Magic tricks and the Secret Service may not seem like they have a lot on common, but Brad Meltzer’s new thriller, The Escape Artist proves otherwise.
When a body is found on a plane that fell from the sky, the military quickly identifies the dead woman as Artist-in-Residence Nola Brown. However, one man, Zig— who has a special connection to Nola— uncovers Nola’s secret: not only is she still alive, but she’s on the run.
The witness to something she was never supposed to see, there are more than a few people who would love nothing more than to make sure that Nola disappears permanently. Working together, Zig and Nola do whatever it takes to expose the trickery and deciet by the most powerful people in government, and uncover a military conspiracy that reaches back all the way to the days of Houdini.
Meticulously researched, The Escape Artist is a refreshingly new take on the classic thriller. Out only a few weeks now, it’s all the buzz in literary circles. Brad Meltzer talked with BookTrib about inspiration for the book, what an Artist-in-Residence actually does, how his background writing comic books influenced this work, and whether we will see a sequel to The Escape Artist.
The Escape Artist is a complex story that unfolds in layers. How did you come up with the concept?
Brad Meltzer: Years ago, I went to the Middle East with the USO, then a few months back, I took another trip to entertain our troops. Dover Air Force Base is a place I never thought the government would let me into. The Dover scenes in the book are all based in reality: Dover is home of the mortuary for the US government’s most top-secret and high-profile cases. On 9/11, the victims of the Pentagon attack were brought there. So were the victims of the attack on the USS Cole, the astronauts from the space shuttle Columbia, and the remains of well over fifty thousand soldiers and CIA operatives who fought in Vietnam, Afghanistan, Iraq, and every secret location in between. In Delaware of all places, at Dover Air Force Base, is America’s most important funeral home.
In their building, as you see in the book, they make sure our most honorable soldiers are shown the dignity and respect they deserve. In addition, the people there know details about hidden missions that almost no one in the world will ever hear about. Dover is a place full of mysteries…and surprises…and more secrets than you can imagine. As someone who writes thrillers, it was the perfect setting for a mystery. Plus, in today’s world, we need real heroes. The people here are the real deal. So I knew I found my hero.
BookTrib: Nola Brown is an Artist-in-Residence for the U.S. military, a job that most people – myself included – didn’t know existed. How did you come across this profession, and how do you think being an artist of war and the violent aftermath changes someone’s outlook on life?
BM: We were filming the very first episode of our TV show, ‘Lost History’ and were in the HQ of one of the most obscure jobs in the Army: The Artist in Residence. Since World War I, the Army has assigned one person— an actual artist— who they send out in the field to paint what couldn’t otherwise be seen. It’s one of the greatest traditions in our military— they call them war artists. They go, they see, and paint, and catalogue victories and mistakes, from the dead on D-Day, to the injured at Mogadishu, to the sandbag pilers who were at Hurricane Katrina. In fact, when 9/11 occurred, the Artist-in-Residence was the only artist let inside the security perimeter. From there, Nola came to life in my head. Imagine an artist-soldier whose real skill was finding the weakness in anything. But as for changing you, that was exactly my question. You’ll see what it does to Nola. Over time, I realized all artists see the world differently than the rest of us.
BookTrib: You’re also an author of comic books and there’s a little known history of comic book writers and artists being involved with the armed services – Jack Kirby, who created Captain America with Joe Simon, was drafted and became a scout for the U.S. Army during WWII. Do you think your history of being part of this lineage played a part in how you see being a war artist?
BM: One hundred percent. In college, my senior paper was entitled: Comic Books As Propaganda in World War II. It’s part of our history… part of how we sold heroes and sold the war. And my love of all this for sure played into how I saw Nola.
BookTrib: This book is full of detailed plots involving the military, the government, insider information, official secrets, and just to throw us for a loop, magic. You actually start the book talking about John Elbert Wilkie, who was not only friends with Houdini, but did his own magic tricks, and was head of the Secret Service. How did you go about researching this?
BM: The opening page of the book is true: in 1898, a man named John Elbert Wilkie, a friend of Harry Houdini, was put in charge of the United States Secret Service. Wilkie was a fan of Houdini and did his own tricks himself. And it is the only time in history that a magician was in control of the Secret Service. Let me just say it: I loved that. And I also loved when I found out where Harry Houdini donated all his magic books after he died. You’ll see in ‘The Escape Artist,’ I didn’t make that up.
BookTrib: Let’s talk about Zig for a second, he’s convinced that he must help Nola, who was friends with his daughter, and actually saved her life. His sense of grief and loss are so tangible, but he also has this incredible sense of respect for the dead. A lot of authors struggle to really convey pure, abject feelings like that to their readers. Was this something that you found easy to write?
BM: Nothing is ever easy in a good book. The best scenes always take something from you. Sadly, I knew this one – at a lesser level – from my own experience. After burying both my parents, I know what I miss. I know what I want from them every day. That became my view for Zig. But it was really fleshed out when I started speaking to parents out there who lost their own kids. That was the weight I couldn’t possibly make up. I could feel it.
BookTrib: You’ve just come out with The Escape Artist, you’ve written for the Justice League of America comics, and in January there was the latest addition to your series Ordinary People Change the World. I have to ask, what’s next for you?
BM: We do the ‘I am Gandhi’ graphic novel in May. My new Superman story with artist John Cassaday also comes out in May for ‘Action Comics #1000.’ Then ‘I am Neil Armstrong’ comes out in September. As for a new thriller, I can’t shake Zig and Nola. They talk to me every day. So… well… you’ll see them again soon.
BookTrib: Finally, what’s the one question you’ve never been asked, but have always wanted to answer?
BM: Can you really do the alphabet backwards? Yes. Really, really fast.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Brad Meltzer is the #1 New York Times bestselling author of The Inner Circle and ten other bestselling thrillers. He is also the author of the Ordinary People Change the World series of picture book biographies—which includes I am Harriet Tubman—and is the host of the History Channel television shows Decoded and Lost History, in which he helped find the missing 9/11 flag. He lives in Florida. You can find out much more about him at BradMeltzer.com. You can also see what he’s doing right now at Facebook.com/BradMeltzer and on Twitter @bradmeltzer.