He has sold more than 100m books, but David Baldacci still feels thriller writers don’t get due credit. He talks to Sheena Hastings.
BEST-selling thriller writers see life differently to the rest of us. They must come at things from another angle, otherwise millions more of us would be rattling out lucrative potboilers and enjoying the benefits.
An example of this is how David Baldacci figured out how to kill off the head of the Rare Books and Special Collections division of the Library of Congress in Washington DC for his bestselling novel The Collectors. Guns, machetes and the other elements of a murderer’s stock-in-trade would not get past security, so how to do the deed in this tightly-controlled environment?
On a fact-finding tour of the library, the writer’s forensic gaze fell upon something fixed to the wall between the shelves. It was a gas nozzle attached to a supply of the fire suppressant Halon 1301. A few dozen pages into the political thriller the fictional head of department is dead from carbon monoxide poisoning, his killer having swapped a canister of something more lethal for the usual gas. Wherever he goes, Baldacci is scouting for devices he can incorporate into his books.
On a recent high-speed ferry ride between Dublin and Wales, he noticed the banks of green desks with lamps for people who want to work or just read comfortably en route. It came to him that a lamp could be used in one of his novels as a signalling device for a protagonist who needs to communicate with someone he is expecting to meet. A similar flash of inspiration once struck him while watching workmen inside the grounds of the White House. A tourist camera caught his eye, and the idea of using a camera flash to transmit a message arrived in that instant.
David Baldacci turns out a novel roughly every seven months, the speed of his writing increasing over the years since his “overnight success” with Absolute Power in 1996. Overnight success is a romantic notion attached to many writers, and almost all of them – Baldacci included – deny such a thing ever happened. Many unsuccessful short stories, other novels and screenplays contributed to the eventual runaway sales of that first published work. What made his life change dramatically was the fact that the book was turned into a screenplay shortly afterwards, and the following year Clint Eastwood and Gene Hackman were on the big screen, telling his story of a fictional US president and his Secret Service agents, willing to murder in order to cover up the accidental death of the President’s lover.
The less headline-grabbing truth is that he, like countless others, endured the hard knocks of 15 years of rejection slips dropping like snow on the doormat. Unlike some who sit in the twilight of the computer screen, devoting themselves night and day to finding the winning formula, Baldacci was earning a good living as a corporate attorney and writing in spare hours when success eventually came. Not so much a story of rags to riches as one of a comfortable life becoming one where money need never again be an issue. The most marked material change to his life lay in being able to give up the day job and concentrate on turning out bestsellers.
His books often involve reluctant heroes, imperfect leading men and women, conspiracy behind many a street lamp, assassins lurking in shadows, unmarked cars hovering in most streets, cutting-edge technology is there in abundance and outsiders often come to the rescue. Professed fans are George Bush Senior and Bill Clinton. Critics may be sniffy about these page turners, and the writer is a little prickly at this, but Baldacci’s books, particularly the political thrillers, are said to be read avidly by Washington insiders. His prose may at times be clunky, but the plots are fast-moving and engrossing and the characters are, engagingly, more everyman (and woman) than craggy-jawed action hero.
Baldacci sets himself a tough pace, and prides himself on doing all his own research. He says his urge to write comes from having a voracious and omnivorous appetite as a child reader. His strong work ethic was inherited from his focused working-class parents and from the discipline he learned as a lawyer. He thinks the ability to argue a case before a judge or jury also contributed to his ability to construct stories and carry a reader along. He may have been a successful attorney, but the desire to succeed at writing came first.
“I did law because success at writing seemed a long shot. I never lost faith in myself despite rejections, and luckily I had a very patient and supportive family around me as I continued to write,” he says. “I took my inspiration from my own favourites – Patricia Highsmith, Ruth Rendell, Ian Rankin, Patricia Cornwell and Michael Connolly. I don’t write every day and I don’t count words, but when I do sit down the stories flow easily, so the process is pretty short. What also helps my thought processes in story telling is that my curiosity is aroused all the time by so many things around me. I see potential in small details around me all the time, wherever I go. My head is just full of ideas, and I worry about having enough time to write them all,” says the 50-year-old.
His books are full of factoids, sometimes thrown in (it seems) just for the sheer hell of it. “It’s true that I have a voracious appetite for facts and can’t help absorbing them. I think that knowing more enables better plots. I like to read and to write books that make me feel better.” The $64m dollar question Baldacci is sure to be asked when he appears at the Theakston’s Old Peculier Crime Writing Festival in Harrogate is what he considers to be the perfect recipe for a thriller.
“Paradoxes are good – in Absolute Power I made the people usually seen as heroes (the President and Secret Service) bad, and the burglar who witnessed the dirty deed good. You can write an excellent plot but if your characters don’t engage with each other and connect with the reader on a human level then you’ll fail. Suspense is obviously another important element – I learned instinctively over time when to feed information to the reader and how to pace the revelations, twists and turns.”
Baldacci has attracted controversy with work like The Camel Club, which both denounced US foreign policy in the Middle East and examined how someone becomes a terrorist. “I received hate mail, but I stand by the idea of taking three very different Muslim people and showing how fundamentally good people can do bad things. I was trying to understand what makes these things happen.”
When it comes to knowing what to do with his excess wealth, the solution was a no-brainer for Baldacci. “The unhappiest people I know are those who have a lot but still want more. My wife and family and I are lucky in what we have, and so we set up the Wish You Well Foundation to promote literacy. You can’t take part in democracy if you are illiterate, and you can be easily manipulated because nature loves a vacuum. Many of the people you hear chanting idiotic statements supporting extreme causes that tell them what to think haven’t cracked a book open in 40 years. It happened twice in Germany. I couldn’t care less if those people read my books, but they should be able to read.
“It’s estimated that 50 million Americans are totally illiterate and another 50 million have only a basic grocery list level of literacy. We give 2,000 grants a year to organisations which tackle the problem across the country, giving lessons, training tutors and buying books and computers. We also support Feeding Body and Mind, which gives out food boxes and books together. I’ve never seen a bad result from having books in the house.”
David Baldacci is at the Theakstons Old Peculier Crime Writing Festival on July 23, www.harrogate-festival.org.uk/crime, 01423 502116. His latest thriller, Sixth Sense, is published by Macmillan at £12.99. To order from the Yorkshire Post Bookshop call 0800 0153232 or go to www.yorkshirepostbookshop.co.uk Postage is £2.75.
Lawyer on a wider stage
David Baldacci was born in Virginia, where he still lives, in 1960. He studied political science and later law and practised law for nine years in Washington DC as both a trial and corporate attorney.
He has published 22 adult novels – Absolute Power, Total Control and The Simple Truth, Saving Faith, Wish You Well, Last Man Standing, The Christmas Train, Split Second, Hour Game, The Camel Club, The Collectors, Simple Genius, Stone Cold, The Whole Truth, Divine Justice, First Family, True Blue, Deliver Us From Evil, Hell’s Corner, The Sixth Man and One Summer, as well as two young adult novels and a novella.
Translated into 45 languages, his books are sold in more than 80 countries.