Q&A with Brad Meltzer, author of the Superman-themed The Book of Lies
Best-selling author Brad Meltzer, who appears at the Tattered Cover Highlands Ranch today (click here for the details), is known to the comic-book crowd for penning several noteworthy works in the genre, including the controversial graphic novel Identity Crisis, which updated the Justice League of America characters, including Superman, for a new millennium. He returns to the subject of the Man of Steel in his latest novel, The Book of Lies, but in a very different way. The complex tale pivots on the death of Superman creator Jerry Siegel's father -- a plot based on a real-life investigation conducted by Meltzer, as he reveals in the massive Q&A below.
Meltzer begins by divulging details about the senior Siegel's death in a 1930s-era robbery -- information that came his way after Jerry's niece showed up at one of his book-signing appearances. From there, he talks about the background of another narrative thread in Lies, the story of Cain and Abel; shares information about his difficult relationship with his own father, which also colors some of the action; touts his efforts to save Siegel's childhood home in Cleveland, which is being supported by celebrities such as David Letterman and Stephen Colbert, as well as producers of the television program Heroes; analyzes the backlash against Superman's do-gooder image in some quarters; muses on the success of The Dark Knight and what it says about America's current state of mind; and offers a sneak preview of a new television series he's developing with two unlikely collaborators, Ugly Betty's Marco Pennette and Avenue Q's Jeff Marx.
No doubt he hopes it'll be super.
Westword (Michael Roberts): The acknowledgement section for The Book of Lies is at the beginning rather than the end – and you mention in it that the publisher wasn’t thrilled by that placement. Why was it so important for you that it be right up front?
Brad Meltzer: My books are thrillers and they’re mysteries, but they’re built on real research, and it’s that real research that gives them the air of authenticity. And the only reason I get those details are because people help me get them. The Book of Lies started when a woman came to me and told an incredible story. So how can you not think the people who do those incredible things in the beginning? So that’s exactly where it should be.
WW: You also mention in this section that this is the book you’ve been afraid to write for years. Why?
BM: When I pitched second book… The first novel had come out, and now you’ve got to pitch your second book. And it’s a scary moment, because you’re going, “What’s the follow-up?” So I went in and said, “I want to do a thriller, a mystery that’s set in modern times but plays with the great, incredible story of Cain and Abel and the lore that surrounds it.” And my editor looked at me eleven years ago and very rightfully said, “You’re an idiot.” He said, “Listen, we’re trying to market you as the next John Grisham or Dan Brown” – or whatever, take your pick, whatever it was. And he said, “We got you on the best-seller list. Nobody knew who you were. Why are you going to risk that on your second book?”
And I had this moment where I could completely stand up for what I believe in and be strong or I could cave. And I caved faster than anybody in the history of caving. I’d just paid off my student loans. I couldn’t risk that all again right then. So I waited, and then two years ago, a woman comes up to me in my book signing for The Book of Fate – and if fate ever played a role in anything, it was right at this moment. She knows my love of the character of Superman – and she raises her hand and says, “I know more about the character of Superman than you’ll ever know.” And I think to myself, “Lady, there is no way you know more about Superman than I know.” But she says, “I knew because Jerry Siegel, who created Superman, is my uncle.” I think to myself, “That’s impressive.” And you’d think I’d take the hint right then, but I don’t. And then another guy stands up at the very same event and says, “I was in the Army with Jerry Siegel.” And then you realize this is clearly something you’re supposed to pay attention to.
She’s the one who introduces me to other members of the family, and it’s there that I hear this incredible story that happened almost a century ago, really, when you think about the time. And it was this unsolved murder. And the great part of the story is that nobody knows this, because in fifty years of interviews, whenever anybody asked Jerry Siegel, “Where’d you get the idea for Superman?”, he never once says, “My father died in a crime.” His dad died in a robbery, he died during a crime, and then he goes on to create the world’s greatest crime-fighter – and nobody knows the story because he never told it to anybody.
WW: So this wasn’t a story that had been floating around the comics community?
BM: It was in the comics community a little bit – in the very small geeks world. There was a great book written about Jerry Siegel years ago, and I think it’s a total of ten lines in the entire book, if that. But at that point, I only had half the story. Half the family said his father died in a shooting, and the other half of the family had heard it was a heart attack – they were told by Jerry Siegel that it was a heart attack. So you had half the family believing it was this violent crime involving a gun and you have the other half of the family believing it was a heart attack involving a gun. Nobody knows the truth because Jerry Siegel’s never talked about it – not even to his wife, ever, in the history of their marriage. Nobody knows what to make of it. So that’s why the world got Superman. Not because America’s the greatest country on earth, but because a little boy lost his father. And I just became obsessed with this murder, convinced that I could actually solve it myself. That’s really where The Book of Lies was born – trying to use that murder as the basis for this fictional thriller.
WW: Was there a point where you thought, “This isn’t a fictional thriller”? Did you ever consider telling it in a non-fiction fashion, like Patricia Cornwell did with her Jack the Ripper book a few years ago?
BM: I investigated it as real as any investigator could. I went and tried to find the old police files, the investigation reports. I found the old funeral home he was buried at. I found the family’s real name. It’s actually not Siegel, and they didn’t even know it. It’s Segalovich, which he spells different ways on the census and then when he comes to Ellis Island. I think the “v” becomes a “w” and the “e” becomes an “i.” And the family didn’t know any of this. Nobody knew it. I found it because I had a Russian Army expert who was able to pick things apart. They had shared with me all these family photos, so when I had the family photos looked at by this Russian Army expert, he told me his position in the Russian Army, and from there, we were able to track backwards, and we found out there had been a census done in, I think, 1917. And when I told the family, they were like, “Oh, yeah, there was a store in New York called Siegel’s, and that must have been what he named himself after. He was like, ‘When we come to the United States, we want to be a big family like that.’”
This is the lore of the man who created Superman. This is the history of his family, unknown to everyone. I went after it thinking I could solve it. I didn’t care if it was fiction or non-fiction. I wanted to know the truth. And there were moments where I thought, “Maybe I’m being a little bit of a geek Freud here. Maybe I’m finding connections where there are none.” I flew to Cleveland and I thought, “I’m going to go back through the old newspapers. Let’s see what Jerry Siegel might have been reading the day his father dies.” Because you never know what people are flipping through. And I went through the old microfiche at the Plain Dealer and as I’m going through it, I find the day after his father is killed, there’s an op-ed in the newspaper that talks about why vigilantes shouldn’t exist in society. And the op-ed is signed by somebody named A.L. Luther – spelled “er” instead of “or.” And I thought, “Is this Lex Luthor? Is this where we get Lex Luthor from?”
And even then I think to myself, is this real? You just don’t know. But then I found out that when Jerry Siegel lost the rights to Superman and they kicked him out – he was really making nothing until they eventually hired him back, after a decade… Everyone says, “How do you know his father’s death had an impact?” And I can make an argument that if a seventeen-year old loses his father, you’d better believe that makes an impact on his life. I don’t even think there’s a question about that. But I found two other versions of Superman before the one we know and love. One of them Superman was actually the bad guy in the story. And in the second one, it was a story they actually destroyed. It got rejected everywhere and they actually ripped up the story. The only thing that exists of the story is the cover, and on the cover where you see Superman for the first time leaping to save someone, you know what kind of crime he’s stopping? He’s stopping a robbery at gunpoint. The same exact kind of time that killed this man’s father.
Again, you can play amateur psychiatrist for only so long. To me, there’s absolutely no question that this had an impact. And honestly, it’s an unexamined issue because, honestly, no one’s as big a loser as I am and really cares about it this much. Certainly there are people who are looking at it now. But I was the first one to find the death certificate. I was like, I want to know. I want to find out, is this a heart attack? Is this a gunshot? Is this all nonsense. And I can tell you, I’ve got the death certificate, and he died in a robbery. And nobody knows that.
WW: In the end, did you decide that your investigation wasn’t enough to sustain an entire non-fiction book? Or did you feel more inspired by it than interested in writing the behind-the-scenes story?
BM: That’s a very fair question. It’s funny: I write in the only way I know how to write, and it is through that fictional lens. That’s the stories I tell. I do put an author’s note where I say, “Here’s what’s real and here’s what’s not,” because it’s important to me that people understand the fact from the fiction. But it’s just how I know how to tell my story. I didn’t even think about saying, “Oh, I’m going to cash in on their loss and try and sell a non-fiction book on this.” I’m a fiction writer, that’s how I approach things. And thematically, I thought, it was one of the great themes.
At the same time that happened – this is probably the more honest way to say it – I had the Superman story, but the Superman story was maybe even a little bit too geeky for me, and that’s saying something. I know who I am. But at almost the same time, a friend of mine mentioned to me that the story of Eve and the Garden of Eden – the word “apple” doesn’t appear in the Bible. In the original translation, it was a fruit, a fig – some say a pomegranate. But the word “apple” was added by the Greeks because at the time, in ancient Greece, an apple was a sign of destruction. So that’s where we got the apple from. And then someone said, “What was the murder weapon that Cain used to kill Abel?” And I said, “I think it’s a rock or a stone.” And some do say it was a rock or a stone. And some, including Shakespeare, say it was the jawbone of an animal. Some say Cain bit Abel’s throat, and that’s where we get vampires from.
Again, it was this fascinating story. And as I did research for that, I found this amazing theory that pointed out the story of Cain and Abel, and it pointed out that if you look at the translations in the modern Bible, it says something to the effect that Cain yells at God and says, “My punishment is too great to bear.” And that’s why Cain is the bad guy. Because he yells at God – like, “I killed my brother, but why are you punishing me?” But there are fragments found centuries ago, and in them, that same exact passage can be translated as, “My sin is too great to forgive.” And this is a very different Cain. This is a Cain that says to God, “My sin is so horrible. Don’t forgive me.” And yet in some ways, it’s also a Cain begging for forgiveness. It’s a Cain who’s not the villain we think he is. And I was just fascinated with the idea that maybe Cain is the bad guy in the story. That maybe the moral of the story is about redemption and forgiveness by God, and God’s capable for it.
So now I had these two stories – these two murders thousands of years apart. One which gives us the world’s first villain in Cain and one that gives us the world’s greatest hero in Superman. And the stories just seemed far bigger to me. And that’s where the book came together. It was kind of almost two tracks that were slowly intertwining.
WW: You mentioned that you had an idea about Cain and Abel eleven years ago. Was it this specific idea? Or was it very different?
BM: No, it was modern in the sense that it was going to deal with someone who was obsessed with this story – but it wasn’t the exact same. In the last eleven years, it had been floating around in my brain, and other stories had come out where I thought, “That’s interesting.” And not to compare Biblical characters and comic-book characters, but these are the great stories of our time. And the reason that the story of Cain and Abel and even the story of Superman, which is modern-day mythology, as someone smarter than me said – these stories persist not because they’re just interesting, but because they say something about us. Cain and Abel says something about us. Superman says something about us. And that’s where my obsession really started to go full speed.
WW: At what point did you realize you could link these stories through a father-and-son relationship?
BM: That one is my own personal baggage. When I wrote my first novel, you get your reviews, and that’s fine. You write your second novel, you get your reviews, that’s fine. But when the third novel came out, this woman wrote to me through my website, and she said, “Brad, I’ve now read three of your books. What are your issues with your father?” And I was shocked by it, because none of the books were about fathers and sons. There was about a page each in each of the books that had scenes with a dad. But she saw it, and she realized I was putting stuff in these books I didn’t even realize I was putting in there. To this day, if you show me a novel, I’ll show you what the author is struggling with and fighting with in their brain at that time.
It was just my own dad. I have a father who was a big presence in my life. And when my dad was forty-years old, he lost his job. He said he was going to start over from scratch. He called it “the do-over of life.” He had no job, we had no place to live that was our own. He had $1,200 to his name, and we got in the car and drove to Florida. And obviously, it left a mark. It left good things, it left terrific things. It gave me all the hunger I draw on today, and it gave me my view as an outsider, and that’s what I write from. No question. But it left a mark. And I felt like I never wanted to write about it. But now was the time. It just seemed like the time. And at the same time that was happening, my mom was diagnosed with breast cancer as I started The Book of Lies. And just as I was finishing the book, she passed away. And I think in many ways, that experience is why that character is dealing with the loss of his mother in the book. I wish I could hide it better than that. I don’t think I’m getting to be a better writer as I get older, but I think I’m getting to be a more honest one, and I’m more honest about what I want to put out there.
WW: Did that make the book more difficult to write? Instead of having some of these themes sneak in around the margins, you were tackling them head-on?
BM: It’s not that it was a struggle to write, because these were my issues that I was struggling with. But I will say that what I did do, and I know my own obsessions – I was obsessed with the father-son part of Jerry Siegel’s story because of my own obsession with my own dad. I make no bones about it. I know it. And I also know that I used Jerry Siegel and his father to hide behind. My own emotions were hidden behind all these things I could play out through them. The impact that fathers have on our lives, the way they change us and make us and break us and bring us back again. I use that story as almost my shadow to hide behind. And obviously, it let me talk about it in a way where I didn’t have to say “This is my dad, and in real life, this happened to me.” I could use one of the great archetypes, Superman, to explore the exact same thing. And I feel like it let me be a little bit more intellectually honest about my emotions as I let my two characters in The Book of Lies find out.
WW: I don’t want to give away the conclusion of the book, but I think it’s safe to say it touches on the importance of storytelling to you. Was it important for you to make clear the deep connection you have with storytelling?
BM: No question. That’s why I picked these two topics from the start. The story of Superman and the story of Cain and Abel – I know one of them is about a guy who wears his underwear on the outside and the other one is one of the great Bible stories. But these are the archetypes that we live by, and these stories tell us about the greatness and the horrors within ourselves. And every one of my books is about the greatness within ourselves. That’s what I believe. I believe ordinary people change the world. I believe in Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster as heroes – two kids who were so poor they used to draw on the back of wallpaper. And they gave us the world’s greatest hero in Superman. I believe in that. That’s why, when I was researching the book, I went out to Cleveland. I said, “I’ve got to see the spot. I’ve got to see the spot in the history of storytelling where a young kid sits up in bed and says, ‘I have an idea,’ and comes up with Superman.”
And when I was out there, it was almost like the fairytale broken. I thought I would find a Norman Rockwell painting in this house in Cleveland, Ohio. I thought I would find the apple pie waiting right on the porch for me. But I found something very different. The house where Google was founded is protected. The house where Hewlett-Packard was founded is preserved. But the house where Superman was created is a mess – and I don’t just mean it needs a paint job. It’s a wreck. There’s holes in the walls, there’s holes in the ceiling – and there’s something that seemed wrong about that. And it seemed to me that we should do something about it. So we’ve actually launched a charitable auction to save the house. And it’s not just because I want to save the house, or because I think walls and roofs are important. It’s because this was one of the great gifts to American storytelling.
We now have some of the greatest Superman artists drawing pictures of Superman for auction. The TV show Heroes is auctioning off a walk-on role. Stephen Colbert’s donated. We just got a call from David Letterman’s show telling us they want to donate. Superman matters to people, and it matters to me. It’s the story of one of the great heroes of all time, so of course storytelling had to play a role in this.
WW: In some quarters, Superman is seen as an old-fashioned character who doesn’t connect with the modern comics lover or the modern filmgoer. Obviously you disagree with that. But why do you think there’s been a backlash against the character?
BM: It’s the same reason why people beat up the Boy Scouts – because it’s easy. It’s easy to look at the Boy Scouts or any do-gooder as just that – some kind of 1930s idea that doesn’t make sense today. But that’s not fair to anybody. You know what? I’ll even admit to myself that there were times I felt that way. I’ve written the character of Superman. This is a thriller, but I’ve also written comic books, and he’s the hardest character to write. It took me two years of research until I finally understood that Superman isn’t the interesting part of the story. The best part of the story is Clark Kent. And you want to know why? Because we’re all Clark Kent. We all know what it’s like to be ordinary and boring and wish we could rip open our shirts and help somebody. And no one understands that. I feel like no one understands that’s why all the other superheroes never reach Superman’s level. They don’t have Clark Kent. You can give someone superpowers and a nice costume, but the reason they never reach that pinnacle is because they didn’t have Clark Kent.
That’s what makes it the great myth – that he’s one of us. Because we all know what that powerlessness is like. Now, people think Superman is about the nerd getting the girl. It’s not about that. It’s about the greatness that’s within all of us. That’s what Clark Kent is. In every single one of us, there’s greatness inside. I believe that. I think for those who look at it and say, “He’s a character waving the American flag who should be laughed at,” they’re looking at the cartoon character and not the real character.
WW: With the success of The Dark Knight this summer, there’s the sense that audiences are looking for more complexity in comic characters – more than one or two dimensions. But you obviously see a lot of complexity in Superman, too.
BM: Listen, if you look at the history of comic books, they tell a great story about us as people. In pre-World War II, during the Great Depression, the most popular comic books were Flash Gordon and Tarzan. They were characters were designed to take you elsewhere, to transport you – because the Great Depression was depressing. I mean, it’s right there in the title. And then, in 1938, as World War II is beginning to flare up and scare people, here comes Superman to save us. We’re a country that’s terrified and here comes a hero who’s going to make us safe at night.
Now go to 9/11. Do you remember the first big movie that broke through the public consciousness after 9/11 happened? It was Spider-Man. We were a country that was terrified again, and here was the hero to save us. And then we have this rash of superhero movies peaking with The Dark Knight, and not many of them are great, but they’re selling tickets like crazy. And it even goes to who we’ve elected for the presidency of the United States. Look at the two men. One of them fought the bad guys with his bare hands, and the other one is the great hope for the other half of America. These are not politicians we’ve nominated this year. We’re looking for saviors. We’re starving for heroes. As a country, we’re starving for them. Batman is a character who’s so fed up that he says, “I’m not going to take it anymore,” and that’s why it’s the number-one movie. It’s not just because Heath Ledger is great as the Joker, because he is, and not just because he died, because he’s so good in the movie. But it’s because these characters say something about us, and I think we’re starving for heroes right now.
WW: You mention on your website that one of your novels, The Zero Game, has been optioned by a Hollywood producer – but you say that The Book of Lies isn’t for sale. Why not?
BM: It’s the first book we never sent out to Hollywood. I didn’t do the usual rounds of finding all the different producers to read it. I just didn’t do it, because I felt like not everything needs to have a price tag on it. This is the most personal book I’ve ever written. It’s a thriller and it’s a mystery, but this is as honest as I’ve ever been with my readership, and it’s as honest as I’ve ever been intellectually about where I am. And it involves arguably two of my favorite stories ever told, Cain and Abel and Superman – as crazy as it is to say in the same sentence. So I just felt like, you know what? I’m taking my football and going home. Not everything needs to be for sale.
WW: You developed your own TV series a couple of years ago: Jack and Bobby. Did a part of you think, if anybody is going to turn this book into a film, it’s going to be me?
BM: No, I never want to do that. In fact, when The Zero Game got sold, they said to me, “Do you want to write the screenplay?” That was one of the offers that was going back and forth. And I said, “No, I have no desire to do that.” I live with these books for two years, and if I thought it needed to be cut down, I wouldn’t have put that chapter in the book. So I don’t want some big studio telling me that I need to cut my own book. If you want to cut it, go cut it and make a great movie. That’d be wonderful. I’d love it if they did it. But I don’t want to do that. I wrote the story I wanted to write. I don’t ever want to go back. I’ve never read any of my books since I’ve written them. I just feel like you have to move forward. I just don’t look back at them. That’s a story I wrote at the moment of my life where I was, and now I want to give you something even better.
WW: You mentioned writing comic books, including, of course, a very big Justice League of America series. At one point, there was a stigma attached to writing comics. Now it seems that the stigma is gone, and it’s actually seen as something of a coup to be able to write both novels and comic books. Has that proven to be the case for you?
BM: It’s amazing how the world has changed in six years. I was asked in 2001 to write a comic book. And the only person I can remember who was writing comic books who wasn’t a comic-book writer – and my memory may be wrong – but I think the only person was Kevin Smith, the director. They said, “Can you write the character he was writing [Green Arrow] when he leaves the book?” They knew my love of those characters. And it wasn’t cool at that time. When I took it on, it was just something I loved to do. It wasn’t the in-thing. Clearly over the past five, six, seven years, it has become the in-thing, and I’ve certainly benefited from that. But when I entered into it, I was just another nerd in the clubhouse – and suddenly all the cool kids came in and spruced up the place.
But I love the fact that people think writing comics is cool. I remember when I was reading comics when I was little, there was no Internet. I was the one kid in the school who read comics. There was one in every school, and at my school, it was me – and the only place you could ever find another is if you went to a comics convention. That was the only place you’d know that there was someone else out there like you. And now it’s beautiful. I don’t complain about it for one minute. Some people treat me like I’m a carpetbagger – maybe I say this because I am one – but to me, the more people who love this, how could it not be good for the industry?
WW: On your site, you mention that as a teenager, your fantasies were writing a comic book and dating a Playboy centerfold – but only one of those fantasies was worthwhile. Should we take that to mean that your date with a Playboy centerfold didn’t go too well?
BM: (Laughs.) No, no, no, no. My wife would kill me if it ever happened. But have you ever talked to someone who’s dated a Playboy model or a Penthouse model? Trust me, comic books are the true best fantasy. They really are. And I’ve said it before, but it’s right. These are the great stories now. These are the modern archetypes that we live through and we work things out through. You can’t have a run of superhero movies like this and not say it’s in the public consciousness in some desired way. And it’s not just wish fulfillment and boys who wish they had giant muscles. It’s something far deeper. We’re a country founded on our own legends and myths, and yet we rarely stop to ask ourselves where those legends and myths come from. I wanted The Book of Lies to do exactly that. Here’s the great story of Cain and Abel. Let’s pull it apart and see what it’s really all about – to see if Cain’s really the bad guy in the story, or if he’s maybe the good guy. And here’s the story of Superman, that we give such strength to – and maybe it comes from a point of vulnerability. I think finding out where those myths begin is as important as finding out who we are.
WW: Tell me about the projects you’ve got next on the agenda…
BM: I’m working on a TV show right now with Marco Pennette from Ugly Betty and Jeff Marx, one of the creators of Avenue Q. We’re working on a TV show called The Romeos. It’s a show set in the ‘60s about four boys who are going to be the biggest band in the whole country, but this is how they get their start. I just think that whole time period of the ‘60s, where you have an unpopular war and the mistrust of a president is a great, easy allegory, analogy, metaphor, whatever literary term you want, to paint with today and look at current times. And of course I’m working on a new novel, which is the new love of my life. I’m in the research stage of that and hoping to get it started as soon as this book tour wraps up.
WW: I mentioned Jack and Bobby earlier. That earned a lot of acclaim but it only lasted one season. That hasn’t soured you on the idea of being able to make good TV?
BM: It 100 percent soured me. Make no mistake. We got canceled in 22 episodes, and I think the only person who was watching was my mother. But I loved the experience. I thought Jack and Bobby was a terrific experience. But I didn’t go back to television because I didn’t have a story to tell there. And the other thing is, I like writing novels far more. When you write a novel, I have my editor to make sure that I don’t drive the train too far off the tracks. But it’s basically me in there, and my editor’s watching. With a TV show, it’s like trying to push water. There’s just so many people that you can’t possibly control it all. Ideally, it should be one vision going forward, but it just gets diluted. But when we came across this idea for The Romeos, we really loved the idea and said, “This is worth it.” And to me, not every idea is a great novel and not every idea is a great comic book and not every idea should be a great TV show – but some of them fit. And I felt that with this one, with the repetition of the story and how these boys become men, it fit far better with a TV show than with a novel. So that’s where it came from.
WW: Is a network involved at this point?
BM: The show was bought by ABC. We’re working on a script, and it’s a lottery ticket. Then they can decide if they want to make a pilot. We’re so far away. But that’s actually what we’re working on right now.