Friday, Feb. 8, 2002

Laura Hodes spoke with Brad Meltzer on the telephone while he was in his hotel room in Portland, Oregon on a stop in his book tour for The Millionaires. For a book in which the themes of surveillance and hiding one's identity feature prominently, the interview started on an appropriate note. Brad first paused to close the shades on the hotel window, noting that he had a wonderful view of the city, but that everyone could see into his room.

So, are you enjoying the book tour?

I love it. You work for two years in basic solitude, and then you meet your readers. People are great. People drove for four hours for the event in Dallas. It's wonderful.

When did you know you wanted to be a writer?

I had no idea at all. I came out of undergrad with debt to pay off. I went to work in Boston at a magazine [Games Magazine]. The man who hired me said he'd be my mentor, teach me everything. The week I got there, he left. I had a free year to play. . I said I'm going to write a novel. I thought everyone has a novel in them. I was a history major. I didn't look at writing seriously. I thought that wasn't a real career; it wasn't a real job the way I grew up.

I knew I had one free year to take off. I really fell in love with the process. It wasn't til I wrote the book [that I knew I wanted to be a writer.] I became obsessed with thinking about these imaginary friends. The first [book] was more literary. It was about two friends. When you get 24 rejection letters, Kinko's doesn't want you photocopying anymore. You just move on and say hopefully you can go on from there. I said if they don't like that book I'll write another, and if they don't like that one, I'll write another.

I got the twenty-third and twenty-fourth rejection letters during the summer of my first year at law school. I started Tenth Justice that summer and wrote it second year and third year.

Did you enjoy your law school experience?

So how did you get your agent during law school?

I got the agent on my first book - when I got my 23rd and 24th rejection letter [from editors], she said she wasn't going to send it out anymore. My agent said, let's see what your next book will be. I started Tenth Justice. She sent it out. She called me up and said there is a movie producer in Hollywood who wants to option it. She had told them what it was about a Supreme Court clerk. So a new letter went out to publishers saying here is Brad Meltzer's book, saying this has been optioned. To this day, I think if not for that, I would not have gotten published.

Do you consider yourself a legal thriller writer? What genre do you consider yourself writing?

I have never been a fan of little neat boxes. I think genres are great but genres are [confining]. My goal has been to write a thriller. I just feel like I write the characters that will be the most interesting to me. If they happen to be lawyers, that's great, if not, that's OK with me too.

I don't read novels while I write. I read graphic novels and comic books. It allows me to keep my brain on a different path completely.

It seems like the issue of trust is central in your novels, what do you think of that?

I'm obsessed with the issue of trust. Dead Even-do you trust your spouse? First Counsel- do you trust the president's daughter? This one - do you trust your brother and everyone around [you]? There's something about that issue, it gnaws at my elbows, feet, and it digs into me deep. It's not like I think, what is the theme of this book going to be? Sometimes you have to let that happen. It's always clear that's what I'm writing about. I think that's what worries us in real life. I think deep down in our hearts, trust is the one thing that cuts us deepest. We all know what it is like to really be screwed over by a friend.

Did you set out to write about privacy, security, and technology?

I pick issues that are very interesting to me. That's very intentional. You have to plan two years ahead. You can't predict [what will be topical.] When I started First Daughter, it was the week Lewinsky exploded. There was a huge uproar about the "Washington Thriller" being dead, which is what the Washington Post said, then two years later the West Wing was on the air, my book came out, and suddenly everyone wanted to talk about the First Daughter. Here [with The Millionaires] - finding money, making you disappear. I could not research the millionaires today. Everyone who trained me is now on the hunt for Bin Laden's assets.

I had some secret agents who helped me out on First Counsel. This was also an issue of trust. I think they felt I didn't burn them [when I worked with them in researching First Counsel]. They introduced me to the head of FinCen-he is a former secret service agent. Introductions were made. I think it's always an issue-did you burn us last time? I say I'm writing fiction. I'm interested in the facts, not in making someone look bad. I just want to take people into a world they have never been in before.

I really loved privacy. I loved the idea that money moves at the speed of email. These are questions I was interested in. And how easy it is to hide yourself and hide your money. I wanted to know if it's easy to hide yourself when your every move can be tracked. We all play hide and seek when we are little, but can we play it when we are older?

What did you learn vis a vis terrorism from your research that's applicable to today?

I think no one hides money like Americans, and no one finds money like Americans. The hard part is someone can send money by email. In the time we are talking, someone could have sent millions of dollars. It's like trying to track a forwarded email. Can it be done? Yes. Is it easy? No. It just goes out too fast.

How do you go about writing a book - do you start with an idea, with plot, with the characters?

I start with the characters. You can have the best plot, but if characters are not believable, no one will follow them. I started with Charlie and Oliver, and [other characters in my other books.] That is always the most important thing, are the characters believable. I throw them into the research, and hope that they tell me what they want to do as opposed to me telling them what they are supposed to do.

What are your writing habits like? Do you start with an outline?

I outline about 50 to 100 pages at a time. It allows me to be in control of scenes but allows the spontaneity of scenes to unfold itself. I almost always know what is going to happen with the characters at the end of the book. I need to know who Oliver and Charlie are going to be at the end of the book. I may not know exactly how I'm going to get to the destination, but I know where they're going to end up. I do know what the end is. I know the address I'm going to, just not the specific directions. Especially with a thriller, you have to know whodunit, otherwise it's cheating the reader. You need the clues to be there, and you want "whodunit" to be out of the room when "it" is [discovered or viewed] by the heroes.

What else do you like to do when not writing?

I read you are writing the next Green Arrow cartoon in the series?

Yes, the director Kevin Smith [did the last one.] I write the next story. But that's not a novel.

Do you have an idea in mind for your next novel?

I'm mulling it over in my head right now. I think you have to let your brain soak up a little more.

Will it be a legal thriller?

I just feel - write the best book you can. I hope it's a good book, and that's it.

[In The Millionaires], Joey is a lawyer. She's a private investigator - does that mean it's a legal thriller? All my books have lawyers. I have never written a courtroom scheme. I'd rather do something that hasn't been done. In Dead Even, the moment they go into a courtroom they all leave immediately. I have always done my best to avoid that, because it has already been seen. I wrote a book about the Supreme Court that didn't have the justices, why? Because it has been done already. I think, show them what they haven't seen.

The Millionaires is about how privacy and money really work in our society. Disney is an allegory for what happens above and below for Oliver. The rich people in Oliver's life above and the life that Oliver lives below. When you throw out your garbage, what people can find out about you. How easily we go back to our old habits and how easily that plays into the hands of the people who are searching for you.

What about Disney World - were you actually there? What was it like?

So I take it you didn't violate their trust in your book - show their secrets?

I don't want to not be able to go to Mickey--to be barred from Disney World for life?

He laughs, as if to say, no way.

Laura Hodes, a 2000 graduate of the University of Chicago Law School, is an attorney and freelance writer living in Chicago. She is a law clerk to the Hon. George Lindberg of the Northern District of Illinois. The opinion expressed here are solely her own.

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