"The Inner Circle" - Prologue, Winter 2010 | The National Archives (United Kingdom) | Archive


the inner in National Archives circle Brad Meltzer’s New Novel Set
by hilary parkinson
Anyone can enter the National Archives from the Constitution Avenue side to see the Charters of Freedom: the Declaration of Independence, the Constitution, and the Bill of Rights. But what about the staff members going in and out of the entrance on the Pennsylvania Avenue side? What kinds of documents—and mysteries—do they have access to? Brad Meltzer takes on this idea in his latest novel, The Inner Circle. A fictional National Archives staffer named Beecher White discovers an unusual document that leads him to some surprising revelations about the government—and his workplace. Meltzer has written New York Times best-selling thrillers set in Washington, D.C. The Inner Circle, published in January 2011, is his first novel set in the National Archives. He holds a JD from Columbia Law School and lives in Florida with his wife, who is an attorney. conversation I had with a former President of the United States. I’ll never forget it. We were talking about how hard it was to keep a secret and make sure you’re not overheard when you’re in the White House. And when a real President whispers something like that to you, you pay attention. When it comes to setting, the more real I can make it, the more you’ll believe the fake parts that are the natural elements of the story. I can make up where the secret tunnels are below the White House. But if I tell you to go through the ground floor corridor, then make a left though the small room where they store the chairs for the state dinners, then you’ll smell flowers—the White House flower shop is on your left—and then go straight until you hit the end. Make a right. That steel door is the real entrance to the secret tunnels below the White House—that that’s where the bomb shelter is. . . . Well, now you believe me. And that’s all I tried to do with the Archives. When you visited the National Archives, did you know this was where you wanted to use the idea of how hard it is for a President to have secrets? Or was the book’s setting decided after you came here? A few years back, I got a call from Homeland Security asking me if I’d come in and brainstorm different ways for terrorists to attack the United States. My first thought was, “If they’re calling me, we’ve got bigger problems than anyone thinks.” But they’d seen the research

Your previous novels have been set in Washington, D.C., in places like the White House and the Supreme Court. What made you decide to use the National Archives as the setting for your upcoming novel? I came to visit and fell in love. Truly. Lost history, secret documents, long-forgotten letters from Presidents and other big shots—all of which tell the true history of our nation. How could a history nut not fall in love? Plus, they let me see the Declaration of Independence up close. That was the clincher. When was the first time you came to the National Archives? Aside from researching the setting for The Inner Circle, did you ever do any research in our holdings? Sadly, I’d never done research there. Like most people, I don’t think I knew there was research I could do there. I’d walked by the National Archives Building for years while researching other thrillers. But I’d never gone inside. And finally, I just thought: what do they have in there besides the Big Three documents? While the setting is real, the story is fiction. How authentic do you try to make your settings? Do you ever find it challenging to keep the fact and fiction separate in your mind when you are writing? The entire premise for The Inner Circle came from a private

54 Prologue

Brad Meltzer

Winter 2010

in my books. And they know I have good sources, so they invited me in. I was honored to be a part of the Red Cell program.  They’d pair me with a Secret Service guy and a chemist—and they’d give us a target— and we’d destroy major cities in an hour. It’s not the kind of day where you go home feeling good.  You go home terrified, because you see how easy it is to kill us. On lunch breaks, I’d be talking to all the national security folks. They’re the ones who helped me tease out the entire plot of The Inner Circle. They’re the ones who taught me what every President really needs—plus I had what one former President gave me. But once I saw the National Archives Building, I knew I had a place to tell that tale. The reader follows your main character, Beecher, into the vaults and stacks that visitors don’t see. But there is very little mention of the documents that most people associate with the National Archives—the Constitution and Declaration of Independence. Was this a deliberate omission? It was. Anyone can see the gasper documents—the documents that make you gasp. Every single tourist can see the Constitution and Declaration of Independence. What I want to show you are the places you can’t go. The places only an insider sees. Documents are stored in some unusual places, and Beecher goes into two of them: the underground storage caves and a SCIF (Sensitive Compartmented Information Facility). Which place would you not want to be locked in overnight? Cave. No doubt. That underground cave was scary [Meltzer visited some underground record storage facilities]—and I knew they were letting me out. You shadowed Trevor Plante, a senior archivist at the National Archives, for a day. Were you familiar with what an archivist

does? Did it make you reconsider trading in your writing career for an archival one? Trevor was amazing. But I didn’t just shadow Trevor. I met with tons of staffers in every division I could find. And each one added another piece to the complex puzzle. But it was Trevor who really showed me the day-to-day stuff and, yes, made me realize how vital a job it is to understand—and keep track of— our nation’s documents. What was the most surprising job that you saw a National Archives staff member doing? I was most amazed by the fact that you still have people combing through documents from the founding of our country. In my Google-influenced brain, I thought everything was read and catalogued. I love that there are new Lincoln letters—and new secrets being found every single day. During your visit, were there any records that you really wanted to see? Were you shown any documents that inspired your plot? Nearly everything that the archivists in the book are working on was based on real work I saw—including the scene in the Preservation Lab. Ask Morgan Zinsmeister. He’s the reason my Preservation guy was dressed so nice. The cover of your book shows the White House. Any particular reason the National Archives wasn’t featured? Oh, I warned them about that one. But for a publisher, the White House still is more recognizable and therefore “sells” more. They’ll pay for that one. They will. In addition to fiction and television, you also write comics. Do you think there is any chance of creating a new superhero— maybe one called the Archivist or the Genealogist? The Archivist, huh? Sounds like a better villain name than a hero.

Authors on the record

Prologue 55

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