For novelist Brad Meltzer, being excited about history is just part of loving stories themselves. From his kids books on real-life historical heroes to his various TV shows about missing history to his retelling last year of a historical Batman story, Meltzer's been getting his widely varied audiences as excited about history as he is.
Now Meltzer turns his attention back to novels with this week's release of The President's Shadow. The mystery begins with an idea that came to Meltzer during a dream, involving a morbid discovery at the White House.
"I woke up with it one morning in my head," Meltzer said, "The First Lady is in the White House Rose Garden, and she puts her hands into the dirt, and she smells the mulch…
"But then she finds a severed arm," Meltzer said.
"She has no idea who the arm belongs to, and she has no idea how it got past security. And she certainly has no idea about the puzzle that's in the fist of that arm."
Like all of Meltzer's novels, The President's Shadow required the writer to do a lot of research to turn his ideas into stories that might really happen. "I can make up whatever I want," Meltzer said of the severed arm idea, "but I have to research to see how the Secret Service would really react to it."
For The President's Shadow, Meltzer discovered an island that lies south of Florida — one few people know about — where Abraham Lincoln's killers were jailed. "It's this secret island where the government hid them. And I found out that that island was not far from Florida [near where I live]. And being a history nerd, I went to visit it. I don't want to ruin the end of the book, but you'll see that island, and you'll see that it's an amazing part of history."
In The President's Shadow, the mystery is eventually handed to the star of Meltzer's Culper Ring series of novels — Beecher White, an ordinary citizen who's secretly part of a modern-day spy ring.
"[Beecher] has one defining characteristic, and that is that he always does what's right," Meltzer said. "I never thought I was going to do a series with a character. The only reason I did is because I was writing Batman and Justice League. I realized when I was writing those characters that, when you write a character over and over again, you get to mold that character over time. And that's what I really wanted to do with Beecher in this book, is really see what he's made of."
Although Meltzer emphasized that The President's Shadow can be read without having read any of his other books, he said this one is different because it challenges Beecher in a new way — and one that reflects Meltzer's own life.
"This is the first book that I wrote where my parents were both gone," Meltzer said. "I usually don't figure out what I'm really writing about until I finish the book, and then I see what problem I was dealing with at the time.
"This is the book where we find out what happened to [Beecher's] father. He finds out everything about his past," Meltzer said of The President's Shadow. "In this book, we really find out the truth."
Meltzer said he's never really been interested in writing what he calls "a creature of the week or a bad guy of the week."
"If it's not much of a character at the core, then I really have no story," he said. "Whether it was Red Tornado and the Justice League, or Elongated Man, I want that story to be the most important story in that character's life, that I can tell.
"That's what I wanted for Beecher. This is his most important adventure. Otherwise, why bother?"
The idea for Beecher's modern-day Culper Ring came to Meltzer when he was helping the government theorize ways that terrorists could stage an attack. "A number of years ago, I got a call from the Department of Homeland Security, who asked me to come in and brainstorm different ways that terrorists could attack the United States," Meltzer said. "I was really struck by, why would they just call me?
"And if you look back through history, back to George Washington, he had a spy ring, the Culper Ring, made up of regular, ordinary citizens," the author said. "And so I said to my friend at Homeland Security, wouldn't it be cool if there was that type of spy ring that still existed to this very day.
"And he said to me, 'What makes you think it doesn't?'"
That idea led to Meltzer's invention of a modern-day Culper Ring, which he first introduced in The Fifth Assassin and The Inner Circle. "When I started, the Culper Ring was not known by many people, except those who have read Y The Last Man, but these days, people understand what it is, by watching the TV show Turn or other stuff that's out there."
Meltzer said, when he first came up with the idea of the modern-day Culper Ring, he contacted Y The Last Man writer Brian K. Vaughan to get his blessing for the idea. "When I first started writing this, I approached Brian and I was like, listen man, I saw this thing in Y The Last Man — I just want you to know what I'm doing," Metlzer said. "He was as sweet as can be. When Ex Machina was ending, he asked me to interview him."
On June 24, Meltzer is asking Vaughan to return the favor and interview him for an appearance in Los Angeles. "I called him and said, I'm going to switch seats on you."
Meltzer loves mixing the worlds of his novels with the comic book world. "Over the past few years, it's been great to see those two worlds merge," the author said. "For example, we did something where you can download, right now, the first 40 pages of The President's Shadow, and you also get the Batman story that I did with Chip Kidd — Detective Comics #27, the one that actually is hard to find.
"And in L.A., instead of just doing a book tour stop, we said, let's make it more interesting. And they told me, you can ask anyone you want to interview you. And I called Brian and said, 'want to have some fun?'
Although Meltzer won't spoil whether Beecher White survives the end of The President's Shadow, he said there will be more in this series eventually. "The fun of the Culper Ring is that anyone can be in the Culper Ring. So I won't spoil the end of the book," he said. "But I will say the next book is not a Culper Ring book, but the one after that is. Or hopefully will be, I should say."