By: Jess Zafarris
“Don’t let anyone tell you ‘No.’”Bestselling author Brad Meltzer reveals the secrets around his new non-fiction book, ‘The First Conspiracy’—plus thriller writing tips, and more.
Brad Meltzer may be history’s most engaging contemporary advocate, at least in terms of the vast audiences he’s able to reach. For instance, he hosted the History Channel’s “Decoded,” which investigates unsolved mysteries and conspiracy theories from history, and “Lost History,” which documents the hunt for missing artifacts.
Or you and your kids might have read his “I Am” children’s books, including I Am Amelia Earhart and I Am Jackie Robinson, or the picture book series Ordinary People Change the World.
Even his fiction is rooted in the most engaging elements of fact: He’s authored a dozen political and historical thrillers, every one of which has made The New York Times bestseller list.
In case his bibliography isn’t impressive enough as is, Meltzer has also delved into the world of comic books with titles in the Green Arrow, Justice League and Buffy the Vampire Slayer universes.
His latest book, The First Conspiracy: The Secret Plot to Kill George Washington, released on January 8, 2019, is plenty thrilling as well, but stands out from the others as Meltzer’s first work of true (adult) non-fiction. (Find it on Amazon, IndieBound and Barnes & Noble.)
A decade ago, Meltzer learned of a British plot to kill George Washington during the early days of the American Revolution, wherein the governor and mayor of New York turned Washington’s personal security against him. Of course, the plot was unsuccessful, and when Washington discovered the plot, the guilty guards were hung before 20,000 troops and citizens in the largest public execution of the era in North America.
Seems like something we’d have read about in history books before now, doesn’t it?
Here, Meltzer lets us in on the secrets around why we haven’t heard about this plot, how his non-fiction approach differed from his usual fiction process, and what he’s working on next.
You’ve been writing history-driven thrillers for more than two decades, and now you’re venturing into non-fiction with The First Conspiracy. What led you down this new path? Why did you choose not to fictionalize the story?
Most of my thriller novels have historical elements mixed into them. I just never had the perfect story to write a whole non-fiction book. But a secret plot to kill George Washington? C’mon. When I learned about this story, it stuck with me—for nearly a decade. When something sticks with you that long, you have to go after it. With some research, I realized it was something I could really dig into.
Did you find the non-fiction writing process notably different than writing fiction? How so (or why not)?
In fiction, I can make the story do whatever I want. But when it comes to George Washington, well… he requires a bit more care [laughs]. In truth, though, a good story is a good story. And this was one of the best I’d ever found.
What is your research process like? Was it especially challenging to find accounts of the events detailed inThe First Conspiracy? Have you ever run into a situation where your research hit a dead end?
I like to picture myself as Indiana Jones, playing the theme song and running around uncovering things. But the reality was this: so much of the documents from the Revolutionary War are easily available. The problem is, no one wants to read them. I love reading them. So that’s where we started. It became a real life treasure hunt, which is why I brought in Josh Mensch, the writer and executive producer from our TV show Lost History. And sure, there were moments where we found some details, but others where there was simply nothing. It just made us dig deeper.
Why isn’t this story widely known? It seems like a big deal, historically speaking.
When George Washington found out about the plot against him, he arrested the guilty parties, grabbed one of the ringleaders, gathered together 20,000 troops and citizens in an open field, and hung the man for all to see. It was the largest public execution of its time in all of North America. Why does no one know about it? Washington, John Jay and others didn’t want to story getting out (it’d be a sign of tremendous weakness at a time when America needed to show strength).
Of course, this sort of non-fiction topic isn’t new to you, given your work on “Decoded” and “Lost History.” How did those experiences inform this one?
“Decoded” and “Lost History” were where we first started dealing with hidden information and the far-more-vital fake information. Today, there’s just so much misinformation out there. We all have billions of pages that we can read on our phones—but the hardest thing to find is still the truth. And as we all know, especially today, the truth matters.
What special considerations should authors make when fictionalizing the truth in history-centric novels?
People will believe what you write. So be careful. No matter how crazy your idea is, people will cite it as truth. That’s terrifying to me.
You’ve cultivated such an impressive multimedia career, spanning age groups, formats and platforms. How did it all begin? When did you first feel like you had “made it,” either as a writer or as a larger influencer?
I still don’t think I’ve made it. In fact, every day that I sit down to write—for 20 year now—I replay that moment where I got my 23rd and 24th rejection letters on my first book. I never want to forget that moment. I never want to lose my appreciation for this life I have. I never want to think I made it. And I never EVER want to lose the hunger that I had when I was 25 years old, being rejected. If I lose that, I’m finished.
In light of Stan Lee’s recent passing, I have to ask—how did you get into writing comics? What was that like, and do you plan to do more? What are your thoughts on writing preexisting characters that everyone already knows and loves?
For 20 years now, I’ve hidden comic book references in my novels. Eventually, DC Comics editor Bob Schreck realized what a nerd I was. He came to one of my book signings and said to me, “Want to write Green Arrow?” I froze and said, “I’ve been waiting my whole life for someone to ask me that.” I love my thrillers, and the history books, but there’s nothing like typing the letters: B-A-T-M-A-N and putting words in Batman’s mouth.
What’s your favorite book/series/project you’ve ever written, and why?
The Tenth Justice, The First Counsel, The Escape Artist, the I AM kids books, and this one: The First Conspiracy. Each reveals a slice of my soul.
What advice would you give to writers looking to a) write in your genres, and b) build a platform as extensive as you have?
Don’t let anyone tell you, “No.” When I first started writing, thriller writers were supposed to write thrillers. Kids books writers were supposed to write kids books. And so on. But again, a good story is a good story. Just keep telling your story. And when your book comes out, let me know. I will always tweet out your first book for you.
What’s next? Do you have plans to write more adult non-fiction?
Our newest kids book I Am Billie Jean King comes out in February, then I’m working on the sequel to The Escape Artist, then in November, we have the cartoon for the I AM series coming on PBS. Then I’m taking a nap.