Many of the characters in David Baldacci’s novels play a role in heroic or dastardly events that reshape the universe in which they live, but in real life the novelist devotes much of his own time to making sure people in the world have the literacy and comprehension needed to explore the pages of his books. Baldacci, currently promoting End Game from his Will Robie series, spoke this March at the Manatee County Library Foundation’s annual benefit in support of the “I am a Lifelong Learner” campaign. He chatted with SRQ magazine about the significance of reading and his process for writing. 

How did you get into writing fiction after being a lawyer?DAVID BALDACCII started writing when I was a kid. I was 8 or 9 years old and my mom bought me a journal. I was talking all the time so she bought it just to shut me up really. I was a big reader when I was a kid, and I just loved jumping into the imagination of someone else when I dove into the pages. And I wanted to have that effect on people. I started as a short story writer when I was in high school. I was a big Raymond Carver fan, and loved his minimalistic style. Same with Flannery O’Connor and Truman Capote. Then I ended up writing screenplays while I was in law school; I got an agent in LA but didn’t have a whole lot of success with the screenplays. Then I had an idea for my first novel, Absolute Power, when I was practicing law in D.C. I worked near the White House, and you’d occasionally see the presidential motorcade and secret service agents. I had idea for the burglary and the cover-up. But it was a long journey. I was writing for 20 years or so before I had any real success at all. And while I enjoy practicing law and did it to make a living, my goal was to one day sell something writing. I still thought I’d practice law and write on the side. It didn’t work out that way for me, which is great. I did just joke at a retirement party that I went from practicing law to making stuff up for a living, and I didn't find the transition particularly difficult.

At this point you have been able to write whole series on characters. What’s it like knowing you can still create more story whenever you like about characters long after you finish a book? It's a good thing in many respects. It’s like having a television series where you are not confined to telling a story in an episode but you can have a character arc over a season or multiple seasons.  You get to know the characters deeply and you can expand them—really delve deeply into who they are. But the downside is you have to keep it fresh. You have to find new elements in those characters and write plots that fit those characters. That can be a challenge too. You will get to a point where it’s harder and harder to go back to this well one more time. Do I have any more gas left in the tank? What possible plot could you put them in that makes sense? I would never want people to say he’s just bringing this character back again because he’s popular and he wants to sell books. But I don't have to do everything in one book with these characters because I have the leisure of bringing them back and developing them more deeply in future books. I like series, and I have multiple series running. It’s like revisiting old friends.

Some of your characters have dark professions, like hitman Will Robie. Is it more challenging to still have audiences want to see what’s happening?That was a challenge. But you should challenge yourself as a writer. If you don't, you get into a rut or formula. My challenge with Will Robie is you are taking a guy whose occupation is not going to be popular with many people. They won’t look at him fondly and say he’s a good guy. But I have to write it so well that readers start to identify with him and to root for him and care for him. I have to go the extra mile to get over the fact he’s an assassin who kills people for a living. That’s not something most would find warm and cuddly. But it forced me to dig deeply into my well of imagination and my writing skills to find something in him the average reader could relate too and say I get what he does. I’m not saying I love it, the guy puts a bullet in people’s heads, but there’s more to him than that. He’s a human being. He bleeds. He’s vulnerable and has issues. If I wrote Will Robie as a machine it would have been one book and it probably wouldn’t have done well. But I tried to write this assassin as a human being who carries a gun. And he falls down, just like the rest of us do.

A lot of writers in a contemporary setting spend time looking at the real-life world of people. That has to be challenging when writing about assassins and spies.You have to become a journalist really and set aside your novelist hat. I interview dozens of people for each book. And for as many places as possible that I write about in my book, I go to them. When I wrote a military series about John Puller, I had a lot of friends in the military and went to bases. I traveled to Fort Benning in Georgia, training with the rangers there, doing parachute jumping, the sniper range, the Army functional fitness training.  But mostly I just listened to people. I sat with everyone from privates up to the two-star commander at Fort Benning. I learn as much as I can before I go and interview them, so they don’t feel I’m wasting their time with silly questions. I respect what they do. I fill up my notes with things you can’t learn from Wikipedia and Google, and I think that’s important. It’s what separates my books from a lot of others. Where you find nuances and descriptions and facts you ordinarily wouldn't look about because I take the time to talk to people. I’m working on a book right now that has some FBI elements. I had interviews with several FBI agents and I soaked up everything they were telling me. A lot of this stuff doesn't end up in a manual somewhere. It’s just how they do their jobs. Shorthand stuff. Unless you sit down and talk to people about that stuff. You would never know it.

How did you get connected with the Manatee County Library Foundation?  A few years ago I was in Sarasota and I did a library event. Over the years I’ve done a lot of events, like Friends of the Library. Some of them are fundraising. I love to support libraries. When I’m on book tours I like to do events associated with libraries or even in a bookstore. It’s a way to support the communities. Libraries are under siege across the country. People are cutting funds. Libraries are closing down. So whatever I can do to support a library system in various communities, I will do.  

How vital is the mission of literacy to the publishing profession?  My wife and I founded the Wish You Well Foundation and its mission is to eradicate illiteracy in the US. We fund reading programs in places all over the country, including in Florida, and will continue to do so. Literacy is the number one skill you have to have. If you don’t have that, it’s impossible to reach your potential, particularly in a digital information age. Also, I’m thinking about the 2016 election where people were bombarded with bots and Russian trolling, and all the misinformation and disinformation on the internet. People without strong reading skills and strong comprehension skills can easily be duped into believing things they read that are not true. If you can’t read, it’s almost impossible for you to come up with your own opinions and to synthesize and process information. If you don’t reach your own opinions, other people out there are glad to tell you what you should be thinking. That may sound a little far-fetched but clearly it’s not at all. Everybody has to have strong reading skills. Anything that helps promote that is great for society and great for everybody.

So you want literacy beyond being able to read a simple sentence or paragraph? You’d like a comprehensive literacy to be promoted?  It’s impossible to be a full participant in democracy if you can’t read. If you can’t, then even if you are in a free society, it’s almost like you are not. How are you participating? Not being able to read actually takes away facets of your freedom. I remember Johns Hopkins did a study years ago where they compared people with the same diagnosis of disease. The take-away was people who can’t read at an acceptable level don't live as long as they could. They couldn't read prescription labels or the information on their condition and what they were supposed to do. It doesn't matter if you are a lawyer, a doctor or you work on cars. It doesn’t matter what you do, you will be bombarded with information. If you don't know what to do with that, you can’t be a full participant in society.

So is this a good era to be writing political thrillers?  It certainly seems to be. In my Twitter feed, my assistant will tell me to check out the tweets saying David Baldacci must have his next seven novels plotted out based on current headlines, or today’s headlines read like a Baldacci novel. But it can be a little harder too. When I think of an outrageous plot I can put in a book, then the Washington Post reports it the next day because it actually happened. 


After 9/11, Tom Clancy said nobody could put that plot in a book and believe it. Do you see anything similar now, where true stories seem too outrageous for a pitch?I think so, but the flipside is I feel liberated to write about anything. Certainly after the last year or so, readers will accept anything as being possible. It doesn’t really matter. I can push the envelope as far as I want.

How much does your work come from the contemporary world in the first place?   You have to be creative about that. I don't want it to be a Law and Order episode and have to put a disclaimer in that this actually was ripped from the headlines. People want to read books to escape. At the same time, I do read. I’m a voracious news reader who looks at stuff everyday from all different kind of sources, and I do want to have a good handle what’s going on in the world. But then I can take bits and pieces from disparate elements out there and think about weaving it into a plot in an original way. I never take a story I’ve read and write about it because it’s already been in the newspaper. Who would be interested? But you can take elements from all different things. All writers need to be curious and know what’s going on in the world. Then all of the sudden you can take a bit here and a bit there and create an original story has some elements happened in some places but you built it into an original story. You bring different elements together people haven’t thought about before. 

When Absolute Power came out, many people could see similarities between a book about a president having an affair and covering it up with the real-life events going on in the 1990s.  I remember a letter—I call it a fan letter but it really wasn’t. I finished writing the book in 1993, but it came out in 1996. Then three years later, around 1999, a woman wrote me a letter that said ‘I can’t believe you took a national scandal and turned it into bestseller for money. You are a horrible person.’ This was before email when not many people wrote letters, so I wrote her back, and said if you are talking about the Monica Lewinsky-Bill Clinton scandal in 1998, look at the copyright page. In 1996, nobody even knew who Monica Lewinsky was at that point. A week later a got a letter back from the woman that’s one sentence, and it says: ‘That proves nothing.’ I didn't write back. What can I say?