Wednesday, January 16, 2013

The Fifth Assassin by Brad Meltzer

Brad Meltzer is the author of many New York Times bestsellers which are narrated by Scott Brick. Their latest audio collaboration is THE FIFTH ASSASSIN and THE PRESIDENT'S SHADOW, about some nefarious Presidential assassination plotters, involving the history of four previous assassins. A graduate of the University of Michigan and Columbia Law School, Meltzer was once an intern on Capitol Hill, and currently lives in Maryland with his wife and son.

JONATHAN LOWE:  I was reading something where you talked about writing your first novel back when you moved to Boston with Games magazine. What was that novel, and was it ever published?

BRAD MELTZER:  It was called "Fraternity," my first before "The Tenth Justice," and it got me an agent, but also got me about twenty-four rejection letters, so it still sits on my shelf to this day, published by Kinkos.

LOWE:  Why did you choose to write about political or Supreme Court fiction?  Did you have a lawyer or politician in the family?

MELTZER:  No, actually I was the first in my family to go to college, so we certainly didn't have a lawyer there.  When I was in law school I found out about the Supreme Court, and what some of the clerks do up there, so the way it happened, I was daydreaming in one of my law school classes when all of a sudden like a lightning bolt or gift from God, it came to me, and I wrote on the back of my calendar the words "Supreme Court" and the word "clerk" and "book idea."  And that was where "The Tenth Justice" was born.  There are these nine justices on the court, and these clerks do so much work for them, with so much influence, they're called the tenth justice.  So the book came from my fascination with these young people on the nation's highest court.

LOWE:  You do character sketches and a lot of research, but do you produce a full outline for every novel, or do you prefer to surprise yourself?

MELTZER:  I definitely prefer to surprise myself, but I eventually wind up with a full outline. What I do is outline only about fifty to a hundred pages at a time. Then I write those fifty pages, and then outline another fifty. So I know where I'm going, but it allows me to makes changes over the course of the two year period it takes me to write a book.

LOWE:  James Lee Burke told me that his personal favorite among his own books was "Purple Cane Road," when he felt he was really in the zone. Do you have a favorite among yours?

MELTZER:  I feel that "The First Council" was where I used the most research, to take readers into that world of the White House, involving the President's daughter. But I have to say "The Zero Game" is where I brought together everything I'd learned in "The Tenth Justice" and "The First Council," so those are the ones, among my earliest, I'm most proud of.

LOWE:  Do you listen to your own audiobooks?

MELTZER:  I always listen to the first chapter, just to see how it goes. But at this point I know I'm in good hands with Scott Brick, who's a friend of mine, and I think he's a great reader.

LOWE:  Scott told me you sometimes try to stump him with accents. Do you guys have a game going on?

MELTZER:  (laughs) Yeah, I was pulling out South Dakota, let's see he can do North Dakota, let's see if there's a difference. He's one of my favorites. He's been with us since "The First Council."  Did "The Millionaires," and then "The Zero Game." I'm constantly trying to see what I can pull on him, to see if he can pull it off.

LOWE:  He's great. Won an Audie award for a Dune sequel.

MELTZER:  I liked your interview of him. Actually, I listen to his reading when I prepare for my own readings. He was at my L.A. book event reading once, and he was in the front row, and I felt like I was being judged by the master himself. Like doing karate in front of your sensei.

LOWE:  Do you wish audiobooks had more sound effects and multiple readers, or not?

MELTZER: You know, I'm in favor of making it like a movie. With "The Millionaires" I did ask them if they could do two readers for the two brothers, just to get the dialog that much more like banter. I'm in favor of it, and don't think it ruins the spoken word or anything. Special effects have not ruined all Hollywood movies, although they have ruined some of them. . . like the ones that let it get away. But at the same time, if you use it correctly, you get "The Matrix." So it's a fine line. If every book which needs an explosion actually has one, it's stupid, and it's just going to be overkill. But there are times when, if you use it correctly and with restraint, you can have a great effect. So I'm in favor of some of that, and in using multiple readers to give you a sense of the different people.

LOWE:  I enjoyed the tension involved in the gold mine of "The Zero Game," where the listener tries to figure out what's going on. I actually guessed what it was, but only because I've been reading about physics. How did you describe that book without giving anything away?

MELTZER:  Very carefully. The idea for the book came from the front page of the Washington Post, where Senator Tom Daschle wanted to get an old gold mine in South Dakota turned over to the U.S. government. I was wondering, why does the government want an old abandoned gold mine that's 8000 feet deep, with no gold in it?  To put the depth in perspective, it's six Empire State buildings straight down. So I went out to South Dakota, and saw that mine. I went down to the bottom, and what I saw there just blew me away. I don't want to reveal what it is, but it's really down there!  Here we are, worried about terrorism abroad, and we don't even know what's right under our noses.  What I tell people about the book, though, is that it's about gambling in Congress. I don't say what's at the bottom of that mine.

LOWE:  It's original, for sure. Meaning not boring or predictable. What about the gambling aspect of "The Zero Game" can you tell us?

MELTZER:  That came from a real story that I heard when I was 19 and an intern for the Senate Judiciary Committee. There were two Senate staffers who were so sick and tired of picking up their Senator's dry cleaning that they decided to put the words "dry cleaning" in the Senator's next speech. One said "you can't do that," and the other said "watch this." So the speech says "while many people think of the environment as an issue that is dry, cleaning it should be our top priority." Hearing that, I said to myself, what if there was a secret game being played on Capitol Hill, right under the noses of the world's most powerful people? And that's where the book was born. 

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