Bestselling author Brad Meltzer was a comic-book kid growing up in South Florida, and it still informs much of his writing life, whether it’s subtle (the Superman publishing history provided a backdrop for his novel “The Book of Lies,” and check out the title and cover image of his “Heroes for My Son” ) or more overt (he’s written the landmark “Identity Crisis” miniseries for DC and “Buffy the Vampire Slayer” comics for Dark Horse). Now, though, he has a new sort of success with the series “Brad Meltzer’s Decoded” on A&E’s History channel, and it speaks to a very different bookshelf — although some of the episode topics would qualify for old issues of “Weird War Tales,” and Meltzer’s team (a journalist, a mechanical engineer and a trial attorney) could be nicknamed “Challengers of the Unknown.” Our Geoff Boucher caught up with Meltzer to talk about fact and fiction.
GB: This a busy time for you with “The Inner Circle” arriving in paperback last week and the second season of “Brad Meltzer’s Decoded” beginning this Wednesday. With the show, its goal is to sift out fact from folklore, and that has considerable heritage on television, thinking back, say, to “In Search of…” but it’s also a genre that can drift into the silly and the sensational.
BM: It’s so easy to make a bad version of this show. All you have to do is say the word “Freemason” and play lots of scary music. But I think the reason so many people latched onto the show last season is that they know we’re after the true scariest story of all: the one that shows the truth. Last year, I wanted to do this story about Adolf Hitler. And the reality was, we didn’t have the budget. They told me, “No offense, but we’re not flying the cast and crew to Germany for a new show that’s totally unproven.” So with Season 2? We get the budget. And Europe. And my quest for the real-life magic item that Adolf Hitler was looking for.
GB: There’s so much historical fiction and fantasy now, I wonder if audiences lose track?
BM: You know what’s the No. 1 question that tourists ask at the National Archives? “Is there a treasure map on the back of the Declaration of Independence?” Insanity, right? And though the plot of “National Treasure” is great, we all know there’s no treasure map on the Declaration. But you know what really is on the Declaration of Independence? A handprint. And no one knows who it belongs to. And no one knows who put it there. That’s a great episode to me. That’s a great mystery.
GB: You have so many different pursuits, how do you rank them as far as priority or energy and emphasis?
BM: You have to prioritize or you’re going to have a lot of crap. You have to be passionate about what you do, all of it, because if you don’t truly love it, it’s not going to be good anyway. But if I have to prioritize? I love doing the TV show — and I’m blown away by the ratings that we got, which were twice what History expected and was like 2 million viewers an episode — and I love doing the comics, but the novels are the house I built with my own hands. There’s nothing that ever compares to that.
GB: More than a storyteller, the novels and this show have given you this aura of “the finder of secret histories.”
BM: I love history. People think history is battles and these dates that have to be memorized, but that’s not what history is. It’s a living, breathing thing. History is a selection process. People think that it chooses moments and people and puts them together. That’s not how it works. History chooses every one of us every single day. That’s the best part about it. The only question is, “Do you hear the call?” On “Decoded” I get to go out and solve something for real and solve something for real, but it’s different than what I do for the novels. If I’m going to find the secret tunnel below the White House for a scene in a novel, I’m going to go try to find it in the real world. It’s the same skill set but one is for a novel and the other is on TV.
GB: Has there been any path you’ve followed on “Decoded” that left you anxious — in other words, did you ever get spooked by the image you saw as you put together the puzzle pieces?
BM: It’s interesting because the show is a brand new sort of creation, it’s half reality show and it’s half history show. I think when we first started no one was really sure if we were there to fearmonger with the best of them or are we there to actually try to find the real answer. When I first got started, [the expectation was that I would be saying] “Oh, I’m so worried the Illuminati have infiltrated the Freemasons.” They are words that people wanted me to say, but I don’t believe the Illuminati exists, I’m not worried about the Freemasons, it’s all going to be fine.
We’ve found a voice that is rational and I think that’s a rare thing in any environment these days. I think that’s why people are responding to it…. One of my first days out there, one of the producers said to me, “On shows like this when you don’t have a lot of facts, you play a lot of scary music.” There were no truer words spoken. And I never want to be that show. Make no mistake, we come armed with our scary music. But what people appreciate and what they’ve responded to is that at the end of the show we don’t say, “Are the Freemasons going to come and eat your babies?”
— Geoff Boucher
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