Bestselling American novelist David Baldacci talks to us about the books that influenced his life and work.
I read this book while I was working as a Pinkerton security guard to pay my way through college. I was assigned to this big manufacturing plant where basically anything you touched in the place would kill you. So, for four dollars an hour, I decided to sit in the guard shack and read. It wasn’t a dereliction of duty; everything in the plant was far too large to steal.
In Cold Blood was proclaimed by its creator to be the first non-fiction novel. Capote had, in essence, created a new genre. The story deals with the four members of the Clutter family who lived on a farm in Kansas. They were murdered in the late 1950s by two ex-cons who had heard while in prison that Mr. Clutter kept a large amount of money in his home safe. This was not true, but the two killers went to the house in the middle of the night, found no money and decided to kill the family. They were later caught, tried and executed.
I can’t tell you the impact this book had on me. The serendipity of the crime, the pathetic nature of the two killers, the innocence of the victims, made me start thinking about writing crime novels. Had it not been for reading that book when I was in college, I would not have contemplated a career as a crime novelist.
I include this book because it’s the first one I can ever remember reading. This book made me fall in love with the art of reading. Yes, I call it an “art” because it is. To lose yourself in someone else’s imagination is about the coolest thing one can do.
I clearly remember being that young kid and running into the house from playing outside because I so wanted to return to the fantastic world created by the author. This was also the book that first got me excited about fantasy.
I grew to love books about animals acting like people, dressing like them, having their own little secrets from their owners, forming close friendships and having adventures. What could be better? I’ve always believed that if you make a reader early you make one for life. The longer people go without reading for pleasure the more dicey it becomes that they will consistently read over their lifetimes.
This was the first novel I ever read by Irving. I would later go back and read all the others. When I was in law school this novel captivated me many a night, when I should have been studying or practicing for moot court. It's a big, sprawling, multi-generational tale that takes on significant issues, none more controversial than abortion.
I can still recall the effect this book had on me from the very first page. Homer Wells and Dr. Wilbur Larch will forevermore remain in my personal pantheon of memorable characters. For a number of years after, I tried to write like John Irving, only to discover that I couldn’t.
Yet, the book taught me a lot about what it takes to write a compelling story. How small touches can produce important moments. How the delicacy of turning on and off the tap of storytelling is as critical as the manipulations a pilot makes with his instruments in bad weather. Everything counts and nothing must be overlooked. But the novel also helped shaped my convictions on reproductive rights and my long-held belief that judging someone without first walking in their shoes does a disservice to them, yourself and the world at large.
My latest novel stars my detective with the perfect memory, Amos Decker. In this story Decker becomes, for the first time, a witness to a murder that takes place right outside of FBI headquarters in Washington, D.C. Readers will learn that the story, though written long before the presidential election in the U.S., is actually pretty timely.
There are many twists and turns that continually turn the plot on its head and shift the direction of the story in unexpected directions. I don’t know what exactly made me want to write about an obese detective with poor personal skills and an affinity for ticking people off, but I seem to naturally channel this guy. I don’t know what that says about me, but readers love him.
I think they know he actually has a big heart but the damage to his brain from the sports injury he suffered while playing football does not allow him to act normally anymore. He can sort of recall the person he used to be, but he is absolutely incapable of being that person any longer. And his perfect memory isn’t always an asset. There are many things he would rather forget, but can’t. That is an anchor around his neck.
For all those reasons I believe that readers sympathise with and root for Decker. He is intensely loyal to his friends and his only goal is to find the truth, wherever that might take him. And who can argue with that? These days it seems we need the truth more than ever.
The Fix by David Baldacci is published by Macmillan. David will be on tour May 2–5.
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