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Author Talk: June 9, 2016

Brad Meltzer has worn many hats: He’s a #1 New York Times bestselling author, host of two television series, and one of the only authors to ever have books on the bestseller list for nonfiction, advice, children's books and graphic novels. Now he has accomplished another first: He successfully co-wrote his latest political thriller, THE HOUSE OF SECRETS. In this interview, Meltzer discusses the relationship between George Washington and history’s most infamous traitor, Benedict Arnold (complicated), his own professional relationship with co-author Tod Goldberg (also complicated, but ultimately fruitful), and how THE HOUSE OF SECRETS is his attempt to solve one of history’s most intriguing mysteries.

Question: THE HOUSE OF SECRETS starts with a brand-new new character. So tell us about Hazel Nash.

Brad Meltzer: Just wait ‘til you meet Hazel. I knew her from the very first page and that opening scene: I kept picturing this little six-year-old girl, sitting on her dad’s lap, listening as her father told stories. These weren’t ordinary stories, though. Hazel’s father is Jack Nash, the host of America’s favorite conspiracy TV show, “The House of Secrets.” So even as a child, Hazel loved hearing her dad’s tall tales, especially the one about a leather book belonging to Benedict Arnold that was hidden in a corpse.

Years later, Hazel wakes up in the hospital and remembers nothing, not even her own name. She’s told she’s been in a car accident that killed her father and injured her brother, but she can’t remember any of it, because of her own traumatic brain injury. Then a man from the FBI shows up, asking questions about her dad --- and about his connection to the corpse of a man found with an object stuffed into his chest: a priceless book that belonged to Benedict Arnold.

As Hazel tries to piece together clues from her past --- guns she doesn’t remember owning, scars she can’t recall --- the less she likes the person she seems to have been. So only by solving the murder can Hazel learn the truth about her father --- and who she really is. Indeed, for Hazel, the greatest mystery is herself.

Q: Her dad hosts a conspiracy show? Sounds like you’re almost writing about yourself and “Decoded.”

BM: In the book, it’s revealed that while Hazel’s dad was hosting his TV show, he was also secretly doing work for the U.S. government. It’s a detail my publisher loved when I first told them about the book. But the best part is that it’s based on truth. It really happened: A few years back, I got a call from the Department of Homeland Security asking me if I’d come in and brainstorm different ways for terrorists to attack the United States.

Still, the one thought I was never able to shake was: what a creative way for the government to get information from its citizens. Over the next year or so, the government continued to use me to do their own private research. And y’know what? It still works.

When someone has a theory on the true killer of Abraham Lincoln, or the whereabouts of George Washington’s stolen teeth (which really are gone), they don’t send that info to the White House. They send it to me (and Jesse Ventura). Sure, 98% of the letters are nuts. But 2% of them are right on the money. And I knew: There’s a good story there. If you liked “Decoded” and never tried one of my thrillers, try this one.

Q: There’s a second name on the cover of this one --- this is your first co-written thriller. So let’s ask: Why use another writer?

BM: Because I had an idea I just couldn’t shake. I’d gotten that phone call to come help the U.S. government. And then I’d heard this story about a secret letter that had been passed between Benedict Arnold and George Washington. And I thought, I have a great story to build around that. What I didn’t have was time. So after four years of thinking about it, I finally realized: If I don’t bring someone in, this idea will never see the light of day. From there, I decided I wanted to do the one thing I’d never seen before with a co-author: I wanted to write a book that would be better than what either writer could do alone. Lucky for me, I found the brilliant Tod Goldberg.

Q: Was it easy to work with Tod?

BM: I thought we’d kill each other. I mean it. Everyone advised me to work with someone who wrote in a similar style: You’re a thriller writer; find another thriller writer. Instead, I found the Tod Goldberg. Tod is a master of character. I love twisting the plot. In my head, I envisioned us as a literary Peanut Butter Cup. Together, we’d either mesh perfectly, or, as I mentioned, murder. So here’s what I now know for sure: Wherever your life takes you, spend more time with people who can do things you can’t. (Now that I think about it, I took the same approach in finding my wife.)

Q: How’d the actual process of writing work? Did you take one chapter and he take another?

BM: We each wrote an entire book. From the start, I always had the plot of the book. So Tod flew to Florida and we locked ourselves in my kitchen for a long weekend. From there, we talked it through and, of course, changed much of it. Then Tod wrote a first draft, giving us this book with an incredible, fully realized character. And then I took that draft and rewrote the plot. I’d cut chapters, add cliffhangers, twist the mystery, and, well, there we were. When Tod finished, I said about his characters, “I don’t know how you do what you do.” And when I was done with the plot, he said to me, “I don’t know how you do what you do.” I think we were both in a bit of shock it actually worked. Or at least that we didn’t kill each other.

Q: What can you tell us about that peculiar relationship between George Washington and Benedict Arnold?

BM: The last moments between Benedict Arnold and George Washington are among the most heartbreaking in U.S. history. It starts when Benedict Arnold is revealed as a traitor. Arnold races out of the house. He leaves his wife and child behind, jumps on his horse, and rides away, toward the British.

Naturally, when Washington learns what’s happened, he’s devastated. They say it’s the only time the father of our country is ever seen crying. But the craziest part is what happens next: Alexander Hamilton shows up and delivers a handwritten letter from Benedict Arnold to George Washington. In it, Benedict asks his old friend for three things: 1) To protect Arnold’s wife Peggy, who everyone now wants to hang too; 2) he tells Washington that all of the commander’s aides are innocent and have nothing to do with Arnold’s treason; and 3) in one of the oddest requests a person could make in such a moment, Benedict Arnold asks that his clothes and baggage be sent to him.

Think about it. Benedict Arnold has just put a knife in the back of his best friend, become one of the most hated men since Judas, has basically abandoned his life, and his wife is in danger of being murdered --- and what does he ask for? He wants his luggage. He even says he’ll pay for the expense of sending it. And for some reason, Washington obliges. It’s a moment no one can explain: Washington hates this man. He spends the rest of the war hunting him and calling for his death. So why in God’s name does he send Benedict Arnold a final care package? And what’s in this so-called luggage? To this day, no one knows the answer. As for my theory, it’s in THE HOUSE OF SECRETS, of course. (How’s that for a tease?)