Interview: David Baldacci on writing thrillers and the Camel Club…
David Baldacci is indisputably one of the greatest thriller writers of the last decade. One of the most endearing qualities of a Baldacci novel is the world he creates: heroes with severe flaws, powerful men of influence who are easily corruptible, or in the case of his most recent novel, The Whole Truth, a merchant of death, who runs a philanthropic organization for children suffering from incurable diseases.
Baldacci wrote his first novel, Absolute Power (1996), while working as a trial lawyer. Writing “at night, early in the morning, and on weekends,” the book took him three years to complete. When it was finally published, Absolute Power became an overnight success and was adapted as a major motion picture starring Gene Hackman and Clint Eastwood.
Following the success of Absolute Power, Baldacci published Total Control (1997) a thriller about a high-stakes conspiracy involving a technology conglomerate. That was followed by The Winner (1998), in which an unwed mother is offered the chance to win $100 million in a rigged lottery. Perhaps one of Baldacci’s most intriguing creations was the Camel Club, a group of four eccentric men who investigate conspiracies in the U.S. capital. The Camel Club (2005), a chilling thriller about a conspiracy to spiral the U.S. toward another tragic war in the Middle East, inspired legions of new fans and was followed by The Collectors (2006), Stone Cold (2007) and Divine Justice (2008).
Rather than write the same type of book several times, Baldacci has repeatedly traveled away from his comfort zone, with astounding results, starting with Wish You Well (2000), a literary novel about two orphaned children who are sent to live with their grandmother in rural Virginia. Then came The Christmas Train (2002), a poignant tale which is set to become a holiday classic, and two books for young readers: Freddy and the French Fries: Fries Alive! (2005) and Freddy and the French Fries: The Adventures of Silas Finklebean.
Throughout the years, David Baldacci has been a tireless advocate for several charitable causes. In 2002, he and his wife Michelle founded the Wish You Well Foundation, which has raised millions of dollars for the cause of adult literacy in the United States.
David Baldacci lives in Virginia with his wife and children. His latest book First Family will be released this April.
AFG: I just read The Whole Truth—a touch of Graham Greene, a touch of Eric Ambler, I thought. It was great.
DB: It was fun writing that book. It got me into a little different territory, which was nice.
AFG: What inspired it?
DB: I’d been interested in perception management for a couple years now. I read some articles about it and talked to some people who’ve been touched by that
area as well. And then I just started doing some research on it and found out it really is quite a big business. People who do it—there aren’t that many of them—do it quite well. So, sort of extrapolating, I took it to what I thought was a logical conclusion of how you could create the big lie and really make the world believe. The world right now is set up to be very gullible. People don’t have the time to think about stuff anymore. So if you immerse them in fact after fact after fact, after a while, if you hit them hard enough and construct some events on the ground as well, you can make them believe anything, really.
AFG: And tell me about these people. Are they out in the open, or are they rather mysterious?
DB: Let’s put it this way: they don’t give a lot of interviews. But they’re very well-connected. The people who need them know who they are, how to find them. These are the sorts of firms that are hired by governments—they are not your mom-and-pop kind of operation. And they are what they are: perception management. They do what they’re paid to do; they create this perception of truth. They don’t need facts to work with, they just need you to tell them what you need to have happen, and they build a scenario that would enable that to happen.
It’s funny, the day the book came out, The New York Times ran a piece on perception management in the Pentagon. These military experts that had been giving their expert opinions on TV and radio during the course of the Iraq war—we come to find out that many of them had been spoon-fed these messages by the Pentagon, exercising perception management. They told them what to say. And now, a lot of these guys were defense contractors. Very much in their interest to do what the Pentagon wants them to do, because that’s where the pipeline of money comes from.
AFG: I would love to read that article!
DB: It came out, let’s see, The Whole Truth came out April 22nd, and The New York Times article was published on a Sunday, because it was a huge article. So April 20th, that Sunday. It was one of the longest articles I’ve ever seen in the New York Times; it covered three pages. It was pretty in-depth. You know, most the information actually came from the Pentagon; they got the Pentagon e-mails and interviewed some of the military “experts,” who sort of since started feeling some conscience about doing what they did. But it was business as usual.
AFG: But the press just lets them get away with a lot. Wouldn’t you say they’re responsible for allowing themselves to be spoon-fed this misinformation?
DB: Yeah, but in their defense, I guess, they’re at a disadvantage. These days, nobody wants to wait for the morning paper anymore; they want to know the news now. So these guys don’t have a lot of time. The in-depth reporting that the New York Times reporter did is almost unheard-of these days. Who takes months to do anything anymore and write a story about it? So the perception management people count on that. They only have one agenda, whereas reporters are chasing lots of stories, so they can take their laser beam of facts and innuendo and blow it right out there. The journalists look at it and they’re overwhelmed, thinking, “I don’t have months to think about it, I’ve got to write the story right now.” They do a little bit of sifting, but perception managers know that, so they cover those bases as well. Once you hit the people the first time hard with something, it’s very difficult to dislodge that conclusion later on.
AFG: Exactly! Like the lies that got us into the Iraq war. Those made headlines as facts, but the retraction gets like two sentences at the bottom of the newspaper.
DB: Right, and then the explanation is, it really doesn’t matter because we took down a really bad guy. Everybody should be happy about that. And for the most part, people are like, “Oh, okay, I’ve got bills to pay, I’ve got a job, I’m worried about my house which is in foreclosure; if that’s what they say, fine, I don’t really care.”
AFG: When did you decide to become a writer?
DB: I guess, at least consciously I was always wanting to do stories, when I was a kid. I loved telling stories orally, then I started writing them down in a little blank page-book my mom bought me when I was in elementary school. And I just loved writing stuff down and coming up with these big yarns. I never thought about having a career as a writer back then, but once I got into high school and college I started focusing on writing short stories. I loved reading short stories in high school and college, and I liked writing them. I wrote a dozen or so over the course of a number of years. And at that point, tried to get published. There’s very little market for short stories in the United States any more.
AFG: Well, The Strand is there!
DB: The Strand is there, yes. But I sent it out to Atlantic Monthly and the New Yorker, where I had no chance of being published.
AFG: Yeah, they publish one short story per issue and then it’s only, like, William Trevor or John Updike.
DB: And my name was none of those, so I couldn’t really get in there. [laughs] But I still enjoyed it. Then when I was in law school and then practiced law I got interested in other types of mediums and I started writing screenplays, writing scripts for films. Got an agent in L.A., and actually had some producers interested in my work. I’d always wanted to write a novel, and an idea hit me in the early 90s about the president and the burglar and all of that. I spent three years writing at night while I was practicing law, and I thought it was a good story. I sent it out to agents, and my life changed. I think when I was in high school, trying to get short stories published, is when I first had this idea that maybe I could be a writer. But even back then I thought, this is only a hobby, a sideline; you’re gonna have to get a real job in life, and this is something you’ll do at night or early in the morning and maybe sell a story here and there and that’ll be pretty much your career.
AFG: How important was your family in encouraging you to continue writing?
DB: They were very supportive. Very few people knew I was writing during those years: my mom and dad, my brother and sister, my wife. That was it. Not even my in-laws knew. It was a very personal thing for me I was pursuing. My wife obviously was very instrumental. We had a family, and she took on more of the labor of that, allowing me to write at night, early in the morning, and on the weekends. My mom and dad obviously instilled the love of reading in all three of us siblings; we went to the library every weekend and checked out lots of books. But for my love of books, I wouldn’t have ended up being a writer. But I could open a book and explore different parts of the world without ever leaving the city where I grew up. It was a fascinating thing, and I became mesmerized by the power of language. That’s really what started it for me.
AFG: So did your work and your career in law help you with your writing—you know, meeting a lot of people who are, let’s say, on the wrong side of things?
DB: It helped me build my view of the world. In some degrees I’m optimistic and positive, and in other degrees I’m very realistic and I’m not naive about how the world works; I’ve seen it in action. As a lawyer, I was paid to write persuasively. I was paid to take the same set of facts the other side had and make you believe that my version of it was true, while the other side was doing the exact same thing, hoping you would reach an opposite conclusion if you were a judge or a jury. Also as a lawyer, I had to keep the big plot points, if you will, on a case in mind, and had to know all the little details. When you’re in trial, you really have to be master of those little details when you’re questioning people in argument. And a writer does much the same thing; they do a lot of research. I did a lot of research as a lawyer. I spent years on a project as a lawyer; writers spends years on books. And as a writer, you not only have to know all the big details of all the plot points you want to make, but you have to know all the millions of details that go into creating that story and building the characters creatively. So those attributes are very similar.
AFG: That’s interesting. I read that you recently visited your ancestral home in Barga.
DB: We had a great time, I took the whole family and some friends too. The mayor of Barga e-mailed me and said, I’d read in an Italian magazine that you were coming to vacation in Tuscany and we wanted to know if you wanted to come by Barga, where your grandfather was born. And I was planning to take my family there anyway, because I wanted to see it. I’d never been to that part of Italy before. I just thought we were going to have lunch with the mayor and that would be it. So we went there, everybody in a couple of cars. It’s a walled city, like Lucca, and it’s way up in the mountains of Tuscany. When we got there we knew we were in the right place because they had this huge poster of me on the wall of the city! And they had my picture plastered all over town, they had American flags, they had paparazzi, they had a huge crowd waiting. Basically it was David Baldacci day!
AFG: National holiday!
DB: It really was! It was absolutely amazing. It ended with a huge ceremony in the center gardens of the city, where it seemed like the whole town was there. There was a band, I gave some remarks, the mayor gave a speech, they presented me with a St. Christopher’s medal—that’s the patron saint—and made me an official citizen of Barga. You know, they gave me the Italian flag and olive oil.