How I Write: David Baldacci

The bestselling thriller author, whose new novel, The Target, is available for preview this week, talks about writing since he was a kid.

Andersen Ulf/Getty

Where do you live and why?

I live in Virginia, right outside of Washington, DC. I was born in Virginia, I’m a life-long Virginian. I came up here to practice law in DC over twenty years ago, just loved the area. It’s a great place to be a writer, because I can kind of look out the window and ideas come to me.

Okay, where’s the best barbecue in Virginia?

Ha! Growing up in Richmond there was a place my family would go every Saturday. Bill’s Barbecue. Let me tell you, that was good eating.

Describe your morning routine.

I usually get up early. I have a kid in college and one kid in high school, and he has to go early. We have two dogs, one sleeps with him and one sleeps in our bedroom. So when he leaves, around 6 in the morning, the other dog comes to our bedroom and knocks on the door. So we let him in. We’ll get up and take the dogs for a multi-mile walk. Then I head to the office, sit down, and start to work.

Is there anything distinctive or unusual about your work space?

I‘ve been in the office for about 12 years. I have three people who work here with me, doing various things that allow me to focus on writing and research. I’ve got lots of memorabilia. In the conference room, where we hold meetings, there’s a big suit of armor that I got from England. I call it Sir Oliver Stone after my Camel Club member. If it’s a difficult meeting, I say that the sword that he’s holding—it actually comes off and is usable. Just to let people know…

Talk us through your writing process.

I’m not a words-per-day kind of guy. I always felt that if you have an artificial number, it probably means that you don’t want to be writing, anyway. If you say, okay I do 2000 words, but what if the next words would’ve been fantastic? You’re just going to stop and go play golf? You can also produce 2000 words that are crap. So I sit down to write when I’m ready to write, when things crystallize in my head and I know what I want to say. I work on multiple projects a day, so I might spend three or four hours on my next adult thriller, then a few hours on a screenplay. I might work for a few hours on editing, or on a young adult book. For me, three or four hours on one project, I’ve probably exhausted my energy for that. But rather than just calling it a day, and going on home, I’ll move on to some other project. I just love to write. It’s not a job, it never has been. It’s a lifestyle. If I’m not writing or plotting, I’m not a happy camper. It just keeps me going.

Describe your routine when conceiving of a book and its plot, before the writing begins. Do you like to map out your books ahead of time, or just let it flow?

I’m very much a writer who lets the story develop. I don’t plot everything out, and I have no idea how the book is going to end when I sit down to write it. I wouldn’t want to, because then it’d feel like I’m writing to an outline. It would feel like a drudge. And I don’t know what my characters are capable of until I spend a hundred pages with them. So how can I know what they’d do at the end of the book, if I don’t know them well enough to begin with? I stick my toes in the water, feel what it’s all about, and then let it flow. Sometimes I go by the seat of my pants, sometimes I have a bit of it planned out. I’m always thinking about it. I don’t use super-detailed outlines, because I feel like it’s easy to write an outline, because in an outline everything works. But when you actually execute it on the page, you look at the outline, look at the page, and think, “Well, it sounded good in the outline, but it’s not really working…”

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It’s hugely impressive that you publish more than one best-seller per year, and it’s impressive that you have such a voracious readership that you not only sell as many books as you can write, but that you get critical and public attention for more than one project per year. Most agents and publicists actually recommend that authors limit output to no more than a book a year, thinking that the media, reviewers, etc., will not give their attention to more than one book per author per year. At what point did you reach this tipping point at which you could both write more than one book a year, and maintain a strong sales record while doing so?

It wasn’t any comprehensive long-range plan. About six years ago I finished a novel much more quickly than I thought I would. I was up for another one, and I was able to write that more quickly than I expected. Voila, I had two books in a year. After that I thought, “Hey, I’m comfortable with this,” because even writing one book a year, I felt like I had a lot of downtime. Moving into two books a year, spring and fall, seemed to work very well with how I conducted myself as a writer, how I like to work, and my production schedule. Again, it’s all about having fun and enjoying what you do. If you enjoy something, you’ll do it a lot longer and harder than you would otherwise. I never feel like I have to sit down and write. I want to sit down and write.

What has to happen on page one, and in chapter one, to make for a successful book that urges you to read on?

One of two things, hopefully both. I have to give you an interesting character who you can either root for or against. And second, something has to happen. I don’t mean that someone has to die or something has to get blown up. You just have to present some sort of conundrum, problem, or issue that this character, who you’ve hopefully begun to grow interested in over the first few pages, has to overcome. It’s much like the first act in a film. Any screenplay, movie you go to see, is three acts. The first act you have about ten minutes or ten pages to set up everything—who the characters are, the problem they face or the journey they have to take. Then the long second and the far shorter third act, and a resolution of some five pages at the end. In books I want to be descriptive, I want to put you in the moment, feel the atmosphere, to give you a character who’s interesting and who you can grow to care about for some reason, either like or hate. And give them an interesting problem they have to solve.

Any books that you’d recommend that inspired you to go from practicing law to writing?

I’ve been writing since I was a kid. I spent 15 years of my life writing short stories, and there’s almost no market for them in the United States. I wasn’t smart enough to realize that if I’d changed my name to John Updike or J.D. Salinger I would’ve been more successful. But I didn’t figure that out! I was a voracious reader as a kid, and that’s why I’m a writer today. I loved fantasy—C.S. Lewis, Lewis Carroll, Tolkien. The first book I ever read was called The Magic Squirrel. I remember it so vividly. I was six years old. I went online a few years ago and bought a first edition of it. I remember every day coming home from school and I couldn’t wait to jump back into that book. As a southern writer, I was steeped in Truman Capote, Eudora Welty, Flannery O’Connor, William Faulkner, William Styron. Harper Lee, obviously. The canon of southern literature. Great characters and compelling stories. There’s nothing wrong with being a page-turner. It just means that what you’ve written is compulsive, interesting, and very readable.

What is guaranteed to make you laugh?

Self-deprecating humor. When I’m the butt of a joke. I don’t like to laugh at others, I love to laugh at myself.

What is guaranteed to make you cry?

When an animal is hurt or killed.

Do you have any superstitions?

I like neatness and order. Right angles. I’m a little bit OCD. Although I sometimes write in chaos—when I was much younger, I had screaming babies on my lap—but I like order when I write, so I can be more methodical and productive.

If you could bring back to life one deceased person, who would it be and why?

Just one person from history? We just passed November 23, I’d like to bring Lee Harvey Oswald back to life. I’ve got a few questions for him…

What phrase do you over-use?

Although it’s a compelling phrase, it’d be “the slippery slope is indeed slippery.” A bit silly sounding, but it’s full of truth.

Was there a specific moment when you felt you had “made it” as an author?

With my first book, Absolute Power, I was walking through the World Trade Center, and there was a Borders Books. Back in 1996. It was the first store where I saw my first book displayed on the shelf. I felt, “Wow.” That’s only going to happen once. I felt like I had finally made it. But it’s also a very sad memory because of what happened on 9/11.

Tell us a funny story related to a book tour or book event.

I was having lunch with my wife, and this lady kept staring at me. Finally she came over, and slid into our booth next to me. She said, “You are who I think you are, right?” I said, “Well, do you read a lot of fiction?” She said, “I do.” “Then I probably am who you think I am,” I said. Then she yelled across the restaurant to her husband, “I was right, Joe! It is John Grisham!” My wife blew iced tea out of her nose, and then very politely said that she had the right genre but wrong author. The woman said, “Oh my god, are you Baldacci?” I sad I was. The woman then shouted to her husband, “You were right, Joe! It is the Italian!” What an ego stroke that was.

What advice would you give to an aspiring author?

Don’t write what you know about, write what you’d like to know about. And never chase trends. Don’t write about dinosaurs because Crichton did, or codes because Brown did. Write something you’re passionate about and want to learn more about. Have fun with it. Don’t treat it as a job. Exercise your imagination, treat it like a game.

What would you like carved onto your tombstone?

“He was a good dad.”

Tell us something about yourself that is largely unknown and perhaps surprising.

My brother is a professional artist, and I always sort of envied him. But I’m actually a very good sketch artist. It relaxes me; I like drawing objects.

Might there be a David Baldacci exhibition in the future?

I’ll never rule anything out!