- 26 Aug 11
Despite sniping from the literatti, David Baldacci is an almost permanent fixture at the top of the bestsellers list. He talks to Stuart Clark about conpiracy theories, Hollywood, the Presidents he’s met and the accuracy or otherwise of TV cop shows.
Chances are you wouldn’t be able to pick him out of a line-up, but with 110 million books sold, thriller writer David Baldacci is one of the most read men on the planet.
In the 15 years since he gave up law to become a full-time writer, he’s been translated into 45 different languages, had one of his political potboilers, Absolute Power, turned into a film by Clint Eastwood and inked a deal with the producers of NCIS to bring two of his most enduring and endearing characters, Sean King and Michelle Maxwell, to the small screen.
“I’ve been an ardent watcher of NCIS since it premiered in 2003, so when they came to me and said, ‘We’d like to do a CBS series based around Sean and Michelle’ it was a no-brainer,” enthuses the disgustingly youthful looking 51-year-old. “They also feature again in my latest book, The Sixth Man, so the timing couldn’t be better.”
Will David be on-set to ensure that the transition from page to telly goes smoothly?
“What usually happens is that you sign over the rights, collect the money and keep your fingers crossed that what ends up on the screen isn’t too embarrassing,” he resumes. “I’m delighted though because CBS have taken me on as a consultant, which means I’ll be able to go on-set whenever I want.
“I also got to go on-set and meet Clint Eastwood several times during the making of Absolute Power, but you don’t tell somebody like that how to do their job! I had the screenwriter, William Goldman, call me up from time to time while he was doing the script. Once it was to see if I could think of a way to keep Eastwood’s character, who dies in the book, alive for the whole of the film. My reaction was 1) You’re the guy with two Academy Awards, 2) They’re paying you to do it and 3) I spent three years writing the book in order to kill him off, so I’ll be damned if I’m resurrecting him now!”
Being a big fan of shows like CSI, Law & Order, Criminal Minds and Dexter – spot the person who doesn’t get out very much – I’ve always wondered how procedurally accurate they are.
“Well, I’ve yet to come across a serial killer who’s working as a police blood-splatter analyst, but I guess it’s something they might keep quiet about,” he says, referring to Miami Police Department employee Dexter Morgan. “If you’re talking procedure, the way Law & Order portrays the New York court system is pretty accurate. It really does have that frantic assembly-line feel.
“The forensics side of things is where liberties tend to be taken. For instance, no matter how loudly you shout at the lab technician it’s going to take at least three weeks for the toxicology reports to come back. Too slow for a 48 minutes plus commercials cop show, but that’s how it works. I know lawyers who are frightened to go into court without flashy CSI-style evidence because that’s what juries expect to be presented with. And if they’re not, they think the case is flawed.
“It’s one of many reasons why there are a lot of innocent people in American jails and a lot of guilty ones walking around free.”
In time-honoured David Baldacci tradition, The Sixth Man boasts the mother of all conspiracy theories, which goes all the way to 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue. How murky does he think American intelligence gets in real life?
“There are undoubtedly organisations within organisations, which officially don’t exist,” he proffers. “That’s just the way the world works these days. To be honest, Washington DC is one big conspiracy theory. There are a lot of people with power and influence trying to make things play out the way they want them to. Some do it inside the law, others outside of it with various degrees inbetween.”
Do different Presidents have different levels of control and autonomy?
“Yes, I think it depends a lot on the personality and the fortitude of the individual. Some Presidents are happy to go in and let other people run things for them. There’s a great Ronald Reagan quote from when he was in hospital recovering from the assassination attempt. The nurse was saying, ‘We’ll do our best to get you back on your feet Mr. President, so you can start running the country again’ and he goes, ‘That’s alright, I’ve got three guys doing that for me!’ The micro-managers would be Jimmy Carter, Bill Clinton who wanted to have his hands in every pie – sometimes that can we a weakness as well as a strength – and Barack Obama, who’s possibly the most intellectually curious of all the Presidents I’ve lived through. I have a lot of time as well for Bush Senior – he views what’s happening to the Republican Party at the moment with great horror and astonishment. I suspect that he’d rather Obama be re-elected than have to attend President Palin’s inauguration!”
Baldacci was the subject of a vicious right-wing mauling after suggesting in a previous book, The Camel Club, that America’s terrorist problems were largely of their own making.
“I took a lot of heat for that,” he concedes. “I rarely make political points in my books, but felt I had to address the fact that we’d entered into a needless and unnecessary war. Yes, Saddam Hussein was a horrible man who the world’s probably better off without, but there are a lot of horrible leaders and I don’t think it’s the United States’ job to take them out. Do you guys know Glen Beck here?”
Ah yes, the charming TV and radio commentator who likened the dead Norwegian teens to the Hitler Youth.
“Yeah, well he’s done a job on me a couple of times. If you upset him and his followers you know you’re doing something right!”
Despite routinely topping the bestsellers list, David Baldacci hasn’t always impressed the critics – Hot Press’ Paul Nolan included! Personally, I think the Nolanster’s entitled to his opinion, even though it’s wrong.
“There’s certainly some snobbery there between literary fiction and commercial fiction,” Baldacci observes. “I tend to think that internal battle weakens the whole industry. Isn’t the goal to have people read more books? Music and film reviewers do it better – they judge a work by what it’s supposed to be and what it’s supposed to accomplish. With book reviewers if it’s not prize-worthy and enjoyed by more than 11 people, it’s shit. Well, I’m proud to be shit!”