Published: 10th June 2020
The David Baldacci interview: I can be brutal when it comes to killing off characters
When you grab a book by bestselling author David Baldacci, you know you will be hooked from the first word. We try to understand his writing process and which book of his Hollywood is looking at next
Fast-paced, thrilling and quite the page-turner — that’s how we would describe any David Baldacci book, from Absolute Power, his first book back in 1996, to his latest, Walk the Wire, where detective extraordinaire Amos Decker who literally never forgets, is back to solve another gruesome murder. For someone who has been brought up on a healthy diet of Agatha Christie and Arthur Conan Doyle, this bestselling American novelist surely knows how to satiate our hunger for thrillers. “The fascination I had with mysteries as a young kid really fueled my writing tastes as an adult,” confirms the 59-year-old.
It is Baldacci's mastery over the language, plot and pace of all the 40+ books he's written — many of which have spent a considerable amount of time on various bestselling lists — that makes him one of the most widely read authors today. We got in touch with the former lawyer, whose next book in the Atlee Pine series will be out this November, to understand how he transitioned into being a writer, the importance of research in his work, why he will never leave Virginia and the book series Hollywood is looking to adapt. Excerpts:
David Baldacci has sold books in almost every major language (Pic: Guy Bell)
For a true fan, it is common knowledge that you started writing as a child after your mother gave you a lined notebook to write your stories in. Tell us a little more about your childhood and how all those mystery thrillers by Agatha Christie and books like The Hardy Boys series shaped your writing today.
I loved reading mysteries as a kid. Alfred Hitchcock and the Three Investigators, Sherlock Holmes, Poirot and Marple, Encyclopedia Brown. The idea of suspense coupled with a puzzle that one needed to solve was irresistible to me. Christie’s books were master classes in plotting and characterisation, from the spinster Jane Marple in the small English village of St Mary Mead, to the quirky Hercule Poirot. Conan Doyle introduced the ultimate crime-solving team with Holmes and Watson. The fascination I had with mysteries as a young kid really fueled my writing tastes as an adult.
Often, struggling writers find it difficult to decide when it's the right time to quit their job and pursue a career in writing. You yourself wrote a lot even as a lawyer before you actually decided to do it full-time. When did you know it was the right time to quit?
I had sold my first book and was working on my second. At that time, I was married and had a child, so it was a difficult decision. It really came down to being able to be the best writer I could be or the best lawyer. Splitting time between them became too unwieldy. After having a heart-to-heart discussion with my wife, we made the choice to allow me to see if I could carve out a career as a writer. If I failed, I could always go back to being a lawyer. Ultimately, it’s a highly personal choice and thus, is different for each person.
Your very first novel was adapted for the screen and was a hit, and you also wrote the screenplay of Wish You Well. Tell us about watching your stories play out on the big screen and how much of a role you usually wish to have in the adaptation. Which of your novels should Hollywood be looking at next?
Being a novelist is a solitary occupation. Working in film is not. It’s a team effort with lots of cooks in the kitchen. I have a rule that has served me well with book-to-film issues. I never want to have so much control over a project such that if it fails, they can blame me! I’ve had three films and a TV series made from my books. In one of the films, Wish You Well, I adapted my own book for the film. That was an eye-opening experience and revealed quite clearly to me how difficult the process is. You have to understand that they are two very different mediums, so you can’t measure them with the same instruments. The best you can do is work with people who have the same vision as you. If they do, then you should step back and let them do what they do. Right now, they are working to adapt the Memory Man series for TV. Fingers crossed.
A poster of Wish You Well | (Pic: Internet)
One of the things you are best known for is the number of series you have written and clearly, it allows you to touch upon all your interests like politics, government, law enforcement, intelligence gathering and so on. Tell us how your writing process is different when it's a series and how you know exactly when to end it and refrain from stretching the story.
With a series you have to understand that you can’t resolve everything about a character in the first book. It’s not a sprint, it’s a marathon. You hold back issues, and you thread clues and foreshadowing and plot lines throughout that you know will not be addressed and solved until future books. For me, ending a series is when I have nothing left to say about the characters and neither do they. When the tank is empty and the character arc is complete, it’s time to move on.
You've always called yourself a "lifelong Virginian" and an element of Virginia finds itself in every book of yours. In a world where travel and wanderlust are the goals of millennials, tell us about rediscovering your love for one place again and again.
You can live your life in broad strokes, seeing things from a superficial level while covering a lot of ground, or you can focus in time and place on something and go deep. William Faulkner used to say that his entire writing career was built upon a little plot of dirt in Mississippi which he knew intimately. It’s the difference between visiting lots of countries to get stamps in your passport and hitting all the tourist spots or going to one or two countries and exploring them in depth. I think the latter produces far better stories.
We've read that you write in big bursts, but do tell us a little more about your writing style. And since you are known to do a lot of research, how does it aid you in sharpening your plot?
Research provides you the necessary details to flesh out a world that did not exist before you created it and give it life and authenticity. But with research you have to leave most of it out. Otherwise, you kill the flow of the story and turn a novel into a textbook. When I sit down to write, I have no expectations. I don’t count words or pages. I write until my tank is empty. I re-read the first chapter of the novel and two or three previous chapters that I recently completed to get me in the flow. I take long walks or bike rides to think things through. I take showers when I encounter writer’s block. That seems to free my mind up to focus solely on the issue at hand. And besides that, I’m always very clean!
Your characters often have this intense evolutionary curve from where their stories begin to where you eventually decide to draw the curtain on them. Will Robie was, by far, one of the most normal, while Amos Decker had a more unusual arc. How difficult is it to say goodbye to these characters and move on to a new one — or conversely, from Oliver Stone to Decker to Robie, is there a chance that we will see them in action again?
I never say never about bringing characters back. I just published a book – Walk the Wire – where an old series character came back to join Amos Decker. If it feels right, I will do it. But I have to be true to the characters that I created.
The cover of his book, Walk The Wire | (Pic: Pan Macmillan)
You'd mentioned that you were particularly excited about crafting Atlee Pine's character — which moves a little beyond the mould of your usual protagonists in so many ways. How many cups of coffee and intense brewing goes into the making of new characters?
A lot of thought went into Atlee Pine. She symbolises for me all the women in law enforcement who have to work twice as hard as men to get to the same level. It’s not a fair system and it’s still very much a male-dominated world. I like protagonists who are flawed and make mistakes but have good hearts and keep picking themselves back up when knocked down. In other words, I like characters who are very much human.
Most writers find it necessary to write off the supporting cast from time to time. Though it's largely a television habit, most of your series keep the characters alive and kicking (albeit with a few bullet holes and scrapes). Is this a conscious choice to keep the happy ending intact? Or are you comfortable ending characters when you feel the story demands it?
I will kill off characters when the need arises. But if I have an inkling that a character will be useful in another book, or has more room to evolve as a character, or might be the impetus for the plot of a future book – see Alex Jamison in The Fallen – then I am loath to kill them off. But other than that, I can be brutal in saying, “Off with their heads!”
There is this pattern in most of your books to inextricably link the major plot line to events that happened well in the past — spanning decades or old scores that haven't been settled. Is this 'throwback tendency' something that you write in as a matter of habit or does it depend on the character and their arc?
Old sins cast long shadows. And revenge is the only dish best served cold. I love history and I love having past deeds and misdeeds come into play in my plots. People can be strange, and brooding over something for decades can make people do things they otherwise would never contemplate. I don’t do that in all of my books, but sometimes – as in The Last Mile and Memory Man – I purposefully build that into the plot.
During these testing times, how are you keeping yourself occupied?
I’m writing like a fiend. I spent two weeks in 2020 working on the next Atlee Pine and two weeks in 1949 working on the sequel to One Good Deed. I’m rowing on my NordicTrack, biking, walking dogs, drinking too much wine with my wife, watching far too much news than is good for me, and wondering when and if life will get back to normal. So, I’m pretty much like everyone else!
Tell us a little about your next book and what we can expect.
The next novel will be published in November 2020 and will be the third installment in the Atlee Pine series. In this novel, she will find out what happened to her sister, Mercy, who was kidnapped thirty years ago.
Tom Clancy's Rainbow Six series | (Pic: Internet)
Clichéd, but could you give your readers here in India some tips, especially on how to pace one's writing and on writing in general?
Find a subject you are passionate about. Don’t chase trends. You’ll run out of gas before you finish the book. You need to be deeply interested in what you write about. Tom Clancy was fascinated with the military. Patricia Cornwell with forensic science. Raymond Chandler with the life of a gumshoe detective. Think long-term and build discipline and patience into your lifestyle. You will not finish a book in a week. You will not sell the first thing you write for a million dollars. You will be rejected. But you will not be alone in any of that because we’ve all been there. But if you really are interested in what you’re writing about, your plots will be better, your prose will be more scintillating and your chances of bursting forth from the piles of manuscripts on an agent’s desk will be remarkably higher. Writing is a craft and we all are apprentices for life. Remain both humble and invigorated by the opportunity to spend your time with words and ideas, and characters that were launched solely from your imagination. It’s quite a thrill to spend your time that way.
For more on his books, visit davidbaldacci.com