David Baldacci has sold many millions of copies of his novels in 35 languages. A former lawyer, he lives in his native Virginia with his wife and children. This interview dates from several years ago. I’m migrating my author interviews away from Tower Review, which will be primarily satire and humor audiobooks. For other interviews, go here.
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 new 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…’
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.
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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