A 1.4-acre plot of land east of downtown Takoma Park has long been eyed for development. While a neighborhood food co-op has sat on part of it for 20 years, a new plan to redevelop the space envisions restaurants, cafes, a parking garage and office space.
Virginia native David Baldacci left a legal career behind after his first novel, “Absolute Power,” lead to a string of best sellers. Many, including his latest, “The Escape,” are set against the backdrop of official Washington, replete with power dynamics, intrigue and “truth is stranger than fiction” plots. We talk with Baldacci about writing, his ties to the region and literacy advocacy.
- David Baldacci Author, 'The Escape'; co-founder, Wish You Well Foundation
Excerpted from the book THE ESCAPE by David Baldacci. © 2014 by David Baldacci. Reprinted by permission of Grand Central Publishing. All rights reserved.
MR. KOJO NNAMDIFrom WAMU 88.5 at American University in Washington welcome to "The Kojo Nnamdi Show," connecting your neighborhood with the world. Before settling on Best Selling author, Virginia native David Baldacci settled for a lot of other jobs, paperboy delivering the Richmond Times Dispatch as a kid and teen, Pinkerton guard at an electric plant during his days at VCU, even vacuum cleaner salesman before becoming an attorney.
MR. KOJO NNAMDIBut those who've known him since childhood would tell you he's always been a storyteller. Now known -- now many of his best-known tales, including his latest novel "The Escape" are set against the backdrop of official Washington replete with power dynamics, intrigue and truth-is-stranger-than-fiction plots.
MR. KOJO NNAMDIHere to help us sort the former from the latter is David Baldacci himself. He is the Best Selling author of 28 novels, the latest of which is "The Escape." He's also co-founder of the Wish You Well Foundation which supports family and adult literacy in the United States. David Baldacci joins us in studio. Welcome.
MR. DAVID BALDACCIThank you very much.
NNAMDIAnd welcome to all of those of you listening in on this conversation. If you'd like to join the conversation, you can call us at 800-433-8850. You can do that by going to our website kojoshow.org where you can also watch the live video stream of the conversation. You can shoot us an email to firstname.lastname@example.org or a tweet @kojoshow. "The Escape," it is the third John Puller novel. For those who have not yet met him, can you tell us a bit about John Puller's back story and where we find him at the start of this story?
BALDACCIHe's an army and military investigator. He was an army ranger and now he's a chief warrant officer. He came up through the ranks. His father is a legendary three-star who's a legend in the army for his fighting ability and his leadership ability who now suffers from dementia. His older brother Robert was a major in the air force who now he's at DB which is a maximum security military prison in Kansas. He was convicted of national security crimes.
BALDACCIAnd so it's kind of a lot of baggage for this guy but he's a crackerjack investigator. And at the beginning of the escape, as you can tell from the novel, the title, his brother escapes from DB, this maximum security place you can't escape from. And they bring in John Puller who knows his brother better than anyone else. And it's really important to capture Robert Puller as quickly as possible. He has a lot of secrets of the government still in his head. They bring him in so one brother's hunting down another brother.
NNAMDIAnd the story takes off and gets more complicated from there. As much as this is a thriller and a mystery, it's also about a family with fairly unique dynamics. How did the Puller family mend come together as characters for you?
BALDACCIYou know, it really is all about characters. The plots are great. I love putting them together but if I were just going to write a book for its plot, I don't think it would be very much fun. The dynamic between the characters -- the characters are the only way that I have to react or touch readers on a human level. And they get to know the characters. They see the characters fall down, succeed, be defeated.
BALDACCISo the three men -- the three Puller men are very complicated. They have two sons that have come up under the tutelage of a father who really was never there for them who was used to leading vast armies of young men into battle and really is very much into himself. And it was like they could never do enough. And the brothers towed two very different paths. John Puller was an enlisted guy. He wanted to come up through the ranks, probably something his West Point father didn't like. His brother Robert joined the air force and not the army.
BALDACCIAnd as his father liked to call him, he's sort of, you know, a geek who wears a uniform. And that really -- you know, not really a soldier because he's in the intelligence field. So neither brother can really live up to their father's, you know, ambitions for them. Their father now has dementia so really it's beyond the pale that they're ever going to really connect with him in a meaningful way. And I think they both see that as tremendous loss.
NNAMDIIn case you're just joining us, our guest is David Baldacci, Best Selling author of 28 novels, the latest of which is "The Escape." David Baldacci is also co-founder of the Wish You Well Foundation. It supports family and adult literacy in the United States. You can call us at 800-433-8850. Have you ever had to make a difficult decision about where your loyalties lie, personally or professionally? How did you choose, 800-433-8850?
NNAMDIAllegiance and loyalty play into this novel from the start with one brother, as you mentioned, in search of the other and questions about whether family or military ties are stronger. Here it's an extreme but do you think the Pullers' choices, in a way, magnify the smaller decisions we all make regularly?
BALDACCIClearly they do. I mean, even small decisions can come back to have larger repercussions down the road, some that are not even in vision. We make those decisions. But everything had -- there's a forever action, there's an equal and opposite reaction. Things do come back around. and I think the decisions the Puller brothers made in their lives, they're both very loyal, they're very family-oriented. They love each other very much. They've been separated because Robert's been in prison and that's been a strain on their relationship.
BALDACCIBut the big thing is it's the level of distrust. I mean, is my brother guilty because the court said that he was and he's in prison? So I should respect that what that tribunal said. I wear the uniform. My superiors are telling me that he's guilty. I need to track him down. So that's what I need to do. And if I won't do that then I need to take the military uniform off.
NNAMDIBut there's also familiar loyalty. Despite the fact that one is imprisoned and the other is not, they have maintained a relationship.
BALDACCIThey have. And they're probably as close as they've ever been, even though a wall of a prison has separated them for a while. And really getting into the head of John Puller throughout this and this alternating sort of narrative back and forth between points of view between John and Robert as you see in the novel, John really wants to believe that his brother is not guilty. And John really wants to believe this nightmare will be over. And I think one thing that drives him on this, I think he thinks that if he can track his brother down he can somehow find out the real truth that will exonerate him.
NNAMDIThroughout the story we're on a quest for the truth, which is obscured by layers of government agencies, among other things. Do you think that the way we conceive of the truth, especially the truth as told to us by our government perhaps has changed in recent years?
BALDACCIOh, totally and completely. I wrote a book a few years ago called "The Whole Truth" and I wrote it because I'd read a magazine article about this industry known as perception management. It's not really spin doctors, perception managers are hired by corporations, by governments, by organizations not to spin the truth but to create the truth.
BALDACCIAnd in the article the guy who's really good at doing this said, you know, why in the world would you want to spend time and money finding the truth if once you find it, it cuts against your interests? So you spend a lot of money to hurt yourself. He said, it's far better to create the truth, sell lit to the people and move forward there because then you know that you had money well spent.
BALDACCISo I think these days with information blasting us from all sides and the idea that if you see something on the internet or hear it twice, the message repeated twice, you will never be shaken from that is actually the truth. So it's gotten a lot easier for people to create the truth. And let me tell you, lots of people do and they spend a lot of time and a lot of money doing exactly that.
NNAMDIDoes this mean that in the generation of our parents and our grandparents, the truth was a much easier conclusion to arrive at than it is today?
BALDACCII think today that people are overwhelmed. My kids are both in college. They probably get more information fed to them in a week than my grandparents had during their entire lifetimes. So sometimes it's just a matter of capacity and what people can react to. I'm not saying that people today are any less smart or aware than people were 50 years ago, but the information overload is a trillion times more.
NNAMDIWalter Cronkite, where are you? "The Escape," like a number of your earlier works, takes place against an alphabet soup of military and federal agencies. And while some writers stick to the adage to write what you know, you prefer to explore what you don't through your writing. What level of research goes into making sure that you get this stuff right?
BALDACCIYou can't Wikipedia Google it. I mean, you just can't. So I went to the places that I write about. I immerse myself in the military world. My dad was in the Navy during World War II. I have a lot of friends -- I live up here so I have a lot of friends in the military. I went down to Fort Benning in Georgia and spent three days down there training with the Rangers and doing a lot of crazy stupid stuff.
BALDACCIBut one thing I did that was really excellent for the novel was just to sit and interview dozens of soldiers from privates on up to generals. I just wanted to sort of get into their heads and hearts of why do you do what you do. You're 18, you made the decision to join the army in the middle of the wars in the Middle East. You know you're going to get 12 weeks of basic training and then you're going to be on a plane to Afghanistan. And why would you make that choice? And you got a lot of different answers from people.
BALDACCIAnd for me to be able to fill out this world in a way in my head, I knew that I had a decent handle on it. It made the books that I write about the military, I think, just far better.
NNAMDIWhat I found interesting was that a lot of the responses you got from the young people you interviewed were, well, this is what my family does. This is what we do.
BALDACCIYes. It was. It was -- you know, there's a great population of people committed to public service for, you know, serving the country, defending their country. A lot of people told me, this is the best opportunity they would have to have a better life. If they survived the war, they could have money for college, they could learn a skill and move on with their lives too. So it was a variety of factors that went into it. And they were all, you know, exceptional. And I took them all to heart in putting this novel together.
NNAMDI800-433-8850. Are you a military member or federal agency employee who has found it tough to read fiction about your field? Give us a call, 800-433-8850. Here is Robert in Ashburn, Va. Robert, you're on the air. Go ahead, please.
ROBERTHi, Mr. Baldacci. First of all, I just want to say a huge fan, huge fan. Like they say in Wayne's World, I'm not worthy. I love your books.
ROBERTAnd (unintelligible) struck me when you were talking about the theme of loyalty. It does seem like that runs through most of your books, if I'm remembering correctly. I haven't read this latest one but the ones about Maxwell and King and also the one about the lottery, it just seems like there's -- where the character comes up against some opportunity or something where they could choose to forego personal loyalty and get some great reward, or they could go, you know, choose the path of loyalty. That seems to run through a lot of your books. Is that perception correct or...
BALDACCINo. It absolutely is correct. Loyalty and decisions people make about that. There are a lot of temptations in life and it's very hard sometimes to make the quote unquote "right decision" about things. I really try to push my characters in the novels to have to go and grapple with those same types of decisions and dilemmas.
BALDACCIAnd another issue that you see a lot in my novels is redemption. Most of my characters have failed. They have fallen down. They've made mistakes. They've blown careers. They've cut people off they didn't want to really cut off. And they -- I give them in the novel an opportunity of second chance to rise again and see if they can get it right. And who of us have not experienced that in life?
ROBERTOh, yeah, yeah. That's very true. That's one reason I love your books.
ROBERTWell, thank you. It was great opportunity to talk with you. Unfortunately now it means I've going to have to pull off the side of the road and find the nearest bookstore so I can get your latest book.
BALDACCIOkay. Well, drive safely.
ROBERTYeah, you'll get a call from my -- an angry call from my wife, so just so you know.
BALDACCIThanks for the heads up.
NNAMDIRobert, thank you very much for your call. You too can call 800-433-8850 if you'd like to join the conversation with David Baldacci. You can also go to our website kojoshow.org and watch the live video stream there. Research is just one part of your process, given how prolific you are as an author, now publishing an average of two novels a year. Your mother gave you that notebook in elementary school. Apparently you didn't really start using it until high school. But what is it that is driving your writing today?
BALDACCII write because I can't not write. And the only time I'm really unhappy is when I'm between stories. It's almost like a crack addiction really because I just can't stop doing it and my mind never shuts off. And I just finished two books this week, one a young adult book for scholastic and another adult thriller for my adult publisher. And I'm sitting here wondering, what am I going to do tomorrow because I need another story to work on.
BALDACCII spent 15 years of my life writing stuff and just getting rejection. All I ever heard for 15 years was, no, no, no, no, we're not going to buy -- you know, you're no good. Go do something else with your life. You can't write. So for me it was the love of writing that kept me going all the time. And I still have that. I've never seen it as a job and I don't think I ever will.
NNAMDIIt always amazes me when people talk about either successful actors or successful writers as having large egos. And I say to myself, do you know how much rejection these people had to deal with before they got to this point? A lot of aspiring authors nevertheless, they will want to know how you do it. How did you do it when you started with a demanding legal job? And how different is your approach to writing today than it was then?
BALDACCIYou know, I think that I sort of still have the same experience writing as I did when I was younger. I'm scared that I won't be able to bring the magic again. I sit there in front of the computer or a piece of paper and I have no idea what I'm doing. Some of the best advice I got was from screenwriter William Goldman. He said, the first time you figure out you think you know what you're doing as a writer is when you might as well hang it up. Because the best thing you can do as a writer is know that you have no idea what you're doing. You sit down and you try to create the magic each time out and do the best you can with it.
BALDACCIYou know, I know my research, you know, criteria and formulas I need to do for that but the writing itself is just seat of the pants. I never know the ending before I start a novel. I just write myself to it.
NNAMDIHere is Janette in Fairfax, Va. Janette, you're on the air. Go ahead, please.
JANETTEHi. I am such a huge fan of yours and thank you for taking my call. You touched on the answer to my question which was going to be about your early career and how you, you know, sort of pressed through the writing. But since you kind of covered that, I'd also like to know if you feel that you -- when you felt you had done a work that was ready for primetime that they would say yes to, do you have work in your archives that was rejected that is now, you know, being rethought about and that sort of thing? Is there a healing that you get when you know that you've done a satisfying soon-to-be popular piece of work?
NNAMDIAs opposed to when he's written a piece of crap?
BALDACCIAnd I've done both, trust me. Well, it's one of those things where it's an apprenticeship and you work through a lot of stuff. And a lot of stuff that I wrote and tried to get published wasn't worthy of being published but you had to write it to get to the actual ability to write things that are capably published. A lot of the things that are in my drawer now will stay in my drawer for very good reasons.
BALDACCIBut I do have a good sense of when I finish something that I feel really good about, that I feel very excited about, particularly when I'm writing something that's very different. I took a flyer -- five years ago I decided I wanted to write a fantasy. My wife gave me a blank-page book for Christmas. Don't ever do that with a writer. You will never see them the rest of the day. And so I went off to my little cubbyhole and I started writing this fantasy novel. And four-and-a-half years later I basically had a name and I had no plot, no narrative, no research, no time period, nothing. But other than that I was in really good shape.
BALDACCIAnd then in six -- you know, over six months it all clicked and I wrote the novel that turned out to be the finisher that Scholastic published. And it was exciting for me because it was something I had never done before. It was a great challenge and I wanted to get out of my comfort zone and push myself into really, really foreign territory for me. And as a writer I think that's really important. So I felt really good about that.
NNAMDIJanette, does that answer your question?
JANETTEIt does, it does. And it's interesting that you said you can look back over what you submitted previously and see that it wasn't worthy. So it's interesting how you know that you've evolved.
JANETTEBut I'm a big fan. Thank you so much.
NNAMDIThank you very much for your call. We're going to take a short break. If you have called, stay on the line. We will get to your calls. If you'd like to call, the number's 800-433-8850. Are you drawn to mysteries and thrillers as a reader? Tell us why or why not. You can send email to email@example.com. I'm Kojo Nnamdi.
NNAMDIWelcome back. Our guest is David Baldacci. He is the Best Selling author of 28 novels, the latest of which is "The Escape." David Baldacci is also co-founder of the Wish You Well Foundation which supports family and adult literacy in the United States. You've said you really let character drive your plots. So I'm curious how you keep a myriad of them each from a different ongoing concurring series, whether it's Will Robie, A. Shaw, Camel Club, King and Maxwell. How do you keep it all straight?
BALDACCIYeah, it's very much -- it's easy for me to do that just because I created them. And it's almost like I wouldn’t forget my kids. And -- but with all those series going, I do have sometimes of a dilemma. Sometimes I'll think of a plot and I wonder which series would be best, you know, able to move that plot forward, whether it be the Camel Club or King and Maxwell. And -- or sometimes I just miss them.
BALDACCIYou know, I hadn't written a Camel Club book in a long time and didn't have an idea for a full-fledged novel for them. So I brought them back in a short story called Bullseye that I teamed them with Will Robie and sort of crossed the streams like TV shows do sometimes. So those are -- they're very vivid and very discreet in my mind. I never mix them up. But they're just all very different for me.
NNAMDIYou don't have to have an algorithm to help you keep track of it? It's all in your head?
BALDACCIYeah, maybe I should call Google up, can I borrow yours?
NNAMDIAuthor Stephen King recently told an audience here in D.C. that he never set out to be known for one thing, in his case horror, but that he got a reputation. And I wonder if you ever feel that way as well.
BALDACCII do. So people, I think, like to use labels and put you in boxes because it makes their life easier to say who and what you're supposed to be. I've always considered myself just a storyteller. I've written a lot of mysteries and thrillers but I've written other books as well. And a lot of the stories that I started out writing when I was a kid and going up through college weren't thrillers or mysteries. They were sort -- very family-dramatic based. So I've never put myself in a box. I just write what I want to write.
NNAMDIOn now to Francis in Oakton, Va. Francis, you're on the air. Go ahead, please.
FRANCISHello. First of all, I just want to thank Mr. Baldacci for his wonderful stories. I have read, I think, all of them.
FRANCISAnd keep going on and I hope one day to run into you in the Oakton area. However, I am addressing your transition between books. A number of years ago I had this strange experience and I immediately thought of you and thought, well, here's the opportunity. I was up in Carroll County, Md. and sitting in a friend's house, a new house and watching over her fields over a hillside. There was one of these airplanes with the needle nose that, you know, vertically came straight down and came up over the tree line.
FRANCISAnd I thought, wow, what an interesting image. There's no way that you saw that there was any, you know, military facility there. And then I since found out that there was miles of underground military presence there in those mountains near Camp David. So then what happened next was my imagination went up -- here's just some ideas for you. I was with a very Christian woman and the idea was that the plane had just dropped off somebody from Guantanamo Bay.
FRANCISAnd then there began to be an exchange. He escapes an exchange and he looked for refuge in her house which was nearby. So then there's an exchange between a Christian woman and a...
NNAMDIHave you written this down?
FRANCISNo. I'm not a writer at all so here you are. I'll give you some pieces. Good luck. (unintelligible) I'll see some thread of it somewhere.
BALDACCIWell, that's very cool. Thank you.
NNAMDII guess people always ask where did -- the inspiration for your stories.
BALDACCIYeah, it's -- I like to write about things that I'm curious about or interested in. Sometimes I'll read a story in the newspaper and the story subject matter itself doesn't really trigger something. But maybe a sentence or two or something that it alludes to gets me interested. I'll go out and start thinking about that. The trouble with trying to chase headlines is, you know, it takes me awhile to write a book. And I don't want to finish the book and then read about it the next day in the Washington Post. So...
NNAMDIDon't want to chase headlines but you grew up and still reside in Virginia. I'm wondering how your childhood here has shaped your writing or your desire to write. How influential, for instance, southern writers have been for you?
BALDACCIOh, absolutely. I mean, I sort of cut my teeth on them, the Walker Percys of the world and Truman Capote and Flannery O'Connor and Eudora Welty. Those are writers that, you know, I loved reading growing up, William Styron. And it's -- southern writers write about people in place and the connections thereto and how you can never break out of that. And that, for me, was very powerful stuff. It made me realize that words on a piece of -- little printed symbols on a piece of paper can be as powerful as anything you'll see on a screen or any music you'll listen to.
NNAMDIIt's all about place, isn't it?
BALDACCIWe're all connected somewhere, or at least if we're not we want to be. And so that drives much of what human beings do.
NNAMDIHere's Mohammad in Springfield, Va. Mohammad, your turn.
MOHAMMADThank you for taking my call, Kojo. I just wanted to let Mr. Baldacci know I'm a big fan. And it's kind of funny how I kind of stumbled onto some of his books. I think it might've been like six, seven years ago I was walking through the bookstore and a Camel Club book, you know, grabbed my attention. You know, I'm a Muslim American. I was kind of, you know, ready to be offended.
MOHAMMADLooked at it, kind of, you know, skimmed through it and bought it, fell in love with Oliver Stone and the gang. And the thing about all the books that they were in, I just want to say, you know, thanks for the great stories. And I'm curious to know, are you going to be tying up any more loose ends with any craziness happening in the Middle East now? Are you going to have some more stories that tie to that, the defense industry, all those, you now, characters?
BALDACCII think that I will. I mean, I'm vastly interested in that. I'm glad you brought up the Camel Club. That was a book I really wanted to write. It was at a sensitive time and what the country was going through. And I -- as you can well imagine, having read the story, I got lots of mail from people. Not all of it was pleasant but I think that I also got a lot of supportive mail and letters from people who understood what I was trying to do. And, you know, the Camel Club was a really good device for me to be able to say some things that I wanted to say in that area. And I'm really glad that I wrote it.
NNAMDIMohammad, thank you very much for your call. You mentioned earlier about not necessarily trying to follow the news cycle because things change so quickly in the news cycle. But it happens in the reverse with you sometimes. Truth being stranger than fiction echoes from your plot have sometimes shown up in the news years later after you have written about these things. How do you feel about that?
BALDACCIYeah, you know, sometimes as a thriller right away what I like to do is take the world as it is and then using my imagination push the envelope a little bit and see how far out I can push. I'm only bound by plausibility. Fortunately for thriller writers today, pretty much anything is plausible. I can write anything and people will say, yeah, yeah, I think I heard that actually happened somewhere.
BALDACCISo for me it's just pushing the envelope and, you know, it's serendipity is serendipity. And sometimes things turn out to be true. I've only got one imagination and writing my books by myself I'm competing against a world filled with almost 7 billion people colliding into each other, all sorts of different odds and calculations and things like that. It would drive the Google algorithm like crazy.
BALDACCISo competing against that I have no chance. I have to take my little slice and just move forward with that. But it is interesting sometimes how truth ends up being stranger than fiction.
NNAMDIWe go on now to UB in Vienna, Va. UB, you're on the air. Go ahead, please.
UBHi, Mr. Baldacci.
UBMy last name is (word?) and I'm from Finland ordinarily. But I wrote a book and I used the self publishing company...
UB...to publish it (word?) House. What do you think about those things? I don't have any favorable idea about them.
BALDACCIWell, these days, you know, self publishing, there are a lot of opportunities. You can go online, you can go on Amazon and others and they'll give you some assistance and get your book up there and, you know, put it into pretty good editing shape. And you can go that route and, you know, reach quite a few people that way. So self publishing, you know, you can do pretty much on your own online these days. And it's a great avenue for a lot of writers.
NNAMDIMohammad, thank you very much -- I mean, UB, thank you very much for your call. You too can call us, 800-433-8850. I'm glad UB brought up that issue of self publishing because it causes one to think of another issue that readers don't often think about that authors do think about, copyright law. It's an issue though that's in an increasingly digital landscape, may become more relevant to readers. You recently took to Capitol Hill to talk about just how much this issue affects you and how much does it affect readers whether they realize it or not.
BALDACCIWell, intellectual property is sort of the cornerstone of our democracy. It's people with ideas expressing them -- diversity of ideas, nothing myopic. So to protect that and to, you know, give people incentive to innovate like that, you have to allow them to have protection for their creations. And copyright is how we do that. This day and age though it's a little bit difficult. There's a thing called the first sale law.
BALDACCISo if you buy a book at a bookstore, you paid full price for it and it's yours. So if you sell it later for used book or whatever, you keep all that money because it's a used book. Now, what if you resell an eBook? An eBook is never a used device so how does that work? Do you license it to 20 people and you keep all the money and the author and the publisher gets nothing? It's just very difficult. And because the technology has changed, the laws really have not kept up for that. And what I was down there advocating for is that we need to sort of look at these laws, review them or bring them up to the 21st century.
NNAMDIIs it an increasingly difficult terrain, if you will, for an author to navigate?
BALDACCIIncredibly different and complicated, more so than it ever was. And we just had this big thing with Amazon. My publisher Shed sort of felt the full brunt of that where they weren't allowing our books to be preordered or sold on their site for a long period of time because they were trying to get, you know, better contractual terms with the Shed.
BALDACCIAnd the authors are sort of the pawns. We were the ones that were sort of caught in the middle for that. And ten years ago that never would've happened. I wouldn't have even thought that could possibly have happened. But today it seems more the norm than anything else.
NNAMDIHow do you stop that from getting into your head when you're sitting down to write? There are people who would say that because you have always been driven to write regardless of how successful you have been or not, then you may be different. But there are others who may be thinking, what's the point of all of this if I've got to after this navigate this very difficult terrain to navigate?
BALDACCIYeah, very much. You don't really go into writing because you think you're going to make a lot of money. It just doesn't happen. It's like being an actor. You're not going to be a Tom Cruise. You might but the odds are against that. So if you go into it for the right reasons, you do have to worry about the stuff because it is your livelihood but it can't dominate. It can't take the place of you being a storyteller.
BALDACCII've always separated out the business and creative part. I focus most of my time in the creative part. I have to jump out of that box from time to time, go down to Capitol Hill and deal with publishers, deal with issues that are out there, but I try to keep them compartmentalized.
NNAMDIBack to the telephones now. Here is Miriam in McLean, Va. Miriam, you're on the air. Go ahead, please.
MIRIAMThank you. I recently read -- the very first book that I've read by you, sir, Mr. Baldacci, I read "King and Maxwell." I picked it up at the airport. And I enjoy it very much. At the end of the book there is an excerpt for "The Escape." And I read that. I think it's a couple chapters. And I just wanted to ask you, how authentic is this prison that you describe?
BALDACCIIt's the prison -- United States disciplinary barracks in Leavenworth, Kan. It's on the Fort Leavenworth grounds. It's a maximum -- the maximum security space for male military prisoners across all branches. It replaced the castle -- the old castle which was up there in the same area. Looking at it, it looks like a community college except for the barbed wire all the way around and the surveillance cameras.
BALDACCIIf you're at DB, don't pretend that you're a student that can walk out. It's not going to work for you. But, yeah, it's a real prison. And the way it's described in the book is pretty much spot on as far as the security, the surveillance, the terrain, the topography and all of that. It's right there right next to the fort.
NNAMDIWell, most of us don't know a great deal about prisons so we don't question the authenticity of what you write, even though obviously Miriam had a question. But a lot of us apparently know a great deal about guns, so it's my understanding that you get a lot of questions from readers about guns.
BALDACCIGun aficionados are the worst because, you know, you can't make a mistake. I mean, you just really have -- because you're going to get like 8,000 emails or letters and they're not going to be like. You're not going to read them. I wrote a book years ago called "Last Man Standing." I invented a sniper rifle for this guy to use with the hostage rescue team. A gun aficionado wrote and said, you're an idiot, you're a moron. There's no such gun. I wrote back and said, I know, I made it up. I write fiction. I can do that.
BALDACCIAnother guy jumped into the discussion who is a gun aficionado and said, no, no, I fired that gun. So I've let them just hash it out amongst themselves.
NNAMDISo even imaginary guns are in the possession of people at this point. Miriam, thank you for your call. Here is Jim in Annapolis, Md. Jim, you're on the air. Go ahead, please.
JIMHey, thanks, Kojo. And what a great show. We're all big fans obviously. And I think I got my question answered about whether the Camel Club is coming back or Oliver Stone or maybe Shaw comes back and maybe you can answer that. But I guess I thought of another question. Because I kind of thought King and Maxwell were going to be a TV show or a movie. And I'm kind of curious if you've got any plans to take your stories into other media forms.
JIMI know Custler tried it and wasn't very happy with his outcome, although it was a great movie. I think obviously all your books would be wonderful, wonderful movies or TV shows.
NNAMDIThat's screen plays, you know, but go ahead.
BALDACCIYeah, the first -- my first novel "Absolute Power" was made into a film with Clint Eastwood and Gene Hackman. And we finished filming "Wish You Well," one of my non-thrillers a couple of years ago and that'll be out next year. That's with Ellen Burston and Josh Lucas. "King and Maxwell" was on TNT as a series last year. It was -- we had a lot of fun doing it. Shane Brennan who's the NCIS show runner was a show runner for that. I thought it was a really good show. Unfortunately TNT, even thought we were the third highest rated cable show of 2013, of all the cable shows, they chose not to renew the show for reasons I'm really not clear about.
BALDACCIBut it was good to get a season in. And John Tenney and Rebecca Romijn were the leads in that. I thought they did a great job. And so yeah, and The Finisher" was my young adult. Sony Columbia will be bringing that to the screen as one in the first of a franchise for them. So I have little control over that. It's nice when you see things come up on the screen. I try to get people who share the same vision, the story that I do, and that's the best protection a writer can have.
NNAMDIThank you very much for your call, Jim. Writers are writers but in addition to novels, as you mentioned, you've done screenplays, short stories, recently made that foray into books for young readers. Do you have a favorite format to work in or audience to write for?
BALDACCIThe audience I write for is me. And I know it sounds very selfish. I was on a panel one time with like 12 other writers. And the question was asked, who do you write for? And they were all like, my fans, my audience, my fans, my audience. It got to me and I was like, I'm going to sound like really a selfish, you know, jerk but I write for myself. And I mean that if I feel really passionate about the subject matter, I think I'm going to write a much better book.
BALDACCII don't know my audience readers. I don't know what really gets you. I think when you say, I write for my audience it's almost like you're saying either I write what's popular or I write what I think is going to sell, or I'm writing what I think people want to read. And it just gets away from you. So I write for myself. And that has worked well for me over the years.
NNAMDIBut you also, apparently, are able to think of yourself at different stages of your life. Because when you write for young readers, having been a young reader yourself, do you write for the young David Baldacci?
BALDACCII loved -- I'm a writer today because I was a reader as a kid. You know, I went to the library every week. I checked out every book that I could. I saw the world even though I never left Richmond, Va., for the most part. So when I'm writing for young adults, I know that I have to bring my A-game, plotting and all that. What thrills kids five years ago does not thrill them today. I remember when my kids were little, I saw "Jaws" in the theater. I didn't go -- not only did not go into the ocean for like 10 years, I don't think I ever took a bath or a shower for 10 years.
BALDACCIAnd my kids, I came down one day when they were like four and six years old. They had got "Jaws" on the TV. And I thought, oh, my god, they're going to be traumatized. So I'm running to throw myself in front of the TV to stop them from seeing this. And I see my four-year-old son who was laughing and my six-year-old daughter is holding the remote saying, that's the stupidest shark...
NNAMDIThey've seen much worse stuff.
BALDACCI...I've ever seen. So, yeah, you have to bring your A-game these days. Kids are tough, tough to write for.
NNAMDIGot to take a short break. When we come back, we'll continue this conversation with David Baldacci, best-selling author of 28 novels, the latest of which is, "The Escape." We'll also talk about the Wish You Well Foundation, of which he is co-founder. It supports family and adult literacy in the United States. If you have questions or comments for David Baldacci, call us at 800-433-8850. Do you think the truth is becoming more difficult to teeth out from the headlines, something we've talked about. Or that it's often stranger than fiction is. Share examples with us. 800-433-8850. I'm Kojo Nnamdi.
NNAMDIWelcome back to our conversation with David Baldacci. His latest novel is called "The Escape." He's the best-selling author of 28 novels and co-founder of the Wish You Well Foundation, which supports family and adult literacy in the United States. We got an email from Andrew, who writes, "As an aspiring writer myself, I still have trouble getting over the hill of motivation before I really start coasting. Does that climb become easier over time? And can you tell us what your editing process is like?"
BALDACCIYou know, it's easy in this line of work to procrastinate. But I think if you really find something you want to write about, you're going to be drawn to the paper or the computer screen every day. That's not to say that you're going to find things -- excuses to get up from there. But for the most part, if the story's engaging you, you're going to stay in front of it and you're going to keep writing. I don't count words, I don't count pages. That's an artificial goal. I write each day until my tank is empty and then I come back the next day and do it again. Editing, I self-edit it a lot on the computer. I mean, by the time the manuscript is done, I probably edited the thing 20 times on the computer.
BALDACCIBut at the end, I print all the pages out and I get my pen and I sit down at my editing desk and I see the blood on the page, because that's very important to me. I tell people, I think better in cursive. So that's how I do.
NNAMDIAnd Alice tweets, "Writers need life experience. That's hard to get. Does Mr. Baldacci think you really need an MFA to write well?
BALDACCIThat's -- I'm not saying don't get an MFA. But I'm saying I don't think you need one. A lot of our great writers have written about things they've experienced. They've gone out and seen life. And sometimes that is your MFA, just having experiences and seeing them in a different way and taking words together and putting them down in a unique way that really is exciting to people. So there are a lot of ways to become a writer. Everyone is different. You have to -- you find your own way and your own voice.
NNAMDIDo you ever miss writing briefs and practicing law?
BALDACCIWell, some of the best fiction I ever wrote was when I was a lawyer, quite frankly. And when I started making a bunch of stuff up, I started winning a lot more. I don't know why. But just the way it worked out. I miss a lot of the people that I used to work with. It was an exhilarating, challenging field for me. And as my publishers will tell you, they hated the fact that I'm a layer, because I've changed the publishing contracts. Let me tell you, I've negotiated contracts other writers really receive the benefit of now, because when I first went in, I thought, My god, this is so lopsided. We need to work this out.
NNAMDIWith your wife, Michelle, you founded the Wish You Well Foundation. What made you decide to focus your philanthropic efforts on literacy?
BALDACCIWhen I first started out as a published writer, my publisher sent me all over the country. And a lot of events that I went to were sponsored by libraries, friends of the libraries, literacy organizations, as you can imagine. So I got a very quick and immersive study about the problems we face as a nation with illiteracy, and decided that's where we're going to focus on most of our efforts. So Michelle and I -- my wife and I founded the Wish You Well Foundation 15 years ago. We put a lot of money into it. And we have supported and paid for illiteracy programs and organizations in almost all 50 states and counting.
BALDACCIWe have a program called Feeding Body and Mind. There's a big connection between poverty and illiteracy. And we've partnered with Feeding America, which runs all the nation's food banks. And we collect books on my book tours and we pay to have those books shipped to local-area food banks around the country. And over the last five years, we've shipped over a million books to food banks. If you're going in and seeking food assistance, chances are very high you have low literacy skills, low job skills. You may never have even seen a book, never held a book, never owned a book and certainly never read a book.
BALDACCIReally, a lot of good, positive results come from having books in homes. A lot of bad results coming from notebooks being at home. And illiteracy is probably the defining crisis that we have in America these days, because it leads to all the other social and lack of (word?) that we have.
NNAMDIHow many Americans are we talking about when we talk about the problems of illiteracy?
BALDACCIThe last comprehensive literacy census survey was done in 2003. And 200 million adults, they quantified that 100 million read at the two lowest levels of literacy. 50 million are totally illiterate. Another 50 million can't even read a grocery list. We have a million high school dropouts a year. Socioeconomically, they're doomed. The problem is enormous.
NNAMDIGiven your status as both writer and literacy advocate, I wonder what you, as a resident of this region, make of Washington D.C.'s designation as the nation's most literate city for four years running?
BALDACCII tell people that there are lot of very well educated people here. And when I try -- I go around and I talk to people here about illiteracy, they look like I'm, you know, I should be on the planet Mars. They have no idea, you know, I have four PhDs. Illiteracy? What are you talking about? And I -- the U.S. is the wealthiest, you know, best educated nation on earth in very narrowing, discrete pockets. That's what I tell people. So, here, yeah. But even in this area, not everyone is well educated. Not everyone has a really good job. Not everyone is where they should be. And lots of people are failing to reach their potential because they don't have the tools and the opportunity to get there. So we have a lot of work to do as a country.
NNAMDIIndeed. In pockets of Washington D.C., you will find entire communities with very high adult illiteracy rates. But it's your turn. 800-433-8850. Here is Raj, in Fairfax, Va. Raj, you're on the air. Go ahead, please.
RAJHi. Hi, Mr. Baldacci. I'm a major fan of yours.
RAJThank you very much for great books that you've put out there. One thing I must say about, you know, the John Puller character. In his first book, I thought he came off as an -- almost like annoyed to all. And as you do a series on, well, you know, with the same character again and again, it was -- the character seems to almost do -- be able to do anything and everything that is possible in this whole wide world. One thing I stopped reading about, if you remember, there's a major character -- I don't want to name the name of the author -- but Sean Dillon -- I don't read the books because it looks like the guy can do nothing wrong and can do anything and everything in the world.
RAJAnd does that happen to you? Is that happening to your characters in general?
BALDACCIWell, what I like to do is, even a guy who is as accomplished as John Puller and he can do a lot, if you'll see, in all of the books he makes mistakes. He blunders around. He goes down the wrong path. And he has to pick himself back up again. I don't like characters who are perfect because I don't know any perfect people. I think what makes people interesting is the fact that they do fail. And then you find out what sort of person they are afterwards. You know, how do they react and respond to that? So most of my characters -- even a guy like John Puller or a guy Will Robie -- they make lots of mistakes and things that come back to haunt them. And they make the wrong decisions at time, even though a lot of times they do the right thing.
BALDACCIIt's always very much of a push-pull. But I love flawed characters. And I live in the area of gray, not in the area of black and white.
NNAMDIThank you very much for your call, Raj. Given that you live, work, and write about what Mark Leibovich would call, "This Town," I wonder how the worlds of the agencies and organizations you write about overlap with your reality, if you will, on a day-to-day basis.
BALDACCIWell, my office -- I'm sort of surrounded by Homeland Security, National Geospatial, Lockheed-Martin. So either I'm really safe or I'm in mortal peril. I don't know which one. But I think it's everywhere. Agencies now come to me because they want to be in my books, which is quite interesting. And they think it helps them with recruitment and they get into the popular mainstream culture and all that. But even though we may not know the acronyms or the names of these places, they are very prominent in our lives and do lots of different things that we may not know about. But they're very important.
NNAMDIAnd I often wonder, for those people who have not either grown up or lived in the Washington area, if there's anyplace else in the country quite like this one?
BALDACCII think it's fairly unique. I mean, I was over at DTRA, the Defense Threat Reduction Agency, which is a city unto itself and they do all sorts of thing, in fact like combating bioterrorism, you know, dealing with Ebola right now. And people probably don't even know what DTRA is, what they do, where they even are. And even through they're a huge footprint. I think that this is a fascinating town because the federal government is here. It's totally unique. You might get pockets of what's here in other areas, but not nearly as predominant as what we have here.
NNAMDII used to think of Washington as the acronym capital of Earth, until Twitter. Now I think Twitter's got us beat with acronyms. Here is Daris in Woodbridge, Va. Daris, you're on the air. Go ahead, please.
DARISHi. Thank you very much, Kojo, for having Mr. Baldacci on. Mr. Baldacci, David, I really, really, really am a great fan of yours. I've read all your books. It is amazing. I would ask you one question. Your books are very, very readable. And they don't bring in a lot of sex. But they're -- it's just great. I really, really enjoy them. Thank you so very much for writing them. I appreciate it.
BALDACCIOh, I appreciate it too. For me, in that regard, I think, you know, less is more. And I leave more up to the -- I'm like Hitchcock, I leave it up to the imagination.
NNAMDIThey thank you...
DARISAnd you do that -- you do that so very well. It's absolutely excellent.
NNAMDIDavid, thank you very much for your call. I was going to Barbara in Washington, but Barbara dropped off. Barbara wanted to know how you do your research and do you have help in doing your research?
BALDACCII'm it. You know? I have a staff that works with me and they do all the other stuff, the scheduling and dealing with publishers and things like that. But the research for me is very important to do myself. I don't want a buffer between me and the person I'm talking to. I don't want to get something third-hand, because a lot is lost in translation. Even as a lawyer, I liked to interview all the witnesses myself. I found that how people say things is just as important as what they say.
NNAMDIHaving been practicing as a lawyer in the Washington area and now writing fiction, how often is there the temptation to write nonfiction?
BALDACCII feel like there's a lot of nonfiction in my fiction. I build it on a basis of fact. And I have to do that because I'm dealing with real agencies, real things out there. So there's a lot of -- I almost feel like I'm kind of a David McCullough running around doing a lot of research and then I write my fiction on top of it. I have been -- I've thought about that in the past. But, you know, for me, the imagination and sort of the magic pixie-dust that I do with the fiction is just so compelling that I think I'll stick in that arena.
NNAMDIOn now to Daris in Woodbridge, Va. Daris, you're on the air. Go ahead, please.
DARISYes. I think I talked earlier. Thank you, Kojo, for having him on. Fantastic book. Outstanding. I really appreciate all of them. I've read them all. I can't wait to read the next one. The question that I have, and I think you answered it earlier -- I think I'm the second one on here -- is, you know, about the sex. You just -- less is more, and you do that so very well. Very readable books for anybody, kids, grownups, whatever. And interesting to the very last page. Thank you so very much.
BALDACCIWell, thank you. That's terrific.
NNAMDIAll right. Here is Ernest in Gaithersburg, Md. Ernest, your turn. Daris got two, but you get one, Ernest.
ERNESTI'm certainly curious about your research on the Korean lifestyle and how all of the torture came about in the novel project? "Target," "Target," I'm sorry.
BALDACCIYeah, that -- yeah, in "The Target." North Korea was definitely a tough nut. I have -- was able to interview a number of people who were intimately familiar with that part of the world and what goes on there. There's also a lot of information available and a lot of really good books, too. People who have escaped from the labor camps there have written about their experiences. And I wanted to bring that -- if I were going to write a book about that, I needed it to be authentic. I needed it to really reveal a lot of the gritty details and gruesome details that a lot of people are still not aware of and to make it right. Otherwise, you know, I really wouldn't feel justified writing about that. I either had to go all in or not do it at all.
NNAMDIThank you very much for your call. What's next for you, David?
BALDACCII have a new book coming out in the spring, it's called "Memory Man." It's a brand-new character, a character I have never written about before, totally different from anything I've written before. And it was just a -- talk about getting out of my comfort zone, I feel like I'm, you know, in a new body as far as how different this is. And I just finished the sequel to "The Finisher," the young adult book that I wrote for Scholastic. I wrote them in parallel. I wrote -- I worked on one half the day and the other the rest of the day. And it was a lot of fun writing between sort of two different genres and two different reading demographics. So it was just a blast. I felt like I was a kid again.
NNAMDIDavid Baldacci, he gets up, he writes, he publishes. David Baldacci is the best-selling author of 28 novels, the latest of which is "The Escape." He's also co-founder of the Wish You Well Foundation, which supports family and adult literacy in the United States. David Baldacci, thank you so much for honoring our airwaves.
BALDACCIThank you. I enjoyed it immensely.
NNAMDI"The Kojo Nnamdi Show" is produced by Michael Martinez, Ingalisa Schrobsdorff, Tayla Burney, Kathy Goldgeier, Elizabeth Weinstein. Brendan Sweeney is the managing producer. Our engineer is Timothy Olmstead. Natalie Yuravlivker is on the phones. Podcasts of all shows, audio archives and free transcripts are available at our website, kojoshow.org. If you'd like to share questions or comments with us, email us, firstname.lastname@example.org. You can join us on Facebook or send us a tweet @kojoshow. Thank you all for listening. I'm Kojo Nnamdi.
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