In the world of literature, 'Absolute Power' is widely-known as the title of David Baldacci's first novel. Published in 1996, it became an international bestseller.
But in popular culture, ‘Absolute Power’ ultimately became the movie adaptation of the novel written by Baldacci, starred and directed by Clint Eastwood.
Since then, Baldacci has amassed a staggering 43 novels under his penmanship, and the list is still growing. All have been national and international bestsellers, many of which also were adapted for film or television. His novels, published in more than 45 languages in more than 80 countries, has sold 150 million copies worldwide.
Baldacci is to headline the James V. Brown Library's 18th Annual Author Gala, being held at the Community Arts Center in Williamsport, on Oct. 6. He also will be promoting publication of his most recent novel, "A Gambling Man."
The gala -- canceled in 2020 due to the COVID-19 pandemic -- is the library’s biggest fundraiser of the year. Tickets go on sale Aug. 2. at the Community Arts Center Box office.
NorthcentralPa.com was pleased for the opportunity to speak privately with the bestselling writer and screenwriter who, arguably, sits on the same pedestal as other well-known authors like Stephen King, Sue Grafton, or John Grisham.
To celebrate the James V. Brown Library’s October fundraiser, NorthcentralPa.com is sharing this first of two in-depth discussions with their featured speaker.
Many interviews have been done, but what is ‘unwritten’ about David Baldacci?
Where did inspiration for 'Absolute Power' come from, and do you credit any specific event or task which lead you to writing?
“I think that I had been writing at that point, for about 15 years. I'd written pretty much everything you could have written, and I decided to write this book about absolute power, and I spent three years writing it.
“I wrote it because I was interested in the office of the presidency. I was just, you know, a little kid when JFK was assassinated.
“But later, we all learn ‘Camelot’ was a sort of illusion; many twists and affairs during the course of his presidency, and even before that. And so, that made me think about, what if something bad happened during the course of these events? And then, it's not just the president, it's literally thousands of careers tied to that one person - if he goes down, everybody goes down.
“I thought about what the job of the Secret Service is - they're the ‘good guy’; their job is to protect this life, to make sure it doesn't end. But, what if they're thrust into a situation where they end the life of an innocent person while trying to protect the president?
"So, those moral conundrums, I thought, were pretty compelling.”
Your inspiration behind the original bestselling novel and film was an allusion to the Kennedy presidency. How did the publishing world react to your story?
“Spent three years writing this novel, putting everything into it that I learned over the course of writing for 15 years.
“I think what really worked for me was that I didn’t just wake up one day and decide ‘Let me give this writing thing a chance.’
“I wrote a book, sent it out. The reactions were overwhelming. They couldn't believe it was written by somebody who was a first time novelist, not knowing that I'd been in writing class for 15 years of my life. Basically, every day.
“None of that would have been possible if I hadn't put in those years of toil and labor and learning how to tell a story. There's no real substitute for that, because there isn't one. For writers, the key element is time - Time to put into learning to do this, because there's a billion different elements to write your story.
“And there's no way you can learn how to do that overnight. It's just trial and error; working through issues and problems; learning what works, what doesn't; learning your own style, getting the right voice. Those things take a long time.”
What is writing to you, besides a passion or a career?
“It is a craft - writing is a craft you are never going to master if you're just trying to get better with each story you write.
“For me, early on, I really went back, looked over the years [of his writings], and studied them. I felt like I was too wordy, too verbose, I would say. One thousand words, when I should have 710.
“So you get more economical. You pick better words, you build characters in an economical way. But the same time make them even more compelling. Your dialogue gets crisper and shorter.
“Those are sorts of things which take years, and years. It's a self-fulfilling prophecy that you are going to get better, because you're actually living this every day - You have the drive to keep learning, keep trying, to get better and better at your craft. Again, if it's just a paycheck, at some point the motivation is going to start to fade.
“This has been such a part of my life for so long, it really is a part of who my identity is - it's not like I can sort of separate myself from the writer.
“Just because of my own experience, you have to have this inner drive; almost an obsession. It's really hard to write anything well; it's certainly hard to write something that's going to captivate somebody to sit down and read it.
“And I've always been all in on this writing thing, it is what I've always wanted to do with my life. I spent decades doing something else because I couldn't make a living, writing but I was still writing full time and so I think it's really, it's an inner motor that you go the extra mile, you do the research, do the extra planning and thinking.
“I was watching a Hemingway piece that Ken Burns did, and he wrote the ending to one of his novels, I think, 40 different times, just to get it exactly right - That's an obsession.
“And I'm not saying all obsessions are good, but you really have to immerse yourself in this world to develop stories that people really love. And then if they love the story, they'll keep coming back and reading more and more. Eventually how you build your fan base and survive in this business over the years.”
If you say 'time' is key for writers, what do you do now to keep improving on your own talent?
“I think about it [writing] non stop, it's always in my head. That's where most of the story details come. I don't write long outlines detailing everything.
“I try to do immersive writing. So, I'll get up and prepare for that day. I'll usually go back and read the first couple of chapters of the novel, then read the preceding chapters I just finished. Just to get myself back into the flow, get the juices and creative aspects flowing again. Then, combine that with what I've probably been thinking and dreaming about the night before.
“And then, all of a sudden, it takes off, and I know where I want to go. I'll use some outlines to sort of make sure within each chapter that I have points I want to cover, and the information I have to convey in those scenes. Check those off to make sure that I've been consistent. So, I think my days are typical for being atypical - Not every day is the same.
“But, I found that that's not a bad thing. And, I understand a lot of writers write from outlines; there's nothing wrong with that if it works for you - Go for it.”
Through what type of a lens can you look at writing?
“I found with writing, it’s like learning how to drive a Formula One Car (a single-seat, open-cockpit, open-wheel formula racing car). You can go two ways: Read a book about how to drive a Formula One, or you can drive a Formula One. They're very two very different experiences.
“So, you can outline a book, but they don't tell you the pathway to write the book. Or, you can jump in and actually write the book.
“Different scenarios pop-up you never could have thought of during the course of writing an outline - like combat - and you have to react to it. Within seconds you have to come up with something which makes you creative to keep moving forward. I call it ‘writing in the moment’, and that has worked really well for me.”
Having adapted your own novel for feature film, which is better?
“Inevitably, the book is always better than the movie, I think.
“A good adaptation which came closest to being as good as the book was, Harper Lee’s ‘To Kill a Mockingbird,’ as an example. Or, ‘The Godfather.’
“But having experienced adapting one of my own novels for a feature film; so as a screenwriter, you take a 14 page novel, and you have to transform it into a 110 Page screenplay.
Indeed, Baldacci joins Harper Lee as one of the few talents in the world of literature with the ability to capture audiences on print, and the big screen.
What challenges existed the first time you had to adapt your own novel for film, while working with Clint Eastwood on the set of ‘Absolute Power?’
“First thing you ask yourself is, what do you cut, and what to believe? Then the question becomes about all the subplots, all the peripheral characters, which make a novel really fulfilling, compelling, and interesting. All that has to go because there's not enough time and money to film it.
“So, you have to pare down characters, combine characters, get rid of subplots which don't directly connect to the main plot, then push that forward at lightning speed.
“If you're comparing the two--it's almost like you're comparing the two--it’s almost as if you’re going in reverse. You know, the finished product came first, so now you reduce it to a sketch. That's what you take - you're adapting a novel to a screenplay.
What was it like, working with Clint Eastwood?
“[Eastwood is a] tall guy, but not as tall as you would think. Very lean, he was leaner than I thought. But from a directors perspective, sort of counterintuitive to his characters, like Dirty Harry, and some of his very soft spoken characters.
“You have to really listen carefully to actually hear him. He never raises his voice. He has had the same film crew for years - decades - so when he would be on the set, he was a director and star, which is really tough because as the director, he has to set up the entire shot to everything right."
“Actors have their marching orders,” he noted.
“[Eastwood] has to confer with all these people, make sure lighting and everything is ready to go. Then, he puts on his costume, steps in front of the camera, does his bit, gets back out, checks his shot - it's good - and you know if you want to do it again.
“And he did it all flawlessly, and very simply. I've been on a lot of film sets, this was the calmest film set I've ever been on.
“[He] knows what he's doing. There was never an element of fear, or ‘we're not going to get the shot,’ or, ‘we're not going to get today's work done.’
“There was never any of that. It was just a very pleasant atmosphere, and I have to tell you, that's not the norm.”
Watch for part two of NorthcentralPa's discussion with novelist David Baldacci, coming soon!