This blog is typically devoted to the heroes (and horrors) of fiction and film, but on this Saturday let’s turn the attention to the inspiring leaders, transcendent artists and maverick souls of the real world. Author Brad Meltzer has a new book in stores titled “Heroes for My Son” and it’s one that any parent would be proud to share with their youngster. I caught up with Meltzer to talk about the nature of heroes in the conflicted modern age; we also touched a bit on his work in comics and his upcoming novel, “The Inner Circle,” which is due out in January 2011. Meltzer, who is my age, grew up in South Florida and even shopped at the same comic book store as I did, was nice enough to not to mention the Hero Complex-based April Fools’ prank at his expense.
GB: You’ve been fascinated with heroes and villains ever since your youth, but this project and these heroes are for someone else…
BM: I’ve always focused on my own heroes. And these are still my own heroes. But they’re for my son. For eight years now — since the day my son was born — I’ve been writing this book for him. It started as something wildly different, but ended with this collection of heroes throughout history, from Jim Henson to Rosa Parks to Mr. Rogers. If he doesn’t love it, I’ll be crushed.
GB: This isn’t the end for you and this “Heroes” project, is it?
BM: I made one deal with the publisher: I said it had to be a two-book deal. They said, “Why?” I replied, “You clearly never met my daughter.” To this day, she comes into my office every day and says, “Is my book done yet?“
GB: Tell us someone you saved for your daughter’s edition.
BM: Helen Keller. Love her.
GB: The choice of which heroes to include must have been a interesting process for you. Who are some of the candidates that came close but didn’t make it in, and why?
BM: Lance Armstrong got cut at the last minute for exactly the reason you now see on the news. I love his work with cancer (my mom died of breast cancer), but picking living people is hard. I actually also had Stephen Colbert in there for his work focusing attention on the troops when no one else was covering them in Iraq. But again, we cut him at the very end because I think his story isn’t over yet.
GB: Short-form writing is a daunting task, especially for someone accustomed to the landscape-size territory of a novel. Can you talk about that?
BM: I hate little spaces. As a novelist, I don’t count words. I stretch out and take 600 pages. Here, I had one page to tell you the story of Gandhi. Or Abraham Lincoln. Or Jackie Robinson. Or Eleanor Roosevelt. But instead of treating them as “story,” I imagined them first as “poetry.” Fifty-two poems. That’s when it became far more manageable to tackle. Plus, as any novelist knows, one life’s detail can tell the character’s entire life.
GB: Last time we spoke, you said there was a moment when you feared you had failed with your goal of inspiration. Can you talk about that difficult moment with your son and then the heartening revelation that followed?
BM: It was the moment I finally gave “Heroes For My Son” to my son. This was the moment I’d waited nearly a decade for. And of course, he doesn’t care about Rosa Parks or Eleanor Roosevelt. He goes right for the athletes, flipping to the story of Roberto Clemente, the baseball player who went down in an airplane crash while trying to take food and medicine to earthquake victims in Nicaragua. And as we’re reading it, I’m thinking, “Don’t take your shoes off, son — you’re gonna be so inspired, we may go out and start changing the world tonight.”
But as he read the story, he started shrinking in my arms. And he turned back at me and whispered, “Dad,this is sad.” Right there, I realized I’d broken his heart for the first time. So the next night, I leave the book aside. And my son bounds into the rooms, grabs the book, hops up on the bed and says, “Who we reading tonight, Dad!?” He tells me he loved that story of Clemente — and I ask him why, and he says, “Because he gave his life to save those people.” And I knew right there, you can’t teach about a hero unless you teach why you need that hero. You can’t show them the high without showing them the low. And like my best moments as a dad, they’re always the result of complete and perfect accident.
GB: “Identity Crisis” is one of the great achievements in superhero comics in recent years and on the short list of the best superhero “team” tales ever. When you look back on the project what do you see in it now that makes you proudest?
BM: How many people tell me: This was the book that got me back into comics. That’s just humbling. Plus, the pure emotional resonance that artist Rags Morales was able to evoke. To this day, more grown men and women come up to me and tell me that was the book that made them cry — and made their boyfriends and girlfriends cry. Not for some dumb shocking death, but for the emotional attachment they had to a small scene … or to the chase scene with Batman, when they realized he couldn’t get to Tim’s father in time … or to the way Superman says goodbye to his mom. And for me, what makes that so pure is that we were just trying to tell our little story.
GB: You always have a few hundred projects going — tell us three things you’re excited about right now.
BM: No. 1: “The Inner Circle” (the new novel). No. 2: what a former president gave me recently in response to it. And No. 3: the secret decoder rings the History Channel promised they’re making for “Decoded.”
— Geoff Boucher
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Photo credit: Brad Meltzer handout