This is what you get when you cross one of your favorite authors with one of you biggest heroes.
Brad Meltzer came to Books-A-Million in Katy recently on a stop on his book tour for “I Am Neil Armstrong.” Being both a friend and a fan I couldn’t resist the chance to interview him again. The fact that his current “I Am” book is about my lifelong hero Neil Armstrong just made the reunion that much sweeter.
“I Am Neil Armstrong” is the 15th book in his series of children’s books about real life heroes that started four years ago with “I Am Abraham Lincoln.” As prolific as he has been with the children’s books, Meltzer is equally prolific with his thrillers, non-fiction books, and television shows. He has published 12 thrillers so far, producing one about every other year. His next page-turner comes out in January. It’s a non-fiction story called “The First Conspiracy: The Plot to Kill George Washington.” His next “I Am” book comes out in November and is about Supreme Court Justice Sonia Sotomayor. His next fictional thriller will be a sequel to his last book, “The Escape Artist.”
But I’m getting ahead of myself here. As much as we all like to know what’s next, this is about what’s now. With less than a year to go before the 50th anniversary of the first moon landing, Meltzer is out with a book about Armstrong, just ahead of a movie about the astronaut called “First Man.”
I asked Brad why Armstrong and why now. I expected him to say it made economic sense to do the book just ahead of the 50th anniversary hype. I should have known Brad better than that. He’s not that petty.
“Yesterday I got a phone call from one of the screenwriters of the new Neil Armstrong movie, ‘First Man.’ And he called me up. I didn’t know the guy; he reached out to me. He said, ‘oh my gosh, how long have you been working on this book?’ I said about three years. I said, ‘how long have you been working on your movie?’ He said about four years. It’s no coincidence that both come out now. I really don’t believe it’s sheer coincidence. I think that it’s the universe’s way of presenting a need. And these things just don’t happen in the ether, they happen for a reason,” he said.
He said the time is right in America for a hero with the values Armstrong presented.
“I think if you look through history when great needs present themselves, great heroes present themselves and I think it’s no coincidence where the world is right now that we’re seeing a resurgence in heroes like Neil Armstrong and Mr. Rogers,” he said. “I think we have spent a lot of time, whether it’s on social media or on Twitter, paying attention to people who are good at chest thumping and making a lot of noise and being loud. And I think what as a country what we realize is there is something about humility and hard work and those who don’t spend their time calling attention to themselves.”
Those two attributes, humility and hard work, are what interested Meltzer.
“Armstrong never used the word ‘I’ it was always ‘we.’ ‘We did this.’ ‘We accomplished this.’ That’s how he spoke about the Apollo mission, and when he said we, he meant the scientists, the mathematicians, the tailors who were sewing his spacesuit together, it was all of their accomplishment,” Meltzer said.
“Personally for me, remember when humility was a great American value? We need that value back again. And this book is my way of giving it back to my kids. It’s showing them what humility looks like. It’s the only way we can get it back. We have to teach it to our children,” he continued. “And the other one that really hit home for me was just hard work.”
He told the story of 8-year-old Neil Armstrong who tried to climb a tree but fell.
“The most important thing Neil Armstrong does after that is he gets back up again. That’s the part in the book where I stop with my own kids. You see this part? You’ve got to get back up again.”
The book talks about all the steps young Neil Armstrong took to become an astronaut and eventually the first person to step foot on the moon, taking that “giant leap for mankind.”
“As I tell my own kids, you don’t get to take the giant leap until you take all the thousands of smaller steps to get there,” Meltzer said. “And I think we’ve lost sight of that, too. Our kids today want to be famous; they want to get a lot of likes on Instagram. And they think that just happens. And to me, fame is useless. What’s important is the hard work. That’s how you get what you want.”
That has been an underlying theme in all the “I Am” books. Meltzer takes historical figures (some of whom are still living) and details their rise as an ordinary child to the great person they became. Other heroes include Amelia Earhart, Rosa Parks, Albert Einstein, Martin Luther King Jr., Gandhi, Helen Keller, and more.
He said people have longed for heroes in difficult times. During the Depression we got Tarzan and Buck Rogers. In World War II we got Superman and Captain America. After 9/11, superheroes came bursting onto the silver screen beginning with Spider-Man.
“It was the superhero movies that came back. And they’ve surged since then for 15 years now. Why? Because we’re still a country that’s scared. We’re still a country that, you know, feels a little unmoored after what happened on 9/11. And we want someone that can come save us or at least prove to us that we can save ourselves. And I think it’s no coincidence that today you see a callback for the simplicity and the depth of character that Neil Armstrong offers,” Meltzer said.
Of course, you can’t do a book about a NASA hero without a Houston connection.
“I always reach out to the families. The only reason I didn’t at this point is because we have a dear friend that lives here in Houston, Charlie Justice, who used to work at NASA,” Meltzer said. “So he wound up being a great lifeline for us to make sure we got all the space stuff right. And I think without him, of course, I would have reached out to the family, but he was our local family here and was very kind to us and made introductions for us to people who could fact check.”
The artist for the books, Christopher Eliopoulos, has lobbied for Neil Armstrong from the beginning. When Brad finally committed to it, he was ecstatic. They both became absorbed in the details.
“I was like, I’m a comic book nerd, and a science nerd, so I of course we just hunkered down with all the details,” Meltzer said. “I want to get every detail down right that I could and I sent it to our buddy that used to work at NASA and said, ‘what do you think, Charlie?’ And he said, ‘you guys are nerds.’ When NASA calls you a nerd, you know you’ve arrived.”
And when I get a fan-boy moment with a favorite author writing about a favorite hero, that’s when I know I’ve arrived as a reporter. Thanks for the moment, Brad. You’ll always be my favorite nooks-and-crannies historian.