Brad Meltzer usually slides cryptic references to comic books into his novels, but this time around, he put it right in the title. The best-selling author's new book, The House of Secrets, might have the same name as the once-popular DC Comics titile, but the premise is much closer to Meltzer's real life than anything he's written before.
The House of Secrets, which Meltzer wrote with award-winning author Tod Goldberg, is based around the fictional host of America's most popular TV conspiracy show — strikingly similar to Meltzer's work as host of Decoded, a conspiracy-themed show on History Channel.
There's even more 'art mimics life' in Meltzer's latest book: The main character in The House of Secrets — the TV host's daughter, Hazel — discovers that her father was secretly doing work for the U.S. government. And that is also straight out of Meltzer's life, because he once helped the Department of Homeland Security by brainstorming different ways for terrorists to attack the United States. Called 'The Red Cell Program,' the project continued to utilize Meltzer in his position as a conspiracy celebrity and creative thinker.
Meltzer is well-known for his work as both a TV host and novelist, but comic book readers also know him as the writer on titles like Justice League and the best-selling mini-series Identity Crisis.However, the recent publication of DC Universe: Rebirth specifically pointed out that Identity Crisis is no longer in continuity, even though much of DC's history was restored in the one-shot.
What does Meltzer think of the change to continuity? And what was it like to work for Homeland Security? As the writer's latest novel, The House of Secrets, is released this week, Newsarama talked to Meltzer to find out more about the book, his Paul Levitz-inspired ideas about continuity, and whether he's working on any comic books soon.
Newsarama: Brad, why don't we start with the premise of this book, because it has a very familiar premise for fans of yours.
Brad Meltzer: Yeah, the focus is Hazel Nash, the daughter of Jack Nash, who hosts a conspiracy TV show called The House of Secrets. When Hazel was six years old, her favorite bedtime story was about a body that was found in Revolutionary times, and when they cut the body open, they found inside the body the Bible that belonged to Benedict Arnold.
As the book opens, Hazel is now grown up, she's 30 years old, she's in a hospital, and there's been a terrible accident. And she's told that her father's dead. She has no memory of what's happened. So anyone she knows, she's forgotten those people.
An FBI agent comes in and says to her that the last person who was seen with her father, his body just turned up, and when they cut open the body, Hazel learns they've got the Bible that belonged to Benedict Arnold. What she realizes in that moment is that all the stories her father told her throughout the years were true.
And now she has to figure out who killed her father, she has to figure out what her real memories are. She doesn't understand where the scars on her forehead came from, she doesn't understand where the guns that are in her house came from.
She realizes that she's a mystery. She's the true House of Secrets.
Nrama: Setting this around a host of a TV show has to feel very familiar to you, having hosted similar shows. Is this at all based around your life?
Meltzer: I stole from the very best part of the conspiracy TV show we did for the History Channel. One of the great things I realized when we did that show is that, because I had this TV show, people would tell me secrets. I had the family of Abraham Lincoln's killer, John Wilkes Booth, call me up to tell me a story. I had people from Fort Knox question whether the gold was really in the vault.
And I realized that I would make a perfect spy, because people invite me into their homes and tell me these amazing secrets for no other reason than I'm on television.
So that's where The House of Secrets was born. It's just me realizing that I could use this.
And the truth is, it actually has happened. I got a call from the Department of Homeland Security years ago, and this is true. And their early asked me to come in and work with them about brainstorming when is a terrorist going to attack us?
So when you put that all together, I just thought to myself, you know what? This is really going to be a potentially great plot.
Nrama: OK, you have to tell me more about this job you got consulting for Homeland Security. Did they bring you into a room with other people to brainstorm? Or did you come up with ideas on your own? Or how did they approach that?
Meltzer: They would pair me with a Secret Service agent and a chemist, and they would give us a target. And they would say, "destroy the city." And I would come up with my crazy way to destroy the target. And the chemist would say, "no, let's use this chemical," or "this chemical will dissipate less quickly in the air." And the Secret Service agent would say, "No, this is the best way to get past security."
And we would destroy a major city in an hour. And you don't go home feeling good that night. You go home terrified, because you see how easy it is to kill us.
Nrama: Brad, that's really scary.
Meltzer: It is! That's why I had to use it for a plot!
And I think also, just on a personal level, one of the things you realize — and it's one of my favorite lines that we have in this book — is when you're in the business of conspiracies, there's this pact with your audience. And every once in a while, you have to solve a conspiracy. Because if you don't, the audience will lose faith in you. And it's a horrifying reality.
And it really talks to what we as a people need more of than anything else today. It's the scarcest natural resource that exists. And it's simply called the truth. And we all have the Library of Alexandria in our pockets, but it's almost impossible today to find the truth. You put in the world "freemason" into Google, and it'll take you 10 pages before you can find anything that's real.
So to me, that commodity just becomes this great thing to play with.
Nrama: Did you use some of your own experiences, then, for The House of Secrets?
Meltzer: Both. I used my own, but of course I had to do more research. One of the things we built the book around was the plot and the story in real life that I wanted to do earlier but just never had the space for, which was this amazing story I heard about the last moment between George Washington and Benedict Arnold.
The last moments between them are some of the most heart-breaking moments in American history. When George Washington finds out that Benedict Arnold is a traitor, they say it's one of the only moments that anyone's ever seen George Washington ever cry.
And Alexander Hamilton delivers a secret letter from Benedict Arnold to George Washington. And in the letter, Benedict Arnold asked first that his wife would not be killed, because she wasn't in on the plot. And second, that the people he worked with weren't killed, because they weren't in on the plot. And third, in one of the craziest moments of letter writing history, Benedict Arnold asked for his luggage and his stuff.
And what's even crazier to me is George Washington actually sends it to him. George Washington spent the rest of the war hunting Benedict Arnold down and trying to kill him. But what is so important that he actually sends back his luggage! And to this day, nobody knows exactly what was in that luggage. Nobody knows exactly what was in those books.
And George Washington used to use books to secretly hide messages.
So as for my theory on what was in that luggage, you will see it in the pages of The House of Secrets.
And you know, that title… Vaneta, I can't believe you haven't asked me about the title.
Nrama: You mean because of DC's House of Secrets?
Meltzer: Yeah, usually I hide my comic book references deep in the pages, and this one is no different. This is obviously full of conspiracies and really fun stuff. But I make no bones about it that I love this medium. And I put it right in the title this time.
Nrama: Any chance you're writing in comic books again?
Meltzer: Well I still speak to Dan [DiDio, Co-Publisher of DC Entertainment] and all my friends at DC Comics, and all my friends at Marvel. I love talking to them about these things.
For me, all my comic book writing time has gone to the children's books we do with Chris Eliopoulos. And so that has kind of become my comic book pallet these days. And trust me, anyone who knows me knows that I would love to do more comics. But it's simply a matter of finding the time.
Nrama: You know, they've been reorganizing things lately with Rebirth. I think Identity Crisis and maybe other stories you did are out of continuity now. Does that matter to you?
Meltzer: You know, when I first started in comics, [then-DC Comics Publisher and Presidnet] Paul Levitz set me down and explained to me how continuity worked. And he said, you know, there's continuity that you throw aside because it's just a bad story that doesn't hold up any more and it makes no logical sense. So you kind of shove that aside. And he said, then there's the continuity that can never change. Batman's parents are murdered in the alley, and Superman comes from Krypton and is found by these two people. It's just sacrosanct.
And most everything else falls in the middle.
I always loved that explanation, because it allows so much space for everything to kind of exist. And to me, a good story will always exist.
What is amazing is that the best stories and the stories you love most, they find their way back into people's hands. When they're changed, they don't take anything away. Did seeing the Winter Solder run around undo Bucky's death? I guess to some, it undoes it. But to me, it takes nothing away from the heartbreak of that original story.
That's part of being a part of this industry, is you get to live as a little thread on this amazing tapestry that is continuity.