Leap of faith

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Best-selling author’s ‘greatest fear’ also serves as his greatest strength

By Kurt Anthony Krug
Legal News

When he gave the commencement address at the University of Michigan Law School last month at Hill Auditorium in Ann Arbor, New York Times best-selling author Brad Meltzer shared with the class of 2016 his “greatest fear.”

At age 13, Meltzer’s late father Stu was fired from his job. With very little money, the elder Meltzer decided to move his family from Brooklyn to Florida, something that scarred his son for life.

“Because on that one bad day I watched my whole life evaporate – poof! My friends, where we lived, everything we had – gone. My whole life, my biggest fear is reliving what happened to my father. Not the loss of something like money – I’m talking about the loss of stability, of safety, the fear of not even knowing where we’d live. That fear is what scares me, it’s what terrifies me, but it is absolutely what drives me,” said Meltzer, 46, of Florida, an alumnus of U-M and Columbia Law School, whose latest novel “The House of Secrets” (Grand Central Publishing $28) was released on June 7.

He continued: “It is the fire in my soul. Our greatest strengths are our greatest weaknesses. But our greatest weaknesses – if harnessed correctly – can be our greatest strengths. Remember what scares you… let it be your own rocket fuel.”

Meltzer also told the graduates not to be afraid to fail because they will fail. It’s par for the course. He got 24 rejections for his first novel.

“If you don’t fail, you probably won’t find happiness,” he said. “Every year you get older, it’s harder to take risks… The greatest risk is admitting what you love and what you want… Life used to be an escalator. Today it’s a trapeze. It’s terrifying. It’s exhilarating. But when you make that leap, that leap to your authentic self – I promise you – It. Will. Be. Glorious.”

And Meltzer took that leap.

He is one of a select few authors to have books on bestseller lists for fiction, non-fiction, advice, children’s books, and comic books. He co-created the short-lived but critically lauded political drama “Jack & Bobby,” starring Birmingham native Christine Lahti. He also hosted “Brad Meltzer’s Decoded” and “Brad Meltzer’s Lost History.”

In 2006, Meltzer participated in a think-tank called Red Cell that included various psychologists, as well as members of the CIA, FBI, and the Department of Homeland Security, where they brainstormed new ways that terrorists might attack the U.S.

Meltzer also has spearheaded campaigns to find a kidney for his former high school history teacher, Ellen Sherman, and to restore the Cleveland house where Superman was created. 

“House,” which he co-wrote with Tod Goldberg, is the first of a new series that introduces Hazel Nash. Her father Jack hosted a TV show about conspiracies. As a child, she loved hearing his stories, especially the one about a book belonging to Benedict Arnold that was hidden inside a corpse.

Years later, Hazel’s dad and brother die in a car crash, which gives her amnesia. Soon thereafter, an FBI agent asks her about Jack’s connection to the corpse of a man found with an object stuffed into his chest – Arnold’s book.

Trying to put together the puzzle pieces of her past and present, Hazel needs to figure out who killed this man and how Arnold’s book ended up in his chest. The answer will tell her the truth about Jack, what he was really doing for the government, and who she truly is.

“Indeed, for Hazel, the greatest mystery is herself,” said Meltzer.

As he’s done in many of his novels, Meltzer deftly intertwines fact and fiction.

He meticulously researched Arnold, a general during the Revolutionary War who fought for the Continental Army under George Washington but later betrayed him and defected to the British. In the annals of American history, Arnold’s name has become synonymous with the word traitor.

“The last moments between Arnold and Washington are among the most heartbreaking in U.S. history. It starts when Arnold is revealed as a traitor. Arnold races out of the house, leaves his wife and child behind, jumps on his horse, and rides away… Naturally, when Washington learns what’s happened, he’s devastated. They say it’s the only time the father of our country is ever seen crying,” explained Meltzer.

Alexander Hamilton – the future Secretary of the Treasury and Washington’s chief aide – delivers a handwritten letter from Arnold to Washington. There are three important highlights in the letter. The first is asking Washington to protect Arnold’s wife. The second is all of Arnold’s aides weren’t aware of his treason. The third is one of the oddest requests one could make in those circumstances, according to Meltzer, which is Arnold asks Washington to send his clothes and belongings to him.

Even odder, Washington accommodated such a request.

“Think about it. Arnold has just put a knife in the back of his best friend, become one of the most hated men since Judas, has basically abandoned his life, and his wife is in danger of being murdered – and what does he ask for?  He wants his luggage. He even says he’ll pay for the expense of sending it. And for some reason, Washington obliges,” said Meltzer.

“It’s a moment no one can explain: Washington hates this man. He spends the rest of the war hunting him and calling for his death. So why in God’s name does he send Arnold a final care package? And what’s in this so-called luggage? To this day, no one knows the answer. As for my theory, it’s in (‘House’), of course – how’s that for a tease?”

It was learning about this correspondence and Meltzer’s experience with Red Cell that inspired “House,” which marks Meltzer’s first collaboration with Goldberg.

“We hit it off, realized we had the same sense of humor, and off we went,” recalled Meltzer. “We each wrote an entire book. From the start, I always had the plot of the book. So Tod flew to Florida and we locked ourselves in my kitchen for a long weekend. From there, we talked it through and – of course – changed much of it. Then Tod wrote a first draft, giving us this book with an incredible, fully-realized character. And then I took that draft and rewrote the plot. I’d cut chapters, add cliffhangers, twist the mystery, and, well, there we were.

“When Tod finished, I said about his characters, ‘I don’t know how you do what you do.’ And when I was done with the plot, he said to me, ‘I don’t know how you do what you do.’ I think we were both in shock it actually worked. Or at least that we didn’t kill each other.”

In September, the next two books in his “I Am” series of best-selling children’s books about historical figures – “I Am George Washington” and “I Am Jane Goodall” – will be published. Meltzer wrote the book about Goodall – a scientist renowned for her work with chimpanzees – for his daughter. Goodall’s entry is the 10th in the series – which has also chronicled Abraham Lincoln, Helen Keller, among others – but the first to be about a living person. She was also the first to read the book about herself, according to Meltzer.

“Lincoln doesn’t care what we write about him. So I was terrified as she read it. Thankfully, she loved it,” he said. “Here’s her blurb: ‘I really do LOVE this little book!’”

Plans are underway for Meltzer write an “I Am” book about boxing legend Muhammed Ali., who died June 3. Currently, Meltzer’s hard at work on his next thriller, which he’s tight-lipped about.

“He (Meltzer) is a wunderkind. He’s got the books, he’s got the TV show… He’s just really incredible,” said Anthony Franze, a fellow lawyer-turned-novelist. “I’m a fan of his, but I also am in awe of how much he does. He’s always been an impressive person, too, and a great guy. He’s always been very supportive of me. The fact that he broke into this game in his 20s just says everything you want to know about somebody because I know how hard it is to break in. Brad still just gets better and better.”

For Meltzer, it all goes back to that leap of faith, facing his fears, and being true to his own voice – all of which he reiterated when concluding his speech to the graduates.

“May you all find what you love, conquer what you fear, and never forget that fire that brought you here,” he said. “I hope you all stay true to your authentic voice.”
 

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