Brad Meltzer Makes History Just As Thrilling As His Other Bestsellers
The acclaimed Mystery and Thriller author talks about the natural intrigue of the secret plot to kill George Washington and how it reinforces his work on heroes and the nature of heroism.By Christina HarcarJan 9, 2019, 12:44 PM
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When most people hear Brad Meltzer’s name they think of the dozens of thrillers he’s written (The Inner Circle and The Tenth Justice, to name a few) as he’s topped the bestseller lists for years. But real fans also know that he’s very into history and is the host of Brad Meltzer’s Lost History on H2and Brad Meltzer’s Decoded on the History Channel.
So it’s almost no surprise that his love of history led him to dive into a little-known episode of U.S. history — that time there was a secret plot to kill our first president. Listen in as Meltzer talks with Audible editor Christina Harcar about how The First Conspiracy: The Secret Plot Against George Washington — co-authored with Josh Mensch — came to be, shares a funny story on how his longstanding work relationship with narrator Scott Brick started, and reinforces why his children’s books focus on real-life heroes.
Note: Text has been edited and may not match audio exactly.
Christina Harcar: Hello, I’m Christina Harcar, one of the Audible editors and today I have the pleasure of speaking with Brad Meltzer, whose curiosity as an author spills over the usual boundaries of category and genre. As an Ivy league-trained lawyer he achieved best-sellerdom with his first published novel in 2008, the thriller The Tenth Justice, narrated by Scott Brick. Fast forward over many other wonderful novels and in 2018 The Escape Artist, narrated by Scott Brick and January LaVoy introduced a new series and new protagonists Nola Brown and Jim “Zig” Zigarowski. It’s a terrific thriller in my opinion.
In addition to his fiction, Brad is one of the few authors to have had books on the best seller list for non-fiction, advice, children’s books and even comic books. Brad believes that ordinary people change the world. It is that core belief that runs through every one of his projects. His illustrated Ordinary Hero series of children’s books including I Am Amelia Earhart and I Am Abraham Lincoln, were written for his own children, as were Heroes for My Son and Heroes for my Daughter. Those titles are profiles of admirable figures. Everyone from Jim Hensen to Sally Ride that he started collecting from the day his kids were born. He’s a dad, a philanthropist, one of the co-creators of the TV show Jack and Bobby, and the host of Brad Meltzer’s Decoded on the History Channel. Welcome, Brad Meltzer.
Brad Meltzer: You have no idea how long I’ve been waiting to come to this exact moment because we are an audiobook house. And I can tell you that by telling you my intro to audiobooks, because it must be mentioned. And that is when audiobooks were first starting and they were getting bigger and growing, the first people who read our books, it just didn’t sound like me, it wasn’t perfect. And then the second person, I was like, that doesn’t sound like me either. And then they gave us Scott Brick, who has been my audio voice for so long now. And the reason that audiobooks matter to me is because my grandmother at the time, may she rest in peace, was reaching 90 years old. She was going blind. She was an avid reader and I gave her the audiobook of one of my early books that Scott read, the very first one. It was called The First Counsel, and she listened to it. I said, Nana, what do you think? And she said to me, Bradley, he sounds handsome. And I knew right there I’d found my alter-ego. So Scott Brick, the incredible audiobook narrator, has been with me for every book now leading right up to this one. And needless to say, we like anyone who sounds handsome.
CH: I couldn’t agree with you more, both about Scott Brick sounding handsome — because he is handsome inside and out — but I also just love that story. Thank you so much. So let’s turn to The First Conspiracy, which I devoured this weekend. So it’s non-fiction, but the events of 1776 had thriller-like aspects. Like a plot to kill the president. So how would you describe The First Conspiracy for listeners who aren’t familiar with the events of 1776?
BM: I’ll tell you where I found the story. It was in the footnotes, where all the good great stories are hidden. This was almost a decade ago and I found a story that mentioned a secret plot to kill George Washington. I was like, what is this? Is this real? Is this nonsense? Is this some made-up stuff I found on the internet? What is it? I used it actually in one of my thrillers, in a small paragraph, almost a decade ago, I put it in there and made a mention of it, but I couldn’t shake it. When it’s in a thriller, it doesn’t matter if it’s real or not, it’s just a piece of fiction that’s going to be out there. But I couldn’t shake it: Was it real? What happened?
And I went to Joseph Ellis, who’s one of the great Pulitzer prize winning George Washington biographers. I said, did you ever hear of the story where they tried to kill George Washington? And he said, yeah, I heard the story. He says it’s going to be very hard to figure out what happened because you can figure out how many slaves George Washington owned, but you’re never going to be able to find all of his spies. And the story took place with many of his spies, so by nature they were all trying to keep it quiet.
So he said what you’re looking for is going to be elusive. We started searching and it is truly a secret plot to kill George Washington. Some say to kidnap him, some say it was to murder him, either way the result’s the same. And when George Washington found out about it he rounded together 20,000 people, 10,000 troops and 10,000 bystanders. Twenty thousand people. He built a gallows and he hung one of the main people responsible in front of 20,000 people, the largest public execution at that point in North American history. George Washington brought the hammer down. Said do not mess with me. I am George Washington. I’m going to be on the money one day. I’m paraphrasing that quote obviously, he said it a little differently. But I just couldn’t shake it. And I loved it and I said, we’ve got to write a book about this. And you will see in The First Conspiracy that it was exactly that. It was America’s true first conspiracy. A plot to go after the man who became our first president.
CH: Wow, I love the context on Joseph Ellis and that is such an exciting way to describe the book. A lot of the book takes place in New York, and your former stomping grounds are in Brooklyn, so did you find the actual places of your life to be an inspiration in addition to the story itself?
BM: Yeah. I’m from Brooklyn. Josh Mensch, who I worked with on the book, lives there now. So it was fun for both of us to write this story where New York City plays such a big role. History is fascinating. At the start of the revolutionary war you have the patriotic strongholds of Boston and Philly, but New York has a whole different story. The city was really divided, with tons of people taking the British side, everyone spying on each other, plotting against each other. The local politicians are playing both sides, and then throw in prostitutes, jailhouse snitches, you name it. Leave it to New York City to be the place where all the intrigue and backstabbing happens, and in an odd way, nothing’s changed.
But you hit it right on the head, we had to go looking for the real places today, and you better believe we did. I started right from the top. That story I told you about the hanging, I was like, where did he hang him? Where was it? And in my head, it was like the Upper West Side of New York, but back then there was no Upper West Side. The Upper West Side at that point was Chinatown. Because what we consider New York City back then was all the way down at the south of the tip of Manhattan. So we actually went and got out there, and walked around. And there is a park in the heart of Chinatown today, where you can go, and I can’t even believe it, but plunked in the middle of Chinatown is this big, kind of open park. And it just is still there. No one really knows where the hanging exactly happened, but they went up there because it was a place big enough to hold 20,000 people to watch. And sure enough, in Chinatown you can find it there.
So we, of course, went to try to find each and every place right down to the … I won’t ruin the ending, but there’s a playground at the very end that is named after one of the people who tried to kill George Washington and we even found that too. And the little plaque that’s there, is to me one of the great coda’s at the end of the book, what was actually written in his name today.
CH: Well, I don’t want to spoil that. But I do want to say, this is why we have Washington Heights and the George Washington bridge. It was wonderful to see those places and those people come alive in the book. It felt like fiction.
BM: The thing that I think is so hard about George Washington is that he’s arguably the most famous man throughout American history. You pick any age person, any age child, and you show them a picture of George Washington — you know, Abraham Lincoln too, of course — but you show them George Washington… it’s the dollar bill. You know who he is. Everybody knows who he is. But oddly, no one knows really anything about him. Abraham Lincoln we know about his morals. We know how he loved books when he was little. We know the log cabin he grew up in. And you have some of that for Washington. You can go to Mount Vernon, but you don’t really know how he was feeling. He never really put that down. He’s almost like this person that was dipped in concrete and marble, and we made a statue of him and we put him on the dollar bill, but when we do that, we lose who he is as a person. He becomes this kind of calcified statue.
I think a big part for us is not just to tell the story of a murder plot to kill him, but to figure out George Washington himself. And that’s why the book opens up with the death of his brother. His brother who changed his life, inspired him to become a soldier. The reason that he decides to become a military man. Who taught him the ways and the rules of how to be a good person. His father certainly wasn’t the one doing that for George Washington. It was a stepbrother of his, who he looked up to and thought the world of. That’s why we open with the death of that brother. At that moment, George Washington loses everything. He loses that person he loves. He loses that person who cared about him, and it’s why he has no one. When he enlists in the military, suddenly now he’s got brothers again. He’s got people who he’s fighting with again. So when those people secretly betray him, my gosh, it’s a betrayal of the highest order.
I love trying to pull those things apart. Looking at his old letters and seeing the dates that it happened, and really kind of pulling out what was it really like for him because Washington, as you know, was always quiet about everything. I think when you’re done with the book you really get a sense of knowing better what he went through, and how close we were to losing him.
CH: Yes. Yes. Wow. It makes me appreciate how well you tease out what heroism is. When everyone’s coming at you and there’s a big cause that you need to lead. And it makes me think about some of your other titles. I would love if you could comment a bit about Heroes for My Son and Heroes for My Daughter, which are both available now on Audible, and your Ordinary Heroes series.
BM: Read by me.
CH: Yes. Yes.
BM: Yeah, it’s my first audiobooks I ever read. I’ll tell you about the books, then I’ll tell you the story behind them. And I appreciate that. I mean, George Washington is a hero of mine. That’s why we did the book, not just because we found a murder plot. Because I wanted to show people. We’re a country right now — whatever your politics are, whether you’re a Republican or a Democrat — we’re a country that’s starving for heroes. Whatever side you’re on, you look around and say, my gosh, where are all the great heroes gone that we used to have? And for me there are amazing heroes that are around us every day and, of course, throughout history.
I was so determined to teach my own kids that. I was watching my kids look at loudmouthed sports figures, reality TV show stars, people who are famous for being famous, and just taking off their clothes on Instagram. I was like, that’s not a hero. That’s fame. And being famous is very different than being a hero. I wanted my kids to have real heroes to look up to. On the night my son was born, I started writing a book for him. I said it’s going to be a book that lasts his whole life. I’m going to one day present it to him. It’s going to be all the rules for him to live by and when I give it to him, on that day, he’s going to say, “Thank you, Father. You are indeed the greatest dad of all time.” I had this big parade planned for myself. It was going to be spectacular.
But needless to say, that book was horrible. It’s like trying to tell your kid, “Be good”, and expecting them to be good. That’s not how parenting works. I just love my son and I wanted him to have a little piece of me. I wanted him to have that thing he could always have with him. I lost both my parents. I wanted him to always have something he could hold onto. A friend of mine, Simon Sinek, told me this amazing story about the Wright brothers. He said every time the Wright brothers went out to fly their plane, they would bring enough extra materials for multiple crashes. Which means every time they went out they knew they would fail. They would crash and rebuild, and crash and rebuild, and that’s why they took off. And I love that story. I wanted my sons to hear that story. I wanted my daughter to hear that story. I wanted everyone to know if you dream big, and work hard, and have a good side order of stubbornness, you can do anything in this world.
So what I wrote for him is not a book of rules, but I said I want to give him a book of heroes. And that’s where Heroes for My Son came from and Heroes for My Daughter. They’re books that have 50 heroes in them. The first one is exactly that story I told you about the Wright brothers. One-page stories that tells you the single greatest thing to take away from that hero. And, of course, one of the heroes in there is George Washington. But for me the fun of when I did the audiobook recording for you guys was that I brought my kids into the studio. The books were for them, so I wanted them to be there. When you download the audiobook, you’ll hear me not only me reading to my kids, but you’ll hear my kids reacting to me reading. So it’s a really fun audio experience.
CH: It is wonderful. May I say, you sound handsome too in your narration. It’s not just Scott Brick. You learned from the masters.
BM: [Laughter] He taught me well. Just a follow-up on the other part of your question: After that we started doing the I Am series—and it really came out of those first two books, we just realized we want to dive a little deeper and kids also wanted to see the heroes they were reading. So we started with illustrated picture books with my friend Chris Eliopoulos, the incredible artist, who does everything from Spider-Man to the Fantastic Four, and has drawn everyone from Wolverine to the X-Men and the Avengers and used to work at Marvel.
I said, if I tell my daughter that Amelia Earhart flew across the Atlantic Ocean, she’s not impressed. She’s like, big deal, Dad. Everyone flies across the Atlantic. But if I tell her, and this is true, when Amelia Earhart was seven years old, she built a homemade rollercoaster in her backyard, and she took a wooden crate and put rollerskating wheels on the back of it. She put it on the roof and came flying down the side, down these two slats— my daughter’s like, oh my gosh, Amelia Earhart’s amazing! She’s daring! She’s alive again. She’s not some figure that’s just a black and white picture in a newspaper. She’s alive.
So we started with I Am Amelia Earhart, I Am Abraham Lincoln, I Am Rosa Parks, I Am Albert Einstein. My son, who loves sports, we did I Am Jackie Robinson. For my daughter we did, I Am Lucille Ball, because I wanted her to have a female entertainment hero who wasn’t just famous for being thin and pretty. And Lucy stood for the idea [that] it’s okay to be different. It’s spectacular to be different. That’s the best part of all of us is that we’re different. Something to be celebrated. We did I Am Helen Keller and when she goes blind, we put real Braille into the book so kids could close their eyes and say, feel these dots. “This is my name. My name’s Helen. What’s your name?” I watched my 17-year-old son down to my youngest —these books are for five to 10-year-olds — still with their eyes closed, going and feeling those dots.
I’ll end it with this: Something amazing happened in the election a couple years back, when Donald Trump and Hilary Clinton were running against each other and beating each other’s heads open every day. And what happened was two of our books in the I Am series started taking off: I Am Martin Luther King, Jr. and I Am George Washington. And it wasn’t a Democratic/Republican thing. It was parents on both sides and grandparents on both sides were looking at the TV every day and they were seeing politicians, but they wanted to show their kids leaders. We all know there’s a huge difference between a politician and a leader, and they were using our books to fight back. I love that people still are using our books. We’ve done Gandhi, and I Am Sacagawea and I Am Harriet Tubman. We did I Am Neil Armstrong. That just came out. We’re doing I Am Billie Jean King, coming in February, but I love that people use our books to build libraries of real heroes for their kids and their grandkids, their nieces and their nephews.
CH: Yes. And thank you so much. The gift that you gave to your kids that keeps on giving is a gift to society now. Thank you on behalf of the polity, they don’t hand out medals for virtue, but we can say thank you.
BM: I appreciate it. It was totally selfish though. It was selfish, I just wanted my kids to have good heroes.
CH: I think they have many now, because of those efforts. So I wanted to ask about your other possible film and TV projects in the pipeline. I know that you were a co-creator of Jack and Bobby, and I was a fan of Brad Meltzer’s Decoded on History and Lost History on History Two. So what other media projects do you have percolating, if you feel like sharing?
BM: Yeah, I’ll share one that I’m just able to announce, which is in November of next year, which is a long ways away, I know, but the I Am kids books series is going to be a cartoon TV show on PBS. So when I was five years old, Jim Henson and Mr. Rogers taught me you can use your creativity to put good into this world. And to this day all I’m trying to do is use my creativity to put good into this world. I think you’ll see it’s going to be called Xavier Riddle and The Secret Museum. Xavier Riddle and his sister and their friend Brad, who is a little follicly hair-challenged boy, who looks a little bit like the person you’re listening to right now, go back in time, they meet different heroes who help them with their problems of the day. And it’s based on the I Am book series.
CH: Wow, so Xavier Riddle is coming in November 2019. I can’t wait. So I have one final question which is: You must do a lot of interviews. What do you wish interviewers would ask that no one ever gets around to asking you?
BM: Oh, that’s a good question. Funny, you’ve done the best job — and I’m not saying this just because you’re on the air because you can listen and I’m on the spot — because I love when people come who are prepared. That’s all I care about.
But I’ll leave you with this, the one thing that I do want to talk about, and everything I talk about when it comes to The First Conspiracy, and it’s my favorite moment about George Washington. My favorite moment about George Washington in the book is this moment. It’s the moment where the British invade and we’re fighting this huge battle and it’s basically the Battle of Brooklyn. We’re losing. Everyone thinks that the British came and this ragtag group of Americans, we all got together and we beat them off. The truth was we got our butts kicked. They were a far superior military force. George Washington, this great leader who we’ve kind of turned into this idol, he got out-generaled. He just didn’t have the experience. We got pinned down on the East River and we were going to lose. That was the end. In that moment George Washington could have easily said, you know what, we’re going to take as many of them as we can with us, let’s attack and let’s go down in a blaze of glory. But instead, what George Washington does is he does the best thing he always does: he adapts.
He adapts and he says, you know what, we’re going to have a daring escape instead. And in the middle of the night they organize an escape. They get all these ships and little boats and pontoons to come to the East River and one by one he slowly has all his men get on board. To be clear, the men kind of hated each other at that time. We weren’t some great group that fell in love, not only were we fighting the British, we were fighting ourselves just like we are today. I mean the Connecticut regiments hated the New York regiments, hated the people who were from Pennsylvania. Everyone was wearing a different uniform. Some had no shoes. They were a mess.
But as George Washington is slowly, one by one, putting everyone on these little boats and sending them across the East River, one thing is happening. George Washington won’t get on any of the boats until all of his men get aboard first. And they see it. They see that moment of here’s this guy, he’s risking his life for us. Even the guys who were ranked far lower than what George Washington is, of course, as the commander in chief, and to me that is the moment where we come together. That is the best we can be. That’s where leadership is on display. The First Conspiracy is not about that moment just where George Washington is being attacked, but how he fights back, and I feel like I’d be remiss if I didn’t leave you and give you that great image of the man who became the first president.
CH: That’s terrific, I thank you so much and I hope when all of our listeners hear that answer they realize things were bad before and we can all adapt and get better. That’s a really powerful message.
BM: I won’t ruin it, but it’s the last line of the book. That’s the last line of the book is exactly that message. I won’t ruin in.
CH: No, nor will I. So I do want to say thank you and I want to thank you for your time and for this excellent book and for everything all the way down to helping us locate the 9-11 flag and get it back. And to tell you that we wish you good fortune with The First Conspiracy and Xavier Riddle and all of your projects because team Audible is rooting for you. Thank you Brad Meltzer.
BM: And I root for team Audible.
CH: Thank you.
BM: I root for you guys just as hard. Thank you so much.