New York Times bestselling author Brad Meltzer returns to talk with Zibby his latest thriller, The Lightning Rod, which was inspired by a real figure hired by the United States Army to paint disasters as they occur. Brad shares how influential his mother and the loss of his parents have been on all of his novels, which real-life spy tricks he has included in his projects that have impressed his kids, and what his experience was like reading to former President George H. W. Bush just before he passed away.


Zibby Owens: Welcome, Brad. Thank you so much for coming on “Moms Don’t Have Time to Read Books” again to discuss The Lightning Rod, your latest novel. Congratulations.

Brad Meltzer: Thank you. I love being back.

Zibby: I am not sure I can ever valet park my car again after this book.

Brad: Trust me, this is one of my greatest fears come true. Whenever I write a thriller, especially something like this which is personal and in that kind of normal universe — the book opens with my greatest fear, handing your keys to a valet parking your car. In the opening scene as the character hands his keys to the valet, the valet takes the car and instead of parking it in the parking lot, he hits the GPS button. He says the words “go home.” Now he’s driving to that man’s house with his car keys and his house keys. It’s my nightmare come true.

Zibby: And the garage opener.

Brad: It’s a robbery. This is what it is. He’s got a garage opener. He opens it up. You can crack those in an instant. All based on reality. You can see everything in there. He gets into the house. Someone’s waiting for him with a gun and says, “You really think we didn’t know what you were up to?” This isn’t a robbery at all. It’s a trap. I’ll just the say the body shows up. The body goes to our hero, Zig, who is a mortician who finds the body. It unleashes one of the greatest secrets of our main heroine, Nola, which is what the book’s about. The book asks, what’s the best secret about yourself that no one knows? I just ruined chapter one of The Lightning Rod, but it’s absolutely one hundred percent based on my fear every time I hand those keys over. Why doesn’t this guy — my family knows you take your house keys with you, but it’s all based on my own craziness.

Zibby: I worry about so many things. That was not something that was on my list, but now it will be on my list. I’m going to take the garage door opener, too, and not use the GPS.

Brad: I’m glad The Lightning Rod has given you nightmares already.

Zibby: Yeah, it’s given me nightmares already. Although, I feel like my kids who like art, after reading about Zig and how he can make magic out of faces that have been completely destroyed, perhaps that’s another way to go if you have an artistic child. You could be a mortician and doctor up people’s bodies in the very respectful way that Zig does it in this book.

Brad: I found Zig based on real people. I was obsessed with — I do a lot of work for the USO. They bring thriller writers — myself and Sandra Brown have gone, and Kathy Reichs who does the Bone series. We’ve all gone to Kuwait and Oman and Qatar and Cuba. They’ve taken us all over the world. It was there I heard about a place called Dover Air Force Base. I’m not a big military person, so I didn’t know much about it. I knew, and we all know, where our fallen troops when they’re killed — when the soldiers come home, we see those flag-covered coffins. You see everyone saluting them. also means that the Pentagon victims on the Pentagon flight from 9/11, those bodies went to Dover. The astronauts when the space shuttle blew up, those bodies went to Dover. Every spy we have abroad, James Bond or anyone else, when those bodies come, they come to Dover, which means that Dover’s a place filled with secrets. I was like, I want to get in there. That’s where my character Zig works. Then I was like, I got the book. I have this great location. I have a great setup. I got everything. I wanted this character, a female character named Nola. I was in an army, of all places, had a warehouse that was filled with artwork. They had paintings, all these paintings done by soldiers. I’m like, why does the army have all this art?

They told me, and this is true, that since World War I, the army has had an actual painter on staff painting disasters as they happen, from storming the beaches of Normandy to Vietnam to 9/11. I said, “You’re telling me that everyone else is racing in with guns blazing and we have a guy who races in with paintbrushes in their pocket?” I’m like, “I got to meet that guy. He sounds crazy. I want to meet him.” They said to me, “You mean her. You want to meet her.” It was a woman. That’s where Nola Brown, our hero in the book, was born. Nola is the lightning rod. Troubles finds her. She is my favorite character I’ve ever worked on. She’s who everyone reacts to in the book. As a hero, I don’t think I’ve ever found anyone so developed as when I, in that moment, found that lead character, and she’s an artist. Obviously, Zig’s an artist in one way, on bodies. Nola is a painter. When she goes into a situation, she can find something about you you don’t even realize you’re putting out there. She sees with a painter’s eye, so she’ll see which way the tongue on your belt buckle faces, and she knows whether you’re a righty or a lefty. She sees that there’s crow’s feet just on one of your eyes and not the other, which means you’re the one who’s the marksman in the room. You’re the assassin because that’s the eye you aim with and squint with. She can see which leg you put more weight on because you had knee surgery. What she can find is your weakness. Her strength is she can always find your weakness. As a character, especially as a heroine in a thriller, I love the fact that people have reacted to her and taken to her.

Zibby: I need her to come over. I would like to interview Nola. How do we make that happen?

Brad: Listen, you’re talking to her. The truth is, I gave her the name Nola Brown; the real artist-in-residence is a woman named Amy Brown, who’s just one of the most amazing people. Like Nola, she, and like myself, had a teacher who changed her life, who saw that she had this talent. I think for those of us who have had our lives touched by that teacher who — remember the first person who ever told you you were good at something? That person leaves an indelible mark on you. Nola only found that love in her teacher. Her parents threw her away. She was treated like garbage. She was always treated like trash. Zig, our other hero in the book, he basically lost someone very dear to him. I don’t want to ruin the scene, but lost someone dear to him. That’s why he’s trying to help people find closure in their lives when they lose someone close. He will never have a daughter. Nola will never have a father. That’s the true north for Zig and Nola. They both will never ever have what they want. Those needs are so deep and so raw in them. Yes, there’s a plot. There’s a mystery. There’s a murder. There’s all these wonderful things that will happen. Secrets will be revealed. At the core of these books, The Lightning Rod is always about that character of Nola. It’s always about who she is and what she needs.

Zibby: I feel like grief, though, pervades a lot of these scenes in one way, shape, or form, even with — since we’ve already been giving away the first chapter, when the person whose car is stolen — he has a teen son. There is this scene with the son and the mom where he is sobbing and saying, I can’t do it. She’s like, I’m here for you. I’m here. I’m here. I’m here. You feel like you just want to cry with this family. How is this family going to make it?

Brad: Listen, that’s me burying my own parents. I lost my mom. I lost my dad. I spent a long time, Zibby, trying to ask myself, how do I get over it? My mother was the greatest person on this planet. When my second book did poorly, I called my mom devastated. “My career’s over. They’re shutting down.” The publisher was shutting down. I didn’t have anything. My mom said to me — I’ll never forget. She said, “I’d love you if you were a garbageman.” She wasn’t taking a crack at garbagemen. My uncle was a garbageman. She was saying, I don’t care if you’re the king of England or anyone else. I love you. Then I lost her to breast cancer. I spent all this time going, how do I get over that? I wrote all these books trying to figure out, how do I get over it? I finally realized — maybe this is why we’re talking today — that I will never get over the loss of my mother, and I never should get over the loss of my mother. The only thing you can ever do when you lose someone who touches you to your core like that, the only thing you can do is, you transform.

You become someone else. It’s not a better person, a lesser person. You do become someone else. I think for me, you are absolutely right, I love writing those scenes that you’re reacting to because they are real. They are me dealing with the grief of everything I’ve been through. It’s funny, my twenty-year-old, who never — my kids never care about anything I do. They’re never impressed with anything. My daughter said to me, “Dad, why does anyone want you to sign their books? Why do they want you?” I’m like, “Thanks. You understand what feeds you every day, right?” My son was reading the book. He was like, “Dad, there’s so much of us in here.” He knew. All the love I have for my children is that love that Zig has for his daughter. All the love you see in that scene and what he’s saying is my love for my kids and my wife. That is what always will drive the emotional core of these books.

Zibby: Wow. The emotional resonance is powerful. Everybody has lost. Everyone has felt that way. Maybe not. I certainly have. I certainly know a lot of people who have. I find it so interesting. People say, how can I go on? What you’re basically saying is, I can’t go on, I, the way you conceptualized it, that version. You won’t go on.

Brad: You’re not that same person. You truly are not that same — I was just talking to someone about it. We were saying that when you lose someone, again, who touches you deep to your soul, it’s like you’re in a car accident, and the car is still spinning. When my mom and dad first died, I remember going out and walking around. I see people smiling, just doing nothing but smiling. I’d be like, how can these people be smiling when I’m so sad right now? I remember just being, for months and months and months — it’s a roller coaster you’re on. This is what I’ve realized watching what I’ve dealt with with my own parents. In the beginning, you’ll hear a song that reminds you of your parents. I’ll be sobbing on some Barbra Streisand song my mother just thought was the greatest thing in the word. I remember sending her to a Barbra Streisand concert before she died, just being like, “You have to go.” I would be undone by that. It would be the most horrible, ruin my day, I’m wrecked by this old song, this old smell, this old perfume if I’d smell it on someone. Then that roller coaster you’re on levels. I don’t know how. It’s just time. There’s no magical answer. There’s no magical way to make it happen, but it levels. This is actually in The Lightning Rod. Zig talks about this in the book.

Those things that torture you in the beginning when your loved one dies, eventually, those same exact things become little rewards that show up in the universe. You go, oh, that’s great. I remember when my mom died, I just — I’m not a new age-y, woo-woo person. I remember seeing lots of butterflies. When my mom died, all these butterflies were around. I never see butterflies. When I saw them in the beginning, I was like, what is this? I would be so upset. Now when I see a butterfly, I know it’s my mom saying, dumbass, pick your head up and just go. I’m like, thank you, Mom. Thank you for that. It’s the same thing with an old song. I’ll hear some old Bee Gees song. My sister, in fact, yesterday, texted me. She was here. She was like, “More Than a Woman just came on,” which my mom and dad’s — that’s their dance song. She literally texted me last night. She was like, “More Than a Woman’s on.” I’m like, “Awesome.” It was now a gift. That thing that hurt us so much became this gift. Now it’s something you can take something good from. The Lightning Rod, when you have your one hero who’s a mortician, when you have this other hero who’s this incredibly powerful woman who’s dealing with her own grief, I can’t help but put my own into it. It’s what has to fill it.

Zibby: I’m so sorry about your loss.

Brad: No, no. That’s the thing. That’s what you say when someone is freshly dead. That’s the thing, right?

Zibby: I have to say it anyway. I have to say it. I was just talking, actually, to this woman who lost her husband. She was like, “Can we stop saying I’m sorry? I say I’m sorry when I step on your foot. I don’t say I’m sorry –” This woman Kelsey Chittick. She’s awesome. “I’m sorry is not the same thing. How can we even use the same expression?” I don’t know. You have to say something. Maybe I’m sorry is the wrong word. I feel your loss. I am sorry you had to go through that. I know it’s not as fresh.

Brad: I actually love that you feel that. That is a beautiful thing to say. I was actually saying it because I don’t feel it as that anymore. I feel like I’m blessed that I have my parents. This is the best story I could tell you about my mom. When Borders books was still around, the head of Borders sales said to me, “Guess where your books sell nationally more than anywhere else?” I said, “I don’t know. New York City, eight million people in one place.” “No.” I said, “Washington, DC. I write thrillers that are set in DC.” “No.” The number-one place where my books sold was the Boca Raton, Florida, Borders one mile from the furniture store where my mother used to work, which means my mother singlehandedly beat eight million New Yorkers. That’s the power of a Jewish mom. That’s the ultimate power of any mother. I love the fact that as crazy as my mother was, she just poured love onto us. I’m not sorry at all. The only thing I feel bad about is, I wish my kids had my mom. I have my mom. My mom is still with me every day. I think her of every single — I remember going to my father-in-law, who buried his mom when he was in his thirties, really young, younger than I was. I was in my thirties, but I was in late. He was in early. I said to him, “How often do you think of your mom?” He said to me, “Every day.” I remember at the time going, what? That was exactly how it — my mother’s with me every single day no matter — all the pages of the crazy mom in The Lightning Rod, that’s my mother. I remember going, when I wrote my first book — I never tell this story. In my very first thriller, the mom and the dad in the book I wrote — I was a kid at that point. I was in my twenties. I wrote my mom and dad. My editor said to me, “You can’t keep these parents like this. They’re too crazy. No one will believe them.” I did the best thing I could do. I took my parents to meet my editor. I literally schlepped them to New York. I brought them in the office. For, it must have been fifteen minutes, a half hour, whatever it was, I sat in the editor’s office while my parents talked this poor man’s face off. I remember they left the office, and my editor turned to me. He said, “Keep the scenes as they are.” They are forever in all of my thrillers. They’re always there.

Zibby: It’s funny, as a mom, I’m always so worried not that — I have my parents, luckily, but I’m more worried about my death as it affects my kids. I’m not worried about me itself. I always am telling them, I’m like, “Listen, if I, one day, drop off the face of the earth –” I’m sure I’m giving my kids all these horrible anxiety disorders, but whatever. It comes with being a child of mine. I’m like, “I will be there. I feel like I’m going to do whatever. I’m going to make sure. You don’t have to worry about that.” I think one of the things you’re saying about losing people you love like that so much, it’s not just that you lose those people, but you lose that steady stream of love that you receive from those people. It’s almost like you’re under a showerhead and then all of a sudden, it turns off. You also have to deal with that lack of constant love that you get, which also is like, all of a sudden, you’re standing out there freezing being like, I need a towel.

Brad: My sister and I talk about this all the time. My sister and I always say no one will love us like my mom loved us. I don’t mean the love of, oh, it’s a mother love. I’m talking about the absurd, unquestionable, ridiculous love. If I started a fire and lit someone on fire, my mother would be like, good fire. Whatever the crime was, my mom would compliment me for it. I remember — in fact, it hit me recently. I said this to my wife. God bless her. She just understands because she has a great, amazing mom too. The first copy of The Lightning Rod came in the mail. My kids have seen and my wife has seen a dozen thrillers come before. They’ve seen our Ordinary People Change the World series. They’ve seen thirty of those kids’ books enter this house. Opening a box and seeing a new book, as thrilling as it is to me, they’ve seen it. The Lightning Rod came a week and a half ago. I opened it up. I was so excited. No one cared. Again, I don’t need it. It’s okay. I didn’t need the love. What I missed was not that. What I missed is — I said to my wife, I’m like, “My mom would’ve made such a big deal over this stupid thing.” That is that thing that no one replaces. No one will love you for those dumb things like your mom will. In fact, when one of the books came out, I remember I — this was years and years ago. This book that I loved, it got the best reviews everywhere. It was called The First Counsel. USA Today wrote this giant headline that said “Make First your Last” and just ripped the book apart. It was a terrible review. I called my mom. I said, “Mom, you see that review?” She goes, “Oh, don’t worry. No one reads that paper anyway.” I’m like, “Mom, it’s the number-one paper in the country. It’s USA Today. It’s not the local –” She didn’t care.

Zibby: That’s true. No one reads the articles. It’s fine. They skim.

Brad: Oh, I’ve gotten bad reviews where people have said to me, “I saw your great review.” That’s when I realized no one’s reading the articles anymore. That’s okay. When we hit the number-one spot on the best-seller list, they called my wife because I wasn’t home. Then my wife told them where to find me. The first person I called was my mother. I called my mom to tell her. I was the first in my family to go to a four-year college. To tell her that we hit the number-one spot, it was a huge deal. My mom starts bawling. She’s just sobbing. She’s crying. Now I’m worried. She’s in the car. She’s going to crash the car. I say to her, “Mom, where are you?” to make sure she’s okay. Of course, where is she? She says, “I’m at Marshalls.” I’m like, “Of course, you’re at — here we are, the number-one spot, and you’re still trying to buy irregular socks for cheap.” God bless my mother. She still believed to her dying day that Marshalls was the greatest place of all time. I can’t disagree. We grew up there.

Zibby: Can you send me a picture of her later when you’re done with all —

Brad: — I will happily, happily send it to you.

Zibby: I would love to see her photo. I would love that. I feel like I have such a clear vision of her in my head now.

Brad: She’s easily conjured.

Zibby: I know we haven’t really talked about your book, but I feel like it is not a stupid thing to be excited when the carton arrives. No matter how many books you’ve written, I still think it’s really awesome. Each book is its own accomplishment. Whatever, I say you should — I’m sorry the kids aren’t — kids don’t care about anything.

Brad: They don’t care about anything.

Zibby: Somebody should. You should take that victory dance and still enjoy it. There’s so much work involved in each book. You might as well take the little victories.

Brad: When I can impress my kids — there’s one scene in the book. I’m always obsessed with how you keep secrets from people. If I text you something, we know that that text can be found and show up on the — someone can grab it. Even if I have Signal or WhatsApp, encryption can be cracked. We all know it. I always work with these people who have high-level government jobs who have to do this stuff, these acronym agencies. I said to them, “What do I do? How do I do that?” This is a great one. This one impressed my kids. They said, if you have a Hotmail account and I write an email to Zibby, don’t send it. Just hit “save draft.” Don’t send it. Now give Zibby your login. She’s going to go into the same account. She’s going to go into saved drafts. She’s going to read what you wrote. She’s going to delete it, write back to you. She will not send it either. Now you and I are speaking, and we’ve sent nothing on the internet. I thought that was so great. I put it in a book. Then General Petraeus, the head of the CIA, used that trick when he was cheating on his wife.

Zibby: No!

Brad: I called my buddy. I’m like, “That’s my trick. You just took my trick.” He gave me a brand-new trick that’s even better that you will see. I can’t say who does it. You will see when you read The Lightning Rod and you get to that scene where I tell that exact story. You’ll see what the next trick is. I didn’t make it up as a thriller writer. That’s real. It really happened. That, to me, is the fun. When my kids can react to that, that’s better than the open carton. That’s when I’m like, okay, I impressed my kid on one day. It’ll never happen again. I can wait another ten years for it, but if I have that, I’m okay.

Zibby: Oh, my gosh, that’s amazing. I wanted to call you when all this stuff was going on with this invasion and the war. You’re one of the most astute, smart people about all political everything. I feel like I want to call you like you’re my dad. Okay, now what do I need to know? What do you think? What’s going to happen next? I need that reassurance. Are we going to be okay? Are they going to be okay?

Brad: Listen, it’s a crazy time as we’re talking about this right now. What we have to remember is that even for the people in power, they’re human beings. We forget that. We want to yell at the government and yell at the president and yell at the so-and-so. I’ll tell you — my first job ever was an intern. I was an intern for Joe Biden. Then I remember getting fan letters from President Clinton and President George H.W. Bush, who passed away last year. I don’t know if I told you this story. One of the things before President Bush died — we couldn’t tell anyone at the time. It was a secret, but I can tell the story now. They were bringing in his favorite authors to read to him before he died. I was one of the authors. I’m in Kennebunkport, Maine. They bring me in. It’s my wife and myself. The secret service leave. We know this is the end. It me, my wife, President Bush, and his service dog Sully. They say to me, “Listen, Brad, you’re going to read to him for five minutes. He’s going to fall asleep in five minutes. He’s just sleeping a lot these days.” I said, “You got it. I’m honored to do it. I’m honored to be here.” I bring one of my books with me. I get into the room. I see he has a stack of books on his desk. One of the books is my book The First Conspiracy. It’s about a secret plot to kill George Washington, not a fictional thriller like The Lightning Rod. It was actually a history book. I say, “Sir, you want to read this?” He says, “Mm-hmm.” He can’t speak at this point. He’s just “mm-hmm” or “mm-mm.” I read to him. In five, ten minutes, he’s sleeping. I’m like, great, I’ll just finish a chapter, and we’ll sneak out of here. The scene that I brought to read to him was the moment where George Washington presents his troops with the copy of the Declaration of Independence and has it read to them the first time. This is the first time they’re going to hear it, I should say.

I get to those words, those words we all know. We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal. President Bush’s eyes pop open. Now he’s wide awake. He’s locked on me. It’s like intravenous from the Declaration of Independence itself. We finish the chapter. I say, “Sir, you want to read another chapter?” “Mm-hmm.” I finish that one. “You want another, sir?” “Mm-hmm.” “And another?” “Mm-hmm.” Instead of being there for five, ten minutes, my wife and I are there for an hour. I say goodbye to him. I know I’m never going to see him again. I know it’s the end. We went to his funeral. We got invited to his funeral. The thing that I remember is, the one word that everyone kept using over and over was this word decency. Yes, I think it’s because he was a decent guy. I think we’re a culture right now that’s starving for decency. All we see when we look up the news, when we look up whatever’s happening, we see this war that’s happening right now, we’re starving for us to remember that we’re just human beings all struggling for — we all have hopes. We all have dreams. We all have wants. If you can see people like that, I think you’ll just be far better off. My favorite line I’ve ever written in one of my books, it says, “The most intimate thing in life is to be understood and be understood by someone else.” I think right now, we all need a little bit of that.

Zibby: That’s beautiful. Wow. Brad, what a half an hour in my day. Just amazing. Thank you. Thank you for this conversation. Thank you for all of it. Congratulations on your book. I hope to talk to you again soon.

Brad: I can’t wait. Thanks. I do have to end by saying thank you for supporting The Lightning Rod, but thanks for supporting the kids’ books. You were one of the first. I appreciate it, from I am Amelia Earhart

Zibby: — Oh, my god, the kids’ books are amazing. Are you kidding?

Brad: I know. You and I met through those. I know everyone’s like, oh, we want to talk the thriller, but I just need to personally thank you because you were first on board when we were doing that.

Zibby: I love, love, love those books.

Brad: We just did Muhammad Ali and Malala, are the two newest. You were there way before they were the newest ones. I just need to say thank you for supporting those.

Zibby: You’re welcome. Thanks for writing them. Thanks, Brad.

Brad: Take care.

Zibby: Take care. Buh-bye.



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