David Baldacci, WALK THE WIRE

David Baldacci, WALK THE WIRE

Zibby Owens: I had the best time interviewing David Baldacci at seven thirty in the morning on the publication day for his latest novel, Walk the Wire. David is a best-selling author. His first novel was Absolute Power in 1996. The feature film adaptation that followed with Clint Eastwood as its director and star was just one of the many film adaptations of his forty novels that he’s written for adults. All have been national and international best sellers. As I mentioned, several have been adapted for film and TV. His novels are published in over forty-five languages and in more than eighty countries with a hundred and fifty million copies sold worldwide. In case that’s not enough, David has also published seven novels for younger readers. A native of Virginia, David received his bachelor’s degree from Virginia Commonwealth University and his law degree from the University of Virginia School of Law, after which he practiced law in DC. He’s also a devoted philanthropist. His greatest efforts are dedicated to his family’s Wish You Well Foundation which he and his wife Michelle founded and give grants about reading. Listen to our episode. I had so much fun talking to him. I bet you’ll have fun listening.

Hi, David. How are you?

David Baldacci: I’m fine. How are you doing?

Zibby: I’m good. Congratulations on your pub day. It’s so exciting.

David: Thank you. Yeah, it is. It never gets old.

Zibby: I actually was wondering after writing so many books and having so many pub days, do you even care anymore? Is it exciting or what?

David: I definitely do. I definitely do care.

Zibby: I’m sure every book to you has something special and meaningful. Maybe there’s a story attached to the writing or just something that you know you’ll remember forever about it. What happened when writing Walk the Wire that maybe stood out for you versus all the other books that you’ve written?

David: Probably for me, it was going to such a very different geographic place, one I’d never been before and maybe digging down more personally into Decker than I had before. Also, even though it hadn’t happened while I was writing the book, since it’s pub day in the middle of the pandemic, that one is pretty memorable too. Life definitely has changed over the last three or four months.

Zibby: That’s true. How are you coping with that? How have you wrapped your head around it?

David: We’re sheltering in place and trying to follow all the health experts’ advice and trying to do all the right things and keep out of people’s ways who have to go to work. I feel like I have it easy. The people that are having to work in healthcare centers and first responders and hospitals and all that, I can only imagine what those people are going through. It’s horrible.

Zibby: I agree, oh, my gosh. Walk the Wire, for listeners who might not know what this book is about, would you mind explaining it, just a brief synopsis?

David: This is the sixth installment in the Amos Decker series. He’s my Memory Man. He’s this ex-football player who had a brain trauma while he was playing. It changed his brain, basically. It gave him an infallible memory. Now he’s a detective. He works for the FBI. He’s been called to North Dakota along with his partner, Alex Jamison, because a body’s been discovered. The interesting thing about the body is it’s already been autopsied like you would have in a postmortem. They don’t know why they’re being called in for a local murder. The FBI usually is not. When they get up to this town called London, North Dakota, it’s a fracking town. It really has just been built up overnight and all these people coming in to oil and to make all this money really fast. It’s an interesting place. It was as much fun to write about this town as it was to delve into the plot and into what Decker was doing there. The whole town is full of dark secrets. A lot of things are going on that aren’t readily apparent. What really drew me to this place to create it were a couple things. One was the fracking component. Two was this military installation that’s there that has some secret mission going on. Three, there is this religious organization that’s there that has something interesting to do with the plot too. That triumvirate of plot elements made it pretty cool to write.

Zibby: I think it’s great you can use the world triumvirate when describing plot. That’s pretty awesome. You don’t often throw that word in. I don’t hear that that often. That’s awesome. By the way, in the beginning when you have one of the characters basically vomit from the sight from a dead body, that’s a very gripping way to get the reader in immediately. I feel like I was trying to turn my head and not read, which of course is hard in a book. It’s one thing in a movie. I’m like, oh, gosh, what’s next?

David: You had a sympathetic character with you in the opening character.

Zibby: Yes, thank you for that. What is about the fracking element of this book that you found so interesting? Why fracking? Why did you want that town? How’d you pick it? How’d you come up with it?

David: I like the environment. The idea of the environment is sort of like a wild, wild West where civilized rules didn’t apply as much as they do in other places and this idea of people just rushing to this area to make a bunch of money rolling the dice because who knows if it was going to last. If you look at today with the oil prices dropping to basically zero, I’m not sure how many of these fracking companies are going to make it. This is the idea of the whole wild, wild West. One of the things that surprised me was across the Great Plains you see these flares everywhere because they can’t make enough money selling the natural gas that you find along with oil everywhere, so they just burn it. You have these flares sticking up out of these oil wells. This methane is just going right up to the atmosphere, billions of cubic feet of natural gas just being burned off for nothing. That really shows you how capitalism works. If you can’t make money off something, you just dump it.

Zibby: Ruthless. Also in this book, you had characters enter who had been part of your other series of books kind of like The Jeffersons making an appearance in All in the Family type of crosspollination of characters. What made you decide to do that?

David: I had been getting so much response from people, can you bring back this character, bring back this series? I was thinking about this book and how the plot was going to develop. Did it provide an opportunity or a way for me to bring in another character that was plausible? The way I constructed the plot that made it high stakes that would make the national security interests involved, that allowed me to bring these characters back in. Otherwise, why would they show up in a murder investigation in the middle of North Dakota? It was a fun way to, a tip of the hat to other characters and to my fans, say, okay, you asked for them, you got them. Here you go. Have fun.

Zibby: Do you have good relationships with fans? Do you try to incorporate elements that they suggest? How do you communicate with fans? Is it mostly through email? Tell me about that.

David: A lot of it is email. A lot of it is on the social media platforms. They’ll tweet and Instagram and Facebook. A lot of it, too, is just going to book events. You have signings. You have the crowds. People come up. Can you bring The Camel Club back? Can you bring King and Maxwell back? Can you bring X character back? I get a lot of feedback on social media, but I get a lot of feedback face to face at book events as well.

Zibby: I miss being face to face with people. That was nice when you could do that.

David: Yes, I know. Can we remember those days?

Zibby: I know, barely. How do you keep up? You’ve written a bazillion books. You have so many fans around the globe. How can you keep up with your social media feeds and your emails? I find it hard to keep up, and I’m a nobody. How do you do it? How do you stay on top of things? Does it stress you out or not?

David: No, it doesn’t. I have people who do that who work with me who handle almost all of that. I rarely tweet on my own. I just tweeted a few days ago that had pictures of my two dogs sitting in chairs looking very properly odd at the camera. I said my dogs have hidden their leashes because we’ve been walking them too much. That was an example of one of my tweets. Most of the time, I have a person who does all of that, the social media. The emails and requests and all of that comes through the site. We’ll sit down each week and go through all the stuff. I don’t really have to focus on that very much. My focus is really on the writing.

Zibby: How long does it take for you to write each of your books? Does it vary?

David: It varies. If I had to give an estimate of the average, it would probably be six to seven months to write each book. That’s focused work during that time.

Zibby: Have you ever — maybe this an inappropriate question. Have you ever figured out how many words — how much you’re basically getting paid per word, like how many words you write per year and then back-solving for — I know that’s a random question. I was just wondering.

David: You know, I’ll have to go back and calculate that. I’ve never done that. Probably too much. I would say too much per word. When I was a lawyer for all those years, I was paid by the hour. Every time I would sit down to do my time sheets, I was like, I’m selling my life at one hour at a time. This is pathetic.

Zibby: I’ve never understood, really, getting paid by the hour because the incentive is just to do your work slowly, right? I don’t know. I feel like if I was getting paid by hour, I would just dillydally versus getting paid for what I produce. Then I would speed it up.

David: There you go. You just summed up the way that the lawyers work. The longer you take, the more they get paid. I think a lot of clients these days have gotten a wind of that and they ask for contract fee. Here’s the assignment. Give me the price of what it’s going to be. We’re not paying you by the hour. That’s what I do when I retain lawyers now.

Zibby: That’s smart.

David: I know how the game is played.

Zibby: Exactly, since you’ve been on the other side. Tell me more about the Wish You Well Foundation that you established with your wife. I was reading through and seeing some of the different places from all over who you’ve given grants to, which is really amazing. How do you pick who you choose to give grants to?

David: We get probably about five thousand grant applications a year, which is lot for a private foundation. We go through them all. We have a staff that handles that. Then we have a board of directors meeting four times a year to review the applications that made it through the vetting process. The biggest vetting is that it has to meet our mission goal which is to eradicate adult illiteracy in the US. Whatever the application is, it has to fall within those parameters. Then we look at how many people they’re serving, how wisely they’re spending their money. Do they have widespread community support? Do we feel like they’re doing their mission well and it’s an important mission? All those criteria go into making decisions on which ones to fund. There are a lot of great programs out there. We try to support as many of them as we possibly can. We had a banner year last year. I think we ended up giving out grants that were thirty-five or forty different programs across the country in a single year. That was a lot for us.

Zibby: That’s great. That’s so wonderful that you do that. It’s really awesome. Do you think eradication is possible? It’s one thing to say you want to improve literacy, but to get rid of it, that’s a big goal.

David: It is a big goal. If we got serious about funding education and the way we structure education in the way we have — right now, you look at kids in rural areas who can’t go to school because it’s been canceled — kids in metropolitan areas, they can just get online and do all their work. Kids in a lot of rural that don’t have broadband availability or they may not even have a computer at home are falling through the cracks. It’s how serious you want to be about it, how much money you want to put into it. People say, oh, my god, we spend so much money on education. I said we spend a fraction of the money on education that we spend on the defense budget in this country every year. The money that we’ve spent now on the pandemic payouts, trillions of dollars, that could eradicate illiteracy and poverty in the US alone. It’s all about how much money you want to spend on it and how many people you want to have working on it. You’ve got to have a clear strategy, clear goals, and you can really reach out to everyone with enough resources. Yes, you can do it, but I don’t think we’re there yet as a country.

Zibby: There’s a balance between survival and things that make your life better. I feel like the payouts now are to try to help people just get through and eat.

David: It absolutely is. We definitely need to do it. I think, though, after this is over where interest rates are so low so much that governments can borrow money for almost free — some countries, the interest rates are negative, meaning that they’re paying you to take their money, which is kind of crazy. We may want to get more serious about education in this country for a lot of different reasons. There’s this enormous widespread disinformation campaign coming from all over the place. A lot of people buy into it for various reasons. Because of that, we have a lot of problems and issues in this country. Education and allowing people to have the wherewithal to arrive at their own decisions and conclusions and being able to read a wide variety of sources can help combat that. Otherwise, we’re sort of going down a dark path.

Zibby: My dad has been trying to campaign for teachers to not have to pay income tax as a way to incentivize more people to become teachers.

David: I’ve seen so many tweets from people who are now having to homeschool their kids saying, okay, every teacher should have ten million dollars a year because this is really hard work.

Zibby: It’s true. I have four kids at home. I forgot to even have one of my kids get on Zoom at the right time for the right class. I’m like, how hard can this be? Why can I not get this right? Oh, my gosh. I finally had to set a recurring alarm on my phone, apologize to the teachers. I was in tears. It’s no joke. It’s tough. Did you always know you wanted to be a writer? How did you become who you are today? How did this happen?

David: I was the sort of kid who loved to tell tall tales and stories all the time. I think, really, the thing for me was I loved to read as a kid. I loved adventure tales and mysteries and fantasy. I loved being able to just read through words. They put pictures in my head. It got to the point where I wanted to be able to do that as well. I just fell in love with using words as the tools of a trade. I started writing short stories when I was a kid. My mom gave me a blank-page journal. I think she gave it to me to shut me up because if I’m writing something down, I’m not talking. I never really looked back from there. I spent ten years as a trial lawyer because I couldn’t make a living as a writer back then. I did what most writers do. I worked at one job while I tried to hone my craft in my off hours. I don’t know if I was meant to be a writer, but I certainly had that desire to be. My older brother is an artist. He knew he wanted to be artist since he was a little kid. I always sort of envied him knowing what he wanted to do with his life. I think I came close to that with my obsession with writing.

Zibby: How do you stay motivated? Is it just out of love? For each new project, do you get a new excitement? How do you just stay in it? Does it ever feel like work to you versus the joy of just writing?

David: You hit on one element of it, is love. It’s just this desire of wanting to do this over and over again. If you aren’t doing it, there’s a huge hole in your life. The other component is sort of fear. You never want to get so edgy and cocky that you think you know what you’re doing as a writer so you can just knock each book out with not a lot of work. I think that’s when you’ve lost your edge as a writer. You might as well go hang it up because then you’re going to become complacent and formulaic. Every book’s going to read like the book prior. I approach every project with my same sort of obsession of wanting to do this but also with this terror that I have no idea what I’m doing and I’m going to fail miserably. Fear is a great antidote to complacency. I can tell you that.

Zibby: It’s so funny. I think if there’s one thing that unites all writers, it’s some sort of deep-seated insecurity. The fact that you could worry that you’re not going to write a good book at this point, it’s almost comical. Yet you feel that and it motivates you. It’s really unbelievable how each book brings up all of these feelings.

David: When you’re putting this thing together that has a million different moving parts, for me, it’s like, how in the world did I put this all together? I know in one sense how I did. It was some creativity and a lot of hard work. It’s such an unwieldy thing. You look back on it, and then you think, oh, my god, now I have to do it again. I have to put a million little pieces together again. How in the world am I going to accomplish that? That’s all part of it.

Zibby: How do you do it? Do you outline a lot? Do you have little index cards everywhere or sticky notes? How do you do it?

David: I have these big notebooks. In them, I’ll do my research. I will do interviews that I do with people in various fields that I needed to know about. I do miniature outlines chapter by chapter. I call them momentum outlines where I have the big, sweeping movements that I want to have, the big plot points. I might have a thousand different plot points tagged to them that I’m going to accomplish through a series of chapters. It’s not all plotted out. It’s not all outlined. I leave a lot of it just to — I’ll write today after the satellite tour is over. I’ve got some things that I want to accomplish. I know what the movements are, but then I have to come up with the words and the characterizations and the elements to implement those. I’ll be thinking of those as I’m sitting down and writing. That tends to work best for me. I think if you immerse yourself in the material, the epiphanies come really fast and steady because you’re part of it. You’re in the moment.

Zibby: Do you give yourself a word count goal per day? Do you set hours where you are writing? How do you structure time and your output?

David: I usually get up in the morning, I’m writing in the morning. I will write throughout the day if I have something that I want to write. If I’m really into it and the plot is moving and things are occurring to me, then I just keep writing. I don’t have a page limit. I don’t count words. Every day is a little bit different. It could be a lot of words. It could be very few words depending on where I was at that moment. I tend to write when it really hits me. Wherever I am, I have my laptop, and I open it and I work on it. However many hours a day, it varies. Some days, it’s a few hours. Some days, it’s quite more than that.

Zibby: Do you have a favorite place to write? Do you usually write at home? Do you go to an office? Where do you like to write?

David: When I’m at home-home — I’m in Florida now. I have an office here. When I’m in Northern Virginia, I have an office outside the house. That’s where my staff is and all that. If I’m in town, I go there every day. I always felt the perfect place to write is not a physical space. It’s in your head. If you’re in the zone, you can write anywhere. There’s a little Greek deli that I like to go to up in Northern Virginia. I have a little table in the back and my laptop. I just sit and I write in the middle of a hundred and fifty people eating. I feel like I’m in a cocoon. I don’t know why. I’ve written a lot of good stuff at that Greek deli.

Zibby: Wow. I recently interviewed an author who wrote most of her book hiding in the back of her minivan. I guess you can do it anywhere.

David: You can do it anywhere. It’s whatever works for you.

Zibby: Exactly. Having written all these books, you must have a lot of advice. Do you have any key pieces of advice on how to keep the material fresh and how to stay motivated and how to write really gripping books the way that you do?

David: You really need to find subject matter that you have a lot of interest in, not necessarily that you know a lot about, but that you’d like to know about. The biggest thing with aspiring writers and where they fall down is they think of something they want to write about for the wrong reasons, maybe because they feel like it’s a hot trend and everybody’s really interested in it, a code book or dinosaurs, whatever. They go off and write it, and they run out of gas. They spend a hundred pages writing, and they’re like, I’m not really interested in this. I don’t know what I’m doing. I don’t know where I’m going. I have no passion. They just stop. They wasted all that time and all those pages. If you can find something that you really have a lot of interest in that will fill up your creative gas tank, your chances are much better that you’ll be able to get through this long process of writing whatever it is you’re writing and not running out of gas. Picking the right reason and the right story for valid reasons, that you have that interest in them, that can go a long way for you to avoid that sort of failure of running out of gas.

Zibby: I feel like some writers get hung up as if they’re at a gas station. You know how they have the three different levels of gas, like 89, 91, 93? You can stand there debating, which gas do you need to fill up the tank this time? Is it worth going for the 93? Will the car run well enough on 89? It’s a debate. I feel like writers have that with the material. Maybe this will fill up my tank, but can it last a whole book? I don’t know.

David: It is. It can be tricky. I’ve always felt that if people were destined to become writers, if that’s the right word, that this maniacal obsession with words and writing and doing it will carry them through all the obstacles that get in people’s way when they’re trying to forge a career in a creative endeavor, because there are lots of them. You could just get tired of it, bored. You don’t want to do it. You don’t have the discipline to do it. You don’t really like playing with the words that much. Then those people sort of fall by the wayside. That’s okay. If I want to be a musician, I would never be a musician. I just don’t have the talent for it or the discipline or anything else. It’s almost like this evolutionary process where the people who are meant to do it probably will do it just because they have the tools inside of them to get through all their obstacles in the gauntlet you have to run. That’s the way it is for a lot of occupations. It’s certainly more so in the creative endeavor just because you really have to spark something inside of you and every day to create something that didn’t exist before you sat down and wrote about it, which is a little bit different from other occupations. It’s just that inner drive. Luckily, I had some of that because I can’t imagine my life not . I’ve been doing it ever since I was a kid. It’s something that really speaks to me. I think for most writers, they’ll tell you the same thing.

Zibby: I would argue that you have more than just some drive at this point. It seems to me you must have bookshelves, a whole room, just to have a copy of each of your books. I would argue that would be a pretty powerful drive.

David: I’m buying the premium gas.

Zibby: Exactly, you definitely went for the 93. What is your next book? What are you working on now, if not the next one?

David: I’m doing something different. I usually never work on two books at the same time, but I’m working on two books now. One is a sequel to a series with an FBI agent named Atlee Pine. One week, I’m in contempory times, 2020. Then the next week, I’m working on a sequel to a book that came out last summer, summer of last year, One Good Deed. That book’s set in 1949. One week, I’m in 2020. Another week, I’m in 1949. I have my own personal time machine. It’s kind of weird, but it’s working.

Zibby: Wow, that’s impressive. I know you’ve had a lot of your books become films. Do you have any Hollywood projects going on at the moment? Obviously not right now, but any coming up or anything you’re excited about?

David: We have two. One is Amos Decker. I sold the film rights and television rights to Amos Decker. , they’re a really big production company that has done a slew of terrific movies and won a lot of Academy Awards for. They’re very excited about turning Decker, I believe, into a television series. Then I have another television series that’s in development that’s not based on one of my books. It’s based on an idea and a character that I came up with. That is moving slowly but surely forward towards starting production. We’ll see. I know this over the years, it’s a crapshoot. Most of the projects don’t get done after a lot of work. The ones that come through, hopefully they’ll be good ones.

Zibby: Excellent. Thank you, David, for taking so much time on your pub day for talking to me. Congratulations on Walk the Wire and all of your supercharged output. Thanks for chatting with me.

David: I enjoyed it very much. I love talking to people about books. It’s great.

Zibby: Me too. That worked out well. Have a great day.

David: You too. Thanks.

Zibby: Thanks. Buh-bye.

David Baldacci, WALK THE WIRE