Flashback with David Baldacci

The Fallen
David Baldacci made a big splash on the literary scene with the publication of his first novel, Absolute Power, in 1996. A major motion picture adaptation followed, with Clint Eastwood as its director and star. In total, David has published 30 novels, all of which have been national and international bestsellers; several have been adapted for film and television. His novels have been translated into more than 45 languages and sold in more than 80 countries; over 110 million copies are in print worldwide. David has also published three novels for children. He has received numerous accolades for his writing; most recently, he was inducted into the 2011 International Crime Writing Hall of Fame and received the 2012 Barnes & Noble Writers for Writers Award.
JONATHAN LOWE: To get right into it, mystery writer Dennis LeHane said that he starts with characters, sets them in conflict, and lets them work out the plot. Do you start with an outline, yourself, and if so, which comes first-–the characters or the action?
DAVID BALDACCI: I’ve done it both ways. Had some novels where I’ve started with characters, and built the plot around them. Other times I’ve come up with an interesting plot, and constructed characters to inhabit that story. That said, you can have a great plot, but if the characters are cardboard, and the reader doesn’t care what happens to them, even the greatest plot in the world won’t hold their attention.
JL: How much of the writing is discovery for you, then, and do you know the ending when you begin?
DB: I hardly ever know the ending when I begin. I’m not smart enough to know everything that’s going to happen. Some writers have very elaborate outlines, and they don’t deviate from that. It’s an evolutionary process for me. As I research a subject, new subplots and ideas occur to me. I may not know what characters are capable of in the first hundred pages, and so this dictates future action.
JL: I know what you mean, although I also know some writers who start with the ending and work backward, not knowing how they’re going to get there. It’s more fun not knowing, in any case, isn’t it?
DB: Oh, it is. I mean, I don’t want to sit down and say, ‘okay, today I’m going to be writing section two, subparagraph nine…’ (Laughs)
JL: I’ve read that you like trains, and you wrote “The Christmas Train.” What trips have you taken on trains, and what inspired that book, specifically?
DB: Well, I took a trip across the country which was documented in that book in a fictional sense. The Capitol Limited, Washington to Chicago, then to L.A. on the Southwest Chief. You know, I grew up reading the Sherlock Holmes, the Hercule Poirots, the Jane Marples of the world, and they used trains and seemed mysterious and also enlightening. It’s a great place to people watch. I’ve also taken trains in Europe, across Italy, France, Germany. . . Most of the time I have to fly just because of the demands of time, but love taking trains, and I’ve written so much on trains, just sitting in your compartment, the lights flashing by, the darkness outside. It’s the perfect atmosphere to write.
JL: I wonder if you’ve read “Strangers on a Train” by Patricia Highsmith, and what other writers have influenced you.
DB: I actually enjoy Patricia Highsmith’s work. She is quite dark and compelling, and also unpredictable. That type of genre appeals to me. I like mysteries that break outside the normal rules. Other writers, John Irving, Anne Tyler, Eudora Welty, Flannery O’Connor, John Updike. Updike deals with many generations of people, as does Irving. Any writer can be influential, depending on what you’re reading them for.
JL: How are the movie and TV projects coming along?
DB: “Absolute Power” as a movie did very well. I’ve got a couple other books in development. “The Winner” for a feature film, and “Saving Faith” for television. They’re looking at “The Christmas Train” and “Wish You Well” for TV as well. But it’s tough, you’ve got seventy different factors out there competing.
JL: Screenwriting is very different from novel writing, isn’t it?
DB: It is. Different questions are asked, and there’s a different discipline involved. I’ve sold a number of screenplays, none produced yet, but I worked with producers at studios, where everybody has input, you know, depending on what day it is, and what angle they want you to take. And so you have to know your marks. I’ve sat in offices with six people on the other side, just firing questions. And it helped me, in a way, because it made me think out things a little better. In a script, if you don’t think things out, at some point they start asking questions, and it becomes a long afternoon.
JL: Here’s a question a movie producer might ask. Can you describe your novel “Split Second” in one sentence?
DB: (Laughs) Boy, did I get that one a lot! I’ve had so many pitches where they say, ‘now if you can say it in one sentence…’
JL: Exactly.
DB: Split Second is a novel of redemption and second chances for two different agents. That’s it, essentially. Most of us don’t get that second chance to rectify something, and instead we brood about it, and wonder what we would do if we had a second chance.
JL: Do you listen to your audiobooks, and what do you think of the medium?
DB: I do, and it’s an exploding medium. It’s amazing, the number of audiobooks that are sold now. More and more people these days are popping them in their cars while commuting. People don’t want to carry books around, and would rather listen to them while they’re doing something else.
JL: Plus they don’t have time.
DB: Right, they really don’t have time to sit down with a book, but if they can do something else too, that’s a great thing. Just looking at the numbers of my books, it’s extraordinary the increases over the years. I enjoy them. I remember listening to Ron McLarty reading “Last Man Standing,” actually while on a train, and he’s like this diminutive Irish character actor you see all the time, but when he did the voice of this big villain, I couldn’t believe it. It was like the guy was right in the train with me! I wrote him a letter, and said, “my God, you just nailed that character!” He did that voice so effectively.
JL: Some of his female characters are just uncanny, too. You start to wonder. . . there’s gotta be somebody else in the studio. . . some woman there doing this!
DB: (Laughs) I know, it’s talent. I certainly can’t do it.
David Baldacci
JL: Literacy is one of your charities. I’m wondering how much TV you let your kids watch, and how parents can get their kids to read more.
DB: Our kids don’t watch much TV. We’re very strict about that. No video games in our house, just a computer where we let them go to specific sites while we’re there. We read to each other instead, and make it a family affair, even making up stories sometimes. Often we’ll read a story, come to the end, and I’ll close the book and say, ‘what did you think of that ending?’ Then we’ll discuss alternative endings, and why an author did it the way he or she did. Kids want to be creative, use their imaginations.
JL: And if you’re just watching TV, everything is given to you, so you can’t picture things in your own mind.
DB: Right, it’s totally passive. I gave my daughter a journal, and told her she could write anything she wanted in there, drawings included. And if she wants to show me anything, we’ll discuss it. Our kids are outside playing, too, coming up with things on their own, as opposed to just clicking on a Game Boy. And what we’re doing is paying off. Our kids are bright, imaginative, they play well, and come up with interesting stuff. I’m convinced it’s because they don’t sit in front of the television.
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Flashback with Lawrence Block

Lawrence BlockLawrence Block has written over 80 novels, has had several films produced on his books, and also scripted “My Blueberry Nights” starring Jude Law, Norah Jones, and Natalie Portman in 2007.  This brief exchange occurred when his novel HIT LIST was first released, a mystery that featured a hit man named Keller. One of his many books on audio is GETTING OFF.

Jonathan Lowe: In your Keller mysteries the killer/protagonist more concerned with his stamp collection, and sees money from this “job” as a means to buy more rare stamps. In one, the tension came from a third party, another hit man who wanted to eliminate Keller in order to score more work for himself. As Woody Allen might say, it’s a great job-–you get paid well, travel, meet interesting people, and you’re your own boss. My question is, can they sleep at night unless they’re sociopathic?

Lawrence Block: Well, sociopath is a term we’ve coined to label a person who can sleep at night after all that. I’ve known a couple of them over the years. Nobody quite like Keller, however. And he doesn’t seem sociopathic to me. Just your basic urban lonely guy.

Lowe: But not one Steve Martin might play in the movies. Or would he? About your own films, I know Whoopie Goldberg played Rhodenbarr from “Burglar in the Closet,” which was filmed as BURGLAR. Then there was EIGHT MILLION WAYS TO DIE, and NIGHTMARE HONEYMOON. What’s up with the Keller movie?

Block: “Hit Man” is in the works as a film, to be called KELLER, with Jeff Bridges slated to star. I’ve seen the screenplay, and I have to say I like it.  (Note: the movie was never made.)

Lowe: About Keller’s obsession with stamps, I’ve heard you collect them yourself. As do I.

Block: I collect what Keller collects, too. Worldwide before 1940.

Lowe: You must enjoy stamp art, since artists wandered into “Hit List,” and talk about artists like Mondrian, as in the novel from your burglar series “The Burglar Who Painted Like Mondrian.”

Block: I do. My wife’s an artist, and I painted a Mondrian of my own over 20 years ago, figuring I’d never be able to own an original, and how hard could it be? That’s what gave me the idea for that book.

Lowe: If you could compose a hit list of other writers you’d like to eliminate from the competition, who would they be?

Block: Oh, that wouldn’t work. The fellows I’m apt to be envious of are ones I wouldn’t dream of eliminating, because then I’d have nothing to read.

Lowe: Any thoughts on the future of crime writing? How about a crime writer who’s a criminal?

Block: Well, we all are. I thought you knew that.

Lowe: I do. And by the way, thanks for your time, it was nice talking to you. Now please just wait right there, and I’ll be over with a silenced 9 mm.

Block: I’ll look forward to it. But do me a favor. When you leave your house, don’t look behind you.

Hit List

What’s in a Name?

IntrovertName dropping is no longer frowned upon in our age of celebrity-everything. Instagram has billions of selfies and narcissists are everywhere, including the White House. Extroverts seem to rule the world, although many may be surprised by the quiet power of introverts (who are often seen—by extroverts—as somehow inferior.) They are not. According to Susan Cain, the author of Quiet, there are a multitude of achievements made by introverts, and names you wouldn’t normally associate with the word (which doesn’t mean shy, but rather seekers of meaning and privacy over party small talk or ego-driven pursuits.) Leonardo DiCaprio, Johnny Depp, Meryl Streep, Clint Eastwood, Tom Hanks, Harrison Ford, Angelina Jolie, Julia Roberts, Lady Gaga, Emma Watson, Courtney Cox, Keanu Reeves, Barack Obama, Steven Spielberg, Mark Zuckerberg, Warren Buffett, Ron Howard, Terrence Malick, Bill Gates, JK Rowling, Tom Ford, Bob Dylan, Stephen King, Jeff Bezos, and the Google founders. They are all introverts. So was Albert Einstein, Gandhi, Marilyn Monroe, Ray Bradbury, Jimi Hendrix, Abraham Lincoln, Marlon Brando, Audrey Hepburn, Steve Jobs, James Garner. The list goes on. Personally, I don’t dress as smart as Tom Ford (above) but I do have my own sense of style and imagination (in writing, anyway.) Never imagined myself as rich or famous, although I wrote “Fame Island,” which is based on a true story and involves a reality show used to impress an island dictator enamored of fame. The reboot is titled “Lottery Island,” and an opening quote is Trump’s: “People are impressed by fame. Think big and live large.” He actually tried to buy property on the island whose developer I knew. Survivor meets Lethal Weapon. In my own case, on search there are listings for two others with my name that seem particularly ironic. This blog is way, way back on the pages due partly to the fact that another journalist (not independent as I) got blown up in the media years ago for pooping on someone’s lawn instead of asking to use a toilet in a neighborhood where he was waiting to question someone. (Hey, he had to go!) I once had a kid poop on my lawn in Arizona too (where this journalist lived) and it was no big deal. I didn’t call police, I put up a fence. Another case is a deceased philosopher who is even credited in some links for writing one of my novels. (He never wrote fiction.) Those are just two examples that stand out. Now, it is fashionable to follow those who are famous or have a fashion faux pas or viral video. Accidents happen, and as a society we love to rubberneck. But the real grind of writing and research takes time, and extroverts don’t usually have the patience for it, by contrast. They may be big on sports and the US vs THEM of every situation. To some, most everything is a sport. Ask any of the names above still alive. Leonard Nimoy was another introvert, but let’s ask him (via “sweet Jesus”) right now anyway… “So. What do you think, Leonard?”

“Fascinating.”

If you didn’t hear that reply, you might not be an introvert.