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Man tempts 'Fate,' writes comic books

By Porter Anderson
CNN
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ATLANTA, Georgia (CNN) -- Look! At that bookstore. It's a political suspense author. It's a superhero comic book writer. It's Brad Meltzer.

Line up to get this guy's signature at a reading this fall and your surest bet is that he'll need no phone booth to turn into one of the market-smartest best-sellers on the road.

With more than 6 million copies of his novels in print, Meltzer puts his new "The Book of Fate" (Warner Books) onto store shelves this week. And the readers of DC Comics' "Justice League of America" are way ahead of you -- they've read the first chapter of "The Book of Fate" in the first issue of the new Justice League series. ( Slideshow: Meltzer on making superheroes from scratch )

The connection? None. Except Meltzer himself, this natty, mild-mannered man of steely eyes, who can spot a sales angle in a crossword puzzle clue. (Read how Meltzer markets himself)

In fact, extrapolating from such clues to "beat the news" is such a hot-selling specialty of Meltzer's work that government security agencies have contacted him, asking him to think outside the box in terms of what terrorists might concoct. ( Watch Meltzer talk with CNN's Lou Dobbs about helping the feds -- 4:19) )

As he worked on "The Book of Fate," his sixth novel, Meltzer says, "I was trying to find out how presidents speak in code.

"Presidents are surrounded all the time. How do they talk honestly about people when they need to? I found out that Thomas Jefferson had secret codes with Captain Meriwether Lewis and Captain William Clark to rank military people on loyalty.

"So I looked around for what kind of papers Bill Clinton handled that wouldn't have been seen, recorded, archived, and I found out that his daily crossword puzzle is the one thing that was thrown away each day."

And so it is that "The Book of Fate" features just such a novel code, even as Meltzer spins another highly codified popular entertainment form to his advantage: comic books.

"Relaunching from 1" -- that's Issue No. 1 -- "is a big deal in any comics series," he said. And when DC Comics -- like CNN, a division of Time Warner -- decided to relaunch the Justice League, they signed Meltzer up to create 13 new monthly installments.

"The best stories I can tell about these iconic characters," he said -- Superman, Batman, Wonder Woman -- "aren't things that redefine those characters, but things that were always there. You want to deliver something new to the reader. So the first story of this series involves a robot who wants to be human."

Speaking of being human, "I've always said that every 13-year-old boy wants to date a Playboy centerfold and write a comic book," Meltzer said. "Only one of those is worthwhile."

What's worthwhile

Never far from a Beltway orbit, the Florida-based Meltzer's last major effort was a 2004 election-year television dramatic series, "Jack & Bobby," that turned on the idea that anybody really can be president, even your sibling. ( Read about the show )

That summer saw the release of his last Justice League release, too, when a character in the pantheon of major muscle was killed off. The new story involves a vote among Wonder Woman, Batman and Superman on which superheroes should join the League.

Whether voting crusaders on or off the League is closer to democracy or a reality show, readers of Meltzer's "The Book of Fate" may wonder if Da Vinci codes are showing up in those crossword puzzles.

"The Book of Fate" starts with a presidential assassination attempt at a NASCAR event in Florida; follows a chief executive and a trusted aide into the dusk of post-White House life; and ends up deep in the Masonic mystique of the nation's capital and that longstanding fraternity's veiled presence.

"This is a breakthrough book for me," Meltzer says. "I decided that this time I didn't want to write the do-gooder lantern-jawed hero who can kiss the girl and ride off into the sunset with her. And while I was writing this, my father was diagnosed with cancer. He kept holding out on going to the doctor until they had to remove a large growth from his face. You can't look at him without knowing it's happened.

"And I thought, 'Well, why don't I take a hero and destroy him in Chapter 1, and see if this shattered hero can still do great things?' That's Wes Holloway," a presidential aide who's disfigured in the assassination attempt that opens "The Book of Fate."

In that attack, Wes sees Ron Boyle, the president's oldest friend, killed outright. Eight years later, Wes spots Boyle, alive and well, in Asia. The search for what has happened takes Wes to that crossword code and into 200-year-old Masonic secrets planted in Washington.

Research, a hallmark for Meltzer's fans, this time took him to Houston for a week with the elder George Bush and wife Barbara.

"Bush told me the most heartbreaking thing," Meltzer recalls. "He said, 'When you're on Air Force One for the last time, you've left the White House, you fly home, you get there, you look down the stairs at the airport and there are just a few reporters. And one of them says, "How does it feel to be back?" You smile. You say it feels great. But all you can think about is what your life was like a few hours ago.' "

In time similarly spent with Bill Clinton, Meltzer heard it put this way: " 'You lose your power but not your influence,' Clinton told me.

"And you know what's really interesting?" Meltzer pauses a beat for suspense. "The first thing they have you do when you leave the White House is plan your own funeral."

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Book of Fate

Brad Meltzer's latest novel, "The Book of Fate," was released Tuesday. He's tied the book in with other projects.

BRAD MELTZER'S NOVELS

  • The Book of Fate, 2006
  • The Zero Game, 2004
  • The Millionaires, 2002
  • The First Counsel, 2001
  • Dead Even, 1998
  • The Tenth Justice, 1997
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