as fast as hell.”
He muses: “I can update that book now and try and sell it and make some cash, but to me it’s like taking a ’64 Mustang and putting in a new engine and a muffler so it doesn’t rumble, and getting a CD player. You can do all those things, but then you rob it of its soul...I have not shown it to anyone since it was rejected the 24th time. Maybe when I’m dead, it can be published and it will help feed my family.”