Gazette: Why did you shift from law to writing?
Baldacci: When I was a little kid, my mom gave me a blank-paged book. I was one of those kids who never stopped talking, and she said ‘Write it down.’ Years later, she said she had just wanted a little peace and quiet in her life. Writing takes a long time and there’s no guarantee at all. I spent 20 years writing short stories. In America there’s no market for it. You’d sell and not even get a check: You’d get five copies of the magazine, as if you could eat that. I figured I’d write because I wanted to, and practice law to support my family.
Gazette: What do you read?
Baldacci: I’m a writer today because I was a reader as a kid. I read a wide variety of things. On my nightstand right now I have Jon Meacham on Jefferson; “The Hamlet” by Faulkner, and I took some motivation from that story in writing “King and Maxwell”; “The Monuments Men.” Sue Grafton’s a friend of mine, and I love her stuff. I read a lot of fiction, nonfiction and biographies.
Gazette: For “King and Maxwell,” did you do onsite research in Afghanistan?
Baldacci: “No it was all from a distance. One good thing: I have a number of friends in the military who have served quite a few tours over there and was able to cull their brains for interesting details. My job is to take a lot of facts, and leave most of them out. I’m not writing a textbook. You have to get the reader into the story immediately and one way to do that is with the atmosphere, those details.
Gazette: “King and Maxwell” tells the story of 16-year-old Tyler Wingo and his parents. Did you base the Wingos on any actual military families?
Baldacci: There are a lot of military families in this area and a lot have been my close friends for a long time. Certainly over the last 10, 12 years of war there has been a lot of stress and strain on families. To a person, they would all say this is what they volunteered for, but you can’t ignore the difficulties.
I researched how the military responds to extraordinary events like these—families left adrift. The military does have policies and protocols in place to address that.
Gazette: What inspired you to write about an error within the DoD?
Baldacci: I’ve been in the Washington area for 25 years: In law, I’ve worked with people on Capitol Hill. I have friends in the DoD and the Pentagon. It’s a huge labyrinth of people, rules and vast amounts of money. I read accounts of large amounts of money being loaded into trucks and driven into the desert and no one knows what happens to it. Tribal chieftans being paid off. You try to build your fiction on a basis of fact. What could that amount of money be used to pay for?
Gazette: With the controversy about the NSA, what do you think about the access our government has to personal communications and social media activity?
Baldacci: Law school presents the problems of the “slippery slope.” It is indeed slippery. It’s a balance between safety and privacy. It probably changes day to day. If it seems invasive people will react against that, but if something happens people will say the government didn’t do anything (to protect from terrorists).
It’s important to have a strong media so that if government officials overstep egregiously they’ll be called to task. I’m not sure that a Snowden is the right way to go about it. Right now it seems there’s more positive than negative coming out of what Snowden’s released, but that could quickly change as well. If we can’t trust our own government, we can’t trust the Russians or the Chinese to not abuse the information he gives them.
It’s a quagmire: As human beings we have to trudge through it every day. It’s going to be an ongoing thing in the information age. There’s so much out there and so much being collected. Down the road we’ll probably look on this as the quaint old days. And it’s not just the government. It’s private companies that collect this data, to sell it to other companies, to target us for specialized advertising. They’re not just selling ads: They’re selling data for profit.
Gazette: You’ve written several books featuring Michelle Maxwell and Sean King. Do you have a future planned for more books featuring those characters?
Baldacci: I sit down and write and see what happens. It’s really difficult to outline things like that in advance. I didn’t know how it would end when I started. I always thought it would be a drudge to adhere to a rigid outline. As you’re actually writing the novel, things happen--characters turn out to be important, other characters less so. I just sit down and wing it. I might end up deleting it, or I might keep it. That’s all part of the creative process.
Gazette: Do you watch the films and television programs based on your books? Are you happy with them?
Baldacci: Sure, I do. For the most part I am. It’s apples and oranges. For Wish You Well I wrote the screenplay and was involved in that. It was probably the hardest I ever worked: a 24-hour day. Lots of issues and problems come up. The book is an entity unto itself. I understand it’s going to be different from the book. You can’t film the entire book, or else it will be an eight-hour movie. Some things have to go, and other things get put in. I learned a long time ago that if a very attractive couple is falling in love and a really big ship is sinking for a very long time, people will watch. Otherwise, people won’t sit still for four hours.
Gazette: Tell me about your work with the Wish You Well Foundation.
Baldacci: My wife Michelle and I founded that. We fund programs in all 50 states. It’s all about literacy: It’s a cornerstone for democracy. If people can’t read, they can’t think for themselves..they’re just lemmings. Nature abhors a vacuum, and if you can’t form your own opinions there are people out there who who will gladly provide them for you.
We’re an information society but people know less and less every year. Go back to the 1860s and people could tell you more about the candidates and what they stand for, and they all knew who the president and vice president were. The best way to be come well-rounded is to become well read. It’s very easy to stay within your own box. It all starts with literacy. It’s the one skill that if you teach people how to do it, most of our social problems go away.
Gazette: Your next book, “The Finisher,” is a fantasy for children. Do you tend to alternate between adult fiction and youth fiction?
Baldacci: I wrote a couple books for very young kids years ago as a lark that started out of stories I told my own kids. “The Finisher” is a change. It took me about five years to write. No one knew I was writing it. My agent, my publisher didn’t know.
I grew up reading fantasy. It was quite a joy to write it. When I first sold “The Finisher,” I sent it out under a pseudonym. When they bought it they had no idea it was me. Sometimes a writer will write a story because they want to.
Gazette: Is writing different for you, with 26 bestsellers under your belt, than it was when you were working on your first novel?
Baldacci: I’d like to say it’s easier, and in some respects it is, but writing is one of the few occupations that you don’t get better at after practicing over and over again you get worse. I wouldn’t want to be a patient for a surgeon who says, “I did it the same way for 30 years, so today I want to do something different,” but as a writer you don’t want to write the same book over and over again with different names. I try to reach out of my comfort zone, write about different characters in different settings, so I won’t drop into a formula. Writing a formula would not be fun to read or to write.
David Baldacci will appear at Barnes & Noble at Tysons Corner Center in McLean, Va. for a talk and book signing at 7 p.m. Nov. 21. He will also answer questions and sign books at Politics and Prose, 5015 Connecticut Avenue N.W., Washington D.C. at 6 p.m. Nov. 23. His latest book, “King and Maxwell,” is the sixth in a series that features a pair of former Secret Service agents working as private investigators.