Editor’s note: Every Friday, HLN brings you the "My First Time" series, which explores the first time your favorite celebrities did something significant or memorable (so get your mind out of the gutter!).
In this installment, novelist and TV host Brad Meltzer – whose latest tome is “History Decoded: The 10 Greatest Conspiracy Theories of All Time” -- talks about his favorite unsolved mysteries.
HLN: When was the first time you were drawn to historical mysteries?
Brad Meltzer: I remember the exact moment. I was in 11th grade, and my history teacher announced we’ll be seeing a movie that day. In 11th grade, that usually means you’re going to have some fun. She wheels in the TV and puts on a movie about the John F. Kennedy assassination. It wasn’t one of those movies that didn’t make any sense. It asked the questions that needed to be asked. And I remember feeling like the foundations of my brain were being picked apart. It was one of those moments that changed my life.
PHOTOS: First look at 'Killing Kennedy'
HLN: What’s your favorite conspiracy theory of all time?
Meltzer: I’ll give you two. The first one I tackled myself was the Lincoln assassination. I was writing a novel and got contacted by someone who represented John Wilkes Booth. His family believes he lived and escaped and took another alias. I wanted to hear that story. I started talking to the lawyer and doing research and finding out what his family knew. I asked this 90-year-old woman, “Why are you telling the story now?” She said she was related to Booth and that he didn’t die. She wasn’t trying to sell us the movie rights -- she wanted the truth to be told because she knew she was going to die. When at the end of their life people want to set the record straight, I tend to believe those stories. And then I love JFK. It’s just a mother lode.
HLN: Why does the JFK mystery fascinate you so much?
Meltzer: To kill a president and to know where to be at the exact moment? My brain says, “How big is this thing?” When we looked into JFK in the '60s, we thought the Communists killed him. People didn’t trust establishments. In the '70s, it was our own government, the CIA. In the '80s, with the rise of “The Godfather,” it was the mob. Decade after decade, the killer was simply who America was afraid of at the time. The JFK fascination is a giant mirror we hold up to ourselves. JFK brought our hopes to our greatest heights and showed us our greatest fears with his death. When JFK died, it wasn’t just a man who died -- the American dream died.
HLN: Is JFK the biggest unsolved historical mystery out there?
Meltzer: JFK and UFOs. One thing I want to believe is true is that we’re not alone in the world. You know who said they saw UFOs? Jimmy Carter, Stephen Hawking, etc. Mathematically, we’re not alone in the world. I want to believe that more than anything. In terms of wanting to solve a mystery, JFK is the greatest one. If someone came out and said “I helped Harvey Oswald,” would I even believe them? People can’t keep secrets. The guy who brought down Richard Nixon and Watergate -- even he couldn’t keep a secret. Eventually, when they get older, people want to say something before they leave this Earth. Did Oswald act alone? I don’t think there were any other shooters. Did anyone help him in those two years in Russia? The sad part is that people who could answer these questions are dead. It’s the greatest conspiracy theory of all time.
HLN: You present physical pieces of evidence for every mystery in your book. Which piece of evidence surprised you the most?
Meltzer: My favorite one is the government form used if you saw a UFO. It’s fantastic to see this is real. That’s how you bring history to life. JFK’s death certificate is a spectacular moment of history contained in front of you. And reading Booth’s letter is surprising. It’s in this beautiful calligraphy handwriting, so it looks gorgeous, but he’s a complete racist. We celebrate him, sadly, as a folk hero, but he’s not a hero. He killed one of the greatest presidents ever. When you see the letter, you see the man and understand what happened.
HLN: How do you make history not boring, especially for kids and teenagers?
Meltzer: You put the evidence in their hands and let them look at the logic. This book is the solution to me. It’s not a bunch of dates you memorize. It’s a selection process. History chooses every single one of us every day. The question is, do you hear the call? My goal is to remind them of that.