I am a huge fan of author Brad Meltzer, whom I consider a friend, and although we have spoken on the phone, emailed several times and are friends on Facebook, we have never met in person until he came to town for the book-signing. I got a short, 10-minute interview with him before the event and then hung out with him for several hours as scores of people had him sign their books and pose for photos. Once the line cleared, I took my turn.
For those who don’t remember, Thursday was Sept. 8, the 50th anniversary of the television debut of “Star Trek.” Commemorating that special event, Meltzer and I held up Vulcan hand signs for the picture. It was one of the coolest moments in my career. (Pathetic, yes, I know.) Unfortunately, as the picture was taken, I was caught licking my lips, so my expression is a little goofy, but that just ads to the nerdiness of it all.
To be sure, I wasn’t the only one embracing his inner geek at the event. Meltzer, though exhausted, was on an adrenaline high following a huge event in his life. He came to Houston straight from New York where he attended the unveiling of the Ground Zero flag at the 9/11 Memorial Museum. It was through his television show, “Brad Meltzer’s Lost History,” that the flag was found after vanishing from history for 13 years.
“Two years ago I told the story of the missing flag that the firefighters raised at Ground Zero on 9/11,” he said. “At the end of the show I come on the air and say ‘listen, if you see it, please return it. We’ll give you a reward of $10,000 but please return it and do what’s right.’ And what no one knew is four days later a former Marine walked into a fire station in Washington state and said ‘I watched this show Lost History and I want to return this flag.’
“And we knew because we got the call very quickly but for the past two years we’ve had to keep this secret because we’ve been slowly authenticating it and working with the Everett (Wash.) Police Department and working with our own investigation and we announced yesterday that we identified and this was indeed the flag the firefighters raised at Ground Zero. This morning I came back from the ceremony at the 9/11 Museum where we unveiled the flag in its permanent exhibit and it was unbelievable. And to see on the exhibit itself it says ‘Brad Meltzer’s Lost History’ and the Everett Police Department, and our team and there it was, it was incredible,” he said.
A special edition of “Brad Meltzer’s Lost History” aired Sunday, detailing the search and verification of the flag. Meltzer later recounted that the Marine, whose identity has now been lost to history, refused to accept the reward.
During his talk, Meltzer told the audience that flags are symbols of hope, strength and power.
“This flag is also a mirror. It’s a mirror, and when you look at it you see what you need. When these firefighters raised it, we saw what we needed as a country. We needed their strength, we needed that defiance, we needed that proof that no matter how far you knock us down that we will get back up,” he said.
On top of the excitement over the flag, Meltzer is on a book tour promoting his two newest books in his children’s “I Am” series, “I Am George Washington” and “I Am Jane Goodall.” He also announced that the next person to be featured in the popular series is Muppet creator Jim Henson.
“That’s one of those ones when I was growing up, that was my hero,” he told me. “So, I love Abraham Lincoln, I love George Washington, I love that we do Amelia Earhart and Jane Goodall but Jim Henson’s who I grew up looking up to. Let’s be very clear, there’s nothing like Sesame Street and the Muppets.”
He told the audience that the Henson book inspires us to never stop dreaming.
“We should always, all of us, keep believing, keep pretending and keep being good,” he said.
The book will be the 11th in the series (not including his “Heroes for My Son” and “Heroes for My Daughter” books) and he just signed to do six more. He revealed that one of the six will be about Fred Rogers. He noted that even though the people featured in the books are famous, he chose them because they are true heroes.
“It’s not book publishing, it’s a mission. It’s a mission to bring back a morality that’s lacking in this country right now,” he said. “This started because I was tired of my own kids looking at reality TV show stars and thinking that’s a hero. My goal was to give my kids better heroes than that. What happened was there are so many parents and grandparents out there who had that exact same mission. We’re a country right now that’s starving for heroes.”
When it comes to heroes, Meltzer is well known for his fictional heroes in his political thrillers. His 11th thriller, “The House of Secrets,” was released this summer. The three books before it make up his Culper Ring trilogy featuring Beecher White, an archivist with the National Archives.
“House of Secrets just came out about a month and a half, two months ago,” he said. “For those who love Beecher the archivist, there is something in there that I can’t say because I don’t want to spoil it, but we made very clear that Beecher’s coming back. The next book will not be a Beecher book; the next one will actually be a brand new character in a brand new government world that I found that just blew my mind. And I’ve been obsessed with it for a couple years now.”
Meltzer told me he intentionally changes book topics to avoid burnout.
“I never want to be that author who writes the same character so much that they start hating their favorite character,” he said. “There was a very famous author, who everyone knows, who said to me privately once that ‘if I have to write this character again I’m going to want to put a gun in my mouth.’ And I just said I never want to be that guy. And this is a beloved character, but you do it so much and so often I guess that you start to resent it. I love my characters. I love the books I put out because I get to put out a variety of them. I have the benefit of not getting sick of anybody.”
Meltzer, who is America’s nooks and crannies historian, has also written books on famous historical mysteries and conspiracy theories.
“Trust me, I have plenty of mysteries that I really do want to do,” he said. “Real life ones.”
I asked him if he hides secret codes and messages in his books. He gave a wide grin.
“No one has caught all of the secrets we have put in the books,” he said. “In ‘The Inner Circle’ we’ve hidden an actual treasure. It took years, I think it took four years, I forget how long it had been, but I hid a secret treasure and one person finally found it. Only one person cracked it and contacted me correctly and we decided to put it back out there, so it’s still out there, the treasure is still out there to be found. But we hide things in our kids’ books, we hide things in the thrillers, I love hiding things for people who are willing to look. Who doesn’t love a good mystery?”
Getting back to his “I Am” books, he said each one has an underlying theme related to positive character traits. The Washington book is about leadership.
“Being famous is very different than being a hero,” he said.
He said when children today look at politicians they see something very different than what we had with the founding fathers.
“All they see are politicians, they don’t see leaders,” he said. “There’s a difference and I teach my kids that there’s a difference between a politician and a leader. And we need less politicians and more leaders. Leadership is not about being in charge. Leadership is about taking care of those in your charge. Leaders look out for other people and I want my kids to know that.”