[Ed. Note: If you’re a fan of political thrillers, you know David Baldacci. With tens of millions of copies of his books in print, Baldacci has come a long way from his roots as a DC-area lawyer. In 1997, his first book, Absolute Power, debuted as a New York Times bestseller and was adapted by screenwriting legend William Goldman into a movie directed by and starring Clint Eastwood, with Gene Hackman, Ed Harris and Laura Linney rounding out the cast.
Since then, Baldacci has gone on to rack up 17 international bestsellers to his credit. His most recent novel, True Blue, mixes crime, a powerful law firm, and what Baldacci calls the “dark side of national security.” The book hits shelves next month.
Bitter Lawyer caught up with Baldacci to find out why he stopped practicing law, why Hollywood has only made one of his books into a motion picture, and how he once found himself on People magazine's list of the 50 most beautiful people.]
David, where did you go to law school?
University of Virginia School of Law
What kind of law did you practice?
Trial and corporate law.
What was your best moment as a lawyer?
Winning a case against a guy who’d embezzled money from a 90-year-old widow. I did it pro bono. It took me a year, and I had to chase the guy through bankruptcy court, [but] I finally nailed him and got the money back.
What was your worst moment as a lawyer?
Losing a big jury trial that we’d spent two years on, and the jury took about twenty minutes to tell us where to go.
Did you ever consider yourself a Bitter Lawyer?
Not at all. The practice of law was challenging. I enjoyed most of the people I worked with. I can’t say the same about all my clients.
What was the moment when you said, “I’ve got to get the f*** out of law?”
I’m a writer who happens to also be a lawyer. I always wanted to write fiction, but I started out writing short stories, and you can’t make a living off that, so I went to law school. I’m still a member of the Virginia Bar but I never see myself going back in the saddle. Writing remains my passion. But practicing law all those years really helped me write fiction better.
Being an attorney helped me cope with working on long-term projects. I developed the discipline needed to stick with it but to also try not to do too much too fast. It’s a process, and it’s going to take longer than a weekend. Also my training as an attorney makes me an aggressive researcher—wanting to make the novel read as true-to-life as possible.
How did you first break in as a novelist? Was it difficult?
I was writing screenplays and short stories while working on Absolute Power. When Absolute Power was finished, I submitted it to a number of literary agents. They all loved it, and I was lucky enough to be able to travel to New York and vet agents instead of the other way around. That is very unusual. I went through ten-plus years of steady rejection before that. But the longer you write, the better you become sometimes. And if you love the craft, the rejections tend to bounce off like slugs from Kevlar.
Over the years, your books have been mentioned and praised by a wide range of public figures (from Bill Clinton and Rush Limbaugh to Howard Stern and Don Imus). Why do you think your books resonate with such a diverse group? Are we all just suckers for a good story?
I work hard to get the facts right and play fair with readers. That’s why I think my books are read by so many different types of people. I break most stereotypes with my characters, giving readers new perspectives on issues through dialogue and plot devices. But you’re right, above all, people enjoy a good story with memorable characters. But you have to work hard to get the research and the plot to a sophisticated level. What you don’t want a reader to think is, “Gee, I could’ve come up with that one sitting on my couch drinking a beer.”
How do you come up with your ideas? Do you read the paper and mark interesting stories, or are there things that you’ve just always wanted to write on?
I like to write about things I’m interested in. And they are usually things I don’t know that much about, so I become a researcher, journalist, investigator and writer all in one. Then through the research, the story develops. It can come from a newspaper story, some nonfiction book I’m reading that jars something in my head, or a concept like fixing the lottery. Ideas are actually easy for me. The hard part is executing on that idea and turning it into a story people would enjoy reading.
Absolute Power was made into an impressive movie with Clint Eastwood a year after the book hit stores. Why haven’t we seen more of your work adapted for the screen?
It takes all the moons to be in alignment for Hollywood to move on something. And the moons rarely are so agreeable. Hollywood right now is in a “political thrillers don’t sell” mode coupled with a “let’s make nineteen sequels of every movie ever made plus film every comic book ever published” mentality. We’re working on some projects with some good folks, and hopefully one day we’ll see another one on the screen. But it is frustrating.
In 1997, People magazine named you one of the 50 most beautiful people in the world. (HERE) How did you react to being put on a list with Tom Cruise, Brad Pitt and Leonardo DiCaprio? Was it flattering, or just kind of silly?
Silly. There were forty-eight actors, one archeologist, and I was the token writer.
Having published 17 novels over your career, do you have a favorite? Or are an author’s books like children—you never pick one?
I don’t have a specific favorite; I love each of them for very different reasons. Your first will always be special. Wish You Well was a departure from the thriller genre and fun to write. I so enjoy The Camel Club members, King & Maxwell [series] are such great and vivid characters for me, and the new one, True Blue, is closest to me at the moment since I just finished writing it.
How do you manage to keep turning out books year after year? What’s a typical day for you?
My typical day is so untypical! Some days I write, some days I think, some days I research, some days are filled with all of it. I turn out book after book mainly because I love to write. I’m not comfortable if I’m not writing.
You live in the DC area—a place that seems to attract a lot of political thriller writers for obvious reasons. Do you have to live in DC to be a legit political thriller writer? Is there something about living in a place that helps you put together a story?
Certainly living in the heart of American politics helps, but if one does his/her homework, I think political thrillers can be written from anywhere.
Do you own a Kindle? As an author, what do you make of electronic readers? Are books becoming luxury items? Are we nearing a day when one of your books goes direct to digital and never sees hard copy?
I do own a Kindle. I like it for travel and research purposes, but I don’t think it will replace the traditional book for me—or for most people. I see it as simply another tool, not the replacement for the book. I think it has more advantages for textbooks more than pleasure reading. I like to put my books on a shelf too. You can’t do that with the Kindle.
What’s coming up next for you?
I’m working on the spring novel, a follow up book to The Whole Truth.
Do you have any advice for lawyers or law students out there who have unpublished novels tucked away in their desk drawer?
If you love writing, just keep plugging away at it. Don’t give up! The publishing world always needs new material. Be as creative in marketing your work as you are in writing it. Don’t follow trends. Follow your own interests. That way the passion will come through on the page. And sometimes it’s that little extra spark in the material that will capture someone’s eye.