It’s not an exaggeration to call Brad Meltzer a Renaissance man. After all, he’s a #1 New York Times bestselling author—one of the only writers with bestsellers in fiction, non-fiction, advice, children’s books, and comics. He’s also a television host, a history expert, a lawyer, and he even created a successful clothing line. One thing he’s never done, however, is co-author a novel.
In The House of Secrets (Grand Central, June 7, 2016), Meltzer joins forces with Tod Goldberg, an established author in his own right, repeatedly short-listed for prestigious literary awards such as the Los Angeles Times Book Prize. The two have crafted a fascinating tale of history, conspiracy, and family.
The story follows Hazel Nash, an anthropology professor who wakes up in a hospital suffering from total amnesia after a car accident that also killed her father, the beloved host of America’s favorite cult conspiracy show. An FBI agent soon appears at the hospital, asking uncomfortable questions about her father’s connection to a murder victim—a man who strangely is found with a historic document hidden inside his corpse: a priceless book owned by infamous traitor Benedict Arnold.
As Hazel looks into her father’s life, she begins to believe that while he trekked the globe hunting mysteries and conspiracies for TV, he also may have been secretly working for the government. And, when she finds a cache of guns in her apartment—and a quote from Benedict Arnold tattooed on the nape of her neck—she fears that she too was no ordinary college professor. To learn the truth about her father, and herself, she needs to find who killed the man and why Benedict Arnold’s book was concealed in his body.
Meltzer says the story was inspired by a real event. “It’s a crazy story, but totally real, about Benedict Arnold’s last encounter with one of his best friends, George Washington.” After our first president learned that his closest friend was a traitor, Arnold escaped capture, and then wrote a letter asking Washington to send him his clothes and baggage. Remarkably, Washington obliged. He sent a fugitive enemy of the country his luggage. No one knows why—but Meltzer has a theory.
“I came up with the idea four or five years ago, and I couldn’t shake the story,” Meltzer says. “My problem was that I just didn’t have time to write it. If I didn’t bring someone in, I knew it would never see the light of day.” So Meltzer started looking for a co-author. He didn’t just want a scrivener for hire. “I wanted to find a partnership where we could write a book together that would be [more] superior than either of us could do on our own. Where we could learn from each other.”
Meltzer sought advice from another writer, Lee Goldberg, who’s enjoyed a successful partnership writing with Janet Evanovich. Meltzer explained that he had confidence in his ability to plot a story, so he was looking for a master of character—possibly a literary fiction writer. Goldberg had an unusual suggestion: “You need to meet my brother.”
Meltzer immediately read some of Tod Goldberg’s work, which includes the critically-acclaimed Gangsterland and Living Dead Girl. “I knew this was the guy,” Meltzer says. “It was like the Supreme Court’s definition of pornography—you know it when you see it. I knew it when I read it. So Lee set me and Tod up on essentially a blind date.”
Meltzer and Goldberg have strikingly similar recollections of that first “date” (a phone call)—how they bonded over their love of 80s television shows, how both are “Star Wars geeks,” and how they laughed at the same dumb jokes. As Goldberg puts it, “It was like we’d belonged to the same college fraternity, but lived on different floors of the house and had never met.”
Soon enough, Goldberg flew out to Meltzer’s home. “We didn’t know what we were doing at first,” Meltzer says, “so Tod came to Florida and we spent days at my kitchen table hashing things out. Tod ultimately wrote a full draft, and I then re-wrote that. When Tod finished, I said, ‘I don’t know how you do what you do with character’; when I finished, he said, ‘I don’t know [how] you do what you do with plot.’”
When asked to identify a section of the book that he thought best represents Goldberg’s influence, Meltzer didn’t hesitate. “The prologue. Tod worked hard on it, writing and re-writing several drafts.” In that opening, the reader first meets Hazel when she was six years old. Goldberg wrote a line that Meltzer says captured the essence of her: “She’s the kind of child who would burn her right thumb on a hot stove, then come back the next day and burn her left in order to compare.” “When I read that line, I knew we had our character.”
For his part, Goldberg identifies a scene in the middle of the book as one of many that reflect Meltzer’s influence. “It was this long, thirty-five page chapter, an important scene, and Brad pointed out all the cliffhangers that could be included. I learned so much from how he took the chapter apart and reassembled it.”
Beyond their mutual admiration and differing skills on plot versus character, Goldberg points to another aspect of the collaboration that made it work. “Brad thinks people are inherently good and will ultimately do the right thing. I think people will screw you if they get the chance. We were kind of a Scully and Mulder. There was a push and pull, and we managed to work that dynamic into the book.”
On a more personal level, Goldberg says writing has always been a solitary endeavor, where the only person he had to let down was himself. But with The House of Secrets, he didn’t want to let Meltzer down. It caused him to up his game. The process, Goldberg says, was “the most gratifying artistic experience of my life.” Meltzer shares the sentiment, thanking Goldberg in the Acknowledgements page for “being a true partner and dear friend. You amazed me on every page.”
Readers will undoubtedly be gratified as well. The House of Secrets has everything fans have come to love in a Meltzer novel, but with a subtle literary touch that will surely make it one of the best thrillers of the year.
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Anthony Franze is a lawyer in the Appellate & Supreme Court practice of a major Washington, DC law firm, and author of The Advocate’s Daughter (St. Martin’s Press/Minotaur), a family thriller set in the insular world of the U.S. Supreme Court. www.anthonyfranzebooks.com.