David Baldacci may have written some of the best-selling thriller novels of all time — full of danger, intrigue and gripping tension. But in conversation, you’d never know it.
He’s a generous listener, a soft-spoken and disarmingly unpresuming man of broad interests, although discussions of reading and writing elicit the most passion.
Those who attend this year’s Authors & Illustrators Dinner will get a chance to hear him speak in person, when Baldacci — who described his boyhood self as a “library rat” — will take the stage to discuss why libraries matter so much. The $120-a-plate fundraiser for the Fort Vancouver Regional Library Foundation begins at 5:30 p.m. Oct. 17 at the Hilton Vancouver Washington.
“Probably the best thing I ever did was going to the library to read,” Baldacci said. “I checked out as many books as I could and read them all and then went back for more.”
He grew up in a working-class family in Richmond, Va., but knew he wanted something beyond the quotidian. He said he “saw the whole world through books” and began writing in his boyhood, using a notebook given to him by his mother. Words connected him with the larger world — and with millions of people eager for his stories.
His first novel, “Absolute Power,” was made into a 1997 film starring Gene Hackman and Clint Eastwood. Baldacci’s bestselling novels have brought him such wealth that he never has to write another book, but he said he wouldn’t consider that a life worth living.
“My writing is not a job or a hobby or a passion. It’s who I am,” Baldacci said. “The only time I’m really unhappy is when I don’t have a story to work on.”
Although Baldacci’s name is familiar to millions of people, most wouldn’t recognize his face. Baldacci joked that he’s an “anonymous celebrity” because he doesn’t get mobbed in public like actors or athletes. That’s just fine with him. He said he’s an introvert who prefers to write stories in solitude — most of the time.
“I was a trial lawyer for 10 years,” Baldacci said. “I was a ham. I loved to stand in front of people and say my bit and perform.”
Baldacci has been speaking at libraries around the country for decades. He said he enjoys taking the podium and hopes to have people laughing but he does have some serious points.
“Libraries are under assault all over the country and we need to push back,” Baldacci said.
When Baldacci and his wife moved to the Virginia town where they now live, the couple made a significant contribution to the communitywide effort to build a local library. The new library opened in 2007 and is now one of 23 libraries in the Fairfax County, Va., library system. (Every once in a while, Baldacci said he can be spotted at a table in the back, at home among the stacks.) The Baldaccis’ philanthropy also includes the Wish You Well Foundation, which they founded in 2002 to fund literacy programs across America.
Baldacci said he loves being surrounded by books (and not just his own). He said he draws literary inspiration from an array of iconic authors, most notably the Southern greats like Flannery O’Connor, Eudora Welty, Harper Lee, Truman Capote, Anne Tyler and John Irving.
He’s particularly spellbound by Mark Twain. In 2019, he donated $1 million to the Mark Twain House and Museum in Hartford, Conn.
At the moment, Baldacci said he’s reading James Baldwin’s essays in “The Price of a Ticket” and “The Fire Next Time.” He said Baldwin is “the most eloquent writer I’ve ever read, bar none.”
Baldacci said he sometimes encounters people who are excited to meet a well-known author but confess that they don’t read for pleasure. Baldacci said that he used to let those comments pass in the spirit of Southern courtesy, but now he speaks up. He tells the non-readers he’s very sorry for them because their lives are profoundly less for not opening a book. Occasionally, Baldacci said that his straightforward talk spurs a response and people really do pick up a book and get hooked.
Maybe they’ll read one of Baldacci’s high-stakes thrillers, although that’s not the only genre that Baldacci has mastered. He’s also the author of a best-selling fantasy series for young adults, as well as several other books for young readers. Two of his novels have been made into Hallmark Hall of Fame movies. Baldacci said he doesn’t think of himself as confined to any one category; he’s just a storyteller, plain and simple.
“My curiosities are quite broad and deep, and my writing reflects that,” Baldacci said. “It’s a big world out there and as a storyteller, you can explore every facet. I enjoy that freedom.”