20 questions with author David Baldacci
So many of your books are set in Washington and have to do with the government and politics. What got you writing about Washington?
I moved there when I graduated from law school to practice in the mid-’80s, and my law offices were only a few blocks from the White House. I would catch glimpses of Secret Service men every so often, and I would see protesters in Lafayette Park a lot. It’s sort of an energetic place; it just seemed like a lot of fodder. I like to call Washington the only place that can raise your federal income tax and declare war. It just seemed like there were a lot of story ideas from there.
What kind of feedback do you get from your readers who also work in the sectors you write about? Do they ever try to correct you on anything?
You always have people who have special expertise, and if you get something wrong, they will no doubt tell you. That’s OK. I get that a lot from gun aficionados. If you write anything about a gun, you’ll get 1,000 people e-mailing you to say you got this or that wrong.
Your new book, True Blue, is also set in Washington but is more about local Washington. What took you that route?
I’ve written most of the thrillers based on … what I call the city’s monument area. I was commissioned awhile back by Parade magazine to do a story on D.C. Police Chief Cathy Lanier. I interviewed her and really got fascinated in that world. I went on ride-alongs, and I went on a boat ride with the Harbor Patrol. It was new territory, fresh territory, and it allowed me to see D.C. from a different perspective.
I saw someone reading True Blue in the Capitol the other day. Is that your ideal reader?
I think my ideal reader is anybody who likes to pick up a book and get lost in it. I know a lot of people in D.C. read my books because they’re local … I’m glad people in D.C. read my books.
Do you know whether you have any fans among the members of Congress?
I’ve met and spoken with Sen. Orrin Hatch [R] from Utah. [Former House Speaker] Newt Gingrich [R-Ga.] reads my stuff.
A lot of members of Congress try their hands at writing a book. What do you make of that?
Well, certainly, they probably have unique experiences — but you need more than that. You need the ability to tell the story. You need the discipline to sit down and write the story. And you need to have fun doing it. For a lot of people, writing is not fun.
But a member of Congress who can tell a good story — Sen. Jim Webb (D-Va.) — has published several novels. He’s certainly a gifted storyteller. But merely having experiences — that’s not enough.
What do you think it is that interests people in Washington?
It makes people feel emotional. And emotion garners attention. Go to any major news site. If they’re not talking about Wall Street, they’re talking about Washington.
It’s almost like the old adage “Any publicity is good publicity,” and D.C. gets a lot of publicity — some good, but most bad. So it’s like, what are people talking about around the water coolers? Washington.
What are some of the things you struggle with most as a writer?
In between projects I get really antsy. What am I going to do next? Sometimes I’ll be too quick to the trigger, and I’ll sit down and write before I’m ready.
What are your writing habits and quirks? Where do you like to write? When do you write best?
I guess my days are typical for being atypical. Some days I’ll write all day; other days I’ll research. Other days I’ll be doing business matters or publicity.
I don’t count words; I don’t really care about that … it seems like such an artificial goal to me. It’s not the quantity; it’s what you write. I don’t really like to sit and stare at a white screen. If that happens to me, I realize that I haven’t thought it through.
What do you do when you’re feeling uninspired?
I’ll go do something totally unrelated. I’ll do something with my kids or my wife. I’ll go take a walk. Sometimes I’ll take a shower. I’ve come up with some of the greatest ideas in the shower.
On your website you say you conduct your own research. How do you do it?
I try to be very professional about it. I approach it kind of the same way [as] when I was a trial lawyer and I would go interview witnesses to do a deposition. If I’m interviewing a Secret Service agent, for instance, I immerse myself in their lingo. When I walk in, I talk to them in their language. They know immediately then, I’m serious, I’m a real deal.
You were an attorney in D.C. before becoming an author. Did you ever think about a career in government?
I did. In fact, if I had stayed as a practicing lawyer, I probably would’ve jumped to the public sector. I could’ve seen myself easily jumping to the Justice Department. I had been in litigation for many years, and I was interested in criminal law.
Your cousin is the governor of Maine, right? John Baldacci (D) — he was a member of the House, too. How closely have you followed his career?
Very closely. I’ve gone up to Maine a number of times and followed his career closely. I went up to campaign for him when he was running for Congress… and I’ve gone up there to do the Maine Literacy Council.
They have a family restaurant in Bangor called Mama Baldacci’s, if you’re ever there and want great Italian food. Stephen King loves it.
What was it like campaigning in a congressional race?
I signed books for people and got up and did my little stump speech for John and told people what I think about him.
My wife has always threatened to kill me if I ever ran for office, so it was interesting to go up there and see how something like that operates.
How you feel about the Kindle? Do you use one?
I have a Kindle. My philosophy on that is you need to go where the readers are … If kids are more comfortable reading on a Kindle, terrific. I think there will always be physical books. I take the Kindle on the road. I don’t read the Kindle on the beach or by the pool for obvious reasons … I think the Kindle is a great thing for kids and students. It’s 2009, and they still go to school with 75 pounds of books on their backs. It’s ridiculous.
What do you like to do outside of writing?
We travel a lot. We usually go to Europe, and our kids go with us. We have a summer home, a lake house in southern Virginia, and we spend a lot of time down there. I’m big into water sports — skiing and boating.
How many more books do you think you have in you?
I don’t know. I haven’t looked down at the bottom and said, “What’s left, guys?”
I get this question every once in a while, and my pat answer is I don’t have a set number. I think writers have to keep moving forward and keep experiencing things, and that provides fresh ideas.
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