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An interview with author David Baldacci

By Martha Steger

When David Baldacci sold his first novel, Absolute Power, for a $4 million advance in 1995 (with another million thrown in for film rights), it was one of the highest advance payments ever made for a first-time novelist.

That also made it a big deal for Richmond, which claims Baldacci as one of its own. He was born and raised here, and graduated from Henrico High School.

Baldacci received his B.A. in political science with a minor in history at Virginia Commonwealth University. Then he earned a J.D. from the University of Virginia School of Law, after which he practiced law for 10 years in Washington, D.C.

He was certainly not the first lawyer to become a famous novelist, but it was not a sudden change of direction for him. Baldacci said he always made time for writing, as far back as elementary school.

His novels for adults have been national and international bestsellers, translated into 45 languages in more than 80 countries. Over 110 million copies of them are in print; several have been adapted for film and television.

Baldacci says he is thrilled that TV’s most-honored program, “Hallmark Hall of Fame” (winner of 81 Emmy Awards) is airing The Christmas Train, a TV movie adapted from his novel by the same name, on Thanksgiving weekend — the Hallmark Channel’s highest-rated weekend of the year.

He also wrote the screenplay for the film adaptation of his novel Wish You Well — shot on location in southwest Virginia with Academy Award-winner Ellen Burstyn, Josh Lucas and Mackenzie Foy in the lead roles.

Next month, on October 14 — a month before the November 14 release of his 34th adult novel, End Game — the 57-year-old author will receive the Lifetime Achievement Award given each year by the Library of Virginia during its Annual Literary Awards. Past honorees include Nikki Giovanni, Jan Karon, Barbara Kingsolver, John Grisham and Tom Wolfe.

“David was the unanimous choice to receive the Lifetime Achievement Award for our 20th anniversary celebration,” said Amy Bridge, executive director of the Library of Virginia Foundation, which sponsors the event.

“His body of work and his popularity with readers exemplify what the Lifetime Achievement Award symbolizes. Thirty-four novels for adults and six for younger fans — who didn’t love Freddy and the French Fries? — are an incredible oeuvre. We are so proud to honor David during this special celebration.”

This writer caught up with Baldacci by phone while he was vacationing at his family’s lake house in southern Virginia, where he has a workspace. Our interview follows.

Plucked from the headlines

FiftyPlus: Are you prescient or just lucky? Your new novel End Game, to be released on Nov. 14, begins with the protagonist’s sensing a big change coming to the FBI. You were probably writing this a year before F.B.I. Director Comey was dismissed by President Trump.

Similarly, your first novel, Absolute Power, turned on the murder of a U.S. president’s mistress that coincided with the Bill Clinton-Monica Lewinsky scandal. Are these true-to-life plots more than coincidences?

Baldacci: One of my passions is keeping up with what’s going on in the real world and extrapolating what might happen later. I like being on the edge of the envelope — I read several newspapers online every day. People tell me they open their [news]papers and say, “I feel like I’m reading the next Baldacci novel!”

FiftyPlus: Did you have any mentors in learning to write, and did they provide insight on capitalizing on what’s happening in the real world?

Baldacci: Yes: Bob Holsworth [former political science professor] at V.C.U. When people ask if I took any creative writing classes, I say, ‘Not in the way you would think.’

Bob Holsworth’s philosophy is that you need to read a lot of books and think deeply about them. He required students to keep journals on their reading, present oral arguments, and critique one another’s presentations.

As I read for his classes, I analyzed how books were put together — all of which was not only very helpful to my writing, but to being a lawyer. We always had Q&A in those oral arguments in [Holsworth’s] classes, and I learned how to handle challenges to my positions.

Everywhere I speak now, I take Q&A, and you never know what you’re going to get. I attach a lot of humor to my responses, but my college experience in Holsworth’s classes helped me learn to be good on my feet.

FiftyPlus: Do you have inside contacts at the F.B.I. and other agencies?

Baldacci: I do have contacts at the alphabet agencies [federal agencies known by their initials], but I spend a lot of time doing my own research.

FiftyPlus: Don’t you, like some other bestselling authors, use assistants for much of that research?

Baldacci: No, and the reason is that I don’t want a buffer between me and my information. My perspective would be different than that of the intermediary gathering the material.

A writer and a reader

FiftyPlus: What’s on your desk at the moment?

Baldacci: Lots of files and copies of books — some, mine; some, not mine. There’s Robert Crais’s Sunset Express, Anthony Horowitz’s Magpie Murders — Horowitz is one of the best and most prolific writers anywhere; Bill Bryson’s Road to Little Dribbling, and J.D. Vance’s Hillbilly Elegy.

FiftyPlus: How do you find time to read when you research and produce two or three novels a year, not to mention other projects?

Baldacci: I carve out the time, either late in the afternoon or night and early in the morning. I’m usually out of bed by 6.

FiftyPlus: Didn’t you get up at 4 a.m. to write Absolute Power, as you were practicing law at the time?

Baldacci: Yes, that was the only [free] time slot I had, so I was committed to it for three years. But I was really energized by my idea [for that novel].

FiftyPlus: Didn’t one of the principals at your law firm criticize your writing at some point?

Baldacci: Yes, I’d written a memo stating that I had received verbal agreement from a client on something by phone. The principal called me into his office and asked if I knew the difference between verbal and oral, and I explained what I knew the difference to be.

He said that was right, and that what I had received was an “oral” agreement, not a “verbal” one. He went on to say that he didn’t tolerate imprecision in his attorneys and not to let it happen again.

Later, he sent to my desk a copy of a book about how to write well. I thought it a bit of an overblown reaction to a memo.

Leaving the practice of law

FiftyPlus: Why did you decide fairly early that a law career wasn’t for you? What gave you the courage to give it up for what could have been an uncertain future as a novelist?

Baldacci: I spent 10 years in a boutique D.C. law firm. Two of the main partners broke off and asked me to join them, which I did. But I left in ’95 when there was a lot of pre-publication work to do for Absolute Power.

I had cut my workweek down to three days, then to two — and finally decided I needed to make the break. I was working on my second novel at the time, so I talked to my wife and decided to go for it.

FiftyPlus:The publishing industry has changed a great deal since you published your first novel in 1996. What change do you think has been most significant?

Baldacci: Without a doubt it’s the rise of e-books. Companies such as Amazon have tremendous power now. E-books have decimated the mass market, and they have really affected the sales of hard copies. Authors have to deal with online e-tailers as well as traditional publishers.

My agents do most of this for me, but my representatives pass any sort of marketing opportunity by me for approval first. As a former lawyer, I enjoy the business side of the industry.

FiftyPlus: Besides the coming world-premiere of The Christmas Train, are there other television and film projects in the works?

Baldacci: I’ve signed a deal with Sony Entertainment Television for an option for a TV series based on my John Puller franchise.

I’m also working with EuropaCorp on the outline for the pilot for a network series. When they approached me, I was interested in the project, so I wrote a 30-page treatment — the whole pilot and the three-year arc for the series — while we were negotiating the deal. I figured I could use it somewhere even if the deal didn’t go through. 

FiftyPlus: Is writing that fast and easy for you?

Baldacci: I write in big bursts. I just finished a thing with Scholastic that the representative told me they normally give a writer four months to do. She said they knew I write so fast that I could do it in two [months]. I did it in two weeks.

FiftyPlus: Do you spend a lot of time editing your work?

Baldacci: I edit as I write — and I love that part of my work. There’s a little Greek restaurant near my house where I often go to edit what I’ve written.

Recommendations for writers

FiftyPlus: What are your suggestions for older adults who want to get published or develop their skills for a first novel? Do you think self-publishing is a good way to go — given how limited the opportunities are for getting published by the great houses?

Baldacci: Self-publishing is very different from what it was 10, even five, years ago. Amazon and Barnes & Noble and others have self-publishing arms that work closely with writers on everything from editing to marketing the finished product.

But I would say don’t worry about “the best thing” to write about. Don’t chase a trend. If you think you can do a code book, remember Dan Brown [The Da Vinci Code] has been out there for a while. What’s being made into movies now might not be the trend when you finish your book.

Write what you’re passionate about. That way, you’ll be energized, and you won’t run out of gas.

FiftyPlus: Writers are usually told to write what they know about, but you said many years ago that you enjoy doing just the opposite — immersing yourself in subjects you don’t know anything about. Why do you enjoy that?

Baldacci: I crave knowledge and information. Every day I want to learn something new. You need a breadth of knowledge to write.

FiftyPlus: You’ve also published six novels for younger readers, notably the Vega Jane Series. What is your interest in that market stylistically and thematically?

Baldacci: I like getting out of my comfort zone, and [away from] the feeling that I’m writing that first novel over and over.

I also want to help young people sort through the vast amounts of information and misinformation out there from so many powerful, well-funded sources. I’m all about showing that you can’t make snap judgment. You have to invest the time to think about ideas.

I also want them to know there’s nothing more important than a free and independent press. We have people going around the world risking their lives to give us news, and we need to pay attention to that.

FiftyPlus: Not all of your novels are thrillers or for younger readers. Your novel One Summer spent 12 weeks on the New York Times hardcover fiction bestseller list. The trade paperback edition spent seven weeks on the print paperback trade fiction list. What inspired that story of tragedy, recovery and love?

Baldacci: The only reason that book happened was that my wife asked me to go to church early to save seats for our son’s confirmation. Confirmation in the Catholic Church is a very important rite of passage — a big deal. As I sat there, I thought about my dad, who had recently died (and my mom wasn’t doing too well at the time), and about my own mortality.

The premise of the novel is that life is very unpredictable, and you never really have full control. The story unspooled from there, and it all happened very quickly. I finished the novel in four months. Hallmark bought the rights to that, too. I don’t know anything yet about production dates.

FiftyPlus: Can you give us a hint as to what your spring 2018 novel will be about?

Baldacci: I’m getting the feeling that I should return to my Memory Man — Amos Decker.

FiftyPlus: You’ve been on a hot streak for a long time. With 34 books to your credit already, do you plan to continue writing, doing book tours, and speaking as you get older? Do the ideas just keep coming?

Baldacci: I have no plans to retire. I just signed a new, long-term contract with my national and international publishers. Writing is such a part of my life. It’s not a job or a hobby — it’s a lifestyle that I can’t imagine ever giving up.