David Baldacci, the bestselling American author is telling me about his exploration of the tunnels under Edinburgh’s Old Town. The city is the setting for one of his popular books featuring Will Robie, the hitman the US government calls on to stop the people that the police, the FBI and military can’t.
“Yeah, Will Robie started out on his first mission in Edinburgh,” he says.
“Oh that’s nice. What was he doing here?”
Baldacci territory is espionage, dark arts, war zones, all populated by spooks, traitors, neo-Nazis and good guys on a mission to mete out justice to those who don’t have US interests at heart. Their job is to mop up the fallout of America’s geopolitical manoeuvrings, or “ferreting out problems before they become harmful” as Baldacci puts it.
Fast-paced and exhilarating, the former Washington attorney’s crime and espionage thrillers are international bestsellers, translated into more than 45 languages with 110 million copies in print worldwide.
His first novel, Absolute Power, published in 1996, was an instant hit, with Clint Eastwood and Gene Hackman bringing it to the big screen a year later. Since then the 53-year-old has written 30 thrillers, two children’s books, the TV version of his King and Maxwell novels is on UK TV and the film of his non-thriller novel, Wish You Well, is due out this year.
As well as a huge international following, Baldacci has friends in high places. Bill Clinton said The Simple Truth was his favourite novel of 1999. “I love that. He has excellent taste in books,” says Baldacci. And he has friends in secret places too. His contacts include members of the CIA, FBI, NSA and other organisations that hide in the further reaches of acronymity.
“One time I thought I had gone beyond the bounds of plausibility and wanted a friend to read what I’d written in case I’d gone too far. He said, ‘I don’t need to, pretty much if you can imagine it, we’ve already done it’.”
On another occasion Baldacci was detained by police after train passengers overheard him asking a medical examiner details on how to poison someone and get away with it.
This special relationship with agents and the military means Baldacci gets an insider’s view, while the agencies get a hand with recruitment.
“We know the CIA and NSA, but the lesser-known intelligence agencies want applicants too. For example, the National Geospatial Intelligence Agency, who make spy satellites and are the eyes of US intelligence. They’re a huge agency with a huge budget.
“The US intelligence business employs about a million people; the next biggest employer is Walmart. They have a $100 million budget and 10,000 companies,” he says.
Don’t they overstep the boundaries sometimes?
“I think occasionally they do. Listening to conversations of US citizens for example, but you could lay the same accusation on Google and Facebook. We have forsaken our privacy needlessly,” he says. “I’m pretty sure they’re listening to me, but I just go and tell my stories.
“People call us the lone remaining super power,” he continues. “We have a responsibility but we have learned while it’s relatively easy to win a war on the ground you won’t win over a country. The US is a war-weary country; we’ve had 14 years of combat and huge debts. We have to pick our battles. Russia at the moment, for example, I’m all for letting economic sanctions work. Start beefing up our renewable energy instead, that’s far better than sending troops over.”
As well as listening to those who listen, Baldacci enjoys a spot of military training, jumping out of planes at Fort Benning in Georgia, riding in Humbees and sharpening his sniper skills on the rifle range.
“I don’t kill anybody, but I try to get a sense of what they do so I can write about it in detail. I don’t want to Wikipedia it. I want to be authentic,” he says.
“My books are successful because people like being scared, but not totally. I give them a peek into the powerful forces they know control their lives, and I tell a good story with flawed characters who fail and pick themselves up. I make them human. You can be trained to kill, but you can’t take every shred of humanity out of someone.”
Baldacci lives near Washington, with his wife of 22 years and two children, aged 18 and 20. It was with Michelle, a former legal assistant, that he discussed whether to give up the Washington law firm day job when Absolute Power hit the target.
“I stayed on another eight months because I wanted to be sure. It was surreal. I had written for years with no success, short stories and screenplays... People talk about overnight success but it took me about 6,000 nights of writing to get there.”
Baldacci has been writing since his mother handed him a notebook to write down the stories he was always telling his family. That was in Richmond, Virginia, where she worked at a telephone exchange and his dad (whose family hailed from Barga in Tuscany) was a mechanic. The couple valued education and encouraged their children to read voraciously. All three went on to college, the first Baldaccis to do so.
“Yep, I’m blue collar. My parents didn’t get to college and never made a lot of money. We would go to the library and I was able to see the world through books. I loved Agatha Christie, for the plot complexity, then Truman Capote, Flannery O’Connor, William Faulkner and William Styron; books about relationships and places.”
Baldacci has always been drawn to stories of his native Virginia and places that limited ambitions yet enriched experience. He went back to his roots in 2001 with Wish You Well, his first non-thriller set in a West Virginia coalmining community, like the one his mother came from.
“She had Scottish roots and lived in the mountains of Dickenson County, South West Virginia.”
Baldacci says Wish You Well is his To Kill a Mockingbird. “It’s a personal story for me in the setting. My mother’s two brothers went down the mines when they were teenagers. One died down there and the other died early of black lung. Neither of them finished school.”
Which brings us to the Wish You Well Foundation, a philanthropic project the Baldaccis established to promote reading and combat illiteracy in the US.
“I became a writer so I know what the lack of reading would have meant to me. Literacy is the greatest skill you can have because without it you can’t think. Without it you are a drag on society, doomed.”
Baldacci’s Wish You Well website estimates that half the US population is “literacy challenged”, that is “unable to read or reading at below-average level”.
“We have a big problem. If people can’t read they can’t earn a living and get into drugs and crime. The vast majority of the jail population never finished high school and there’s not enough will to do something about it. People think education is someone else’s problem. They don’t care. The wealthy can buy the best of the best for their kids, pay for their education.
“Capitalism is not about redistribution, it’s about accumulating wealth in small pockets. And it’s getting worse. As Warren Buffet [business magnate, philanthropist and second only to Bill Gates in wealth in the US,] says, ‘there’s class warfare going on, and we [the rich] are winning’.”
So, with his fast-talking eloquence and all-American smile, has he ever thought about going into politics?
“I support Democratic candidates and toyed with the idea, but my wife said if you want to do that, you have to get a new wife. She didn’t want to be scrutinised all the time.”
Luckily for thriller lovers, it looks like he’ll stick to the writing.
• The Target by David Baldacci is out now, published by Pan Macmillan, £16.99; King and Maxwell is on Alibi, through Sky, Virgin and BT; Wish You Well is on general release later this year; The Finisher (Scholastic Press, 2014), Baldacci’s first fantasy novel for young readers, will be published later this year.