Brad Meltzer has a knack for finding the hidden gems of history.
From his discovery that former United States President Ronald Reagan secretly carried a gun in his briefcase to his role in actually finding the lost 9/11 flag that firefighters raised at Ground Zero, the best-selling author's fascination with the secrets of American history have helped drive his career.
That talent is on full display in his newest prose novel thriller, The Escape Artist for Grand Central Publishing. Featuring two characters with amazing roles in the U.S. military - one a mortician for fallen heroes and the other an artist/painter for the army (yes, you read that right) - The Escape Artist also returns the multi-faceted Meltzer to his first love, writing a fast-paced thriller with unforgettable characters.
And before the book ends, it reveals more secrets about the U.S. government - this time involving magicians, the Secret Service, and Harry Houdini.
The release of The Escape Artist also represents the twentieth anniversary of when Meltzer released his first book. And over the last two decades, he's written several more best-selling novels, as well as launching a successful children's book series and hosting TV shows for the History Channel and H2.
Meltzer has also used his success in prose to launch a career in comic books, writing best-selling titles like Identity Crisis, Buffy the Vampire Slayer and Justice League of America, for which he won a Will Eisner Comic Industry Award.
Up next in comic books: Meltzer's working with well-known artists on I Am Gandhi: A Graphic Biography of a Hero, and he'll be collaborating with John Cassaday on a story for DC's landmark Action Comics #1000 in May.
Newsarama talked to Meltzer to find out more about the unusual jobs and characters featured in The Escape Artist, why he was feeling a little lost before he wrote this book, and how the story's secrets are connected to Harry Houdini.
Newsarama: Brad, when you introduce the main character in Escape Artist, right up front, he's a mortician for the military named Zig. It's not exactly the most glamorous job, but it's obviously that you researched what they do at Dover Air Force Base for fallen soldiers - and, surprisingly, other cases that the government investigates. What was it like digging into that place and that job, and why did you want to make it part of the book?
Brad Meltzer: I was on a U.S.O. tour, entertaining our troops a number of years ago. We were in the Middle East. And it was soon after that that Dover came on my radar.
I knew that it was where fallen service members go, and that's where the bodies go, but I had no idea that it's also where the biggest cases go.
Nrama: Yeah, I was surprised the victims of Jonestown went through Dover.
Meltzer: Right, and the victims of 9/11 went there. And when the space shuttle went down, the bodies went there.
But it also where the bodies go of all the people who are on top secret missions for us - all the heroes that we'll never know their names, all the people that are using fake identities. All their bodies go there too.
That means Dover is a building full of secrets.
So I was just determined to get there. It was just one of those places that I never thought they would let me in.
By some miracle, they invited me inside. And I spent the better part of three years with almost unprecedented access there. And I was blown away by what I saw.
Nrama: The character that kind of kicks off Zig's adventure is Nola Brown. Can you describe Nola and her relationship to Zig?
Meltzer: Yeah, these are two of the characters I'm most proud of ever creating.
The book opens with a very simple premise. Nola is a staff sergeant for the U.S. Army, and the government says that Nola died in a plane crash.
But when mortician Zig is laying her body to rest, he finds a hidden note in the body itself. And the note says, "Nola, you were right - keep running."
He realizes this isn't Nola - she's not dead; she's alive, and she's on the run.
She's the "escape artist."
And of course, when it comes to Nola, she's a character that just grabbed me by the throat and wouldn't let go.
Nrama: Let's talk about the other military job you researched - the artist-in-residence - which plays a big role in this story as well. How did you get interested in that one?
Meltzer: It started because, when we were recording the very first episode of Lost History, we were searching for the 9/11 flag that the firefighters raised at Ground Zero. And the flag went missing, and of course the show helped find it. We were thrilled to do that.
But on the very first episode, we were filming at a military base in Virginia. And I was in this art museum of all things, and they had the art of Adolf Hitler there, they had art from famous generals, and I was thinking to myself, "Why does the government have so much art?"
As a comics person, of course, the question is even more important to me.
And they explained to me, "Why don't you come in the back and meet the artist-in-residence." I didn't know what that was.
Nrama: OK, yeah, explain what the artist-in-residence is.
Meltzer: Since World War I, the U.S. Army has had an actual painter on staff who rushes into great disasters and paints them. So whether it's the beaches of Normandy or Vietnam or 9/11, we have a painter there.
Nrama: I find it incredible that the army has an official painter who experiences and records these important parts of history. And this painter just rushes into the fray?
Meltzer: Yeah! Yeah, this is, like, the real Captain America. What they explained to me was, while everyone else is running into disasters with guns, this war artist actually races in with nothing more than paint brushes in their pocket.
And I said, "Oh my gosh, that's the craziest person I've ever heard of. I want to meet him." And they said, "You mean you want to meet her." And I went, "Oh, she's a woman." You bet I wanted to meet her.
And Nola was born soon after.
And for those of us who know comic references, apologies for using "escape artist" and not talking about Mister Miracle - but that's where my "escape artist" was born.
She was someone who could see the weakness in everything. She could find your human weakness. And Nola was conceived right there.
Nrama: OK, so now we know who the "escape artist" is. But the title also refers to another part of history that you touch upon in the book. Without spoiling the story, this book also plays with actual escape artists who worked for the government, right? Even Harry Houdini?
Meltzer: Right, and this is a true fact. It's the first page of the book. It says in 1898, a man named John Elbert Wilkie was put in charge of the Secret Service. He was a friend of Harry Houdini; he was a part-time magician himself; and he loved doing magic tricks.
It is the only time in history that a magician was in charge of the Secret Service.
And I couldn't shake that fact. For the better part of a decade, I couldn't shake that fact. I was looking for, how do I use this in a book?
And then finally, with Dover, with Zig, and with the war artist known as Nola, and with this Harry Houdini fact, I had three people who were desperately, desperately trying to come back to life. And I'm not talking about from the dead to being alive, but they were lost in their lives. They had great tragedies. And each one was obsessed with coming back from the so-called dead.
And I finally had the one thing that tied them all together.
Nrama: Brad, you're working on so many things, from the kids books to the TV shows. But when I began reading this book, it felt like you were getting back to your roots, to the job you love. And this is an anniversary, isn't it, or when you published your first book?
Meltzer: Yeah, this is 20 years!
Nrama: Wow. So yeah, how does it feel to get back to crafting a thriller novel like this?
Meltzer: Yeah, you know, the honest truth is I felt like I was getting a little lost. And if I'm being completely honest with myself at the 20-year anniversary, I can either say yes I'm great and keep going, or I can take a look at myself - a really hard look at myself - and say, how do I get better?
And the reality was, I looked at some of my comic book work, and I realized I was starting to like it better than what I was writing in novels. I loved the novels, but I liked the character work I was doing in the comics better.
And I realized it was because I knew those characters better.
So I refused to start this book until I had Nola, completely. Until I understood her to her core. And the same with Zig.
This was like, go back to what you succeeded at when you came out with your first book and you were 27 years old - character, character, character.
So it really was me taking that look at myself and saying, this is how you're going to improve.
Nrama: You and I have talked before about how you're drawn to normal people who become heroes and do extraordinary things. These characters fit into that as well, don't they?
Meltzer: Absolutely. I went to Dover, and the truth was I was just another dummy doing a research trip for a book they wanted to write. And it wasn't until I got there that I just got smacked in the face by the devastation - and the hope that the people there were bringing to families around the country.
I mean, I walked in and we're hearing stories of, you know what? If you get shot in the face, at a regular funeral home, they do a closed casket funeral and you get buried. Period. The end.
But at Dover, they try not to do that, because they realize that parents out there don't even believe that their son or daughter is lost until they can physically see them. So I met morticians who would spend 14 hours repairing cheek bones. These people are artists. They're true sculptors, re-sculpting cheekbones just so a mom and dad can say goodbye to their son. Or spending hours re-building someone's hand because the mother says that she wants to hold her son's hand one last time.
That's what a hero is. Right? No one knows about these people. They're doing it on a daily basis for no credit.
And it shook me. It really got to me.
And then here's this other woman who is running around the country documenting the great disasters that are happening all over the place, for no other reason than we need to learn. Right? That's why the army does it. They have photographers. They have videographers. All those people can show you a moment of what happened.
But what I love about the artist-in-residence, with a painter - and anyone in comics understands this - is that an artist can tell a story. That's the difference.
And I love that there's some Pentagon line item for storytellers. I mean, whoever thought that'd be there? But again, the comics fan in me just reacted immediately and just found another hero that I never thought I'd ever see.
Nrama: Brad, I think you've got some comic book projects coming up, right? And you're doing a book tour right now, traveling all over the country.
Meltzer: Yeah, I'm excited about - we're doing the I Am Gandhi the comic book with my pals Bryan Hitch and Rags Morales and David Mack and Bill Sienkiewicz and more.
And then John Cassaday and I are doing Action Comics #1000 - we're doing a story for that in May.
And the book tour - anyone who wants to come to the book tour, of course, I'm always signing comics, so people are always bringing Justice League and Identity Crisis and Buffy. I would love to see anyone who wants to come.
For more information about Brad's book tour, visit BradMeltzer.com.