David Baldacci Talks Last Man Standing

David Baldacci was born in Virginia, in 1960 where he continues to reside. He received a Bachelor of Arts in political science from Virginia Commonwealth University and a Juris Doctor from the University of Virginia. He practiced law for nine years in Washington, D.C., as both a trial and a corporate lawyer.

He has published seven novels -- Wish You Well, Absolute Power, Total Control, The Winner, The Simple Truth, Saving Faith, and Last Man Standing. He has also published a novella for the Dutch entitled Office Hours, written for Holland's Year 2000 "Month of the Thriller." Baldacci was the featured writer for this year's celebration. His works have also been published in the Washington Post, USA Today Magazine, Britain's Tatler Magazine and New Statesman, UVA Lawyer, Italy's Panorama Magazine, and Germany's Welt am Sonntag. He has also authored six original screenplays.

His latest novel is Last Man Standing, an explosive psychological thriller about Web London, a member of the FBI's elite Hostage Rescue Team, who desperate to find answers-from the secret terrors he has kept from himself to his unbearable guilt.

Q. You exhibit quite an extensive knowledge of the FBI in general and specifically the Hostage Rescue Team (HRT). How did you do your research?

Cover of Last Man Standing by David Baldacci
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A. I had been fascinated by the HRT for some time and I wanted to make my main character, Web London, an HRT operator. I visited the HRT's headquarters, toured the facilities, spend time with HRT operators, asked a zillion questions, read everything I could find on them. I really wanted to get into their heads and hearts to bring it all to life on the pages. I think I succeeded.

Q. There's a nonfiction book out right now called Cold Zero by Christopher Whitcomb which is a first person account of life inside the FBI and the HRT. What do you think of his book and has he had any influence on you?
A. Cold Zero is wonderful. I read it in one sitting. A profound look at a very complex subject. Christopher Whitcomb was an enormous help to me, my main contact at HRT. My book is far better for his help and input.

Q. What was the most helpful thing Christopher Whitcomb told you? What was the most surprising?
A. He allowed me to get into the heads not only of the agents, but of the spouses, which I really wanted to do because I dealt with a lot of the spouses of the HRT guys in this book. Probably one of the most fascinating things we did was he brought a bunch of night vision equipment to my office, we went into my conference room, turned down all the lights and we looked at each other through these night vision goggles. And from that experience, I got one of the key little clues or red herrings in the novels that I used to pretty surprising effect. But for sitting there in the dark, I never would have gotten that. Overall, Chris just gave me some great insights into what these guys do and showed me that it's much more than the big guns they carry and the shootouts sometimes they have, but the mentality that the best thing these guys can do is to never have to fire their weapon. They use their wits instead of their weapons.

Q. What are the connections between Christopher Whitcomb and your main character, Web London?
A. Well, I had created Web long before I had met Chris. Physically, they resemble each other somewhat. Chris is very tall and Web is a tall guy and they're both very fit. But there the physical similarities probably end; Web is disfigured and has bullet wounds that thank god Chris doesn't have. But the mentality I guess, they're both very professional and they both have been through a lot. I don't think you can spend as many years in the HRT as Chris or Web London has done and not be affected by the work that they have to do. And they both tend to carry it inside, I'm not saying I know Chris extremely well, but he's a good friend of mine and I look forward to knowing him a lot better over the years, but I would imagine if he read Web London and looked at Web London, and has been through some of the same things that he has, I think he would say there's a little bit of Christopher Whitcomb in Web London. But I think it's there because Chris is very good at telling me the things that he's gone through and I in turn use that to breathe greater life into Web London.

Q. So did you change anything about Web London after you met Christopher Whitcomb?
A. No. I really didn't. I approached it that Web was going to be very professional, which he did and that he's not a gun-happy guy and Chris Whitcomb is not a gun-happy guy. I think for both of them, success is when nobody gets hurt and that is when they accomplish their goals. So I think they certainly share that. But Chris overall gave me a feel for what it's like to be in the middle of a mission, how hard they train, little inside jokes that they have and sometimes how morbid they are. Just their release of tension that all these people are under. The fact that they have a family and how hard it is to be a spouse. I told Chris' wife that she must be a saint to have done it for so many years.

Q. You did quite a bit of research for Last Man Standing, as well as for your last novel, Wish You Well, but it must have been quite a different kind of research. Which was more difficult? Was either one more enjoyable for you? Is what you read different when writing such different kinds of novels?
A. I learned to rid a horse and fired machine guns, among other activities, while researching Last Man Standing. I read lots of books, interviewed my mother and recalled childhood memories while writing Wish You Well. Eack book presents its own set of difficulties and challenges. Wish You Well was certainly a joy to write and was my most personally-inspired effort. Yet Last Man Standing was quite a thrill ride and that experience will stay with me as well.

Q. The main character of Last Man Standing, Web London, has such a unique name, does it have any special meaning for you? How do you come up with character names?
A. The name is very special and memorable. And the genesis may be revealed in a sequel. I try to fit names to characters, if that makes any sense. In my mind they are as real as flesh and blood. Interesting names are also a good way to distinguish characters.

Q. You say that Web London's name is both "special and memorable", what more can you tell us about the mystery of this unique name?
A. Well, it has to do with a character that's mentioned in Last Man Standing and that when and if, and I think it will be when, I write the sequel to this book, the genesis of his name will be explained. But the person who named him has already been mentioned in this book, I just don't tell you who it is, so it's for something down the road. It's like a teaser now.

Q. So, you're not going to tell us the big secret?
A. Right, I'm not. [laughs]

Q. Web London is also a very complex character, he quite nontraditional in what he does and how he acts, yet he is also quite sympathetic. How do you create a character with such depth? Does his character evolve as you write, or do you plan his development out before you write?
A. With each book I try to make my characters more complex. Characters who are original and memorable make a story so much more enjoyable. I remember characters over plots. I know some writers believe that character depth slows down people turning the pages. I say, "what's wrong with people slowing down and enjoying a story." How did it ever come to be a measure of a book's excellence that a reader could start and finish it in a couple of hours.

To create Web London you bring to bear a million small details laid out gradually to entice a reader to want to learn more about the man. Web's character really grew while I was writing the book. Towards the end I felt like I was just taking dictation when I was writing his dialogue. The character was directing me at that time.

Q. Family dynamics is one topic from which you seem unable to escape in all of your books, whether they be set in the hills of Virginia like Wish You Well or the gritty world of the inner city and the HRT like Last Man Standing. Why is that?
A. How can one ever escape family dynamics. I'm a great student of history, of the past and I'm a firm believer that family influences are far greater thn some "experts" would have us believe. Because those influences are so subtle at times and many manifest themselves years later in completely unpredictable ways, I find it fascinating. Trying to explain a character's motivations in life without at least partially exploring their past and their family relations would be like trying to make lasagna without the pasta, it doesn't work.

Q. Have you ever considered creating a recurring character, like James Patterson's Alex Cross or Michael Connelly's Harry Bosch? What are the advantages and disadvantages to having a recurring character?
A. Web London may be my first attempt at that. I love the guy. Disadvantages-character stops growing, writer becomes complacent and predictable. Advantages-(if you can call it that) writer doesn't have to come up with a new major character each time.

Q. You say there may be a sequel. Where do you see Web London going? Will his next story focus on the HRT?
A. I see Web London growing as a character. I'm probably going to move away from HRT and put him into different environments. The way the book ends, without giving away the ending, sets up the direction in which Web London's going to be heading. I think that Web London is adaptable to lots of different scenarios.

Q. Wish You Well was chosen as the inaugural novel of the national reading program All America Reads. Will you tell us a little bit about the program and your involvement?
A. All America Reads is a nationwide reading project designed to encourage middle and high school students to read by focusing them on one book. Wish You Well was chosen as the inaugural book, which was quite an honor. Virtually every state in the country is involved in some way. And the American Library Association and the National Education association are also partners. It's quite a thrill to see kids reading and discussing something you wrote. For more information, check out AAR's website, www.allamericareads.org.

Q.You're about to start your book tour for Last Man Standing.
A. Yes.

Q.What do you like most about meeting your fans? Have you ever learned something from one of them that you didn't know before?
A.I love going out on tour, it is very time consuming and I tend to be a homebody, it's hard being away from my family. I like going out on tour because I like talking to fans. And I tell you, it still surprises the heck out of me that somebody would stand in line just to get my signature on a book, even though I wrote it. I don't remember doing that, and I'm a voracious reader. So, I never take that stuff for granted and it's always a new thrill for me to go out.

I've learned a lot of things over the years. What surprises me is that the things that they remember from the book are not the things that I thought they would remember. I thought that other things would be more memorable, but sometimes readers fixate on things that I never really would. What that shows me is, you never really can tell, so every little detail you put it, you better put it in with your best effort because you never know what people are going to take away from it. Reader feedback is very important to me.

Q.What is the best question that anyone has ever asked at a book signing and what was your answer?
A.I just gave a speech and a book signing in Cincinnati and I did in the middle of a tornado warning and while I was speaking, I had to incorporate the tornado sirens going off, because they were going off inside the building and they were deciding whether or not to evacuate the building. And they decided the people would probably be safer inside, even though the roof was starting to rip off the building. So I just kept going with my speech and I spoke the whole time. And I took questions and answers at the end and a gentlemen in the audience raised his hand and asked, "I want to know if prayer figures into your life at all." And I looked at him and I said, "Sir, I've been praying the whole time I've been up here." And I laughed.

Q.So was everything okay?
A.Well, as soon as the speech was over, the police came in and told us "You have 20 minutes to get to your home, because the Doppler radar shows us that there's a 20 minute break in the storm and after that all bets are off." So everybody evacuated.

Q. One of your fans and eNewsletter subscriber, Fran, wants to know, "How long does it take you to write each of your novels?"
A. It varies. At least a year, usually longer. Research on a novel takes at least four months.

Q. Can you tell us a little bit more about your writing habits? Do you have a place where you write? Do you have a special routine? How do you stay disciplined?
A.If I'm not writing, I'm not comfortable. I can write anywhere under any circumstances. I can write in a plane or a train or a boat. In a corner, with a screaming child in my lap, I've done all those things. If you wait for the perfect place to write, you'll never write anything because there's no such place.

I just approach it every day by doing something usually different. I don't sit and write every day, but if I'm not writing, I'm thinking about what I'm going to write about in very great detail. I'm taking notes or going out and interviewing people. Or sitting and staring at the ceiling, thinking about plotlines. That's all part of the process. I don't write a certain number of hours a day, I tend to think about things a lot, so when I'm writing, I'm very productive because I've thought everything through in my head. So I can sit down and write 15, 20 or 30 pages in one sitting because it's all there in my head and I've taken the time to think through all the details. A lot of people rush through the pages, and that's okay to do sometimes, as long as you realize you're going to have to do a lot of rewriting and I do that too, but often my best writing is done when I've really thought things through in my head, then I'm prepared and then off I go.

Q. So you don't write out a detailed outline?
No. When I'm writing script, which is what I was doing when you called me, I do very detailed scene breakdowns, that's totally different though.

Q. What can we expect from you next?
A. As Last Man Standing hits the bookshops, I am currently researching and working on the next novel and also writing a screenplay about a subject very important to me. It's a bit early to give any details of these projects, but my web site will keep everyone up to date on its progress, so please check back often.

(November, 2001)

Posted with permission of TWBookmark.com.