By Greg Carannante
City & Shore Magazine
Brad Meltzer is a man of kaleidoscopic distinctions.
They range from helping to find the missing 9/11 flag from Ground Zero to fighting mascot Billy the Marlin in a lightsaber battle at Marlins Star Wars Night. Oh, and he’s the astonishingly rare author to hit the bestseller lists for fiction, non-fiction, advice, children’s and comic books. That’s right, comics.
Every one of Meltzer’s thrillers has made The New York Times bestseller list, and when we spoke last month, a certain First Lady’s Becoming was the only title keeping his The First Conspiracy from becoming the No. 1 non-fiction book in the country.
“We’ve got Michelle Obama in the way, but that’s OK,” Meltzer says. “No. 2 we’re happy with.”
Meltzer’s family moved to South Florida when he was 13. Now 48, he lives with his wife and three kids in a Fort Lauderdale home that he literally remade his own about 10 years ago, complete with a separate entrance to an oak spiral staircase lined with superhero images and his kids’ artwork. It leads up to “the place where the imaginary friends come,” as he puts it — a memorabilia-bedecked office with a cherry-wood floor and a large, antique walnut desk crowded with Justice League Legos, letters from young readers and his first two books, kept there “because I just feel like I need to.”
Since those books, Meltzer has written 31 more in 21 years, and it was recently announced that another is on the way. A thriller featuring protagonists from last year’s The Escape Artist will be released in 2021.
The author’s sphere, however, extends beyond the page. He’s hosted two TV shows, including H2 network’s Brad Meltzer’s Lost History, on which the missing 9/11 flag was located in 2016. This November will bring the debut of his new animated show on PBS Kids, Xavier Riddle and the Secret Museum. Based on Meltzer’s “I Am…” children’s book series, the show follows a boy, his sister and their friend Brad (who looks remarkably familiar) as they time-travel to meet historical heroes like Abraham Lincoln and Albert Einstein.
Meltzer’s heart for reaching for young readers received some well-deserved props from one of his favorite places in January, as the Broward County Library Reads program spotlighted his books, including Heroes for My Son and Heroes for My Daughter, for older kids.
Speaking to us in his office, Meltzer was emphatic about giving kids “better heroes than the ones they were seeing every day on social media.” He also spoke about how a South Florida teacher changed his life, how he wrote his new best-seller about the plot to kill George Washington and why his office actually isn’t is his favorite room.
We began at the beginning.
So, you were born in Brooklyn. Is it just me, or does it seem like Brooklyn is the birthplace of a disproportionate number of famous people?
[Laughs]. I think what it really is is you just had a lot of really hungry families there, and when you have a lot of hunger, especially when you add some big dreams, it’s the perfect alchemy for something amazing to happen.
Good explanation. Did you grow up there?
I grew up in Aventura. I worked at the Aventura Mall for four years at Häagen-Dazs when I was in high school.
That must’ve been a great job.
Free ice cream.
Congrats on the success of The First Conspiracy. The way you’ve written about history reads like fiction. Did you get good grades in history class?
I did get good grades. It was one of my favorite classes. And I was a history major in college. My life was changed when I was in ninth grade at Highland Oaks Middle School [in north Miami-Dade]. My English teacher was Sheila Spicer and she changed my life with three words. She said, ‘You can write.’ She said: ‘You know what you’re doing. You’re going to sit in the corner for the entire year and ignore everything I do on the blackboard. You’re going to do honors work instead.’
She was really saying ‘you’re going to thank me later,’ and a decade later when my first book came out, I went back to that classroom, knocked on her door and said, ‘I wrote this book, The Tenth Justice, and it’s for you.’ And I gave her my first published book and she started crying. I said, ‘Why are you crying?’ She said, ‘I was going to retire this year because I didn’t think I was having an impact anymore.’
How did your collaboration with Josh Mensch work for The First Conspiracy?
Josh and I had worked together on Lost History. He was our best researcher. I said, ‘I want to go down this rabbit hole, you want to join me?’ He basically was the first line of our research, and he would make a first draft and I would rewrite.
I really wanted it to read like a thriller and not just, you know, kind of a dry history. I think the mistake we do is we turn all history into an encyclopedia entry. We forget that these stories are about people that are amazing. You know, George Washington isn’t some guy on the dollar bill. He’s one of the most amazingly humble, modest and even scared and terrified men who’s ever lived, depending on the day you caught him. And I love that we get to bring that human side out.
Your website is so comprehensive it even has a video tour of your office. What prompted that?
I love trying new things, new technology. The New York Times — and I don’t know how they figured this out — said I had the first author website of all time. It was because a buddy worked at IBM, and when my first book was coming out, he was like, you want a website? I’m like, I don’t know what that is, but let’s have one. And that video was actually a live stream when live streaming first started and they were like, you can do a tour of your office and it will be live and people can watch it. And I was like, that sounds fun.
Do you do all your writing in the office?
Is there something about it that inspires you?
It’s not the office. I just need the same place. My first quote-unquote office was a walk-in closet with no windows just big enough that I could squeeze a desk in there. On Day 1 you’re sitting in a closet and Day 2 you’re sitting in a closet, but by Day 14, the closet goes away and it’s just you and your imaginary friends. And that’s what I need to happen.
Zig, the mortician protagonist of The Escape Artist, says even morticians need to listen to music when they work. Do you?
Never. I wish I could. That’s my wishful thinking for Zig. I hear the whole scene in my head, so I need to be able to focus on that.
I’m going to assume that your office is your favorite room?
No, no. My favorite room is wherever my family is. My mom was an interior designer and she was always about building your perfect space. And I think when you’re growing up, everyone has their dream of the perfect space you’ll surround with your trophies to your ego. I’d be a liar if I didn’t say I love being up here. It’s my little getaway. But, to me, the best rooms are the ones that are filled with the people you love. That’s the best room — wherever that room is.
I filled this office with all the things I love. The antique partner’s desk — I searched for years before I could find the perfect desk I would be able to create at. The posters are for my first book that forever remind me of what it was like to be in debt and have a book come out and worry if it was ever going to work. And the bookshelves filled with all the different copies of my books are the gift from my wife that make me feel how lucky I am.
I love that I have the secret staircase that leads up to the office. I mean, the only thing that’s missing is the Bat Pole, right? The reason I love this room is because it’s designed to let me talk to my imaginary friends. It’s just that place that’s quiet enough and away from everything else in the house.
Did your mom the interior designer have any influence on your decor?
Of course. She picked out the rug, the paint colors on the walls. My mom, until her dying day, was weighing in on some of the things. In fact, she picked out the sofa in my office. And that Charlie Brown statue that sits on my desk, that was a gift from my mother that I get to look at every day — one of the last great ones I have from her.
How would you describe you decor?
We lived in Washington, D.C., for many years when I started writing, in this — I think it was 1918 — beautiful stucco Colonial house. Oak and pine floors, the moldings handmade. And then we moved to South Florida, where those houses don’t exist. So we built one. It was a house we wound up gutting, left the exterior walls, stripped it down basically to the concrete and redesigned everything inside. The exterior absolutely fits into Florida — it’s kind of a Bahamian-Key West style — but the interior is entirely our Washington, D.C., house.
Does writing comic books enable you to flex different creative muscles?
You know, a good story’s a good story, and some should be told in fiction and some are non-fiction and some are for kids and some have superheroes wearing capes. Going away from one genre helps me really miss the genre I just left. So it recharges me each time.
Do you think you would’ve written books for kids if you didn’t have any?
No, never would. Not a chance. I wrote these books because I just was tired of my own kids looking at people who are famous for being famous and reality TV show stars and loud-mouthed athletes and thinking that those were heroes. I have so many better heroes that I could give to them.
What was your involvement like with the Broward County Library Reads program?
That was the most special event I did for the entire launch of the ‘I Am…’ series, because it’s my home, right? I started reading at the library. I didn’t have money growing up. My grandmother had a library card, and I remember going to the library in Brooklyn and the librarian saying, ‘These are your books.’ I thought she literally meant those were mine.
And I use the Broward County library. I make my kids go. I consider it my library. My favorite thing is to sneak into my local branches and find my books and write secret messages in them.
What kind of messages?
You’ve got to go look!