We've all heard the familiar saying that truth is stranger than fiction but if you're writer/history enthusiast Brad Meltzer, you make a career playing both sides of the fence by writing fictional novels exploring different facets of real-life history. But what about all the truly real mysteries of history that remain unexplored and unexplained? At that point, you do what Meltzer has done and create a series for History diving head first into some of the deepest, darkest mysteries that are part of the fabric that makes up America.
Tonight's premiere of "Brad Meltzer's Decoded" has Meltzer and his team of experts exploring the mysterious disappearance of the first cornerstone of the White House that's been missing for two centuries. Our Jim Halterman put on his mystery-solving hat and rang up Meltzer to chat not only about the origins of this inquisitive series but also whether you can ever be truly satisfied with what may seem to be a solid answer and how the mythology of history and comic books are much closer than one might originally think.
Jim Halterman: Since you're such a big history expert, how big of a challenge was it to settle on just 10 mysteries for these 10 episodes?
Brad Meltzer: [Laughs.] The History Channel is pretty much sick and tired of how many good ideas I have. The truth was that the top five were easy. The White House cornerstone was my favorite, no question. I almost built an entire novel around that one and then was so nervous that Dan Brown was going to do the same thing with the sequel to "The DaVinci Code" that I actually didn't put it in a book. I did a Freemason book seven years ago and got the good fortune to be first with that and I decided to put it aside and see what he did. Thankfully, [Brown] didn't do it and it was still there so I've been waiting to do this one for years.
JH: The mysteries you explore on "Decoded" are a more than a little creepy at times and there were times I expected a dark figure to step out of the shadows like in a movie.
BM: The very first week we started working on the show, the executive producer told me the great secret of all shows that are about mystery is that the less facts you have, the more scary music you play. That was our model. Most of the time it's much better to not give the answer but to just play up the fear, right? It's much better to let people assume that Freemasons are eating our babies and are inside the White House cornerstone and have George Washington's frozen head. That's much better television! To me, the idea of coming to a conclusion where everyone is not trying to kill us is so much more exciting than just playing that fear music. We come armed to the hilt with scary music but the truth is that I'm really proud of the fact that we actually let the story unfold and not just take it to the place where we could make it the best ghost story we can.
JH: Are you personally always satisfied when you think you find an answer or do you always think there are other layers?
BM: I'm never satisfied and that should pretty much show you my miserable existence. I'm the guy who did bad on the SATs because I'm the guy who can always find some way to make all the answers right. When I would read those reading comprehension questions I'd say, "You know, if this happened then this could be right." They'd always tell me to stop putting these other things in there but my brain works in that paranoia way that I always think until the masons that were there that night show me exactly what happened and we physically pick it up then it's still just our educated guess. But I'm proud every time of where we wind up. I'm proud of that episode that we did because it's based on real research, real experts and logical reasons for why all the bad assumptions in history have been made.
JH: Watching the show, I thought it was interesting that we often think all the answers are on the Internet but one of your guys physically goes to the Library Of Congress and pulls up original documents and finds out all sorts of things.
BM: You're hitting it right on the head. That's exactly the heart of the show. In this day and age, we have access to more information than any other society in history and you would think that would mean we have more knowledge but the problem is that what goes hand in hand with having unlimited information is you also have unlimited noise. Go put the word "Freemason" into Google and they will say they're doing everything from taking over the world to stealing your car right now. What's harder to find is what is the truth.
JH: How did you come to find your team of experts for the show?
BM: I didn't know any of them at the start. They all came from various places. You don't want everyone doing the same and being the same. One, it's bad television and two, it doesn't serve any purpose to getting to the truth. Buddy [Levy], I think, is just amazing. What you see with him is what you get. He's a really great, grounded person and I think people like him and take to him very quickly. People always say 'How do you find that stuff?' and I say 'I ask.' If you're nice, people will tell you stuff and I think that's Buddy's super power. [With Christine] McKinley, we really wanted someone with a science background because I wanted someone who didn't go by the bump in the night but wants to know the logical explanation. She gets to play the Scully of the team. And, when it comes to Scott [Rolle], you want someone who knows how to investigate crime. In many of these cases, you're looking at a dead case and I think [we needed] a prosecutor who knows how to look at evidence and say this is good or this is bad. Without that, it can all fall apart.
JH: You're also very big in the comic books.
BM: I definitely have a love of all things geek and some are mystery and some of them are comics.
JH: But don't the comic books lend themselves to your mystery curiosity because most of them have a mythology and mysteries through their own respective fabric. Is that what pulls you into that world?
BM: 100%. I think we're a country founded on our legends and myths and that's exactly what makes us not just Americans but, without getting too over-patriotic about it, but that's what makes America, America. That search and that quest and trying to learn about ourselves is really important. And it's not just finding the answer. We're searching for meaning about ourselves and that, to me, is what the Superman myth plays into and it's exactly what the George Washington plays into - the same quest for something beyond ourselves.
JH: Is it a whole different writing muscle for a comic book and also one for a franchise that is so well known like "Buffy The Vampire Slayer?"
BM: When Joss [Whedon, creator of the "Buffy" TV series] and I sat down to do it I was sort of terrified that it was going to be a different muscle and I didn't know if I had that muscle. It's like writing Superman. It's strangely easier because it's all there in front of me. With a novel, I have to invent everything - I have to invent motivation. Do they have a sense of humor or not? What's their point of view? What do they emotionally care about? - and the beauty of what Joss created is to have all that built in after years and years of earning it every single week. To me, as long as you show a real strong appreciation and understanding of that at your basis, then you just go out and tell great stories.
JH: Were you always curious about things when you were a kid and have you passed that onto your own son?
BM: I can tell you where I was sitting in the classroom when my [10th Grade] history teacher, Miss Sherman, one day put on a video and instead of showing us some boring historical video about something we didn't care about, she put on a conspiracy of the government cover-up of JFK's death. I know it sounds so obvious now after Oliver Stone did his movie but back then I had never seen anything like it. My head almost exploded off my body! It was the first time that my history teacher got up in front of the class and said 'Don't believe everything you read in these history books' and I'll never forget that moment.
JH: Has your son followed in your footsteps?
BM: It's funny, he loves the Cornerstone episode. He can understand that. The first piece of the White House is missing. Who took it? But he came home to me the other day and I did this one on Meriwether Lewis and he says, "Which one died first, Dad? Lewis or Clark?" At that moment I was like "Oh my Gosh, I've given birth to this beautiful, awesome nerd! I love this!"
JH: And you have a new novel, "The Inner Circle," out in January. What is it about?
BM: "The Inner Circle" is my first series character that I've ever created and I think it will be no surprise to you that it's actually set in the National Archives. It opens in one of the secret rooms called SCIFs (Sensitive Compartmented Information Facility). SCIFs are basically the rooms that, for example, a President would use to read a secret document. You just don't open it up at your desk and read at your leisure. This is about the greatest secret of the US Presidency is about to be revealed and one young man is about to find out what it is. It's very fun to begin to work different muscles. I've never done a character that's recurred so it's my first time trying that and it's been a really fun experience.
"Brad Meltzer's Decoded" premieres tonight at 10:00/9:00c on History. "The Inner Circle" will be in bookstores on January 11.