David Baldacci talks about 'Last Man Standing'
Q. You exhibit quite an extensive knowledge of the FBI in general and
specifically the Hostage Rescue Team (HRT). How did you do your research?
A. I had been fascinated by the HRT for some time and I wanted to make my main character, Web London, an HRT operator. I visited the HRT's headquarters, toured the facilities, spend time with HRT operators, asked a zillion questions, read everything I could find on them. I really wanted to get into their heads and hearts to bring it all to life on the pages. I think I succeeded.
Q. There's a nonfiction book out right now called Cold Zero by Christopher Whitcomb which is a first person account of life inside the FBI and the HRT. What do you think of his book and has he had any influence on you?
A. Cold Zero is wonderful. I read it in one sitting. A profound look at a very complex subject. Christopher Whitcomb was an enormous help to me, my main contact at HRT. My book is far better for his help and input.
Q. What was the most helpful thing Christopher Whitcomb told you? What was the most surprising?
A. He allowed me to get into the heads not only of the agents, but of the spouses, which I really wanted to do because I dealt with a lot of the spouses of the HRT guys in this book. Probably one of the most fascinating things we did was he brought a bunch of night vision equipment to my office, we went into my conference room, turned down all the lights and we looked at each other through these night vision goggles. And from that experience, I got one of the key little clues or red herrings in the novels that I used to pretty surprising effect. But for sitting there in the dark, I never would have gotten that. Overall, Chris just gave me some great insights into what these guys do and showed me that it's much more than the big guns they carry and the shootouts sometimes they have, but the mentality that the best thing these guys can do is to never have to fire their weapon. They use their wits instead of their weapons.
Q. What are the connections between Christopher Whitcomb and your main character, Web London?
A. Well, I had created Web long before I had met Chris. Physically, they resemble each other somewhat. Chris is very tall and Web is a tall guy and they're both very fit. But there the physical similarities probably end; Web is disfigured and has bullet wounds that thank god Chris doesn't have. But the mentality I guess, they're both very professional and they both have been through a lot. I don't think you can spend as many years in the HRT as Chris or Web London has done and not be affected by the work that they have to do. And they both tend to carry it inside, I'm not saying I know Chris extremely well, but he's a good friend of mine and I look forward to knowing him a lot better over the years, but I would imagine if he read Web London and looked at Web London, and has been through some of the same things that he has, I think he would say there's a little bit of Christopher Whitcomb in Web London. But I think it's there because Chris is very good at telling me the things that he's gone through and I in turn use that to breathe greater life into Web London.
Q. So did you change anything about Web London after you met Christopher Whitcomb?
A. No. I really didn't. I approached it that Web was going to be very professional, which he is, and that he's not a gun-happy guy and Chris Whitcomb is not a gun-happy guy. I think for both of them, success is when nobody gets hurt and that is when they accomplish their goals. So I think they certainly share that. But Chris overall gave me a feel for what it's like to be in the middle of a mission, how hard they train, little inside jokes that they have and sometimes how morbid they are. Just their release of tension that all these people are under. The fact that they have a family and how hard it is to be a spouse. I told Chris' wife that she must be a saint to have done it for so many years.
Q. You did quite a bit of research for Last Man Standing, as well as for your last novel, Wish You Well, but it must have been quite a different kind of research. Which was more difficult? Was either one more enjoyable for you? Is what you read different when writing such different kinds of novels?
A. I learned to ride a horse and fired machine guns, among other activities, while researching Last Man Standing. I read lots of books, interviewed my mother and recalled childhood memories while writing Wish You Well. Each book presents its own set of difficulties and challenges. Wish You Well was certainly a joy to write and was my most personally-inspired effort. Yet Last Man Standing was quite a thrill ride and that experience will stay with me as well.
Q. The main character of Last Man Standing, Web London, has such a unique name, does it have any special meaning for you? How do you come up with character names?
A. The name is very special and memorable. And the genesis may be revealed in a sequel. I try to fit names to characters, if that makes any sense. In my mind they are as real as flesh and blood. Interesting names are also a good way to distinguish characters.
Q. You say that Web London's name is both "special and memorable", what more can you tell us about the mystery of this unique name?
A. Well, it has to do with a character that's mentioned in Last Man Standing and that when and if, and I think it will be when, I write the sequel to this book, the genesis of his name will be explained. But the person who named him has already been mentioned in this book, I just don't tell you who it is, so it's for something down the road. It's like a teaser now.
Q. So, you're not going to tell us the big secret?
A. Right, I'm not. [laughs]
Q. Web London is also a very complex character, he quite nontraditional in what he does and how he acts, yet he is also quite sympathetic. How do you create a character with such depth? Does his character evolve as you write, or do you plan his development out before you write?
A. With each book I try to make my characters more complex. Characters who are original and memorable make a story so much more enjoyable. I remember characters over plots. I know some writers believe that character depth slows down people turning the pages. I say, "what's wrong with people slowing down and enjoying a story." How did it ever come to be a measure of a book's excellence that a reader could start and finish it in a couple of hours.
To create Web London you bring to bear a million small details laid out gradually to entice a reader to want to learn more about the man. Web's character really grew while I was writing the book. Towards the end I felt like I was just taking dictation when I was writing his dialogue. The character was directing me at that time.
Q. Family dynamics is one topic from which you seem unable to escape in all of your books, whether they be set in the hills of Virginia like Wish You Well or the gritty world of the inner city and the HRT like Last Man Standing. Why is that?
A. How can one ever escape family dynamics. I'm a great student of history, of the past and I'm a firm believer that family influences are far greater than some "experts" would have us believe. Because those influences are so subtle at times and many manifest themselves years later in completely unpredictable ways, I find it fascinating. Trying to explain a character's motivations in life without at least partially exploring their past and their family relations would be like trying to make lasagna without the pasta, it doesn't work.
Q. Have you ever considered creating a recurring character, like James Patterson's Alex Cross or Michael Connelly's Harry Bosch? What are the advantages and disadvantages to having a recurring character?
A. Web London may be my first attempt at that. I love the guy. Disadvantages-character stops growing, writer becomes complacent and predictable. Advantages-(if you can call it that) writer doesn't have to come up with a new major character each time.
Q. You say there may be a sequel. Where do you see Web London going? Will his next story focus on the HRT?
A. I see Web London growing as a character. I'm probably going to move away from HRT and put him into different environments. The way the book ends, without giving away the ending, sets up the direction in which Web London's going to be heading. I think that Web London is adaptable to lots of different scenarios.
Q. Wish You Well was chosen as the inaugural novel of the national reading program All America Reads. Will you tell us a little bit about the program and your involvement?
A. All America Reads is a nationwide reading project designed to encourage middle and high school students to read by focusing them on one book. Wish You Well was chosen as the inaugural book, which was quite an honor. Virtually every state in the country is involved in some way. And the American Library Association and the National Education association are also partners. It's quite a thrill to see kids reading and discussing something you wrote. For more information, check out AAR's website, www.allamericareads.org.
Q. What do you like most about meeting your fans? Have you ever learned something from one of them that you didn't know before?
A.I love going out on tour, it is very time consuming and I tend to be a homebody, it's hard being away from my family. I like going out on tour because I like talking to fans. And I tell you, it still surprises the heck out of me that somebody would stand in line just to get my signature on a book, even though I wrote it. I don't remember doing that, and I'm a voracious reader. So, I never take that stuff for granted and it's always a new thrill for me to go out.
I've learned a lot of things over the years. What surprises me is that the things that they remember from the book are not the things that I thought they would remember. I thought that other things would be more memorable, but sometimes readers fixate on things that I never really would. What that shows me is, you never really can tell, so every little detail you put it, you better put it in with your best effort because you never know what people are going to take away from it. Reader feedback is very important to me.
Q. What is the best question that anyone has ever asked at a book signing and what was your answer?
A. I just gave a speech and a book signing in Cincinnati in the middle of a tornado warning and while I was speaking, I had to incorporate the tornado sirens going off, because they were going off inside the building and they were deciding whether or not to evacuate the building. And they decided the people would probably be safer inside, even though the roof was starting to rip off the building. So I just kept going with my speech and I spoke the whole time. And I took questions and answers at the end and a gentlemen in the audience raised his hand and asked, "I want to know if prayer figures into your life at all." And I looked at him and I said, "Sir, I've been praying the whole time I've been up here." And I laughed.
Q. So was everything okay?
A. Well, as soon as the speech was over, the police came in and told us "You have 20 minutes to get to your home, because the Doppler radar shows us that there's a 20 minute break in the storm and after that all bets are off." So everybody evacuated.
Q. One of your fans and eNewsletter subscriber, Fran, wants to know, "How long does it take you to write each of your novels?"
A. It varies. At least a year, usually longer. Research on a novel takes at least four months.
Q. Can you tell us a little bit more about your writing habits? Do you have a place where you write? Do you have a special routine? How do you stay disciplined?
A. If I'm not writing, I'm not comfortable. I can write anywhere under any circumstances. I can write in a plane or a train or a boat. In a corner, with a screaming child in my lap, I've done all those things. If you wait for the perfect place to write, you'll never write anything because there's no such place.
I just approach it every day by doing something usually different. I don't sit and write every day, but if I'm not writing, I'm thinking about what I'm going to write about in very great detail. I'm taking notes or going out and interviewing people. Or sitting and staring at the ceiling, thinking about plotlines. That's all part of the process. I don't write a certain number of hours a day, I tend to think about things a lot, so when I'm writing, I'm very productive because I've thought everything through in my head. So I can sit down and write 15, 20 or 30 pages in one sitting because it's all there in my head and I've taken the time to think through all the details. A lot of people rush through the pages, and that's okay to do sometimes, as long as you realize you're going to have to do a lot of rewriting and I do that too, but often my best writing is done when I've really thought things through in my head, then I'm prepared and then off I go.
Q. So you don't write out a detailed outline?
No. When I'm writing script, which is what I was doing when you called me, I do very detailed scene breakdowns, that's totally different though.
David Baldacci talks about 'The Simple Truth'
Q: In The Simple Truth you return to writing about lawyers and corruption within our government's highest offices. Why did you decide to write about the legal world?
A: Foremost, because I know a lot about it. Also, in coming up with plots I look for classical dilemmas, interesting confrontations, ordinary people close to powerful epicenters. Political situations, lawyers, Washington, all allow for those creative elements. In my novels I try to have at least one character represent the "every person". It's a way to allow the reader to relate to the events taking place in the novel and also to have someone to root for (or against) as the case may be. Most stories need a moral linchpin as well, and there's always one of those (seen via a character) in my stories.
Q: The Supreme Court is constantly the subject of both fiction and non-fiction books. Why is our nation's highest court so captivating?
A: Because people hear about it all the time, but know almost absolutely nothing about it. People know about the presidency and the congress, but those nine black-robed justices are a complete enigma. Secrecy is always seductive, particularly when there is so much power concentrated in so few people. And the people who have served on the court over the years tend to be fascinating characters in their own right. As a novelist, I found much material simply in studying past courts and justices. It's also interesting to see the interplay between "justice" and the political and governing roles of the Court. As the Constitution says, the Court is an equal branch of government. And many of the decisions they make don't always have much to do with justice between the two parties in a case, as ironic as that sounds. I find that incredibly intriguing and think others will as well.
Q: Were you able to access "inside information" about the Supreme Court while doing research for this book? Did you learn anything new?
A: In all of my books I try to find out things that will make my stories unique and interesting. When I research I become a journalist. I do much research from books and written materials, but the best kind of research is person-to-person. If you want to find out how someone does his job, the manuals will only give you part of the story. Human beings are always adapting their skills, improving on what they do, and that information isn't often written down anywhere. You need to interview the people doing the job to see how it's really done. That's where you get the little details, the nuances that make a story fascinating, interesting to read, and appear more realistic.
With The Simple Truth I talked to people who worked at the Court, argued at the Court and who have studied the Court for many years. I'm also a member of the Supreme Court Bar, I've attended oral arguments there, and have had members of my law firms argue cases there. I learned a great deal I didn't know -- I don't think any one person could ever master the place. I tried to fill the novel with those details I thought would be most interesting to the reader. However, the reality is that ninety percent of the research I do does not end up in the book. But having amassed all of that knowledge allows me to put ten percent of the information in a way that does not interrupt the flow of the story. Books that tend to rip pages from textbooks and plunk them in the middle of a story do not, in my opinion, make for great reading. The goal is seamless integration and no writer ever gets it a hundred percent right, but all one can do is try. It takes a lot of work, but the end result is well worth it.
Q: All your novels in some way explore the concepts of power and corruption. What is at stake for your characters this time in The Simple Truth?
Q: For one character, Rufus Harms, his freedom and his life are at stake. Also, his honor. He was falsely imprisoned. Most of his life is already gone. He's trying to get back the little he has left. Nothing can ever make him whole, but that's often the case in real life when someone has suffered injustice and injury. The pain stays with you forever, but still, you have to go on. For another character, John Fiske, he needs to confront serious problems with his brother in order to get on with his life. Again, he will never be made whole, but his life will never be worth living until he works through these issues.
Q: You delve into complex family dynamics in your novel, particularly among brothers. Why did you create this tension?
A: Family relationships interest me greatly. They are, of course, highly personal, infuriating at times, complex, emotional and often impossible to ignore no matter how much we want to. People have to deal with these issues every day. They are the heart and soul of classical drama. Ever since there have been stories, there have been tales of families: suffering, struggling, fighting, loving, hating, killing. There are few subjects which strike a chord closer to the souls of us all. The Simple Truth has two sets of brother, both from very different walks of life. One set black, the other white. The brothers are very different from one another, they don't agree on much. But despite these difference they come to the other's aid when needed. They don't think about it too much, or analyze it too much, they just do it. Sometimes it's better to trust your core beliefs rather than rely on the hyperbolized psychobabble that permeates much of society today.
Q: One of your major characters, Rufus Harms, is framed by the government for a crime that he did not commit. Do you think that government conspiracies and cover-ups exist today?
A: Well, if they're done successfully, we'll never know, will we? Of course they exist, some on a bigger scale than others. The people perpetrating these conspiracies would, I think, take issue with your nomenclature. They are not conspiracies. They are people doing their job, with specialized knowledge not shared by the general public, with the goal of making things better, not worse for the rest of us. Sometimes the rationale is complete lunacy, but human beings have an infinite capability to rationalize any behavior no matter who suffers because of it. I would venture to say that many people who enter into "conspiracies" on behalf of the government believe themselves to be true patriots. Maybe they are, but that doesn't mean you have to trust them, particularly if you're one of the ones they want to sacrifice for the "greater good".
Q: The concept of "truth" is rarely simple. Why did you title your novel, The Simple Truth?
A: Because the older I get I can't find the Simple Truth anywhere, and I do look for it. I live near Washington, D.C., the capitol city of SPIN. Truth does not rule here, perception does. The concept of truth is sometimes merely who gets one set of facts out first. The problem is we have too much information in this information age. We have all this high tech media constantly bombarding our increasingly cluttered minds with so much that after awhile, people shut down. But they often will accept as fact the first thing they hear; it just sticks. That does not bode well for the concept of full and fair disclosure. These days particularly speed to disseminate seems to be the controlling factor. My advice to the media: SLOW DOWN, people will wait for the truth, just give them the chance.
Q: You consistently publish new novels every year. How do you produce new material so quickly? What inspired you this time?
A: It's very difficult to keep up this pace. It takes me from start to finish about eighteen months to produce a book. I know some writers who have told me they can write a novel in six months. It takes me six months just to adequately perform research for a novel. I will never sacrifice quality for quantity. I have scrupulously avoided the pitfall of entering into five and six book contracts to allow me the freedom to write at a comfortable pace. My inspiration this time was a law in this country that I feel is terribly unjust. And it's still the law and probably will always be the law. For me, it was the perfect example of why the highest court in the land is really not designed to deliver justice. The one place you think you can find it, and, poof, it's just not there. The other inspiration was the characters I created to fill this tale. My stories live and die by the characters. I think I come up with good plots, but I really rely heavily on the Luther Whitneys and Sidney Archers and LuAnn Tylers and Rufus Harms to make my stories compelling.
Q: Do you envision this book as a movie? If so, which actors would you cast as the principle characters?
A: I never envision any of my novels as movies. If you do then as a writer you tend to fall into the "screenplay disguised as a novel" trap. Hollywood is a trend town. As a novelist, if you try to follow the popular trends, by the time you've finished your manuscript you find yourself four trends behind.
It's a well-known fact that Hollywood fads travel at twice the speed of light. Thinking of the book as a movie is tempting but you'll find yourself twisting plot and creating characters to fulfill some cinematic goal rather than the goals of writing a good book. I've written screenplays before, and I think that my novels are very visual, and the dilemmas in my stories are classical enough to allow for film opportunities, but I'm in the book business. Bill Goldman, who wrote the screenplay for Absolute Power, said that adapting my novel for film was the hardest project he had ever undertaken in his long and incredibly successful career. I take that as the highest form of compliment. However, if Hollywood sees fit to make more of my novels into movies, God Bless them.
Q: You frequently travel across the country and lecture about being a bestselling novelist. What do people want to know most about your life?
A: Where do I get my ideas? Where do I write? How much money do I make? (Like all bestselling writers, more than I should I tell them) People want to know if my life has changed drastically. In some ways, yes, in some ways, no. I think I have the best case scenario: I'm a truly minor celebrity with complete anonymity who makes a good living at what he loves to do. I have no complaints, nor should I.
Q: What is next for you?
A: My next novel, which is taking a great deal of time because it's research intensive, even by my standards. I'm also working on a network TV series that I'm excited about. Last but certainly not least, I've also been doing a lot of charitable work the last few years, and giving workshops to kids interested in creative writing. My wife and I have set up scholarships for deserving students to pursue careers in writing and other creative arts. I'm very interested in major areas of life that will have a heavy impact on what kind of world we can expect to have ten, twenty, fifty years from now.
With two young children of my own, I've found that I have to think about "life" conditions beyond my own lifetime. As all parents know, that can be a very humbling, troubling and sobering revelation. I'm intensely interested in matters of education, equal opportunity and just helping to raise good kids. We read to them every day, show them there's a whole other world out there for them to explore. It's vast and wonderful, the power of the written word.
Unless otherwise stated, this interview was conducted at the time the book was first published, and is reproduced with permission of the publisher. This interview may not be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the copyright holder.
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