'The Escape Artist': Brad Meltzer Unlocks the Secrets to His First New Novel in 3 Years

The best-selling author talks about what he learned at the military's main funeral home, how the Army's real "artist in residence" inspired his main character and why the Trump presidency is bringing back the villain.
Grand Central Publishing; Johnny Louis/Getty Images

With The Escape Artist, Brad Meltzer returns with his first novel in three years. It also marks two decades since his first published book — the best-selling and still-beloved The Tenth Justice.

The Escape Artist features all the things that Meltzer fans have come to expect — a breakneck pace, a historical tie-in, real locations and institutions, and, of course, a good conspiracy. The author, who describes himself as a "history geek" (he hosted History Channel shows Decoded and Lost History) loves nothing more than a good historical conspiracy. This novel also comes with a few new twists, including a female protagonist described as a mix of Lisbeth Salander and Homeland's Carrie Matheson, and a tough-as-nails daredevil mortician (you read that right) based at the Dover Air Force Base mortuary — well-known to Americans as the place where the bodies of military personnel killed overseas are first brought.

Meltzer talked to The Hollywood Reporter about how he got access to the real Dover mortuary, how that inspired The Escape Artist and writing a female lead character. He also talked about the importance of his best-selling kids' book series Ordinary People Change the World in the age of Trump and revealed that his next book is going to be nonfiction (and he even spilled on the subject).

Tell me about Dover Air Force Base mortuary, which plays a key role in the book.

I was on a USO tour a few years back and at that point we were in the Middle East and they'd take half a dozen fellow writers every year to entertain the troops. So the USO brought us to the tour, and it was after that tour that I realized the depth of what Dover does. Of course I'd heard of it, but I didn't realize what they do. Yes, it takes care of our fallen service members, but it also takes the biggest cases — the victims of 9/11, the victims of the space shuttle disasters, the victims of the USS Cole bombing. Most interesting to me, it also takes all of our classified, high-profile, top-secret spies. People who no one knows their identity. The morticians who work there get to see everything. It means that Dover is a building full of secrets and a building full of mysteries, and I became obsessed.

How did you get access?

I wish I could say I had some kind of magical in, but I literally just wrote a letter that said, "I'd really appreciate it if I could come down." They gave me unprecedented access, which was a shock, but obviously incredibly rewarding. I think they realized one thing about me is that I don't write about what I hate, I write about what I love. So if I'm gonna spend two and a half years writing a book it's going to be about something that inspires me. My God, we need heroes more than ever, especially in the government, and in Dover I found them.

Tell me about what you learned observing at Dover. I can't imagine what it's like to spend time at such a sacred but also cool place.

You get to this place and you see the Attaboy Wall — the Attaboy Wall is all the people who have lost their children who wrote letters saying thank you for what you did for my dead child. And there's this gym in the back, really close by, because they know that anyone who works there too long is gonna lose their mind. You realize how quickly turnover happens because people can't face death like that on a regular basis. There's a line in the book I stole directly from the people at Dover. Every character that Zig, the mortician, meets he asks to himself: Do they have heart or no heart? That is how they see it — you either got heart or no heart.

If you get shot in the face, at a normal funeral home they will close the casket and bury you. When you're in the U.S. Military and there's some 22-year-old kid who gets shot, they explained to me, the family doesn't even believe it happened until they get to see their kid's face. The morticians who work there are true artists. Some of them are amazing sculptors; they are rebuilding faces and noses and ears. They'll spend 14 hours working and rebuilding someone's cheekbones just so this family can have a little more calm, and some of them won't take overtime for it. It's the mission: You gotta have heart or you got no heart. They told me a story of one time they rebuilt this person's hand because the mother said she wanted to hold her son's hand one last time before they buried him. You hear those stories and you're like, "What am I doing? I'm talking to these imaginary people trying to make up these stories, and these people are living incredible lives doing things that are life-changing for these families, and no one knows about them." That's why the book took an extra year, because this isn't just a setting. This is a character I'd never dreamed of before, and it became one of the most amazing heroes I've ever worked on.

Nola Brown, your lead character, is a unique creation. Tell me about how you came up with her.

We were filming the very first episode of Lost History, looking for the 9/11 flag that the firefighters raised at Ground Zero, and God bless whoever in production decided that we needed a military background for filming. They took me to Fort Belvoir in Virginia, and there was this museum on base. They have paintings from Adolf Hitler, paintings from these amazing generals. I remember saying to myself, "Why does the government have all this art?" It made no sense to me, and I asked them about it. The curators said, "You need to meet the artist in residence." I certainly didn't know that since World War I the Army has had an actual painter on staff who documents great disasters as they happen: From the beaches of Normandy to Vietnam to 9/11, we've had a painter there actually painting it. They explained to me that while everyone else is racing into this disaster with guns, armed to the teeth, that there's one person who races in with nothing but paint brushes in their pockets. And I thought, "That's the craziest person I've ever heard about — I want to meet him." They said, "You mean her." I met her and I said, "I need to write about her." We have photographers and videographers and they will all document things that happen, where what a painter can do is tell a story. And I think the comic nerd in me was obsessed with this person. I was lucky to spend some time with her, and that's where Nola came from. I think that's why everyone's reacting to the book. Nola is this character who when everyone else sees something normal she's just drawn to disasters. She sees your weakness by looking at you, by painting you, and the character is just fully formed right there.

It seems like we've seen a lot more action thrillers with female lead characters the last few years. Is there a trend going on?

There is definitely a trend. You'd have to be blind not to see that, and that's a good thing. I remember someone telling me years ago that if you make a male hero then the boys would watch it and the girls would watch it, and if you make a girl hero only the girls would watch, and I hated that. I love every single person who's fighting against it. I started this book over three years ago, and for me it was because the real artist in residence is a woman, and I wanted to tell the story of this real woman who's rushing into disasters with nothing but art supplies, and anyone who does that is tougher than anyone else out there. It was just inspiring to me. So I wish I could come at it from some kind of wise angle, but the real story is: I met the person in the military who has the most badass job and it just happened to be a woman.

Do you have a favorite conspiracy theory?

JFK is always the best crazy one around, and I think the Lincoln assassination is a spectacular one because there's a point in time where people were going around the country paying to see the John Wilkes Booth mummy — there was a mummified version of him. Anything that has the words "Abraham Lincoln" and "John Wilkes Booth" and "mummy" in the same sentence is gold to me. But my favorite one right now is the one that started this whole book: In 1898, a man named John Elbert Wilkie was put in charge of the Secret Service, and he was a magician who was friends with Harry Houdini. It was the only time in history that a magician was in charge of the Secret Service. I just lost my mind to that.

Is there a conspiracy theory out there that you think might turn out to be true?

If you look at my Twitter feed right after the election, I said if I did Decoded today or in 20 years the story is gonna be the Russians ended up interfering in our election. And every day since then there's more and more proof of it. We've turned the word "conspiracy" into the word "kooky," but what conspiracy really means is people plotting against you without you really knowing it.

Do you think the Trump presidency and possible Russian collusion will generate a lot of thrillers and fiction? It's interesting that Watergate hasn't been the starting point of a lot of speculative novels or thrillers.

The reason why Watergate can't generate anything is because everyone knows the ending to it, so it's a binary story that can go one way and have the ending we want. The reason why JFK can generate so much fiction is because everyone can write their own version of it. That's what a great conspiracy is: It's a mirror of your fears. To me that's why the Trump presidency — for me, again, it's my personal view — I just think what's coming from it is we need to give our kids better heroes. I'm also tired over the world being Trump people or Obama people. The president may love that distinction, but it's logically flawed. We are Americans. I know there are certain groups where there's one side and the other and there's nothing in between, but the average person has more in common [with their political opponents] than they think. We see it with our kids. [Me and Chris Eliopoulos, who illustrates Meltzer's Ordinary People children's books] sold more of the older books in the series — I Am George Washington, I Am Rosa Parks, I Am Martin Luther King Jr. — than ever once Trump got elected. It wasn't a Democrat/Republican thing; it was parents on both sides who were tired of turning on the TV and seeing politicians. What they wanted to show the kids were leaders. There's a difference between a politician and a leader. To me that's what I think is coming out of it.

The people who hate Trump are going to create villains based off that. I think you're gonna see in the next few years — for so long you've just seen heroes fighting heroes, that's what we've done: Captain America fights Iron Man; Superman fights Batman. We've been a country obsessed with that, and we still are, because we're a country fighting our own civil war every day. But I think what is gonna happen now is you're gonna see more of a return of the villain. When you look at Michael B. Jordan in Black Panther you hear people saying that's a great villain. You totally, absolutely get the complexity of that. It was like a Darth Vader-level villain. What we're gonna really see is the villain making a comeback instead of all of us fighting ourselves.

What's next?

We're coming out with an adult nonfiction book called The First Conspiracy [co-written with Josh Mensch]. It's about a secret plot against George Washington that I discovered years ago. It's this little part of Revolutionary War history that no one knew about. There was a plot against Washington — some say to kidnap him, some say to kill him. What it led to, incredibly, was this: Washington found out about it and rounded up the people against him and had 20,000 American soldiers watch the execution of this man. It was the largest public execution in this nation's history. I became obsessed with the story. We're now launching a series, and the first book is called The First Conspiracy: The Secret Plot Against George Washington and the Birth of American Counterintelligence.