Pop Culture of My Life: Brad Meltzer on the stories that changed his life
Brad Meltzer loves the kind of story that makes people say: How does no one know this story?
The author is known for political thrillers, historical children’s stories, and unraveling real-life mysteries, like tracking down the missing 9/11 flag. His new book (with co-writer Josh Mensch), The First Conspiracy, blends all his passions by exploring a largely forgotten scheme to assassinate George Washington.
“When 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 hanged the man for all to see,” Meltzer says. “It was the largest public execution of its time in all of North America. Why does no one know about it?”
Maybe because the hanging took place June 28, 1776 — the same day the final draft of the Declaration of Independence was submitted to the Continental Congress. “The British were literally coming, about to invade. With headlines like that, the plot to kill Washington became just a footnote,” Meltzer says.
He uncovered the story about 10 years ago, while doing historical research into another thriller novel. “I couldn’t shake it. A secret plot to kill George Washington? C’mon. It stuck with me. I kept going back to the detail and asking, ‘What else happened?’”
To answer that, he recruited a top researcher and writer from his TV show Lost History. “Josh Mensch was masterful,” Meltzer says. “When we found the transcript from the secret tribunal that tried the man who was hanged, I knew we were onto something.”
Entertainment Weekly decided to excavate some of Meltzer’s own pop-culture past. Here are the books, music, movies, and TV shows that shaped him.
My favorite book as a child
Takes of the Fourth Grade Nothing, by Judy Blume. Superfudge, by Judy Blume. Anything by Judy Blume. I remember reading Are You There God, It’s Me, Margaret? because I thought it was an instruction manual to understand girls.
A book that really cemented me as a writer
When I was 10, I picked up Agatha Christie’s novel Murder at the Vicarage. It was the first murder mystery I’d ever read. To this day, I still don’t know what a vicarage is. And I don’t want to. In fact, if you ever meet me, don’t tell me. Back when I was 10, all I cared about was that on those pages… there was a body. A dead body. How’d it get there? Why’d it happen? And the most vital question of all: Whodunit?
A book, movie, or TV show I’ve read or watched over and over again
It used to be The Shawshank Redemption. But lately, I’ve realized I can watch Logan a billion times and never be bored. If my son is around, same answer for Deadpool.
A classic that I’m embarrassed to say I’ve never read
The Lord of the Rings. I read The Hobbit. I picked it up in my 30s, as my first son was born. And that was the end of it. Never got past it. Every nerd has a nerd blindspot. It is my nerd blindspot. (And yes, I saw the movies. C’mon!)
A book I’ve pretended to have read
The Lord of the Rings.
An illicit book that I had to read in secret as a kid
Forever, by Judy Blume. Ooh, those dirty parts were dog-eared. Dog-eared!
A book that people might be surprised to learn that I loved
Flowers for Algernon. I’ve stolen from that time and time again. In fact, last month, one of my kids had to read it for school, and I was like, y’know… I can read that again. Holds up in every way.
A book I consider to be grossly overrated
I got 24 rejection letters on my first novel. There were only 20 publishers at the time, and I got 24 rejection letters. So I never badmouth anyone’s books. Every book is for someone. Every book has a home. Even the bad ones.
A recent book I wish I’d written
Mister Miracle, by Tom King and Mitch Gerads. I am obsessed with the character. It’s why I created Dr. Impossible. And I was worried they wouldn’t stick the ending. But my God, did that ending undo me. So perfect in every way.
The first non-fiction book I read was…
Some book about knights. I can’t remember the title. It was for an old book report when I was 10 or so. I remember that part about the knights, and swords, and kings, and just… wait… this really happened? This is real!?
Favorite literary conspiracy theory?
Nothing beats Shakespeare. Shakespeare was a woman! He was 17 different people! He was a blacksmith who’s the bastard son of the king! (That may be from Game of Thrones.) The point is, it’s the JFK of literary conspiracies, and also has the best crazies who are all too happy to come to my book signings and tell me EVERYTHING they know.
The last book that made me laugh out loud, and the last one that made me cry
The Escape Artist. Nothing makes me laugh harder than my own jokes. Sometimes I watch myself on TV, while reading my books, while holding a mirror, and I’m, like, “Oh, Meltzer, you’ve done it again.” For cry, watch me read What Do You Do With an Idea? to my kids and… TEARS!
The book I think is the gold standard for historical thrillers
Manhunt, by James Swanson. The opening chapter — about the final moments before John Wilkes Booth pulls the trigger on Abraham Lincoln — is a masterclass in suspense. We all know what’s going to happen, but to paraphrase Hitchcock, it’s not the bang that’s scary — it’s the anticipation of it. We absolutely went for that same goal with The First Conspiracy.
My favorite fictional appearance by George Washington
The Simpsons. On the day The First Conspiracy came out, Simpsons writer Bill Oakley tweeted out that you should read the book and that “You’ve never seen George Washington fight like this (except when he fought Hans Sprungfeld).”
The actor I’d want to play me in a movie
Murr from Impractical Jokers keeps asking. I keep saying no. Though I love when people in airports tell me I look like that doctor from ER. “Clooney?” I ask. “Anthony Edwards,” they answer.
The TV show I think doesn’t get its due
Jack & Bobby. [Meltzer was co-creator of the 2004-2005 WB drama.] Would it really kill someone to finally put it on Netflix?
The last TV series I binged
Wild Wild Country, on Netflix. I am a sucker for cults. I want to believe so badly. And this documentary just found the perfect voices to tell their story. The lawyer alone is so brilliantly complicated.
The TV show that’s my guiltiest pleasure
Reality TV with my daughter. When my mom was dying, I’d watch the worst of the worst reality TV shows with her. My daughter has topped my mother. Name a show you hate. That’s the one we watch. Yes. With those people you can’t stand. Them. And I truly love every second of it.
My all-time favorite movie
Shawshank. I lied above. I will watch it forever. Also Empire Strikes Back. Part of me went to the University of Michigan because Lawrence Kasdan went there.
The last book I gave as a gift
Hilo, by Judd Winick.
The book I would use to squash a bug
Moby Dick. I read it in college and our professor read the Ahab dialogue aloud while the entire class read the lines of the crew — all in unison, screaming. It is the best way to read that massive tome. And then, at the end of that class, the professor said, “Anyone here watch Twin Peaks? Come see me to discuss.” I ran to the front, blathering all my amazing theories of who killed Laura Palmer.
The song that always makes me feel better
Everything by Barbra Streisand. Don’t judge. She was my mother’s favorite. When my Mom died, it brought her back. And I got to dance with my daughter to it. That alone will lift me up forever.
The last album I listened to
Spider-Man: Into the Spider-verse soundtrack. “Sunflower” is on permanent repeat around here. To see pals like Brian Bendis get his deserved credit? Makes me as happy as Miles in that opening scene. (I also know the lyrics as well as he does.)
The first album I bought with my own money
Brother in Arms, by Dire Straits. It was when CDs first came on the scene and people said, “It’s recorded SPECIFICALLY for the CD! No cassette fuzz here.” So I believed them. Plus, y’know, I want my MTV.
The song people might be surprised I know all the words to
“The Devil Went Down to Georgia.” Every word. It played all summer at camp. On the jukebox! I am the Eminem of ’70s country-ish music when you put that sucker on.
The fictional place I’ve dreamed of moving to
Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood. God, I still want to go. Sesame Street (I’ve been). Also, Gilligan’s Island. As a kid, I really thought I could get us off that island.
The fictional character I’d want on my side in a zombie apocalypse
Superman. There’s no question. Any other answer is wrong. Unless zombies are magic, in which case, at least you get the Fortress.
The fictional group of pals I’ve always felt I belonged in
The SuperFriends. I still believe it to my core. In today’s world, we’ve lost sight of good. Pure good for good’s sake. Helping people because it’s right. I hear the TroubleAlert, and I come running.
Have I ever bought my own book in a bookstore?
I did! I once finished an interview at CNN in New York and the host said he really wanted to read the book. So I went downstairs to the old Borders store that used to be in their building, bought the book, and brought it back upstairs. The cashier was laughing the entire time.
What I’m reading right now
Maria Curie biographies, including the one she wrote about her husband — since we have I Am Marie Curie coming out in the fall.