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Brad Meltzer on the strong characters in his new thriller ‘The Escape Artist’

“Not to get into a Rocky Balboa sports montage, but it felt like I got to go back to where I started.”

Brad Meltzer returns to thrillers with

Brad Meltzer returns to thrillers with "The Escape Artist." Photo Credit: Getty Images / Grand Central Publishing

In the 20 years that Brad Meltzer has worked as a professional writer, he’s written best-selling novels, turned out a juggernaut line of children’s books, had defining runs on some of DC Comics’ biggest characters and even hosted a pair of television shows.

But now, it’s all coming back to the novels.

“Not to get into like a Rocky Balboa sports montage, but it felt like I got to go back to where I started,” he said of his latest thriller, “The Escape Artist” (out March 6, $28; Grand Central Publishing). “In the past couple of years, I took a strong, hard look at my own writing. I just felt I needed to go back to character, character, character. And I think Zig and Nola came out of just exactly that.”

Zig and Nola are the two leads of “The Escape Artist”: Nola Brown is the U.S. Army’s Artist-in-Residence; Jim “Zig” Zigarowski is a mortician who discovers a big secret about her: That the dead body with her name on it isn’t actually her.

amNewYork spoke with Meltzer, 47, about the book.

What inspired this book?

The book began with my own life because I went on a USO trip that taught me about the secrets of Dover Air Force Base, a place I never thought that the government would let me into. . . . What I was obsessed with was that in Delaware of all places is America’s most important funeral home. And they make sure our most honorable soldiers are shown the dignity and respect they deserve, and even more. The people there know details about hidden missions that almost nobody in the world will ever hear about. So this funeral home of all places is a place full of mysteries and surprises and more secrets you can imagine. So for someone who writes thrillers it’s obviously a perfect setting for a mystery.

How did you build the character of Nola?

Since World War I, the Army is assigned one person, an actual artist, who they send out in the field to paint. . . . Yes, we have photographers and yes, we have videographers, but the difference between those is that a photographer takes a picture; a painter tells a story. . . . They can make the story more dramatic. And they can really do things that otherwise you would never see. And I just became obsessed with that. . . . You know, at [Ground Zero after 9/11], the only artist that got through the security cordoned [area] was the Army’s Artist-in-Residence. And I was like, “That is someone that is running into danger not armed with guns, but with colored pencils in their pockets.” And I was like, “I need to write about her.”

How about the genesis of the character Zig?

Zig is named to honor a real Zig. But he’s an amalgam of all the incredible morticians I met at Dover. These are men and women who rebuild hands rather than giving people a fake prosthesis, so that a mom can hold a daughter’s hand one final time or spend 14 hours wiring together a fallen soldier’s jaw then smooth it over with makeup and clay. Doing all these amazing things just so they can give his parents far more ease than they should have ever expected at their child’s funeral. And a few of them, like my fictional Zig, will never put in for overtime. I saw it there. I mean they would work extra-long and just say, “I’m not taking the overtime. This needs to be done.”

Do you think that this thriller is going to be a series?

Yeah. I can’t get rid of Nola. Nola haunts me. I think she’s my first character in a long time who I didn’t know what I have plans for, who said to me, “You have plans for me. We’re going again.” So I’m already working on a follow-up to it. I just, I can’t shake her.

Strong female characters are so important, especially right now. Do you see Nola as a good role model?

Nola is not a role model. She doesn’t care about you. She doesn’t want you to like her. She doesn’t want to talk to you and she doesn’t like you. But what she is is probably the most needed thing in the whole universe right now. She’s honest. She doesn’t lie. Everything she does is based around a truth. She sees it with no apologies. I think that all characters come out of a need and for me that’s where it came out of — I’m tired of everyone sweet talking me.

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