“WANTED: Somebody who’s willing to write in obscurity, maybe for decades, with no money at all, no recognition and no guarantee that anything will ever change about their lives.”
Those are the words of David Baldacci, a best-selling author and Vienna resident. They are his take on what the job description for an aspiring writer should be.
And why shouldn’t he know? He was that guy for years. Fifteen to be exact.
Baldacci, who recently released his 12th thriller novel, “Stone Cold,” is no longer an obscure writer who has a 9-5 day job. He does not make it a habit of writing only during the dead of night while his family is fast asleep.
After selling his first book, “Absolute Power,” in late 1994, Baldacci’s career took off. He eventually left his job as a lawyer at a Washington, D.C. firm and became a full-time writer. However, he will be the first one to tell you that his path to fame was not an easy one.
“I tell people that a novel like that, even though it sold overnight, there were decades of writing and learning the craft behind that,” Baldacci said in the library at his Reston office one recent morning. “I could never have written a novel like ‘Absolute Power’ right out of the box.”
‘A cherished hobby’
Born in Richmond, Baldacci grew up there and went to Virginia Commonwealth University. He wanted to work in law after earning his undergraduate degree in political science, so he enrolled in the University of Virginia Law School.
Baldacci landed a clerking job at a D.C. law firm during his second year at UVA, and they offered him a permanent position shortly after. He then set up his class schedule to give himself Thursdays and Fridays off, so he could commute from Charlottesville to D.C. at the end of every week to learn the lawyer trade.
Upon graduating law school in 1986, Baldacci moved up to Northern Virginia and began practicing law for that now-defunct firm, Casson, Caligaro & Mutryn. And although he enjoyed his work as a lawyer, Baldacci still embraced writing. He had been writing short stories and even dabbled at composing screenplays, all on his own time. Literally.
“It wasn’t that I was bored, it was that writing was such a part of my life,” the 47-year-old said. “It was a cherished hobby. “So going home at night and writing stuff that I wanted to write was a terrific way for me to have a cathartic experience and get the other stuff out of my system.
“I would write in the middle of the night. That was my time. My family was in bed, I would go down in my little cubbyhole and I’d be off in my own world.”
‘A big book deal’
Baldacci spent three years writing “Absolute Power” before shopping it around to literary agents. He did not have to wait long.
After compiling a list of agents he found in the acknowledgments section of other first-time novelists’ books, he sent his manuscript to six agents in New York. Every one of them called back, but he chose Aaron Priest. To this day, Priest is still Baldacci’s agent.
And, after Priest distributed the book to possible suitors, it was an overnight success.
“It was fast,” Baldacci said of the process of selling the book, which told the story of a jewel thief witnessing a crime by the president of the United States. “The book went out Monday night and it was sold Tuesday morning after the furious bidding war. That doesn’t always happen. It was a big book deal.”
A few weeks later, the book was sold to Hollywood and a movie was made, which starred Clint Eastwood as Luther Whitney, the jewel thief. Although Baldacci said he has some other movie and television deals being worked out, “Absolute Power” is the only book he’s written that made it to the big screen.
‘Think about what you’re doing’
After the success of “Absolute Power,” which was first released in 1996, Baldacci began carving his path as a literary genius. “Total Control” was published in 1997, and two books “The Winner” and “The Simple Truth” appeared on the stands a year later.
Baldacci also has two literary franchises. “The Camel Club,” first published in 2005, is about a group of four men living in the D.C. area who are the typical conspiracy theorists. The group, led by a man known only as Oliver Stone, uncovers plots involving the government both for and against it. The second installment in “The Camel Club” series, “The Collectors,” came out in October 2006. Earlier this month, “Stone Cold” the third book in the franchise hit the shelves. Baldacci said he is still undecided as to whether or not he will extend “The Camel Club” books.
The other franchise is King and Maxwell, about a pair of ex-Secret Service agents Sean King and Michelle Maxwell who left the agency under tumultuous circumstances. “Split Second” (2003) was the first in this series, while “Hour Game” (2004) and “Simple Genius” (2007) followed. Baldacci is now finishing the fourth King and Maxwell book, which will be out next spring.
“When you do a franchise like that, you have to understand that every word you write, you can’t change it for the next book,” Baldacci said. “You have to think about what you’re doing because you have to live with that after that.”
Baldacci is not only a thriller novelist, though. He has written two children’s books the “Freddy and the French Fries” series and wrote two others, “Wish You Well” (2000) and “The Christmas Train” (2002). Two more thrillers “Saving Faith” (1999) and “Last Man Standing” (2001) round out his book list.
‘No perfect place’
Baldacci writes everywhere at his home, at his office and on the road. However, he said there is only one place that a writer can truly work.
“There’s no perfect place to write,” he said. “The only perfect place to write is in your head.”
Baldacci’s wife Michelle, after whom the character Michelle Maxwell was named, reads all of her husband’s manuscripts. (“They share similar personality traits,” he said with a laugh.) He said when he began working on his spring 2008 book, Michelle read the opening 100 pages and had problems with the text.
“It wasn’t really flowing for her. It wasn’t keeping her attention,” Baldacci said. “And she was right. I went back and I rewrote those 100 pages.”
And although Baldacci is a full-time writer now and normally works during the day, he still falls back on his old habits of being a night owl. When he is close to finishing a book, he stays up until the wee hours of the morning, thinking and writing.
The Baldaccis have two children: daughter Spencer, 14, and 11-year-old son Collin. The author is on the road a lot, mostly for book tours, speaking engagements and research trips.
With so much fiction on the market today, and with so many books being written about similar subjects, where does Baldacci come up with his story ideas?
“Any event can be made extraordinary if you look at it a certain way,” he said. “Anything can spark an idea if you’re looking at the world in that sort of a way. Most people do not look at the world that way.
“But fiction writers, that’s their bread and butter. That’s what they have to do.”