Best-Selling Author Brad Meltzer on Writing, Rejection, Balancing Family Life, and Comic Books

With Brad MeltzerBrad Meltzer is living the life that I always dreamed of living. His creative output covers the entire literary gamut. He is most known for writing mysteries with precision and detail, but he writes more than novels. He also writes children’s books centered on famous historical figures like Abraham Lincoln, Rosa Parks, and Martin Luther King, Jr. And to broaden his fan base even more, he has written for DC Comics. In his free time, he even helped save the birthplace of Superman’s creator, Jerry Siegel. But what inspires me, is that considering all those great achievements, Mr. Meltzer is first and foremost a family man.

I attended Dad 2.0 Summit and was able to interview Mr. Meltzer after he provided the key note address. We discussed a wide variety of topics such as comic books, work/family life balance, and not giving up on life goals.

JG: You write a wide variety of genres. Do you have a favorite?

BM: I love that I get to write Batman. I love that I get to write about Amelia Earhart and Abraham Lincoln. But the thrillers are like the house that I built with my own hands. Those other things are people’s stories and other people’s characters. When it comes to the novels, I have an editor that helps when things go off the tracks, but there is nothing like building a house with your own hands. There’s a blank page and there’s nothing on it and I get to build a world. In some ways it’s easier to do someone else’s character. It’s already been developed. It’s already there. You know what Batman does. You know what Abraham Lincoln does. You know what he already did. But to have a blank page in front of you, the development of that is a better charge.

JG: You get to create Beecher’s Legacy.

BM: Yeah, I get to kill off whoever I want.

JG: You’re known to be heavy into research. Do you have a method? Does it come from your educational background?

BM: Truth is, I’ve been doing this all along. When it comes to research, you find people that you think are cool and ask them for help. When writing my third book, I wanted to write a White House thriller, and I needed someone from the secret service to help me. I got someone from the secret service to help me. He walked into the meeting and I thought, “It’s called Secret Service, the word secret is in the title. They’re never going to help me.” And the guy said to me, “I read your first book, and I liked it a lot and I want to help you with this one.” If you got a call tomorrow, I don’t care what you do, and someone said, “Listen, I just want to talk to you about your job. I’m going to write this book. I’ll change all the names. Nobody will really know what happened. I’ll change the dates. I’m going to make it all up. I just want to know what your job is like. Can I spend 10 minutes talking to you?” 99% of the people will say “Yes.” I don’t care what security clearance they have. 99% of the people will say as long as you’re not talking about real stuff you can come on in. Then, you can talk. And people, they really are nice about it. You know why? Because people are tired of watching bad Hollywood movies where the facts are wrong. So especially in this town we’re in right now (D.C.), they just want to see you get it right.

JG: You received 24 rejection letters from your first book. Were you tempted to call it?

BM: You know, I got 24 rejection letters and only sent out 20 submissions. So, some people ended up writing me twice to make sure I got the point. I was just young and stubborn. And I was like, if you don’t like that book, then I’ll write another. And if you don’t like that book, then I’ll write another. And it was really the week after I got my 23rd and 24th rejection letter, that was the week I started the Tenth Justice. I don’t care what you do in your life, whether you are a doctor or a lawyer, stay-at-home mom or a blogger, writer; whatever it is you do, don’t let anyone tell you “no.” It’s the only lesson I can take away. Don’t let anyone tell you “no.”

JG: What role did your parents support your early writing career?

BM: My parents were insane in the best way. My dad used to go into the bookstores and say, “I’m here for Brad Meltzer’s new book. He’s my favorite author.” And they would say, “Sir, we know he’s your son.” My mom could sell books… If you met my mom, within two minutes of meeting her, she would pull a book out of her purse and would show it to you and say, “Have you seen this book?” “Have you seen my son in the newspaper?” And you would say, “I haven’t even been talking about your son or the newspaper.” And she would be like, “I don’t give a crap, have you seen my son in the newspaper?” She was so proud. I was lucky enough to have the life they never got to have. Neither of them went to a 4 year college, they didn’t read. There were no hardcover books in the house. There were no books in the house. I got my love of reading from my grandmother. We didn’t have money, so she gave me the best thing of all; she gave me a library card. Changed my life.

Brad Meltzer at Dad 2.0

JG: You’ve worked with DC Comics. A big knock on Superman is he’s a boring character. What do you think keeps Clark Kent from going full celebrity?

BM: Because of the core of who Superman is? Superman did not land in a family in Hollywood. He landed with a family in Kansas. That’s the core of who he is. When I first started working with DC Comics, they explained to me when it comes to continuity and how we see our heroes, there are some things that you change because that was a bad story or a bad idea, and there are some things you kind of keep that people know about the hero. Whether the hero is married or not, whether green kryptonite is the only kryptonite, or is there still red, or is there still gold? And depending on what you write, you change those. But there are some things that can never ever change. Batman’s parents were killed by a criminal who murdered them in front of his eyes. Superman came from Krypton and landed with a nice and kind family. And the reason you never ever change those things is they are the core and essence of who the character is. And that is why Clark Kent doesn’t go Hollywood. That’s why Clark Kent doesn’t say to everyone, “You know what, I don’t care anymore. I’m the best.” He is grounded and that is the best part of him.

JG: Do you think that female superheroes are over-sexualized?

BM: Here’s the moment when I realized what the truth was. My son was probably 10-years-old, and he was having a sleepover with a couple of his friends and I had a stack of comics that I was reading to them. And one of my son’s friends picked up a Wonder Woman comic and pointed at the cover with her big giant boobs and said, “Brad, not appropriate.” And I was laughing, but I thought, “This kid is right.” Again, the culture is so influential in ways that we never see. Lois at one point in time was really there to be saved by Superman. That was her whole reason for existence.  That was the defining core of her character. She was going to get in trouble; she’s the damsel in distress and Superman will come save her. Even though she is a reporter, and she’s supposedly equal. Forget that. She’s going to be saved by him. And eventually, someone said, “This is stupid.” She’s a reporter; she should be smart. And look what happened, she figured out who Clark Kent was. Then they thought, “Huh, if she could figure that out, then they could get married. And they could be equals.” And looked what happened. He had to stop saving her. And she started saving herself. And I am fully convinced that comics take their cues from the culture and they also feed right back. Everything’s a doorway and everything’s a mirror. I think when you have every female hero with giant boobs, that’s a problem. And I love that a character like Ms. Marvel is now one of the most popular characters, because she is a great role model for boys and girls. I love that. I love that character. And you know what? We’re only getting more of them. Because the patience for the over- sexualized heroine is shrinking. It’s a ticking clock. We did a cover one time where I had to request them to shrink the boobs. And if you read my scripts for the Justice League, I was working with a great artist. I loved working with him, but he loved drawing ass shots. Every time there was a woman, she always had her back to the viewer and you always saw her ass. In the script I would write, “Here is Black Canary, I made her the leader of the Justice League. She is an amazing woman; also, this should not be a rear end shot. Make sure we see her strong and powerful.” I was putting that in my scripts.

I know the DC people. They’re great people in charge right now.  The fact that they’re doing that DC line of Superheroines is spectacular. They realized that no girl wants to read about this nonsense woman who is about to fall over.

JG: How do you balance work and family life? I saw the picture of you coaching your son’s baseball team.

BM: Carefully, like everybody else. My secret is I try to create the best boundaries I can. Sometimes I’m better at it than others. I try to be done by about 6:00/ 6:30 every day no matter what is going on. I really try to be down at dinner and be present at dinner; put down the phone somewhere I can’t see it, touch it, or hear it. And on the weekends I don’t work. Every once in a while I’ll have a talk here or something. I can tell you I’m leaving here and will be flying home so I can make dinner tonight and I’m going to have another weekend with my kids. I will not be working this weekend. I really try to stick with it. Like every goal, sometimes I do better, sometimes I do worse. But if you don’t set those boundaries and set those priorities, you’re certainly not going to achieve them.

JG: You work in your home?

BM: I think I work better away because of the distraction, but I don’t want to be away from my kids. When I hear that doorbell after school, I want to be able to go down and say, “How was your day?” They know. They know I come down and then I go back upstairs and won’t come down again until dinner. I actually do not come down, but to see them after school and when I am done working. That way it is not a tease.

If you are looking for inspiration today, watch Mr. Meltzer’s Ted Talk

Thank you Dove Men + Care for setting up the interview between myself and Brad Meltzer. Dove Men + Care’s newest video shows that everyday people can be heroes by caring for one another. Watch, enjoy, and be a hero to someone.

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