Meltzer magic: making millions disappear
When he was just out of law school, Brad Meltzer quickly joined the ranks of John Grisham and Scott Turow with his nail-biting debut thriller, The Tenth Justice. Four bestsellers later, he's still reveling in a job that gives him inside access to the Supreme Court and the White House.
"I love digging around for the details. They are the most fun," Meltzer says from his home in Washington, D.C. "Hollywood lies so much to us that when you take the time to get it right, it becomes amazing."He researched his latest thriller, The Millionaires, for more than two years, but the topics he explores couldn't be timelier. Crafting a story of two brothers on the run for stealing way more than they intended, Meltzer dove into subjects now on everyone's mind: how people can change their identity and just disappear, and how the super-rich keep their millions hidden.
"It is so pathetically easy to change your identity in this country that it's not funny," he says. "I thought it was going to be hard, [requiring] masterful, evil villain thinking, and it's not. It's simple. And that's what's truly scary."The Millionaires centers on Oliver, a rising young associate at a swank private bank in New York, who discovers that his boss is sabotaging his plans to get into a top MBA school. In a fit of anger, he agrees to his brother Charlie's plan to steal $3 million from an inactive account about to be turned over to the government. To Charlie and Oliver's thinking, no one will ever miss the money since the owner is dead. But it turns out quite a few people want the money, and the two boys are soon on the run as they try to figure out who's chasing them, and how $3 million turned into $313 million.
Meltzer threw himself into his research and in no time learned how to get a fake Social Security number and passport. He discovered the art of garbage reading and the wonders of Nice N Easy hair color to create a new appearance. "Sometimes the dumb things and the easy things are the most effective" when trying to disappear, he says.
Meltzer even hired a private eye to put him under investigation. With just his name, he told the detective to find out everything she could on him. For an author who admits he's paranoid, the results were scary.
"Within two minutes, she had everything," he says. "She had my Social Security number, my address, my former addresses. She had all of my relatives and my neighbors. She had my phone number, and once she gets your bank info, she can get your credit cards. In no time at all, she had my entire life laid out in front of her."But to Meltzer, The Millionaires is about more than stealing money and finding privacy in a world where everyone can see you.
"It's about what we dream of as dreamers," he says. "It's about what you think you want from life and realizing that sometimes it's OK not to get it."
The journey for Meltzer's characters inevitably hits close to home. "Every book that I write, I finish it and say, That's the most personal character I've written." Meltzer sees part of himself in the serious, hardworking Oliver who struggles with money and class issues in a world of wealthy entitlement. "Our backgrounds are very similar," he says. "It's always been the thorn I step on."
At 13, Meltzer was suddenly uprooted from Brooklyn when his father lost his job and did a "do-over of life" by moving the family to Florida with just $1,200. His parents lied about their address so Meltzer could attend the rich kid's public school, and suddenly he was surrounded by families with more than one car and kids planning to go to college.
"In terms of feeling like you're the outsider looking in on the rich person's life, I felt like that was my entire life when we moved to Florida," Meltzer says, adding "That's what Oliver was based on the kid who wants more."
Now 31, Meltzer still populates his thrillers with young protagonists with grand plans and plenty of idealism. Usually in their 20s, the wannabe lawyers and bankers have their lives all planned out, until, invariably, everything goes wrong.
"It's just a magic time. I think it's the best time to write about. And maybe this is just my belief in how power really works," Meltzer says. Meaning that without the "little people" to drive the cars, send the faxes and work the computers, the big shots would be up a creek. "I feel like in some ways I'm forever trapped there in the low part of the totem pole," he admits, "but thankfully so."
Meltzer, like one of his young, eager characters, thought he had his future mapped out. With one year to go before starting law school at Columbia University, he took a job in Boston at Games magazine. And like one of his twisting, turning thrillers, nothing went as planned. The job turned out to be awful, and Meltzer remembers thinking, I have one year and I can either watch a lot of television, or I can try and write a novel. "I know it sounds insane," he says now, "but it just seemed like the most logical thing to me."
Maybe his plan was crazy, because Meltzer eventually received 24 rejection letters for his literary novel Fraternity. But he fell in love with the process of writing and early into his first year of law school, the idea came to him for The Tenth Justice. Being a paranoid person, Meltzer says, writing thrillers came naturally; he had found his niche. The Tenth Justice was so successful that after finishing law school, he devoted himself to writing full-time and never practiced law.
Although he made his mark by writing about lawyers, Meltzer wanted to take a new direction with The Millionaires. "I did not want to forever rely on the big Washington power structure to scare the reader," he says. So he moved the action to New York, left out the lawyers and tinkered with the thriller structure.
"Usually you always know who the villain is and why the character is in danger. And in this book, I said, Let's know neither of these things. Let's see what happens when the character doesn't even know why he's in trouble, if he can figure his way out of it," Meltzer explains.
He charged into unknown territory, but didn't lose an ounce of the Meltzer magic. The 482 pages fly by with pulse-pounding suspense, and the unraveling secrets chase you to the end. Joey, the female insurance agent in The Millionaires who's smarter than both the bad guys and the good guys, sums Meltzer's style up best: "The best games always keep moving."