Brad Meltzer is heavy into research. His best-selling thriller novels, like "The Book of Lies" which have uncovered secret societies in America's capital and unknown secrets about the death of Superman co-creator Jerry Siegel's father, and his comics, from "Justice League of America" to "Buffy The Vampire Slayer," have come packed with deep continuity references and art nods.
But tonight, History takes the author's penchant for unveiling hidden stories in an all-new direction with the debut of "Brad Meltzer's Decoded." The ten-part TV series mixes the ticking clock pacing of the writer's books with real life mysteries and characters culled from his own archives. Meltzer himself serves as host and narrator, overseeing a team consisting of former prosecuting attorney Scott Rolle, mechanical engineer Christine McKinley and English professor Buddy Levy as they hunt down answers to questions about the country, from the White House to the death of John Wilkes Booth.
Meltzer spoke with CBR News about the premier episode – a search for the missing cornerstone of the White House – as well as how he juggled hosting and planning a TV series while finishing his January-releasing novel "The Inner Circle" and a run on "Buffy The Vampire Slayer Season 8" and whether or not comics and History might cross over any time soon.
CBR News: Well Brad, I think the first question has to be, how exactly did you go from "Brad Meltzer: Novelist" to "Brad Meltzer: History Channel Mystery Series Host?"
Brad Meltzer: That, my friend, is the greatest mystery of all. [Laughter] Trust me, I'm asking myself that question every day because it still feels like a giant mistake. The whole reason I became a writer was so I wouldn't have to dress or put on pants, much less wear makeup and have to talk to a camera. But the truth is, one of the heads of the History Channel read my novel "The Book of Fate" and said, "We should do a show like this." That was the starting point, but I told them "I don't want to be on camera. I'll introduce the mystery at the beginning, and then we can let the team go out and solve it." I figured that they didn't need me for all of it, and I had to write my books and was working on "Buffy" at the time. That's all it was supposed to be.
But what happened was that over the last couple of months, they realized the narrative needed a voice in the middle. They needed someone to say, "We didn't find anything at the National Archives, so now we're going to the Library of Congress." So rather than picking between the three cast members, they asked me to do the voiceovers. I said, "That's fine," and once they had me on camera, I started going, "This is what I love about the National Archives - I just wrote a whole book about it." And they were like, "Do that again! That's the kind of stuff we want." I think at the end of the day, I was the person who was most excited about solving these kinds of things, and so we thought it would be fun to show that enthusiasm to everyone else. But it wasn't at all planned as part of the show when we started.
The format of the show feels like "Charlie's Angels" for library nerds...
That is exactly what the marketing campaign is! [Laughter]
But you get to be Charlie! You're this mysterious voice who gives the team a mission. When it came to the three folks who are out solving the mysteries, how much did you interact with them in reality, giving them background on the mysteries you wanted to solve?
The amazing part was – and this is the best casting of all – that I never met with them. We picked them from videos that they sent in as tryout tapes. There's nothing more humbling than watching 20 seconds of someone's life and passing judgement on them. In fact, it's horrible, and I hate it. You're suddenly back in sixth grade judging people just by how they look. To me, that's what everything I stand against is about.
But in the end, each of the people we picked had a quality I really liked. Buddy has a background not just in research, but in superpower terms, his superpower is that he's really likable. I've found that the trick in doing research is that I don't care how smart you are or where you went to school or what your grades were - it's all nonsense. The question is, "Will people talk to you? Will they tell you their secrets?" That's how I found out where the secret tunnels are beneath the White House. It's how I found out about the catacombs below the Capital and how I got into them: people trusted me. And that's what Buddy has.
McKinley came from this place where we needed to have a science person. You can't have Mulder without Skully. We really did know that we wanted someone who came not just from a background of "My gut tells me this" but from physics and engineering and things that I know nothing about but I knew would come in handy as you'll see in the first episode. All this time, we're going "What the hell is the size of this thing?" and McKinley's going "Dummies, I can tell you right now." So it came out of a need to find three people who would each bring something very different to the show.
The first episode focuses on the idea of the missing cornerstone of the White House. I'm assuming this one came from your research into Washington while writing "The Book of Fate." From there on, what was the origin of the mysteries you guys tackle in the season? Were they all bits of your notes?
You know, even the cornerstone one didn't come from "Book of Fate." I've just over the years 1) amassed a lot of research that I can't fit into the books and 2) I've had a lot of people telling me crazy stories. That's what happens when you write about the secret code Thomas Jefferson used to communicate with; you start getting that crazy e-mail. And sometimes they're not crazy! Another example we're doing in a later episode - I got contacted years ago by a guy who was the great-great-great-however many greats grandnephew of John Wilkes Booth. Right after that, I got contacted by a guy who liked my writing on "Justice League" and said "I represent John Wilkes Booth's family, and we're trying to dig the body up out of the ground to do DNA testing. That's a really big perk from writing comics. So you start saving these things up for a book, but sometimes I just can't make something work in a book without being derivative of something else out there. But that one was just a good story on its own. They were telling me that John Wilkes Booth was mummified, and people paid to see the mummified body. If someone says the words "John Wilkes Booth" and "mummy" in the same sentence, then I'm listening.
As you've been sending the team out with the History Channel cameras, have you actually uncovered any concrete facts that you weren't expecting to get answers on?
There's actually a few like that. Even in the first episode, [we didn't get] the answer I was expecting. Not to ruin the ending, but we always knew we were never going to dig up the cornerstone under the White House. That was not going to happen. The risk of this show is that you never want there to be an "Al Capone's Vault" moment, and so, we always try to find something where we feel we can give a definitive answer of some sort and answer something. I will say that in a bunch of the episodes, there are things I'd never think we'd find. There is absolutely something added to the historical record by the time we're done, and that's amazing to me – for someone who writes fiction to get that involved and add one little puzzle piece to the narrative of non-fiction.
One of the key parts of the first episode is the team getting invited inside the walls of the Free Mason's headquarters in D.C. What's it been like in terms of access to places like that? Does the History Channel's clout allow you to see into places you haven't been able to go?
Listen, it's much more helpful to get into a place when you say "We're from a well known cable channel." I wish I'd had that a dozen years ago when I started doing this and had to beg my way inside. But the truth is, with the example you picked of the Free Masons, the History Channel actually couldn't get in there. That came from contacts I'd made while writing my books. That's how we got inside. I was the one who knew them, and we've worked together. They're actually hiding something with me in my new novel "The Inner Circle." They've allowed only three people ever to film inside there, and we were the third. They said, "We trust you, Brad. You can bring them inside." It's really an accommodation. There are some things the channel can get us into and some things, with my years of research, that I can get us into. History Channel said, "We'd like to use your contacts and get your best mysteries and try to solve them." So some of this has been their's and some of this has been mine.
Briefly touching on that new novel, comic fans get to see you working on the various projects you do in our business between your books, but now with this show, how has it been to have a constant stream of work in front of you all at once?
It looks like I'm really busy, but the reality is that it took me two to three years to write the new thriller "The Inner Circle." "Decoded" has been six months of work, and what took place the most in the midst of each of those projects was "Buffy." It just so happens that the timing worked out for them to all come out around the same time together, but that was just dumb luck. I wish I was smart enough to plan that. I started this book over two years ago and had no idea it would be coming now, but when I was talking to the History Channel, I said, "When do you guys want to launch this?" And when they said, "Oh, December or January" I was like "You know, I have a book coming out then." It was just good fortune.
The fun moment for me was that at one moment in time, I was literally writing "Buffy," looking for Free Masons and trying to finish my novel. I wish I could say in some braggy, douchey way that I'm so great to have done it...but it was hard! I really like to focus on one thing, so at one point I just stopped and said, "I'm going to have to give this timeframe just to 'Buffy' to get it done" and then "I'm going to have to give this timeframe just to the History Channel." Because otherwise, I feel like you start spreading yourself thin, and the last thing I want to do is come out with a product I'm not proud of and I feel like I'm not completely in control of.
What can you tell us about "The Inner Circle?"
This was a really research-intensive book, and it's also the first book I've ever done that's the launch of a series character. I've done seven novels now where I've had a new character every single time. And I love that, but if there's one thing I like, it's trying something new. Show me something that I might fail miserably at, and that's the first thing I'm going to go for because that makes me feel like I'm living. So after seven books of new characters every time, I said, "Let me try a series character." It took me a while to crack that character and find someone I'd want to write about for a long period of time. I guess it'd be smart of me to rush these things out now and have more books every year, but I'd rather put out the quality of work than the quantity of it.
So, back to the show - are there any comic book mysteries out there that could become episodes?
Oh man, I'm looking for it right now. If you know what one is, send it to me. I feel like there's a great episode in the Mitchell Siegel story, but I already did that one in "Book of Lies." Trust me, I'm looking for how to work comics in. [Laughter] But we're still finding things. The guy who was hired by the John Wilkes Booth family to dig up the body was one of the great comic art collectors and Golden Age back issue collectors in the country. Needless to say, I love when stuff like that happens.
"Brad Meltzer's Decoded" debuts tonight, December 2, at 10:00 PM Eastern and Pacific with an encore Friday night at 8:00 on History.