In a few short weeks, Booklist will commence our eighth annual celebration of Mystery Month, a bonanza of crime fiction throughout the merry month of May. As a teaser, we present this discussion between Brad Meltzer and Anthony Franze.
Meltzer’s first published book, The Tenth Justice, about a Supreme Court law clerk, is celebrating its 20th anniversary. (His most recent, The House of Secrets, dropped last year.) Franze’s third and latest novel, The Outsider, centers on a Supreme Court law clerk who discovers something he shouldn’t. It comes out on Tuesday from Minotaur Books.
BRAD MELTZER: In The Outsider, your protagonist Grayson Hernandez isn’t. . . well. . . your average Supreme Court law clerk. Tell us more about him.
ANTHONY FRANZE: You’re right, Gray doesn’t fit the mold. Most real clerks are privileged Ivy Leaguers, groomed for success from an early age. But Gray is a poor Hispanic lawyer who grew up in a rough part of D. C., helping out in his family’s restaurant. When he can’t find legal work after graduating from a fledgling law school, he takes a job as a messenger at the Supreme Court.
But life is about seizing opportunities when they arise, and one day Gray finds himself in the wrong place at the right time. After that, he’s unexpectedly thrust into one of the most coveted apprenticeships in American law—a Supreme Court clerkship. He’s soon torn between his old life and new. His parents are hardworking immigrants and his boyhood best friend is a local crime lord, yet Gray is now debating the biggest legal questions of the day with his pedigreed co-clerks, and power-lunching with the Chief Justice at the Palm. Each world is pulling him in a different direction.
But it’s not just the Justices and co-clerks that throw him off balance, right?
No, there’s more. Just as Gray settles into his new life, an FBI agent approaches him with troubling news. The Feds think there’s a serial killer somehow connected to the Supreme Court. And they want Gray to be their eyes and ears inside 1 First Street. To help find the killer will require not only Gray’s understanding of Supreme Court precedent and history, but, as it turns out, help from the old friends he’d left behind.
History. My favorite. So what inspired the story’s historical angle?
The high court is steeped in history and rituals. For instance, since the 1800s, the court has given goose feather pens to advocates appearing for oral argument, and still does to this day. The court also has a seniority system that decides where The Nine sit on the bench and even which Justice has to make the coffee and answer the door during their secret conferences. The building, too, is filled with history. From the busts of the past chief justices that line the Great Hall to the 13 ton bronze front doors carved with scenes from the history of our law. But most of all, the court’s history is its legacy of decisions, good and bad. Gray’s understanding of them is the key to revealing the villain.
When I first wrote The Tenth Justice, the public didn’t know much about the inner workings of the Supreme Court. The access just wasn’t there. Would you say that’s changed in the past 20 years?
Yes and no. The Supreme Court is more visible these days because of recent blockbuster cases, like healthcare, campaign finance, and same-sex marriage. Also, the justices are more public than ever, appearing on talk shows and writing books. Pop culture also has focused on the court, including plotlines on House of Cards, skits on SNL, and even the Notorious RBG Tumblr.
On the other hand, there’s much the public still doesn’t know. The court operates behind closed doors, and surveys show that more people can identify Judge Judy than a sitting member of the Supreme Court. The fact that so much about the court remains unknown to the public allows me to take readers inside this fascinating, secretive world.
I liked the book’s dedication: “For anyone who’s ever been on the outside, looking in.” As they say on college essay exams, please discuss.
I grew up with just my father, who was career military, so we moved every two to three years. We lived all over the world, and I attended four different high schools. As the perpetual “new kid,” I know what it’s like to be an outsider. On the upside, my wandering childhood opened my eyes to the world, and I made some amazing friends. And at our last stop before my father retired when I was sixteen, I met my future wife. Though I’ve lived and worked inside the Beltway for twenty years, I will always see myself as standing with the outsiders.
So you’re writing thrillers, but you also practice law full time. (You’ve represented clients in nearly forty cases before the Supreme Court.) How are you finding the time to write?
Says the guy who is on virtually every bestseller list, has written and hosts popular television shows, and even appeared in a Woody Allen movie.
Now you’re sucking up. And I don’t even mind.
If you love something—whether it’s playing music, running marathons, cooking, whatever—you make the time. For me, it’s writing, so I carve out some time late at night to write, and then edit on the subway to and from my law office in downtown D.C. I’m the guy who jumps up suddenly because he’s missed his stop.
Would you ever give up your law practice?
No. It sounds cliché, but I love the work. Besides, if I quit practicing law, I’d probably lay around all day and watch Netflix and eat potato chips and write at night like I do now. So, like Grayson Hernandez, I plan to keep my foot in two worlds for as long as clients and readers will have me.