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David Baldacci: Thriller writer is happy with his prolific pace

It’s been 20 years since David Baldacci’s first novel was published. The boy who loved to write, then became a lawyer, had finally realized his dream of being an author.

Baldacci says he initially focused on short stories and screenplays and got lots of rejections. Finally, in 1996, he wrote “Absolute Power,” which became so successful, it was made into a movie directed by and starring Clint Eastwood. That “was a pretty surreal time in my life,” he says.

He was in his 30s so it didn’t change him, but “it’s been a huge 20-year ride. It’s gone by incredibly fast.”

Baldacci will share some of the stories along that ride when he speaks Thursday at the Literacy Coalition of Palm Beach County’s Love of Literacy Luncheon at the Kravis Center.

Baldacci, 55, has established a reputation as a prolific thriller writer and now churns out two novels a year.

What can he say? He just loves to write:

“It’s not a drudge, not a job. For many years I did it for free,” he says.

His next novel, “The Last Mile,” featuring FBI agent Amos Decker, will be released April 19.

Did Baldacci always want to be a writer? In short, yes.

However, he went to law school because he loved words and was a quick thinker and that seemed the perfect combo for that profession. He practiced law in Washington D.C. for 10 years, but after “Absolute Power” he gradually reduced his hours in the firm because of tours and other book-related commitments.

Baldacci says he had to make a decision so “my wife and I sat down, and I said, ‘If this doesn’t work out I can always go back to practicing law.’”

It was a decision that began when his mom gave him a notebook in elementary school. In those days, as with many children, his focus was fantasy. But growing up in Virginia, he says his stories moved on to people and places. “For me it was my neighborhood, friends, things I saw in my family — those were the things I focused on,” he says.

Baldacci has cemented his reputation as thriller writer who works with some recurring characters — special agent John Puller, assassin Will Robie, private eyes King and Maxwell (which was also a TNT series). And there always seems to be a conspiracy of some sort in those books. So, is he a conspiracy theorist?

“A conspiracy is defined as more than one person working together to further an agenda,” he says, and cites Washington as a clear example of a hotbed of conspiracy.

“I try to temper it with plausibility — fortunately for me and unfortunately for the world, plausibility is limited only by my imagination,” he says, laughing.

Baldacci also has made the leap to writing for younger readers. That journey began with him making up bedtime stories at his now-adult daughter’s request and from that came the “Freddy and the French Fries” series.

He was approached by Scholastic to write the finale for “The 39 Clues” — a project in which different writers were asked to each pen a book in the series. Before taking on the project, his questions included “Can I kill people?” and “Is there anybody I can’t kill?” He says the Scholastic folks got a little nervous, but soon realized he was joking.

For those folks who dream of being a writer, Baldacci’s advice is simple: “You really have to like to tell stories and work with words and be curious. Write about what you know about; write what you would like to know about. Get out and explore those areas and learn about them. I say that because 99 percent of people who start a book never finish. If you find something you’re interested in, you’re more apt to finish.”

Also a philanthropist, Baldacci is involved in a variety of organizations and in 2002 he and his wife, Michelle, started the Wish You Well Foundation to give grants to organizations that promote literacy.

The organization was inspired by Baldacci’s book of the same name, which represents a break from his usual genre. “Wish You Well” harkens back to the 1940s and the challenges of life in the mountains of Virginia. He says it was based in part on the stories he heard from his maternal grandmother who lived in Southwest Virginia.

“People showing resiliency and overcoming challenge seemed appropriate for the name of the foundation. … I have great belief in the resilience of the human spirit but that doesn’t mean we can’t give them a helping hand sometimes,” he says.

What’s one thing about Baldacci that might surprise people? Whenever writer’s block hits, “I take a shower. I can’t tell how many plot lines I’ve worked out in the shower. And the added benefit of it is that I’m always clean,” he says with a laugh.

Baldacci says he’s looking forward to speaking in Palm Beach County.

“I’m just a guy who likes chasing the next story,” he says, “that’s what really drives me.”

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