Nonfiction author Brad Meltzer, New York Times bestselling author, will be in Frederick Jan. 12 to talk about his book and sign his new work, The Nazi Plot: The Secret Plot to Kill Roosevelt, Stalin, and Churchill. Meltzer worked on this book with Josh Mensch, a television documentary author and producer.
The evening is hosted by the Curious Iguana and Frederick County Public Libraries.
Before his Frederick event, he spoke with 72 Hours about becoming a writer, his latest book and the mind-boggling history he discovered during his research.
How did you find out about the story and what prompted you to write a book about it?
I found it in a story on the internet… [one] Of those silly little articles online that pop up in your algorithm, and you just saw it. It was really short. Reported that there was a plot to kill Churchill, Stalin and Rudd. And my first thought was, “How do I not know that story, and I want to know more about it now.” So that sent me down the rabbit hole. And, you know, I go down a lot of rabbit holes, but this was one of those where, when I started digging, I realized there was a lot more to discover.
How did you become a writer?
I started my writing career in ninth grade with my ninth grade English teacher, Sheila Spicer. Mrs. Spicer changed my life with three words. She said, “You can write.” And I thought, “Everyone can write.” And she said, “No, you know what you’re doing.” She tried to put me in honors, but I had some kind of struggle. She said, “You know what? I want you to sit in the corner all year and ignore everything I do on the board. You’re going to do honors work instead.” And I did, and what she was really saying was, you’ll thank me later.
A decade later, I went back to her classroom, knocked on the door with my first novel, and said, “I wrote this book, and it’s yours.” I started crying. I said, “Why are you crying?” She said, “I was going to retire this year, because I didn’t think I had an impact anymore.” That woman changed my life and she had no idea the effect it had on her. So this was really the beginning.
But perhaps a better answer to your question: My first novel I ever wrote, I received 24 rejection letters. There were only 20 publishers, and I got 24 rejection letters, which means some people were writing to me twice to make sure I got the point. And I said, “If they don’t like it, I’ll write another book, and if they don’t like this book, I’ll write another.” A week after I received my 23rd and 24th rejection letters, I started what became my first real published work, a book called Tenth Justice. For many years, I have been writing thrillers and I love writing thrillers, and I was a history major in college, so this love of history has always been there. My books have always leaned on history and the use of historical details. Then I said, “You know what? I’d like to try writing my stories, too.” And so are we [Josh Mensch and I] We started with the First Conspiracy, then we did the Lincoln Conspiracy, and here we are at the Nazi Conspiracy.
You said it took me about two years to write the book – one year to do research and one year to write, which also included some research. What sources did you use for your book?
I mean, we try to go to the original source. For example, a lot of this book [includes] Details from the FDR Secret Service agent who wrote about it. There are obviously, on the American side and in our private archives, stories and stuff from Roosevelt’s presidency. But this was the first time we had to deal with foreign agencies. So we had to find translators and researchers who could read Russian and German. And because the plot is on the Nazi side, because it is the Nazis who are trying to kill Roosevelt, Stalin, and Churchill, we now have to know what their intelligence organizations do about it.
What was your favorite part of the book writing process?
For me, it’s always about people. It’s always about the character that comes out. The strength of the personality of Winston Churchill and Roosevelt, as well as personalities you do not know. The villain in this book – other than Adolf Hitler and the Nazis, of course – is someone you’ve never heard of by the name of Otto Skorzeny. Otto Skorzeny is summoned to Hitler’s private headquarters, the Wolf’s Lair, and [Hitler] Line up all his special forces fighters to see who is the best. And you see this moment as Hitler selects Otto Skorzeny from among the group of men and sets him on a course for one of the most incredible secret missions you have ever seen. And these are the moments that make me go, “Oh my God, look at how easily history could end if this all worked out a certain way.” And this is not a bad guy in a movie. All this has already happened.
What was the most interesting thing you learned writing and researching the book?
I think Otto Skorzeny is one. Gathering at Madison Square Garden is something else, I think. And I think, although I’ve already said this and sorry to repeat, but I think that’s how weak the alliance was for Churchill, Roosevelt, and Stalin. I mean, we love to tell the story of Normandy and how we stormed the shores and saved the day. But oh my god, that almost didn’t happen. And it took a lot of twisting by Stalin and a lot of twisting by Roosevelt and a lot of pressure against Churchill to make sure that happened. And you just realize how easy it is to go the other way, especially if their plot to kill them works. Can you imagine if the three of them had been assassinated three times?
Do you feel there is a message to consider in what is happening in your book and how it relates to the modern era?
You know, look at Kanye West, or even Charlottesville, and these last few years. We all wring our hands and say, “Oh, it’s so sad we’re fighting Nazis here in America today,” as if that was a completely new idea. Then you go back to World War II, and you see there was a Nazi rally in Madison Square Garden in New York City, where they had a big George Washington banner, surrounded by swastikas, saying George Washington would have loved the Nazis. This is not a new story to tell. They’ve been here the whole time. And we, again, prefer the highlighter roller and ignore those details, because they make us uncomfortable. But there are times when we need to feel uncomfortable, right? We tell stories to make sure people are uncomfortable so that it doesn’t happen again.
This interview has been edited for clarity.
Follow Clara Neil on Twitter: @clarasniel