ROBERT SIEGEL, Host:
This is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News. I'm Robert Siegel.
MICHELE NORRIS, Host:
And I'm Michele Norris.
The best-selling novelist Brad Meltzer has an interesting way of describing his work. He says every one of his novels is a lie that tries's to sound like the truth. And to make sure it does, Meltzer does meticulous research. He's taken readers behind the scenes of the U.S. Capital and the Supreme Court.
His latest, the Book of Fate explores the life of a former president. The idea began with a fan letter from former President Bush. Meltzer called back first to find out if it was real then to say thanks and finally to make a request. Could the author shadow the former president for a while? The answer was yes and the result is a page turning thriller that centers a trusted young aide named Wes Holloway.
BRAD MELTZER: The Book of Fate is a simple plot. It's a young White House aide who watches his friend die, the victim of a crazed assassin, and eight years later finds out that his dead friend is actually alive and on the runm and now he has to go look through secrets embedded in Freemason history and a 200-year-old code invented by Thomas Jefferson.
And those are nice things to make a thriller go, but all those pieces are things I personally find fascinating. Because if I don't find them fascinating I don't want to spend any time doing them. I'm sure if I said to someone I wrote a thriller and it's about a former president, they're going to go what thrilling happens to a former president?
But if I tell you the details about the former president's life or I tell you this is what Clinton and Bush's office is like or I tell you here is the thing that scares a president the most and here's the thing that hurt him the most emotionally - that's where any good story can come from. That's the best seed in any story is that emotion.
NORRIS: And in reading the book, the delight is in the details. Knowing exactly who sits where in the limousine and how Wes carries around this bag full of goodies and some people get the pen and some people get the cufflinks.
MELTZER: Sure they're real.
NORRIS: Why are those details important?
MELTZER: You know are they important to - I write fiction. I can make up any detail I want. I think fiction is at its best when it has a foot in reality.
So I had a moment with Bush and Bush said to me, let me tell you what its like to be on Air Force One for the very last time. He said to me, you pick up the phone right before you leave and you say good-bye to the White House operator who's voice you're never going to hear again and then the plane lands and you get down and you step off that jetway and there is a small gaggle of reporters, much smaller than you've ever seen before waiting for you. One of the local reporters looks up at you and says how does it feel to be back? Then you smile at that reporter and you say it feels great and you try not to think what your life was like four to five hours earlier.
And that was heartbreaking to me. The idea that you had been the leader of the free world and suddenly you were just the guy on the local news again. Listen, we should all have those problems, but it just is such a fascinating psychological experiment that we perform on these guys. Even when you leave the White House, one of the things Bush's office gave me, one of the first things they do as a former president when they leave the White House is they plan their own funeral. The Pentagon requires it.
NORRIS: It's a matter of protocol.
MELTZER: Presidents' funeral are national affairs. They have to be thrown together in no time at all, usually without any notice. So the first thing we say when they leave the White House we say to them, thanks for your service, have a nice life, now welcome to your death and plan it for us.
In fact, Bush's office told me they practiced the casket being carried through the library. So you can physically be standing in your office as a former president and if you're buried at your library, you can see your own casket being carried out your window if you happen to be there. Now if your staff is doing a good job you won't be, but imagine that for a moment. Imagine that you had everything and then suddenly you're this guy. I just thought that's the interesting character to me. I need to get in the head of this character.
NORRIS: You also write with great detail about the CIA, about the FBI, about those who surround and guard the president, but it's interesting because you have your own degree of expertise on this based on your participation in something called the Red Cell Program. What is that and how did you get involved in that?
MELTZER: The Red Cell Program is a way for the Department of Homeland Security to brain storm different ways that terrorists are trying to attack us.
NORRIS: I have to stop you right there. Can you just say that one more time? That sounds like a spooky sentence.
MELTZER: Sure. It is. Let's put it this way. The terrorists out there right now, they're not sitting in an organized hotel room with wipe off boards, but they are sitting around trying to figure out okay, how are we going to kill these people? What's the next big thing we're going to do? So what the government does, what the Department of Homeland Security does is they have brought together out of the box thinkers to brainstorm.
NORRIS: And you're one of those thinkers.
MELTZER: I was lucky enough. I got a call one day from the Department of Homeland Security saying would you like to come brainstorm ideas for the U.S. Government. I thought I was in trouble because I've written books - my books are there to take you into worlds. The Book of Fate takes you into security details of a former's president's life or the White House or the Capital or the underground air tunnels below the town.
I thought this is where I get in trouble for it. An FBI guy called me and said when they raided someone's house to arrest him that the Millionaires, one of my novels was on the top of the desk. He was a money launderer and apparently was using The Millionaires to figure out how to launder money, because I have the details in the book of how you would launder money and hide it.
And I thought maybe this is why they called me. But my job as a novelist is to beat the news. That's what I have to do. If I write what's already happened then it's not entertainment and it's not interesting. So they said to me you think out of the box. You think differently. You think these crazy thoughts, come think them for us.
They put me in a room with a secret service guy an FBI guy, a CIA person, sometimes they'll have a psychologist. They may have someone whose good with chemicals. They'll be a whole group of people and they said here's a city, here's a target, what would you do? How would you attack it? Then we would work together and I would say here's my crazy idea. Then the Secret Service guy said you know what, we can one up it if we do this. The chemist says no, no, don't use that chemical, that will dissipate when it hits the air. Let's use this chemical instead.
The scariest part is we destroyed major cities in 10 minutes. We just would decimate them, and do I think that the government needs novelists to save the day? Of course not, but I'll tell you I'm happy that they are taking whatever crazy idea they can to try and match the craziness that's coming at us.
NORRIS: What an extraordinary experience. How do you go home and sit down to dinner after that.
MELTZER: I'll tell you, it's one of those nights that you go home and you don't feel reassured, you feel terrified. Because - I know the crazy ideas in my head but when you get to add them to people with experience and with a little know how and with a little bit of chemical expertise, you realize how vulnerable we are. That's when you don't sleep that night.
One of the details for the Book of Fate, the villains in the book are a group of CIA, an FBI and Secret Service person working together. The idea came to me when I was in the Red Cell program and I just thought here are these three agencies that always worked apart and now we've brought them together. The new idea in law enforcement is to bring all of our agencies together to share information.
It sounds wonderful on paper, but the reason we were able to capture spies like Robert Hanson is because his FBI information did not check out when they checked it against the CIA information. They would say this guy is lying to you. When they're all working together, sure they can work together, but then they can all scheme together. If you have a rogue agent in one agency who meets a rogue agent in another, they're pretty much unstoppable.
I gave the plot to the former head of the Secret Service and I said what do you think of this. He said to me, the scariest thing you've done, Brad, this is the next threat, it's the treat from within. The U.S. government has set up its checks and balances. The agencies were set up in a very similar way. They were supposed to be checks and balances on each other.
When you let them all work together, the checks and balance system is gone and that's where the threat came from in the new novel, all based on the reality of what I see in that research.
NORRIS: Brad Meltzer it's been a pleasure to talk to you. Thanks so much for coming in.
MELTZER: Thank you.
NORRIS: Brad Meltzer. His new novel is The Book of Fate. You can read an excerpt at NPR.org.