Best-selling Virginia author talks one-on-one with RadioIQ
David Baldacci grew up in Richmond, and as a kid he was a voracious reader.
“It really gave me a different perspective on the world," he recalls. "I grew up in a very segregated society in the 60’s and 70’s, and I could have had a particular mindset based on that – never traveling outside of Virginia, but I really saw the world through books.”
He was also the kid in the neighborhood with a great imagination – coming up with adventures for his friends – plays they could stage and battles they could fight.
As a high school student he wrote short stories.
“Short stories are great for writers to cut their teeth on, because you have all the elements of long-form fiction but you can write ten pages and you’re done,” Baldacci explains.
He studied political science at VCU, law at UVA andtried his hand at screenplays – intrigued by the idea that a tale could be told not on paper but in pictures. Then, he wrote his first novel.
“My law office was near the White House," he says. "I would occasionally see the President and Secret Service. I had an idea I thought would flip all the stereotypes.”
The hero was a burglar. The other characters – powerful people in this D.C.-based thriller – are the bad guys. Baldacci still remembers the call he got from screenwriter William Goldman, finding out that this early work of fiction – Absolute Power – was destined for Hollywood.
“’The great news is iconic filmmaker Clint Eastwood has signed to star in and direct your movie. It’s been green-lighted by the studio. It’s going to get made. Congratulations!' I was like, ‘Oh my God. Clint Eastwood! That is amazing!’ I said, ‘What’s the bad news?’ He said, 'The bad news is that iconic filmmaker Clint Eastwood has signed to star and direct your movie, so basically, your book is gone.’”
That’s because screenwriters often make big changes to plot lines and characters. Baldacci doesn’t really mind. He claims books no longer command the huge payments Hollywood once offered for film rights, and he likes writing something that challenges the reader. Movies, he says, don’t really do that.
“There’s no need for you to involve your imagination at all. It’s all in front of you in bright shiny colors, and it’s the director’s version of what a story should be," he explains. "I tell people any book I write is not finished until each individual reader finishes it and closes the cover. Then it’s finished for them, because everybody brings their own insight and imagination and choices. I could get ten different readers to read the same book, and they could come up with ten different conclusions about what the story means and what this character is supposed to represent.”
He often spends time getting to know people and places that give him perspective on the story he plans to tell.
“That gives you an eye to understanding people at various levels and also understanding what motivates them, and how human beings can be driven to do certain things," he says. "Then all of a sudden you don’t classify people as bad people and put them in a box. And then all of a sudden your characters get a lot more complicated and a lot more interesting.”
He also devotes time and money to a non-profit that he and his wife started. It’s called the Wish You Well Foundation, and it’s committed to helping people learn to read.
“We live in a world of high information and high disinformation, and it’s critically important for people to be able to distinguish between the two and come to good conclusions and their own opinions on things. If people read more on a higher level, so many of our social problems – everything from social justice to prejudice – would fade away. It’s that fundamental.”
David Baldacci’s newest book – Mercy – was released this fall, bringing to an end a series of four volumes that tell the story of an FBI agent and her twin sister who was kidnapped when they were children. He also has two films in the works.