Who doesn’t love Brad Meltzer?
In my opinion, there are two types of readers. . . those who love Meltzer’s work, and those who’ve yet to get their hands on one of his books.
Meltzer is, after all, the guy who writes for both adults (his multiple New York Times bestselling thrillers) and children (with his mega-popular I Am kids series), on top of managing to make learning fun through his multiple hit television shows (Decoded, Lost History, etc.) on the History Channel.
Nobody mixes historical fiction with hair-raising conspiracies and nail-biting suspense the way he does. Period.
In past novels, Meltzer has introduced readers to a handful of really memorable characters, including Beecher White (The President’s Shadow, 2015) and, more recently, Hazel Nash (House of Secrets, 2016), among others. None, though, are as compelling or mysterious as Nola Brown, the star of his latest novel, The Escape Artist (Grand Central Publishing), which comes out tomorrow, Tuesday, March 6, 2018.
Though no doubt busy as he gets ready for a lengthy book tour (see his tour info, including bookstore locations, here), Meltzer agreed to take part in our Five Questions segment, and I asked him about everything from how he came up with the idea for this novel to what prompted him to write children’s books, and even when readers might see Beecher White again.
Meltzer, who is widely considered to be one of the nicest people in publishing, gave some great answers — including a tidbit about when Nola was officially born in his mind. Check out the Q&A below, then keep scrolling to learn more about The Escape Artist.
The Escape Artist: Five Questions with Brad Meltzer
TRBS: First of all, this book is incredible. I said in my review that it’s a book only you could have written, and I really mean that. How did you come up with the idea for the plot, and how long did it take you to write The Escape Artist?
Meltzer: “Over six years ago, I went to the Middle East with the USO, then a few months back, I took another trip to entertain our troops. Soon after that, I found out about Dover Air Force Base. It’s a place I never thought the government would let me into. For those who don’t know, Dover is home of the mortuary for the US government’s most top-secret and high-profile cases. On 9/11, the victims of the Pentagon attack were brought there. So were the victims of the attack on the USS Cole, the astronauts from the space shuttle Columbia, and the remains of well over fifty thousand soldiers and CIA operatives who fought in Vietnam, Afghanistan, Iraq, and every secret location in between. In Delaware of all places, at Dover Air Force Base, is America’s most important funeral home.
“In their building, as you see in the book, they make sure our most honorable soldiers are shown the dignity and respect they deserve. In addition, the people there know details about hidden missions that almost no one in the world will ever hear about. Dover is a place full of mysteries…and surprises…and more secrets than you can imagine. As someone who writes thrillers, it was the perfect setting for a mystery. Plus, in today’s world, we need real heroes. The people here are the real deal. But it still took me almost three years to write it.”
TRBS: Nola Brown is a terrific character. I don’t want to give anything away, but she’s so well-developed and has a really powerful story. Is she based on someone, and what was your inspiration for creating her?
Meltzer: “When we were filming the very first episode of our TV show, Lost History, we were in the HQ of one of the most obscure jobs in the Army: The Artist in Residence. Since World War I, the Army has assigned one person—an actual artist—who they send out in the field to…paint what couldn’t otherwise be seen. It’s one of the greatest traditions in our military—they call them war artists. They go, they see, and paint, and catalogue victories and mistakes, from the dead on D-Day, to the injured at Mogadishu, to the sandbag pilers who were at Hurricane Katrina. In fact, when 9/11 occurred, the Artist in Residence was the only artist let inside the security perimeter. From there, Nola came to life in my head. Imagine an artist/soldier whose real skill was finding the weakness in anything. The Escape Artist started right there.”
TRBS: What is your writing process like? Are you the type of author who outlines everything first, figuring out the twists and turns. . . or do you just sit down and bang it out as you go?
Meltzer: “I wouldn’t start this book until I knew Zig and Nola. That was vital for me. In my mind, the best plot is a great character. And Nola especially, well…she grabbed me by the throat and wouldn’t let go. Plus, I had this: The opening page of the book is true: in 1898, a man named John Elbert Wilkie, a friend of Harry Houdini, was put in charge of the United States Secret Service. Wilkie was a fan of Houdini and did his own tricks himself. And it is the only time in history that a magician was in control of the Secret Service. Let me just say it: I loved that. And I also loved when I found out where Harry Houdini donated all his magic books after he died. You’ll see in The Escape Artist. I didn’t make that up.”
TRBS: My children, like so many others, are huge fans of your “I Am” or “Ordinary People Change the World” series. They’re entertaining and informative, and, as a parent, there’s nothing better than seeing your kids having fun while they learn. How did you get started writing those books, and what’s the process like when deciding which historical figure to write about next?
Meltzer: “The series was born because I was tired of my daughter thinking that reality TV stars and people who were famous for being famous were heroes. I tell my kids all the time: That’s fame. Fame is different than being a hero. I wanted my kids to see real heroes…and real people no different than themselves. We started with I AM AMELIA EARHART and I AM ABRAHAM LINCOLN. Now we’ve seen I AM GEORGE WASHINGTON and I AM MARTIN LUTHER KING, JR. take off. It’s one of the most rewarding things I do. As for picking who’s next, I pick the people whose lives can be moral lessons for my own kids. So yes, I AM NEIL ARMSTRONG is coming in September – to teach my kids about teamwork and humility, two vital lessons we all need today.”
TRBS: Lastly, what’s next for you. . . and do you plan to write more Beecher White and/or Hazel Nash books in the future?
Meltzer: “Zig and Nola are the next thriller. I can’t get them out of my head. And yes, I want to eventually see more Beecher too. But for now, it’s Zig and Nola.”
“Meltzer is a master and this is his best. Not since The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo have you seen a character like this. Get ready to meet Nola. If you’ve never tried Meltzer, this is the one.”–Harlan Coben
Praised as “one of today’s finest book reviewers” by New York Times bestselling author Gayle Lynds, Ryan Steck is the editor-in-chief of The Real Book Spy, and one of the thriller genre’s most well-recognized critics. He currently lives in southwest Michigan with his wife and their five children. For more information, make sure to follow him on Twitter and Facebook!