Zibby Owens: Settle in, listeners, because this is a long bio. Brad Meltzer is unbelievably accomplished. Listen to this because it’s amazing. Brad Meltzer is the number-one New York Times best-selling author of twelve thrillers like The Escape Artist and The Fifth Assassin. He has written several nonfiction books too, History Decoded, The First Conspiracy: The Secret Plot to Kill George Washington, and now his latest adult book, The Lincoln Conspiracy: The Secret Plot to Kill America’s 16th President–and Why It Failed, cowritten with Josh Mensch which goes on sale May 5th. Brad has also written gift and advice books like Heroes for my Daughter and my Son and the massively successful Ordinary People Change the World series of children’s books like I am whoever. His latest in the series, illustrated by Christopher Eliopoulos, is I am Leonardo da Vinci which comes out April 14th, which is tomorrow at the time of my recording. Brad even writes comic books like Justice League of America for which he won the prestigious Eisner Award. He helped find the missing 9/11 flag with his History Channel TV show Brad Meltzer’s Lost History and has another show called Brad Meltzer’s Decoded on the History Channel. He also has a show on PBS Kids called Xavier Riddle and the Secret Museum based on his I am children’s books. The Hollywood Reporter, understandably, put Brad on their list of Hollywood’s 25 Most Powerful Authors. Raised in Brooklyn and Miami, Brad graduated from the University of Michigan and Columbia Law School. He currently lives with his wife in Florida.

Welcome, Brad. Thanks for coming on “Moms Don’t Have Time to Read Books.”

Brad Meltzer: I appreciate you having me on.

Zibby: I am so excited to have you on. I honestly think you are the most prolific author I have ever dreamed of interviewing. My kids and I have read basically every one of your books in the I am series. They’re going to flip out.

Brad: We can’t do a moms’ podcast and you haven’t read the I am books. We’ve failed. We’ve just not done our job. You and I were talking about overlapping people and trying to figure everyone out before we started this podcast, but obviously those books come from that same love. That first thing we were talking about when we started talking was our love for our kids. When you work on doing something for your kids, you’ll just do anything no matter how stupid or crazy. You’ll eat out of boxes that you don’t want to eat out of. You’ll get deliveries for whatever because you’re just trying to do right by your kids. That’s where these books came from. I just wanted my kids to have — I was tired of them looking at reality TV show stars and people who are famous being famous and thinking that that’s a hero. I was like, I have so many better heroes I could give them. The funny thing was I started with Amelia Earhart. I was like, I’ve got Amelia Earhart. I’m going to give it to my daughter. She’s going to love it. I told her Amelia Earhart flew across the Atlantic Ocean. I figured she’d say, “Dad, you’re indeed the greatest father of all time. Thank you for teaching me such wonderful things.” She’s like, “Big deal, Dad. Everyone flies across the Atlantic.” She was so unimpressed. Then I told her this amazing story about Amelia Earhart that when Amelia Earhart was seven years old, and this is true, she built a homemade roller coaster in her backyard. She took a wooden crate. She put roller-skating wheels on the bottom. She shoved it to the roof of her toolshed. She gets on the crate on the skating wheels, comes flying down the side down a piece of wood, lands, crashes, screams something like, “That was amazing.” She later said that feeling she said had when her stomach bottomed out from under her, she wanted that feeling back again. That’s the first time Amelia Earhart ever flies. She’s seven years old. When I told my daughter that story, my daughter was like, “Dad, tell me that one again.” That’s when I knew we were onto something.

We started this whole line of nonfiction biographies as children’s books. We started with I am Amelia Earhart and I am Abraham Lincoln. We did I am Rosa Parks and Albert Einstein. My son who loves sports — I have no patience for millionaire sports heroes. That’s fame. Being famous is very different than being a hero, I always tell my son. I say, “You want to see what a hero looks like? Here, I wrote this book for you. It’s called I am Jackie Robinson.” Then we did Helen Keller where we put real braille in the book. The pages of the book go black when you get to those pages. It says, “Here’s how I see the world. Feel these dots. This is my name.” We put real braille into the book. She’s like, “My name’s Helen.” These books are obviously for little kids, like four to ten years old. I watched my eighteen-year-old son, had his eyes closed and he’s feeling the pages of the book. I walk in the room and he’s like, “Dad, this one’s actually good.” I’m like, actually? We did I am Lucille Ball for my daughter because I wanted her to have a female entertainment hero who wasn’t just famous for being thin and pretty. Lucy stood for the idea it’s okay to be different. That’s what makes us special, is we’re all different. We don’t celebrate that anymore, but we need to.

Zibby: Billie Jean King.

Brad: We did Billie Jean King. Something amazing happened with the book series when the 2016 election happened. This amazing thing happened. Two of our books started selling more than any others. They were I am Martin Luther King Jr. and I am George Washington. It wasn’t a democrat or republican thing, even. It was that people were tired of putting on the TV when Hillary and Donald Trump were arguing more than ever at the beginning of the 2016 election. Those books took off. People were tired of putting on the TV and seeing politicians. What they wanted to show their kids were leaders. We all know there’s a huge difference between a politician and a leader. Since Donald Trump was elected, our book sales — people are just tired of what they see on TV. They want to find better leaders for their kids. They’ve used our books to kind of fight back in this divisiveness that we see in society today. As you just said, we did Billie Jean King. We did Sonia Sotomayor. We did Gandhi to teach mindfulness. We did Sacagawea to teach your kids how to blaze their own trail. Each book always has a moral lesson on the back of them. On the back of I am Amelia Earhart it says, “I know no bounds.” On the back of I am Abraham Lincoln it says, “I’ll speak my mind and speak for others. We did I am Walt Disney, a best-selling book that we just launched. It was basically, I believe the person that make dreams come true is you. Or Marie Curie to teach science. I love that we’ve been able to help people build libraries of real heroes for their kids and their grandkids and their nieces and nephews.

Zibby: That’s so amazing. How old were your kids when you did the first one?

Brad: I think they were seven and four when I started writing for them. They came out when they were eight and five. The funny thing is my youngest is now as old as my oldest was when I started writing for them, but they still read them. Even my eighteen-year-old still reads them. My eighteen and fourteen and eleven, they are reading the books because it’s the only thing — nothing I do impresses my kids, nothing at any level. I could write a million thrillers. I can go eat at the White House. I could do anything. They do not care. I was very smart. I’m hidden in every book, and I hid my kids in every book. That guarantees that they will pick up my work and look for themselves, just so I can make little narcissists. No, but it’s the one thing I do that they actually like to read. That’s been, obviously, the best reward of all.

Zibby: They’re not really just for kids. There’s I stuff I learn in every one of those books that I didn’t know. I didn’t even know, Leonardo da Vinci, I didn’t even know that da Vinci was a place. I feel like a moron.

Brad: Let’s talk about the new one. The new one that is literally just coming out right now is I am Leonardo da Vinci. I started with him. I’m like, okay, his family name is da Vinci, right? I saw that and I was like, wait, you’re telling me that Vinci is not his last name? I bought The Da Vinci Code. I write thrillers, all this stuff. His name is Leonardo and he’s from Vinci? To steal your joke, I am Brad da Brooklyn, da Miami? That’s the bit. I was like, we have to put that in there. We have more adults that write me letters, parents that say, “I just want you to know my kids go to bed, I reread your books. I like them.” We sell more I am Lucille Balls to adults than we do to anyone else. Why? Because I love these facts. I love showing kids and adults that — to me, we always tell these stories about our heroes. We build statues of our heroes. We worship at their feet. We make them perfect in every way. We do them a huge disservice. Anyone you look up to, whether it’s Abraham Lincoln, whether it’s Rosa Parks, whether it’s Leonardo da Vinci or Amelia Earhart, had moments where they were scared. They were terrified. They didn’t think they could go on, but they do. You see that Leonardo da Vinci, when he’s younger he thinks he’s a terrible painter. He thinks he’s awful at this. He’s like, “I have no talent.” He’s Leonardo da Vinci.

Those are the parts we always put in the book that are most important, not where they’re succeeding and do amazing things, but where they’re totally utterly failing; watching Abraham Lincoln lose eight elections. Walt Disney goes bankrupt with one of his first businesses. He’s so poor at that moment that he sleeps in a bus station and he takes bathes there because he has no money. We all know Disney as this great property. Everyone goes to Disney World and Disneyland. It’s the most beautiful place and wonderful place on earth. When I teach my kids that Walt Disney failed, that the first Mickey Mouse cartoon was a disaster, that when Walt Disney named Mickey Mouse, he called him Mortimer Mouse — his wife is like, “That’s a terrible name. Mortimer? That’s a terrible name.” He said, “Okay. What do you think is better?” She’s like, “I don’t know. What about Mickey?” That’s how the world gets Mickey Mouse, not because America’s the greatest country on earth, not because Walt Disney’s always a genius, because his wife is like, “Shmuck, listen. Pay attention.” My kids are like, “Oh. So the first draft can be bad?” I’m like, exactly. You’ve got to work at it to make greatness. I want to teach my kids that you fail and you fail and you fail, but if you get back up again, that’s how you fly. That’s what this has always been dedicated to.

Zibby: That’s so amazing. I could just listen to you all day. This is great. It’s so inspiring. I feel like especially now everyone’s talking about heroes all the time. What makes a hero? How can we be heroes? the heroes on the front line. That’s what you’ve dedicated your life to doing, is finding what’s heroic about everybody and what made them that way, and grit and perseverance.

Brad: That’s why we call the books the Ordinary People Change the World series. Zibby, that’s my core belief. I believe ordinary people change the world. I don’t care where you went to school. I don’t care how much money you make. That’s nonsense to me. I believe in regular people and their ability to affect change in this world. It’s why I believe in a seven-year-old girl named Amelia Earhart and a ten-year-old boy named Abraham Lincoln and a twelve-year-old boy named Leonardo da Vinci who’s scared of his own shadow and who thinks his paintings are terrible. Even as they get older, Leonardo da Vinci, just to focus on the new one, Leonardo da Vinci invents a tank. He invents a parachute that doesn’t work. He invents scuba gear. He has a hang glider.

Zibby: Helicopter.

Brad: A helicopter, all these crazy things. Every single one of them fails. None of them work. They fail and fail and fail. Eventually as time passes and technology catches up, every single one of them works. My god, how can I not teach my kids that sometimes the crazy ideas are the best ideas? I need my kids to learn that lesson. I need them to learn, like Walt Disney, to fail. I need them to learn that like Marie Curie who used to have failure after failure in her experiments — they used to tell Marie Curie when she was a little girl when she was growing up, the government said that girls could not study science. If a girl studied science, it was bad. They wouldn’t teach it to them because they thought it would make them too powerful. You know what? They were right. They were totally utterly right. That’s amazing. She found this place called — the Flying University was like an invisible college. It’s called the Flying University. It doesn’t physically fly, but it would secretly, while no one knew, teach science to girls. She falls in love with science, decides she’s going to become a scientist, learns about the elements, invents the word radioactive and radioactivity and all these amazing things, and then the first person to ever win two Noble Prizes in two different categories, man or woman. Her whole life they tell her, “You cannot do this because you’re a girl.” “You cannot do this because you’re a woman,” when she gets older. Every single time she refuses to take no for an answer. I need my daughter to hear that lesson. I wrote I am Marie Curie and the entire Ordinary People Change the World series because I want my kids to have that lesson. I want my boys to have that lesson too, to see what a strong woman can do.

Zibby: Great. Now all I have to do is read your books to them. You’re going out and doing all the work. I’ll just profit from it. I have to say, though, that there’s something about your books and even the show Jack & Bobby which I didn’t even know you were involved in — I was a huge fan of that show. I think about it a lot. The reason why is because I watch my kids running around and half the time acting like lunatics or driving me crazy, but I think to myself, every president had to have been a kid at some point. What if? Maybe my daughter is singing at the dinner table now because, actually, she’s going to be Taylor Swift and one day I’m going to say, “When she was little, this is what she would do at the dinner table.”

Brad: First of all, god bless you for watching Jack & Bobby. When we got our ratings back, Entertainment Weekly put us on the top twelve greatest shows that were cancelled of all time after one season, which is a list you’re happy to be on but you’re not so happy to be on at the same time. Our pitch for the show was the same as the pitch for these books. I’ll tell you what the pitch for the show was. It’s funny you just said that example. This was the pitch for the show. There is right now a kid somewhere in America in a supermarket who is pulling all the potato chips off the shelf and throwing a huge tantrum and flipping out in the middle of that supermarket aisle, and that kid is going to be president. When she’s president, she’s going to be amazing. Everyone would be silent when they were listening to the pitch because they’re like, that’s really true. That’s the best part of America. Anyone can be president. Any one of us, we all have greatness within us. It’s these crazy things as we bowl through our lives that make us who we are.

The kids’ books, the Ordinary People Change the World books are exactly that. When you look at Walt Disney, he used to literally write — one day he painted on his side of his house with tar. Tar! His parents are like, “What are doing? That’s never going to come off.” He’s like, “It’ll come off.” It did not come off. They sold the house with a tar awful painting on the side of it. The kid grows up to be Walt Disney. Abraham Lincoln has this moment when he’s little. He’s ten years old. He used to love animals. He comes upon a group of boys playing with turtles. He’s so excited. He goes to play with the turtles. He gets there and sees that the boys aren’t playing with the turtles. What they’re doing is they’re putting hot coals on the backs of the turtles. They’re torturing the turtles to make them run faster. Abraham Lincoln’s horrified by this. I don’t care if you’re ten years old or you’re fifty years old, it’s sometimes hard to do the right thing, but someone has to. In that moment, he’s like, “Take the coal off the turtles,” stand up for those turtles. To this day, my youngest son sleeps with a little Abraham Lincoln doll that one of our readers made for us. He doesn’t care about Abraham Lincoln freeing the slaves. It’s kind of too crazy a concept for him. He doesn’t have a point of reference, but he knows what it’s like to be nice to animals. He loves our dog. He cares about that so much. He’ll never forget that. Abraham Lincoln is his favorite president for that human, human moment.

You find that moment when these people are kids, like that Amelia Earhart story I showed you. I realized with my daughter that was the secret sauce of our books. You always see them when they’re kids. You see them screwing up. You see them making mistakes. You see them doing what they love. That’s how they have all their success. One of them that I really learned it on was — my daughter loves our dog. She’s obsessed with our dog, number-one thing ever. She made PowerPoints for years until we would get the dog, the whole thing, even when she was ten years old. I wrote for her, I am Jane Goodall because I wanted her to see Jane Goodall took her love of animals and became one of the greatest scientists in the world just by taking what she loves and turning it into something that could change the world. I needed my daughter to have that lesson. Those things your kids do, whether it’s your daughter singing at the dinner table or artwork that you’re kind of like, oh, my gosh, or Lego building that you’re like, if I step on one more of these I’m going to put a gun to my head, but those things are who your kids are. If you feed them and water them, they will grow in beautiful ways you’ll never anticipate. That’s what all these books are about.

Zibby: Let’s go back to Lincoln for a second. We’ll take out the little stuffed animal situation and turn it into now your grown-up book. I love, by the way, on your website that it divides your face and you’re like, “Here’s my kid life. Here’s my grown-up life,” because you write so many books of each kind. Your new book is also coming out. You have the Leonardo da Vinci book coming out in April and then Lincoln Conspiracy in May, correct?

Brad: Yep.

Zibby: That, you cowrote with Josh Mensch. What a name.

Brad: Josh Mensch, isn’t that the most perfect Jewish last name? It’s the perfect Jewish last name. You’re going to pick a coauthor, you pick Mensch. It doesn’t even matter. Josh and I worked on the History Channel TV show I did. He was our executive producer, amazing documentarian and one of the best researchers and writers I ever worked with. We worked on a book about a secret plot to kill George Washington that I found. In 1776, there was a plot to kill George Washington. When George Washington found out about it, he gathered up those responsible. He built the gallows. He took one of the main co-conspirators and he hanged him in front twenty thousand people in New York City, the largest public execution at that point in North American history. George Washington brought the hammer down, was like, “Do not mess with me. I’m going to be on the money one day.” That was his actual quote. I loved doing that book. We did The First Conspiracy. Now we are coming out with The Lincoln Conspiracy.

Zibby: But Lincoln was assassinated, so there was another attempt?

Brad: Lincoln was assassinated, but this is a different time. This is actually about the secret plot to kill Abraham Lincoln at the start of his presidency that failed. What happened was in 1860, Abraham Lincoln is elected. You’ve got to go and get sworn in as the 16th president. You raise your right hand. You say, “I solemnly swear.” Abraham Lincoln has to leave Springfield, Illinois, to go to Washington DC to be sworn in after he’s victorious. If you want to go from Illinois down to Washington, unless you’re riding on a horse because there were no cars back then, you’re taking a train. The problem was everyone had the train schedule. They knew where Lincoln was. The only way to get from Springfield, Illinois, down to Washington DC is you’ve got to go through Baltimore. It’s the one place where all the trains switch, is in Baltimore. Baltimore at the time was a slave state. Maryland was a slave state. They hated Abraham Lincoln there. A secret society, an offshoot of the Knights of the Golden Circle, actually plotted to murder Abraham Lincoln when he came through Baltimore.

America’s first private detective, a man Allan Pinkerton of the Pinkerton Detective Agency, finds out about it. He works with the first female private detective in all of American history, a woman name Kate Warne. Along with the group of detectives at the Pinkertons, they infiltrate the bad guys, infiltrate the secret society. It’s incredible to watch what they do. They make Abraham Lincoln — they grab him in the middle of the night. They put him into disguise. I won’t ruin the end of the book for you, but they sneak him aboard a speeding train to save his life from being killed even before he’s sworn in as president on his way to his own inauguration. The story gets lost to history. I was like, we need to tell that story. That’s what The Lincoln Conspiracy is. The Lincoln Conspiracy‘s obviously for adults, not for kids, but a great mother’s and father’s day present is what we’re hoping for.

Zibby: Nice marketing. I like the tie-in. That’s good. When do you do everything? I just have to ask about your time management. When do you get it all done? You do so many different things.

Brad: Everything I write I tend to write in one sitting. I can’t bop around to every different thing because you just won’t be giving your all. You’ve got to give your all to everything. The kids’ books are the one exception to that because they’re not a four-hundred-page novel or a four-hundred-page nonfiction historical book with fifty pages of footnotes. Those need full attention for a year or two. The kids’ books are thirty pages. Those, I can do and section off time. I’ll tend to do those. I tend to also save those for when there’s something in my kids’ lives that I feel like I need. When my daughter was really going through dealing with the dog and some school stuff, I was like, I’ve got to write Jane Goodall for her here. She needs this right now. When we were dealing with issues of equality, I was like, okay, it’s got to be Billie Jean King. That’s clearly what we need to do now. When the 2016 election happened and just the venom that I saw happening in society, we were just screaming at — whatever your politics are, screaming at the other side, that’s when I decided to write I am Gandhi. I was like, we need to figure out a peaceful way to get here. Those books will take a different set of time.

Chris Eliopoulos who’s our amazing artist, he’s the secret weapon. Listen, I wish it was me as a writer, but what it is is he has this art style that’s a little bit like Charlie Brown meets Calvin & Hobbes. The Ordinary People Change the World books — I wish my kids were off their screens. I wish they were off their phones and devices. The only way I can make that happen is if I give them something better to look at. Chris is the secret weapon. When I showed my daughter that picture of the little Amelia Earhart that I had him draw for her when I was teaching her about Amelia Earhart, she was like, “Oh, she’s so cute. I like that. I want that.” Then I was like, okay, I got it. Obviously I’m writing them, but then he’s drawing. We’re going back and forth. Otherwise, I really focus just on that one thing. Right now, I just finished a couple months ago, The Lincoln Conspiracy. That’s coming out. Now I’m on the new thriller that I’ve just been full speed ahead on.

Zibby: What are some I am‘s that are coming up?

Brad: I wish I had some here. I’ll send them to you so you can actually show people. The next one is I am Benjamin Franklin. Then probably the most important one that we’re doing to talk about something that I saw as a need is we’re doing I am Anne Frank. I saw the rise of anti-Semitism. I was like, how do I explain this to my kids? How do I look at how we’re talking about immigrants and the immigrant experience right now? How do I deal with the venom that we have for each other right now? It’s a really hard book. Who’s going to buy I am Anne Frank for their little ones? I don’t care if we sell zero copies. I don’t care if I have to give them away to every JCC and synagogue. I am going to do this because it’s just what we need and I wish I had for my own kids. I will say it’s one of the most special things we’ve ever worked on. Chris drew it in such an evocative way. Go on our website and just see the drawing. It’s this beautiful light, this golden light. When she goes into the attic, I had Chris — I said to him, “This is what I want to do. Once they actually go into the secret bookcase and go up into the attic, rather than having full pages, what I want to do is shrink it to a widescreen little horizontal panel.” It’s all black on top, all black on the bottom like you’re watching an independent film. The space that she’s in just keeps getting smaller and shrinking as the book goes on. You feel that space getting smaller and smaller. Again, it’s all visual because it’s a children’s book. It’s a cartoon style. Chris did something that is magical. I am Anne Frank and I am Benjamin Franklin come out in September. As you said, Leonardo da Vinci’s just out now.

Zibby: Wow, that’s really exciting. Who can be a hero right now? What do you think given this crazy time? What can we all do? What can we teach our kids about being heroes now? What can they do?

Brad: Two things. One, I think you’ve got to teach them how the best heroes that we look for in history are just like them. We talked about that. You’ve got to bring Abraham Lincoln off his pedestal, and George Washington. Rosa Parks was not some little old lady. She was young when she sat on that bus. Jane Goodall was with her mom and said, “I want to go to Tanzania. Let’s go.” Her mom’s like, “I’ll go with you.” They said a woman can’t go alone. Mom’s like, “I’ll go with you.” These are human beings with real moms and real dads and real problems and real fears. I think oddly, now more than ever — people used to always ask, are there any heroes today in society? That was the number-one question I would always get talking about these books. Are there any heroes left that are still alive? I’d always say the same thing. Look around. They’re everywhere. I think if the virus has taught us anything, it’s exactly that. You know in New York City at seven o’clock every night you have the first responders being cheered for. I wish that was done at every place in the country. Whenever I talk to kids in their classrooms — we’ve done a lot of story times, we’ve put on on our YouTube channel and on Facebook and Twitter and Instagram. I always say the best heroes are the ones you live with. The best heroes are the ones that are your teachers.

I can tell you, and this comes from my own life, my teacher when I was in ninth grade, my ninth grade English teacher changed my life. She changed my life with three words. She said to me, “You can write.” I was like, “Well, everyone can write.” She’s like, “No, no, no. You know what you’re doing.” She tried to put me in the honors class. I had some sort of conflict. She said, “Here’s what we’re going to do. You’re going to sit in the corner for the entire year. You’re going to ignore every homework assignment I give. You’re going to do the honors work instead. What you’re really going to do is you’re going to thank me later.” A decade later when my first book came out, I went into her classroom. I knocked on the door. She said, “Can I help you?” I said, “My name is Brad Meltzer. I wrote this book, and it’s for you.” She starts crying. I’m like, “Why are you crying?” She’s like, “I was going to retire this year,” she said to me, “because I didn’t think I was having an impact anymore.” I said, “Are you kidding me? You have thirty students. We have one teacher.” She had no concept of her impact on my life, no idea of her legacy or her impact on me. That is true for everybody. Everyone listening here, you I know, we all have someone who is the first person that told us we were good at something, the first person who said, “You could do this.”

My mother who never read a book in her life, she read six books her whole life. They were my six books before she passed away. When she read my first novel, I said, “Mom, what do you think?” She’s like, “Bradley, I’ve got to tell you, this book attempts justice.” I’m like, oh, here it comes. She says, “It is the greatest book of all time.” She totally meant it. She literally meant that it was the greatest book of all time. When you thank those people who helped you and who gave you a shot, you get to thank your heroes, whether it’s your teachers — I think always about thanking teachers, librarians, your mom, your dad, the grandparents out there. When we’re done talking Zibby, when this is all done and the person is done listening to this podcast, I hope they take a moment — I hope you take a moment, anyone listening, and you know what? Do this. Find that person who told you you were good at something, find that first person who took a chance you, who gave you your first real job, track them on Facebook, put their name in the Google and say thank you. You will not believe what comes from it.

Zibby: I love that. I’m going to do that. I have a bunch of different people now who I’m like, who should I pick? Yes, thank you.

Brad: In fact, in the back of I am Helen Keller, we put that on the page because she has a teacher. It says in the back, “Thank the teacher. Call her right now. Say thank you to that teacher.” It was, to me, the most important page in the whole book.

Zibby: I have, I have to say, been thanking my kids’ teachers because I believe they have been heroic in this effort.

Brad: Oh, my gosh, for sure.

Zibby: I have been doing that. I can always do better. Do you have any advice for aspiring authors?

Brad: Listen, my first novel — this will reveal me. My first novel got me twenty-four rejection letters. There were only twenty publishers. I got twenty-four rejection letters, which means some people were writing me twice to make sure I got the point. They’re like, “Dear Brad, in case you missed our first rejection letter, that book was really terrible. Here’s another.” I look back on the experience, and I don’t look back and say I was right and they were wrong and ha on them. I look back and just realize life is subjective. Whatever it is you choose to do, whether you’re a doctor, a lawyer, a teacher, or stay at home, whatever you do, don’t let anyone tell you no. Don’t let anyone tell you no. I can tell you that when I got my twenty-third in — this will be the most revealing thing. This will tell you exactly who I am. This is my bit of crazy. When I got my twenty-third and twenty-fourth rejection letter, they were actually, in my head, supposed to be acceptance letters because they told me twenty-two people rejected book, but twenty-three and twenty-four, they loved the book and they want to meet with you. I was like, awesome. At that point, I had college loans to pay off. I had law school loans to pay off. I was just in debt up to my ears. Money was really hard for my family growing up. I was trying to dig out of this debt. My agent tells me at the time, she says, “Wait by the phone.” This was pre-cell phone days. She’s like, “Wait by the phone. I’m going to call you with the offers from the twenty-third and twenty-fourth person.” I was like, great. My phone’s going to ring. You’re going to tell me how rich I’m going to be and how I’m going to get out of this debt that I’m under. I’d wait by my phone. The phone rings. I pick it up. Instead of saying, “Here’s what the advance is,” or “Here’s how much money you made,” I picked up the phone and my agent says, “Sorry, kiddo.” My stomach just bottoms out from under me. I’m devasted.

To this day, every single day before I sit down to write — we all have our things that we do, our little rituals. Every single day that I sit down to write, I replay that exact moment in my head. I replay the phone that I was holding, which is one of those clear, see-through ones where you could see the wires because that seemed high-tech at the time. I imagine the Formica desk that was on my left-hand side and the swivel lamp that every college kid has on my right-hand side. I picture the bed with just a box spring. There was no headboard because we didn’t have anything like that. I picture the balcony that I’m standing and looking over. There’s a fire station with three little doors that are right there. I literally close my eyes and see those three doors. I say to myself, sorry, kiddo. I say it for twenty years now because I never want to think I made it. I never want to think I’m ever as hungry as I was when I was in my twenties. I never want to ever think that I somehow have finished and I’m done because the moment I do and think I’ve made it all, I’m finished. So every day for twenty-something years now, sorry, kiddo. Sorry, kiddo. Sorry, kiddo. That’s my magic trick. It just brings me back to appreciate every single day exactly what I have because I go back and look when I had nothing. That is my advice. Hold onto that. Those hard times will eventually be the good old days.

Zibby: Wow. At least we know you’re not getting a big head about all this success.

Brad: That’s the one thing of being obsessed with history is you can’t help but know it. I know my history. I know where I come from. I never want to ever be anywhere but there.

Zibby: Brad, thank you so much for sharing all of this whole backstory and all of your advice and inspiration and everything. I really, really appreciate it.

Brad: Thank you. I’m going to send you some story times too because I think your kids will like them. They’re really funny. I’ll send you some.

Zibby: I would love it. Thank you.

Brad: Thanks so much for doing this.

Zibby: Thanks, Brad. Bye.