Getting the rest of the world as excited about history as he is has become something of a mission for author Brad Meltzer. His thrillers are always replete with the sort of historical intrigue that can only be recounted by someone whose fingers are dusty from rummaging through archives.
For the last three years, however, the South Florida resident has taken a different approach, cranking out his “I Am...” series of children’s books, which highlight the lives of historical figures, and penning” Heroes for my Son” and “Heroes for my Daughter” to provide his children (and yours) with a roster of people worthy of admiration.
He has produced “Brad Meltzer’s Lost History” for the History Channel, where he sets out to recover key items of historical significance. A lifetime comics nerd as well, he was also tapped to write an updated origin story for Batman for its 75th anniversary.
Expanding his repertoire has brought only success: Meltzer is one of the few authors to be on five different best-seller list categories (fiction, nonfiction, advice, children’s books and comics).
He returns to the thrillers — “the house that I built with my own two hands” as he calls them — with last week’s release of “The President’s Shadow” (Grand Central, $28), the third chapter following archivist Beecher White and the Culper Ring, a secret society created by George Washington to clandestinely steer the course of history.
We chatted with Meltzer about the new book, conspiracies and his old buddy President George H.W. Bush.
Q: What can readers expect from the “The President’s Shadow”?
A: I started with two nuggets: One of them was this image of the First Lady in the Rose Garden, and she just has a moment to herself. She puts her fingers into the dirt, smells the mulch and in this moment of calm she pulls out a severed arm. She has no idea who it belongs to, how it got past security or how to solve the puzzle. I woke up, and that image was in my head and I said, “I want to solve that mystery.”
Then I found out this detail, that’s really related to Florida: I found out that Abraham Lincoln’s killers, four of them were famously hung, the other four were put into prison and were supposed to be sent someplace in New York, but instead were pulled out of their cells in the middle of the night, thrown on a boat and sent south, really south. People think that Key West is the southernmost tip of Florida. It’s not. The southernmost part is this little island southwest of Key West that used to be called Devil’s Island and is now called the Dry Tortugas. ... Like any good history nerd, I had to go see.
Q: The book does a good job of making a job at the National Archives seem really exciting.
A: I would say my goal in life is to make librarians look as cool as they are. Librarians changed my life. I love that I’ve turned an archivist into a sex symbol. That’s the best thing you could say about me.
Q: The book exposes government involvement in some seriously diabolical research. Is it based on something you found?
A: The sad part is that I thought I imagined it, and I thought I was making it up. But I went through the National Archives, and they have records of these things. There were things that I found that I thought I couldn’t print this because it is too horrible and sad and disgusting. These details that come up in the book, I ended up calling some sociologists to ask about these experiments, and I was like, “Hey, this is what I’m making up.” And they were like “Oh, you don’t have to make that up.” It’s heartbreaking.
Q: What is the most bizarre conspiracy theory you have encountered?
A: I’m at a book signing in Los Angeles, and someone said to me “Brad, would you like to see the Holy Grail?” And I thought, “Well, you brought it all this way to Barnes & Noble.” He pulls out this terra cotta pot, and he says, “Do you read Hebrew?” And I actually do read Hebrew so I take the pot, and I pull it close to my face, and I’m looking at the writing on the pot. There’s no writing at all. It’s just dots. He looks up at me, and he says, “Now you understand, don’t you?” And I look at him, and I’m like, “Yes, I completely understand. Security!”
Q: President George H.W. Bush has given you lots of insight. Tell me about the letter he left for Bill Clinton.
A: This was wild: Ronald Reagan, on the day he left the White House, wrote a note for George H.W. Bush and slid it into the Oval Office desk. When Bush left office, he left one for Clinton. Clinton left one for W. W left one for Obama. It’s the greatest hidden tradition of the modern presidency.
When I was doing research, I went to President Bush and asked if you could hide something secret, like a code, in one of those letters. I was trying to figure out how my secret society could continue president after president. So my email pops back up, “The President wants you to have this.” Attached to the email is, for the first time ever — Bush’s biographers had never seen it — the secret letter that he wrote to President Clinton. He always kept copies of everything. Immediately I checked it for codes. But the reality was it was just a gracious, enthusiastic letter.
Q: President Bush even asked you to be one of the speakers at his wife Barbara Bush’s 90th birthday this month.
A: Mrs. Bush said, “You’d better be funny, Meltzer.” But President Bush has a great sense of humor. The first 20 minutes we were with him, he tried to convince my wife and I that he invented the phrase “You da man!” That’s a quality A-plus joke.