Baldacci: On Reading, Writing & Literacy

Mar 2, 2017

With over 110 million copies of his books in print, chances are you’ve heard the name of author David Baldacci. His first book, Absolute Power, was adapted into a film starring Clint Eastwood. His books have been published in over 45 languages and in more than 80 countries. But it was because of this literary success that Baldacci wanted to avoid preferential treatment when it came to publishing his Vega Jane series for young readers.

“I've been so successful in the thriller mystery world that I when I started writing this fantasy series, I finished the first one, The Finisher, and I didn't want to publish it just because my name was on it and they thought they could sell a bunch of copies," says Baldacci. "So I came up with the name Janus Pope. And I sent it out to publishers under that name. I wanted them to buy the book for the book in the story, not because I wrote it. So I wanted them to think it was a new writer and a new book.”

Baldacci says that that’s exactly what the publishing house--Scholastic Press--thought. They read the book, loved it, and bought it.

“And then when I went to New York to meet with them they were quite surprised that it was me. They thought that I was a fresh new writer who was from England, the way the book is written sort of in the terms that I use in the language and the colloquialisms. So they were astonished," he says. "But it was validation on my part; they are great children's publisher. They loved the story for the story, not because they thought I had written it.”

Now six of Baldacci’s more than 40 titles have been written for young readers. And although the subjects might be different, Baldacci says the writing process for young people is not so different than his writing for his adult readers. 

“You can't write down to kids, certainly. That's, you know, a death wish because they are way too smart and sophisticated; you've got to bring your A-game as a writer: your plotting, your character development, your dialogue, your scenes settings," explains Baldacci. "There may be some choices about certain scenes: the level of violence you might want to have or a certain word choices that you might be a little more restrained about. But other than that it's telling a story.”

Baldacci says that even though his books for young readers are written with teens in mind, they have wide appeal to various age groups.

“Certainly I want kids to read them. I think I was a reader early in life and I've been a reader for life. It's made me a much better, more well-rounded person and I think if more people read we would have a much better world,” he says.

A better world is something Baldacci's characters want, too. Especially those in his Vega Jane fantasy series.

"I've always thought you could do fantasy two different ways, generally speaking. One, you can go really big--as far as the world--and shallow because you have so much ground to cover or you can go small and really deep. And I decided to go a very small stage, if you will, and very deep. It's an alternative universe, you have no idea what this place really is. It's kind of like my metaphor for planet Earth being you know the only source of human life," Baldacci explains. "Well as the book goes on Vega Jane realizes that this is all a lie, it's all been fabricated, everything about me where I came from, everybody that here, everything that's here is a total fabrication. It's a lie. And she wants to get out because she figures she wants to go find the truth."

Baldacci points to his own experience in reading and having access to books as a fundamental change in his life. He says that he first became a writer because he was an early reader. So 16 years ago, he and his wife, Michelle, started the Wish You Well Foundation to support adult and family literacy.

“We fund literacy programs and organizations across the country. We get about five or six thousand grant applications a year from everybody across the U.S. and we fund as many as we can," he says. "We’ve funded hundreds in all 50 states and poured millions of dollars into it with one fundamental goal of eradicating illiteracy in the U.S.”

Baldacci says that illiteracy and poverty go hand-in-hand, and by partnering with Feeding America, a nationwide network of food banks, his foundation has collected and distributed about two million books.

“And so they go right into the hands of people who may never have owned a book may never have had a book or read a book. But now they have something and that can change their lives. You know they need food to live obviously. But having books in your life can break you out of that cycle of poverty particularly young people," says Baldacci. "And I've seen many bad results from no books being in a home. I've never seen a bad result from books being in a home.”

David Baldacci is on tour for the third book in his Vega Jane series for young readers, The Width of the World. He will be in Wichita this Sunday, March 5. The event, hosted by Watermark Books, starts at 3 p.m. at Abode Venue.

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Beth Golay is the director of marketing and digital content at KMUW and host of the Marginalia podcast. Follow her on Twitter @BethGolay.