‘Master and Commander’

Repeat best-selling author Baldacci doesn’t play by the guidebook—he writes it.

Repeat best-selling author Baldacci doesn’t play by the guidebook—he writes it.

By Susan Anspach

Courtesy of David Baldacci
Courtesy of David Baldacci

The romantic underpinnings that accompany the notion of writer as recluse do not hold up in the face of David Baldacci’s office building, positioned between a Department of Homeland Security campus and sweeping Lockheed Martin facility on bustling Reston’s Sunrise Valley Drive. The office serves as headquarters for the writer’s small staff, who oversee marketing, tour travel and scheduling, which is tight—since 2007 Baldacci has been averaging one book every seven months.

There was a time in the 1980s and early ‘90s, however, when writing for Baldacci meant keeping hours past midnight after a day of first studying for, then practicing corporate law. In the after hours, he tried his hand at short stories (too unforgiving, he says), then screenplays (too technical).

Baldacci didn’t hit upon his literary sweet spot—the thriller novel—until he was closing in on a decade as a contracts, mergers and acquisitions attorney.

“In a novel you can let loose,” the 50-year-old resident of Vienna says. “You’re the master and commander. You do it all from start to finish. And you can tell the story you want without any types of restrictions at all.”

This month will see the release of “Hell’s Corner,” Baldacci’s 20th adult novel and, it’s safe to speculate, 20th bestseller. It also marks 14 years since the release of his first book, the one that triggered Baldacci’s catapult into the mainstream (in 1997, the year after the debut novel’s publication, People magazine featured him on its “Most Beautiful” list).

The foundation upon which the Baldacci empire is laid, then, bears an arguably apposite title. “Absolute Power,” published in 1996, was the first book he sold, and the only one to have ever been made into a major motion picture, one starring Gene Hackman and Clint Eastwood. Between the book and the film, “Absolute Power” netted $5 million for Baldacci. More importantly, it set for him an early publishing pace of one book per year.

Baldacci skated by on that success until the early 2000s, when around “probably the fifth or sixth book … it just went to another level,” he explains. “And probably four years after that it went to an entirely other level.”

Critics rarely lavish Baldacci’s prose with praise. “Contrived,” “paper thin” and “clumsy” are all words that have been used to describe his writing. Yet presidents, including George H.W. Bush and Bill Clinton, have publicly commended his books, the latter head of state citing the author’s 1998 novel “The Simple Truth” as his favorite read.

The publishing house doors swing open to him seemingly on command—agent and publisher both agreed when he came to them with an idea for an unscheduled, out-of-character “surprise book” for next summer—and it’s not unusual for one of his novels to sell a million copies or more.

A Barnes & Noble buyer once told Baldacci that he branded what she now refers to as “The Baldacci Effect.” Its namesake explains it to mean that while some writers hit X level in sales, their numbers often plateau at that point, then drop over the course of a career. For his part, Baldacci hit X; then, three years later, 2X; then, three years after that, 3X.

Around the point that he reached X, Baldacci says he recognized writing as his new career, one that usurped his day job. “For me it was, OK, this is a little bit more than writing in my cubbyhole,” he says.

Along with the office and the staff, Baldacci had to acquire a new approach to the production of writing, particularly as it pertained to his research. “You can’t Wikipedia my stuff,” says Baldacci, who has learned to ride a horse, fired a machine gun and accompanied D.C. police on ride-alongs through high-crime areas, all in the name of investigation.

As for the less readily available material, “you become like an investigative reporter,” Baldacci explains. “You kind of lie a little bit, and you tell stories to get people to open up to you.”

The instance that stands out in his mind is one involving Camp Peary, the CIA training facility near Williamsburg he wanted to include in his 2007 book, “Simple Genius.” Baldacci had his assistant call the CIA’s Office of Public Affairs to request an interview with a Camp Peary worker.

“And the lady from the CIA said, ‘Well, the CIA is very aware of David Baldacci, and we can neither confirm nor deny the existence of Camp Peary,’” Baldacci recalls. “Which was funny to me since there’s a highway sign that says, you know, Camp Peary.”

Undeterred, the author traveled to a section of York County that sits across from the facility on York River. There he met a fisherman who confided in Baldacci that he had been capable of predicting the American bombings of Iraq and Afghanistan based on the comings and goings of planes into and out of the secret runway—one he was able to visually point out to Baldacci—that Camp Peary houses.

“That runway over there looked like Chicago O’Hare. … And the next day we bombed. And so that’s how I knew,” Baldacci remembers the man telling him.

The author continues, “I was thinking to myself at the time, I’m both comforted by the fact that an old fisherman guy can figure out America’s intelligence strategy, and at the same time I’m kind of terrified that an old fisherman guy can sit on his dock drinking Bud and know what we were going to do.”

Baldacci’s writing style is similarly absorbing. He maintains that while he can write anywhere—he’s in the habit of plotting storylines on long strolls around his suburban neighborhood—the best place to write is inside one’s head.

“It got to be such that when other people moved in on the street, my wife would go over with a pie and a note and a picture of me and say, ‘If you see this man sitting in your yard, he’s not dangerous at all. And if he doesn’t leave, here’s a phone number to call and I’ll come and get him.’”

Baldacci tours twice a year, and was the first to host a book signing on a moving train. For “Deliver Us From Evil,” released earlier this year, he packaged the first “Writer’s Cut edition” e-book, which includes deleted scenes, an alternative ending, photos Baldacci snapped of places overseas that show up in the plot, a character map and a video tour of Baldacci’s office.

As a promotional push for this month’s book, the fifth installment of Baldacci’s Camel Club series, he ran a contest on his website in which people had to identify Hell’s Corner, as it pertains to Washington, D.C.

“It’s a very specific location in the D.C. area,” he says. “And for people who are in the know, in the circle, they know what that is.”

Baldacci’s regional roots run deep, both in the vein of his personal life, and through his books.

Raised in Richmond, he attended college at Virginia Commonwealth University and earned his J.D. at the University of Virginia.

He spends two-thirds of his time at home in Vienna with his wife, Michelle, who helps him run his literacy foundation—“The biggest problem we have as a nation, it’s not terrorism, it’s not the economy, it’s that people can’t read … I don’t know how the hell you have a democracy with that,” Baldacci says—14-year-old son, Collin, and 17-year-old daughter, Spencer, who is preparing to apply for college.

“Hopefully one of them will be in Virginia,” Baldacci says. The family keeps a second house on Smith Mountain Lake in southern Virginia for boating. And Baldacci says buying land to build a third home in Charlottesville is not outside the scope of possibility.

“So it could be I have three houses in a row two hours apart from each other in Virginia, which is kind of weird,” he confesses.

Baldacci married Michelle at St. Leo Church in Fairfax, where they still attend religious services, and where the idea for the “surprise book”—“a surprise to me, to my family, to my publisher, to my agent”—took hold last December, while he was saving seats for his son’s confirmation and reflecting on the recent death of his father. The book is one of his rare deviations from the criminal mystery track. “A family drama,” as Baldacci puts it. “A father-daughter piece about redemption and a second chance.”

Local inspiration is sprinkled heavily throughout Baldacci’s body of work. Settings and characters plucked from Virginia and Washington, D.C., landscapes figure prominently: Secret Service agents, burgled D.C. mansions, White House kidnappers, an intelligence center in Virginia modeled after the Lockheed Martin building facing Baldacci’s office and, yes, Camp Peary are all called upon in turn to spur plot and heighten intrigue.

Threats that hover close to home, he says, provide more of a scare; the theoretical complexities woven throughout Baldacci’s thrillers play off the notion of what he refers to as “the adult boogeyman.”

“Kids love to be scared,” he says. “They don’t want to look under the bed but they do because they want to be scared from a safe distance. I think people want to read thrillers because they want to be scared from a safe distance.”

Terrorism, Baldacci says, is the boogeyman of boogeymen: While people don’t want it to happen, they expect it to, and they’re interested in how it could happen. “They’re fascinated by the villains. They’re fascinated by the conspiracy plots. They’re fascinated by the fact that somebody might come over here and try to blow up something.”

Exploitation of the hypothetical is Baldacci’s bread and butter. But he says he knows his limits.

“Two a year … that’s a lot of work,” he maintains. That is, with the exception of next year.

At press time, he was finalizing conceptualization for the next book in his King and Maxwell series, slated for a spring 2011 release date.

The “surprise book” will be published in the summer and, if track record is any indication, a second thriller will be released in the fall.

“This third surprise book, that was a fluke,” Baldacci insists. “That’s not anything I’m going to continue. That’s just one of those epiphanies that hits you from time to time and you just got to do it.”

Sometime in the summer he’ll wedge in a vacation overseas, stopping off in two countries, but likely trying for three “to make it more efficient,” he says.

So that if “surprise” inspiration strikes again, he can tell the kind of story he wants to tell.

No restrictions.


(November 2010)