Saturday, May 10, 2014

Author David Baldacci reveals his links to the FBI and his dinner date with George W Bush

SINCE the success of his first novel author David Baldacci has sold more than 100 million books. Here, he reveals his close links with the FBI and why dinner with former president George W Bush didn’t go to plan.

6 May 2014

At his hotel off Trafalgar Square during a two-day visit to London to promote his latest book, David Baldacci is telling me about the formal Washington dinner where he sat two seats along from George W Bush. 
The elderly lady sitting between them started talking loudly about her ideas for assassinating the President. She was no fan of thrillers and hadn’t read any of Baldacci’s 28 bestsellers about government operatives and enemies of the state but she took being placed next to the author as an invitation to help him devise his next plot. 
“Suddenly she grabbed my arm,” he says. “I thought she’d been taken ill but she said, ‘I’ve got it! I’ve just thought of a way to assassinate the President!’ 
“I said, ‘Are you kidding me? He’s sitting right next to you. Why are you thinking about that?’ I really didn’t want to hear about it because it’s actually a felony to discuss this. Finally I said, ‘Make it fast and talk quietly’. 
“So she told me the idea and it was stupid and ridiculous and I told her that. And she goes, ‘Well, I’m going to see what he thinks’. 
“So she turns to him and I hear her telling the President. I wanted no part of this and turned my chair completely the other way. I finally look around and she’s finished her story and George Bush isn’t looking at her, he’s staring at me. And he says, ‘Ma’am, you ever read any of David Baldacci’s books?’ 
“She says she hasn’t and he says, ‘Well if I were you I’d try ’em out because that boy obviously has a very vivid imagination’.” 
If this had happened to a British author at a Chequers dinner it would probably be retold as a funny story. But Baldacci didn’t find it amusing. Assassinating presidents is no laughing matter in the US, especially when a dozen or so armed-to-the-teeth Secret Service men are standing nearby listening. 
And even though Bush always presented himself as an amiable clown with self-deprecating humour, he doesn’t seem to have taken it lightly on this occasion. He left the dinner soon afterwards and Baldacci, who is a Democrat but is on close terms with Bush’s parents (President George Bush Snr and his wife Barbara ), has never had the chance to explain himself. 
“It was unbelievable to me,” he complains. “I never got invited back to anything.”
The story also shows how connected the 53-year-old Baldacci is. Perhaps it’s no surprise that a man who has sold 110 million books since making his name with Absolute Power nearly 20 years ago should sit on the same table as the US president. After all, our own JK Rowling was pretty chummy with Gordon Brown. But the point about father-of-two Baldacci, who practised as a lawyer in Washington and now lives just outside the city with his wife Michelle, is that he is the insider’s insider. 
He concocts his own thrillers almost as documentary, spending hours with FBI and Secret Service agents to make sure his situations are as plausible as possible. They actually seek him out to convey their own experiences, knowing he won’t blow their identities, and he gets special access to FBI training rooms to do his research. 
One secret intelligence agency even invited him in because they were miffed the National Security Agency had been identified as the villain of the piece in a recent movie when they were actually the ones who did that sort of work. They wanted Baldacci to write about them in one of his novels because it would help with recruitment. 
“I’ve yet to write about them because that’s not what I do,” he says. “But I do like to see conditions on the ground as much as possible. A lot of them like the fact that I’m out there like a journalist researching what they do rather than just going on Wikipedia.”
Because he takes this aspect of his work so seriously it’s sometimes not obvious where documentary ends and fiction begins. For example in his new book The Target, CIA agents Jessica Reel and Will Robie are sent to a terrifyingly tough training camp called the Burner Box from which they fear they won’t escape alive and where they even suffer waterboarding the controversial torture now outlawed. Are we to take it that this kind of stuff really goes on?
“The CIA has gotten more and more paramilitary over the years so they have to train people,” he says. “It has a lot of training facilities around the US and there’s one in Williamsburg, Virginia called Camp Perry. The Burner Box I made up but it’s certainly patterned after the facilities they would use and techniques that they would employ and teach to their people. Will they waterboard their own people? “In this book it’s because the CIA director doesn’t like the agents and has a vendetta against them. But we waterboarded our enemies so it’s not too much of a stretch to think that we might deploy those techniques against our agents in the field to make sure they could withstand them.” 
The one bit of on-the-spot research he couldn’t do for this novel was in the labour camps of North Korea, where much of it is set. But he read a lot of books, including accounts by people who escaped. He paints a chilling picture of a perfect totalitarian regime where people know they will be punished unless they spy on each other so they all act as surrogate guards. The paranoid rogue state is a place we could well hear more from, he predicts. 
“They have a nuclear capability and maybe they have potential to get that nuclear capability farther than we think. Certainly they are unstable. Let’s say they launch an attack on South Korea. By treaty obligation and our presence there the US would be bound to defend South Korea and all of a sudden you’re into an Armageddon. You also have Russia and China in the area, with competing goals. It’s really kind of a powder keg.” 
In the meantime he’s already at work on his next two books: one for young adults, the other a thriller called The Escape featuring his military investigator character John Puller. He earns enough from the interest on his investments alone to run two large houses – the other is on a lake four hours away, at the other end of Virginia – but still produces two books a year, writing every day until he’s run out of things to say. He never takes breaks because he reckons his whole life, doing what he loves best for a living, is a holiday. 
He resists the lure of the internet and thinks social media are “like 21st century cigarettes”. 
“In the 1950s and 1960s you’d see young people pull their packs out and smack them against the table,” he says. “Now you go out to a restaurant or bar and people pull their phones out and you almost see them smack them against the bar. It’s totally ridiculous to check for messages ever six seconds but they can’t help themselves. It’s like electronic crack.” 
And what about that idea for assassinating the President. Is it really not going to feature in a future novel? He insists he has a personal rule never to use other people’s suggestions. They may offer them with the best of intentions but if he uses the material they may later decide they want their own slice of the profits. 
“I have friends who have been sued – they use the idea and 10 years later they’re in court,” he says. “So I try to stay away from that. And believe me, it was a lousy idea anyway.”
  • To buy The Target by David Baldacci, published by Macmillan £16.99, with free P&P call 0871 988 8451;
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