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11.02.11

David Baldacci Has a New Hero

The prolific crime and thriller writer talks about his new novel, "Zero Day," and a new protagonist that required some boot-camp endurance by the author himself.

In his bestselling thrillers, David Baldacci often predicts real-life threats before they hit the news. His first novel, Absolute Power, became a Clint Eastwood movie, and in the nearly two dozen books he’s written since, he combines action, intrigue, and inside-the-beltway dealings. His books are virtually an international industry, with some 110 million in print. His latest novel, Zero Day, launches a new series with a hero named John Puller, a loner military investigator. Here he talks about writing books and kicking butt with Janice Kaplan.

Janice Kaplan: I once heard Joyce Carol Oates say that she’s not prolific—everybody else is just lazy. Given how many books you’ve written, I assume the same holds?

David Baldacci: Very funny, but I might get in trouble with that. Some people take 10 years to write a book and some can do one in under a year. About four years ago, I did two books in a year, and that became what the publishers expected—one in the spring and one in the fall. But if I worried too much about publishers’ expectations, I’d probably paralyze myself and not be able to write anything.

Thriller and mystery writers often get famous for a single character. Given that you have several popular characters—and series—already, why start a new series now? 

Zero Day cover

It keeps me fresh. I like John Puller because I’ve never really written about the military before. A lot of Virginians will recognize his last name from Chesty Puller, who was the most decorated Marine in U.S. history. He had some bumps along the way, and he was in some ways the model for my character’s father, John Puller Sr. I was also intrigued by the idea of a loner character being sent off on his own to different areas to figure out different crimes.

The military loner reminded me of Jack Reacher, the hero of writer Lee Child’s thrillers. Since Lee’s series is going Hollywood with Tom Cruise—and it’s been awhile since you had a movie—any Reacher envy?

I love Lee’s books. I think Jack Reacher is a terrific character, and certainly there are some similarities. If you have a guy in the military who’s very physical, I guess you can compare them. Lee started the series with Reacher still in the military. He’s in the MP as opposed to the CID [Criminal Investigation Command]. But protagonists are protagonists and heroes are heroes. The military is a very cool world to write about. I went down to Ft. Benning, Ga., for military training, and I learned a lot about soldiers and officers and why they joined up and what their life has been like. I also got my butt kicked.

I jumped out of a parachute tower. When I got to the top, the jump master asked me if I had a fear of heights. I looked down four stories and said, ‘Not until I got up here.’

Writer gets his butt kicked. Tell us.

First, I jumped out of a parachute tower. When I got to the top, the jump master asked me if I had a fear of heights. I looked down four stories and said, “Not until I got up here.” The guys told me to tighten the leg straps as much as possible, because when you drop, they can fly up and hit a certain part of your anatomy, and you’ll never forget it. As I’m going up the tower, I’m pulling these straps until I have no blood flowing. The paratroopers down at the bottom had a betting pool going that I would not jump. It took me a couple of minutes to work up the courage, and later I heard that one of them said, “What’s he doing up there, writing a blankety-blank book?”

Get to fire any weapons?

They took me to the sniper range and the rifles are like barbells—14 to 15 pounds and four-and-a-half feet long. The targets are so far away you can’t even see them—everything is done through a scope. I’m laying in the dirt and the Georgia red clay is hard and gritty and shredding my elbow. But I’m not going to complain to real soldiers that my arm is bleeding. The target is 600 meters away, and you can look through binoculars and watch the bullet in the air. It leaves a little plume of smoke, like an airplane.

I also did Army fitness training with two master sergeants built like brick walls. One said, “Do you have any physical injuries?” I explained I had a partially torn rotator cuff. He said, “OK, instead of the 45-pound weights use the 35-pound weights and suck it up.” I said, “Yes, sir!”

“Yes, sir”—really? Some of your most popular earlier books feature Oliver Stone—a renegade who rebels against his country. Is John Puller your atonement?

Yes, I’m tipping the scales the other way. Red, white, and blue, and stars and stripes on this one. But I like to push the envelope. Even though he’s in the Army, he’s a different kind of soldier. He executes the orders, but he questions what’s happening and he’s suspicious of everybody. There’s a lot about the Army he doesn’t like. His brother is in a military prison for the rest of his life for treason, and his old man is out of the Army but still calling up and ordering him around. Puller is a guy who represents his country and believes in what the country represents. He wants to do the right thing and make the country safer, but he understands there’s no glory in war—it’s just a bunch of people fighting small skirmishes and trying to kill each other. He’s more of a white knight than I’ve written in a while, but he has problems with people exercising power when he doesn’t really have respect for them.

Is that what’s in the zeitgeist—white knights who also resent those in authority?

We have a lot of people thinking that way. On the one side you have Tea Partiers and on the other side people in the parks protesting Wall Street. A lot of people now are questioning the motives of people who hold elective office and the motives of those who hold power over them by virtue of their wealth and the access to power they control. That’s healthy for a democracy.

You get unusual access to information, and I know many government agencies invite you to visit, hoping you’ll put them in a book and burnish their reputation. Any interesting discoveries?

I was the first author who ever came down to the U.S. Army Criminal Investigation Laboratory in Ft. Gillem, Ga. People have written about military investigators, but nobody had visited. As you walk in, they have a logo of Mickey Mouse in the marble of the floor. I thought, wow, that’s pretty cool! You have to be very secure in your abilities to have Mickey Mouse as your mascot. In 1955, Walt Disney sold USACIL the rights to use the image of Mickey Mouse and they’ve had it ever since—it’s on their coffee mugs and their T-shirts. I also went to the Pentagon, which is a massive place with all these armed guards with submachine guns. Very serious stuff is going on. And right in the middle of this place, this secure spot, you see a little day-care center with a playground with an orange slide. I imagined Fuller sitting in his car in the enormous parking lot and thinking, “Well, hell, maybe that’s why I’m fighting—so kids can go down a slide and feel safe.”

Anything in the research that surprised you?

I had so much information about nuclear weapons that I could have written a thousand pages at the end, but I streamlined it to a couple of pages of dialogue and short exchanges. The only way to defuse a nuclear device is by detonating it in a very special way. You hear about a bomb falling off the wing of a plane or being dropped in the ocean, and you wonder, why didn’t it detonate when it landed? Now I know why. There need to be perfect conditions for the thermonuclear reaction to take place. That was a surprise.

So many of your colleagues—from James Patterson to James Frey—have collaborators. Now that you have several established series underway, would you consider joining them?

No, I never would. It’s not a commentary on those people. They can write whatever they want and however they want. But I’ve always felt that a story I let someone else write could never be as good as a story I come up with and write myself. I’m not being egotistical. I’m just saying I couldn’t take someone else’s story, either. There’s a different motivation if you’re excited about what you write rather than thinking, “I’ll write the story if you pay me.” I got into writing because I love to write from start to finish, not just come up with the ideas and hand it off to someone. I never want to get into the book-manufacturing process. For me, writing a story is the fun part. Why would I want to pay someone else to do the fun part? I write my own stuff and always will, and you’ll never see me collaborate with other people.