The secrets of his success
Baldacci blends political intrigue with Southern storytelling
This is something all Southern writers know: Truth makes the best fiction (and not infrequently, vice versa). With more than 50 million copies of his books in print, and seven screenplays, including the Clint Eastwood/Gene Hackman film Absolute Power, under his belt, Virginia-born novelist and screenwriter David Baldacci is no exception. He still looks like a Richmond kid, prone to khakis and loafers and collared shirts, and his office in the Washington suburbs recalls a Virginia gentleman's library, complete with leather couch and armchairs—except that nearby building signs read Northrop Grumman and National Geospatial Intelligence Agency.
Perhaps that's part of the reason that the details of Baldacci's political thrillers, featuring agents of the FBI, CIA, DEA, Secret Service and so on, are so accurate that increasingly higher-up officials are willing to talk to him. His novels based on true crimes, like the Bill Clinton favorite Simple Truth, have a human impetus more moving than mere righteous indignation.
Even when his plots are not inspired by real events, the procedures, the prejudices, the in-fighting and the more literal hand-to-hand fighting are meticulously researched and reported. And when Baldacci can throw in a famous puzzle, a musical code, a prison-camp escape tunnel and a real-life secret government installation, not to mention a childhood trauma or two, he has a story recipe that's hard to top.
This year, however, Baldacci will try to top himself. Instead of coming out with his annual fall thriller, he's publishing two—Simple Genius, the third adventure of former Secret Service agents-turned-private eyes Sean King and Michelle Maxwell, and Stone Cold, a follow-up to 2005's Camel Club. He is also re-releasing the most Southern novel in his repertory, and the book closest to his heart: Wish You Well, a semi-autobiographical reflection on his family history. Simple Genius and Wish You Well are out this month; Stone Cold, already into second draft, will be published in the fall.
Baldacci has always been a writer, or at least a talker, which is how all storytellers start. He says he talked so much as a kid that finally, when he was eight or nine years old, "my mother got me a book with blank pages to write on, mostly to keep me quiet." But, like most Southern-bred writers, Baldacci originally set out to write short stories. "It's the characters," he says, citing the quality of the characters in what might be called the Southern canon: To Kill a Mockingbird, Walker Percy's Lancelot, the stories of Flannery O'Connor, Eudora Welty and Truman Capote. "I really loved them. I still prefer my books to be people-driven rather than plot-driven."
As it transpired, Baldacci was better suited to clarity than simile. He was writing briefs (after graduating from the University of Virginia Law School, he worked as a litigator in a prominent Washington firm) and trying to write short stories at night, when he gradually realized he had a stronger narrative drive.
"I like economy in language; it makes it stronger," Baldacci says. "There's much to be said for narrative flow—saying something decisive in a paragraph instead of two pages. I love to edit; if I can find a section of a [para]graph that's not necessary, I'm delighted." Having said that, he wryly admits that the experience of turning in a screenplay and having the director "challenge every word" can really "focus one's attention."
He works out much of the story in his head before writing the first draft on a computer, and then edits in longhand. He keeps notebooks with details and "backstories," but although he generally has a character's future, and past, sketched out, things occasionally take an unexpected turn. "Spontaneity is not a bad thing," he says. "You shouldn't be afraid to go off the road, because if you surprise yourself, you'll surprise the reader."
Simple Genius involves ciphers, computers, childhood traumas and the CIA, among other elements. Woven through the evolving relationship between King and Maxwell are forays into classical codes and Internet encryption (factual), Virginia colonial history (slightly fictionalized) and modern-day government operations at Camp Peary, a CIA "farm" on the York River. While the story and characters that Baldacci places at the installation are entirely fictional, the camp itself is not, although "if you call the CIA and ask them about Camp Peary, they don't admit that it exists."
To research it, Baldacci went along the river as close to the station as he could, and talked to locals who have lived with its various agencies (it started out as a Navy base) all their lives. One of the most chilling sentences in the book has to do with the unidentified jets that land there: A small-town newspaper editor tells King and Maxwell, "I knew something was up before Gulf One and Afghanistan and Iraq started because that damn runway at Peary looked like Chicago's O'Hare what with all the traffic going in." That's precisely what a local resident told Baldacci—a quote not only stranger but stronger than fiction.
Baldacci's villains are not the only ones playing games. His books are filled with literary allusions, historical "borrowings," name games, etc. Simple Genius includes a reprint of the famous Beale Cypher, only one page of which has ever been deciphered—using the Declaration of Independence as the key—and which allegedly leads to a vast treasure buried in Tidewater Virginia. (Baldacci, whose family owns a country place in Bedford County, says he grew up with treasure hunters digging holes all around the area.) And the new edition of Wish You Well has an appendix encouraging readers to begin to track their own family histories.
Baldacci has another quintessential trait of the Southern writer: As a man who loves to read, he wants others to love reading, and most of the programs funded by his Wish You Well Foundation are literacy campaigns. He's concerned about a general disappearance of literacy tools—not only reading, but writing, which is the gateway to creativity. "I think it's great that the SATs finally include an essay, but did you realize that 80 percent of students wrote their essays in block letters?
They don't even teach writing in schools anymore." Among the programs Baldacci has created is "Feeding Body and Mind," which partners with America's Second Harvest food banks to provide used or new books along with the meals. So far, they have distributed more than 40,000 volumes. If you're interested in contributing, you can find out more at davidbaldacci.com, which also lists Baldacci's reading schedule.