March 25, 2005
About this Book
A series of brutal murders darkens the Wrightsburg, Virginia countryside when a serial killer taunts police by leaving watches on his victims, set to the hour corresponding with their position on his hit list. In addition, the killer strives to replicate murders of the past, improving on them with savage attention to detail. Sean King and Michelle Maxwell are already investigating a crime involving an aristocratic and dysfunctional Southern family, but when they’re deputized to help in the serial killer hunt they realize the two cases may be connected. Adding to the tension is the appearance of a second killer, this one imitating the murders of the first. Soon, the two killers are playing a game of cat and mouse, with King and Maxwell racing to solve the intricate puzzle of their identities before the body count escalates.
David Baldacci's website
"Hour Game" (2004)
"Split Second" (2003)
"The Christmas Train" (2002)
"Last Man Standing" (2001)
"Wish You Well" (2000)
"Saving Faith" (1999)
"The Simple Truth" (1997)
"The Winner" (1997)
"Total Control" (1996)
"Absolute Power" (1996)
Ron Carlson: Hello. Welcome to Books & Co. I’m Ron Carlson, and today our guest is the writer David Baldacci, the author of many successful best selling thrillers, including his most recent book, "Hour Game." There are 40 million copies of his books in print. Welcome.
David Baldacci: Thank you.
Ron Carlson: I’m so glad you're here. I want to talk about this book. It's going to be an interesting discussion because I can't remember an interview where I’m going to have to be so careful about giving it away. So from the very first page, you've designed a book where there are multiple crimes --
David Baldacci: Yes.
Ron Carlson: -- this murder, based on this serial killer, and your two detectives, Michelle and Sean, have they been in your other books?
David Baldacci: They were in one previous novel, "Split Second," just previously to "Hour Game." The only time I’ve ever done this where brought characters back. I really like them, and I told myself at the end of "Split Second," the previous novel, if I thought these characters had room to grow and they had good chemistry, I was going to bring them back in another book, and I liked hanging out with them, I really did.
Ron Carlson: Right. We have a lot of fun with them. They're the same general age. They're a man and a woman. There's a lot of partnership repartee between them. Who had it been before that? Did you have one of them or the other -- let's go back to your other books.
David Baldacci: In "Split Second" they came together for another mystery in that story, the substance of that plot, and Sean King was ex-secret service agent turned lawyer. Michelle was still in the secret service but then sort of lost her position because something really bad happened with one of her protectees. That's how she sort of ran into Sean and they were forced to sort of team together in "Split Second" to solve this mystery, whereas in "Hour Game" they're very much a team because they want to be.
Ron Carlson: They started together. Let me just go forward real quickly. Are they going to stay together?
David Baldacci: I think so. I think they have room for another novel. The one I’m working on right now, the one that will come after "Hour Game," is a standalone novel. It's not a King and Maxwell story. They're going to be back in the book after that.
Ron Carlson: Let's talk about this. Without giving too much away, although we're going to get into the particulars of the book, can you give me kind of an overview of "Hour Game" and what happens and what's the basis?
David Baldacci: There is a killer in "Hour Game," and what he does, he is mimicking the techniques of famous serial killers of the past. With each victim, he leaves a watch and it's set to a very precise time, and also he'll leave something to say he's imitating famous serial killers of the past, and Sean King and Michelle Maxwell are drawn into this because they're investigating a burglary involving a very rich southern aristocratic family called the Battles in "Hour Game." And that mystery sort of dovetails into these series of killings. Now, I complicate it a little bit more because there may be another killer out there who is sort of copying, if you will, my copycat killer. It very much is a race against time. But I wanted to do something a little bit different. I’ve read a lot of serial killer books, and nine times out of ten, the motivation for the serial killers are this, they're missing a chromosome. They're just nuts and that's why they do what they do. I wanted to have sort of a very rational motivation. This is very much a thriller, it's very fast-paced, but it's also a very classic mystery as well where there are a lot of clues and misdirection and red herrings, but the clues are there if you want to try to figure out what's going on. You can conceivably do that. It's difficult but you could. I just think it's a lot more fun.
Ron Carlson: Did you develop -- so there's two things going on as a writer. We have all these copycat serial killers, and I think there's six or seven or eight imitated murders.
David Baldacci: Yes.
Ron Carlson: And this murderer is very smart, very clever, very strong, and he has the patience -- this is where he differs from me -- because when I try to empathize with all the characters, and I thought I did a successful job, but if I committed a crime, I would want to get away. I wouldn't take the time to set the watch. So that's very intriguing. Is that the case in terms of your experience doing the research, not just in fiction books but in real life sometimes, that people want to design and leave clues?
David Baldacci: Well, I think so. I think you see for most of the very famous serial killers like the Zodiac, for instance, he would leave clues behind. Sometimes, if you asked people, the FBI, they would say that some serial killers actually, one, want to be caught at some point because actually they want to be stopped. Others love to taunt the police and authorities because "I’m smarter than you are and I can leave you these clues but you will still never catch me." So I sort of try to do a little bit of a blend with my serial killer based on those two motivations, but it was very important for him to do that what he was doing, because for him it all was very rational and it all will work out very logically in the end. When you get to the end, I think you'll see why he did what did he. Some of it was a little bit of grandstanding, but some of what he did was a very personal motivation.
Ron Carlson: It comes out. We see that. What is our fascination with this in terms of as a subject matter, because it is fast-paced, or a page-turner, whatever you want to say. Why is there such a big market for this and such interest in this?
David Baldacci: It's the boogeyman. It's the boogeyman from being a child, and people like to be scared, and they like to be scared from a safe distance, though. They never want to meet one of these people for real, but they love reading about them from a safe distance. So they sort of get the same sort of joyride, the thrill, the spark, if you will, but they do it knowing nothing is going to happen to them personally. As kids, kids are afraid of the dark, but they also are drawn to the dark. They're afraid of what's in the closet, but they want to see what's in the closet. And adults, we never grow out of that. In serial killers sort of represent the adult manifestation of the boogeyman in the closet.
Ron Carlson: Okay. As a writer looking at the book, I was intrigued by your use of point of view, that is to say that, you talk about when Michelle and Sean are investigating or when they're out to dinner or when they're making their various contacts, and there must be 40 people in this book as they go from person to person and line up the evidence, but at the same time, when you're with the killer, you're not giving us all the information. You're keeping one eye blind, and so we can't quite see, and obviously that's quite purposeful, and talk about the planning of such a book.
David Baldacci: Well, there are a number point of views in this novel, and what you have to do, you sort of have to -- how you develop characters is also doing some insight into what they're thinking, and I wanted you to get some insight into Sean King and Michelle Maxwell because they're protagonists carrying most of the action forward. Then you have to decide which one will you give the more weight to between the two. I decided in this novel, Sean King, we would get more into his head than we do into Michelle. You get a little bit more into Michelle Maxwell because of the romantic involvement she has with one of the other characters, but as far as the investigation goes, I think you see more into King's head than Michelle's. And I had to pick that because, one, you dilute effect if you give it to two characters at the same time. So it strengthens it if you give sort of the lead investigative point of view to one character. So you're always looking to that person for your point of reference. The serial killer, or killers, I wanted to get a little bit into their heads because you have to understand a little bit why they're doing what they do, and even though I can't reveal the identity obviously or the book would be over, you still have to sort of understand who is this person and why are they doing what they do and what are they thinking when they're doing it? Because otherwise, at the end, the revelation I think would be a little bit shallow if you weren't really sort of into the mind set. I also consider really when the serial killer came into the pages doing it from first person. I thought about that for a long time, actually wrote a little bit of it that way, but then I thought it was too much, too much of a stark cut going from third to first in those episodes. And actually the serial killer, you see him several times, but you get into his mind a little bit less frequently than that. So I thought that third person would be okay to do it that way.
Ron Carlson: Both Michelle and Sean develop kind of romantic interests in the book that they're very drawn to each other, and that's kind of a charming relationship. I imagine that's an important part of the book for you and for the reader. But they get involved with these marginal characters who end up being kind of -- and that lends -- of course, that's the character aspect of the book.
David Baldacci: Yes.
Ron Carlson: Now, let's talk about the plot/planning. So you got a book. You wrote a book. It is a page-turner. I turned every page. Then -- but you also planned the book.
David Baldacci: Yes.
Ron Carlson: So it's a difference between like prepping a house to paint and painting it. Is that a fair comparison?
David Baldacci: Yeah, it is. A lot of my writer friends do outlines that are longer than the books, and I don't do outlines that way. I sort of have a broad battle plan in mind for what points I want to accomplish, but I’ll sit down, and typically I’ll start with characters and sort of sort of lay my characters out, who I want to do what in the action. You have your good guys, you have your villains, you have your characters that are sort of neither of the two, and you have your misdirection characters and your red herrings. But I try to fill the characters in as broadly as I can. Because I could write the most interesting plot in the world, and if I have characters you don't care about, it won't matter because you won't read the book, you don't care. So I like to really bring the characters to life and put them into a plot that is interesting and then I think readers will go through that. Because if you can get the human connection between a reader and the book, I think readers really will enjoy it a lot more.
Ron Carlson: We talk a lot about character in writing classes and so on. What is your technique? It's interesting... I noticed, because you have so many people, you have names that are distinct, each from each, and do you have a tactic in terms of opening or deepening these characters for yourself -- when you say -- let's assume you're talking about the coroner. Her name is Sylvia Diaz. So you get her name. Then how do you go about finding out who she might be?
David Baldacci: What I like to do, my rule of thumb is to hit the ground running when I’m introducing a new character. So what I will give you are some very strong characteristic. Taking Sylvia Diaz, for example, when you first meet her, you immediately know she's very efficient and proficient and very knowledgeable. No nonsense, very businesslike. But also attractive, a very attractive woman. So you think, okay, I know where she is on the business side, and now we'll see a little bit what she's going to be on the personal side. Because there may be something -- there was a past relationship between Sylvia and Sean King. Is that going to develop further? I think the key is to give them a little bit of a hard line, a hook, they know a little about the person, but in fiction -- my sister was a journalist for years. She wrote her first novel this year, and I asked her, what was the biggest transition, difficulty for you? She said, well, as journalists, you're trained to get it all out as fast as possible. As a fiction writer, that's the last thing you want to do. You want to turn the tap on a little bit, turn it off, turn it on a little bit harder and turn it off. Because sometimes it's the tantalizing factor, the information you withhold. What does the reader do? They fill it in with their own imagine nation a little bit and want to read to see if they're right or not.
Ron Carlson: My hardest students of any I’ve ever met are seasoned journalist because they have such a grip of their material and they won't let the material evolve. I mean in terms of writing fiction. They write -- I mean the solid non-fiction is terrific. There were surprise -- there are surprises in such work, though, for you. You don't have an ironclad outline. Did Sylvia, for example, as a character evolve?
David Baldacci: I think she certainly did. When I first conceived of the character of Sylvia, I didn't have all of her back story in my mind. What I like to do with all my books, the characters sort of evolve as I write the story, and sometimes, it's funny when I start out a book, the character I thought was going to do certain things in the book did not end up to be the character that did those. Because one thing, I might have found they were too weak to do it or their strengths did not lie in that area or had another use for them, and so I shift them to something else. So really each day is kind of -- is fresh for me. I don't know exactly what I’m going to be doing each day. I do mini-outlines for like 10 or 20 pages to make sure I hit all the points I want to do, but outlines are outlines. Outlines are not the writing. It's not like I can write in the book, here is bullet point A, bullet point B, bullet point C. I can have those. But I have to think of the words I can actually put in the novel you would find interesting.
Ron Carlson: Exactly. I keep mentioning Sylvia Diaz. I don't want the listeners to think that she's the big player. She's an interesting -- as a coroner and doing so much forensic work, she interested me, and there is a lot of data in this book, hard scientific data, data about crime, data about all of these agencies, governmental and otherwise, that you know about. Let's talk about the research that goes into such a book.
David Baldacci: It's immense. I do all the research personally. I go out and interview people from all walks of life and all sorts of professions. I had a forensic medical examiner who worked in the Bronx in New York who helped me on this book. For every page you see of forensic evidence in that book, there's 50 pages I actually took.
Ron Carlson: There's a lot of dating the time of death, working back, and all of these features that you include in the book as kind a graphic evidence. Is that part of what --
David Baldacci: It really is. I wanted to clear up some misperceptions as well. The TV shows, even "CSI," you get on there and say the body has been dead for 14 hours or whatever. It's really difficult to determine the time of death. The body has been dead longer than two days, it's almost impossible because everything has sort of happened to the body. But I wanted to let the reader know at least the process people go through to do it. I hate books, and there are a lot of them out there, I hate books that just say, the FBI lab showed up, they collected evidence, and here's what their conclusion was, and that's just laziness on the part of the writer. They don't tell you anything about how they actually do it. What I like to do, is I like to integrate all the material into this flow of the story. The last thing you want to do, and some writers do this, they have a lot of research they're really proud of and they don't want to take the time to integrate it into the story. So they create a flip book. A flip book is where they take the information, they plop it into the middle of the story, and all readers know what flip books are. Because a season reader knows this trick. You'll read the story, read the story, and you get to the stuck where he just stuck it in, and you'll flip, flip, flip past it and get back into the story. I like to integrate it into pieces of dialogue, into very brief scenes, into thought process of characters and then I move on from that. But for every page that's in here that deals with forensic research, for example, I left 20 pages of notes out because I’m telling a story. I’m not writing a textbook.
Ron Carlson: What is our fascination with forensics? All of a sudden, everybody wants to be in the crime lab in this country. We have -- and everybody -- I remember years ago the John McFee article about the tire tread and dirt and tire tread, that there wasn't a crime scene in America where you couldn't by taking some dirt out of the tires find out within five miles of where it had taken place. Is that just our thirst for knowledge or --
David Baldacci: I think it's our search for truth. We want certainty. You look at famous cases, the Scott Peterson case going on now, the O.J. Simpson case where all his forensic evidence was introduced. At least in the O.J. Simpson case introduced probably badly and probably lost the case for the prosecution. If all crime labs were like "CSI" what a world we would have, but unfortunately they're not like that at all. Look at the District of Columbia. They probably have 500 bodies backed up in the morgue and the evidence is gone, completely, from there. But it's a search for truth and people like certainty. They like mystery, but then at the end of the day, they want the answer to it. They want to know... Who really shot JFK and those things? I think at least right now the perception is that forensics can lead us to the truth.
Ron Carlson: It feels like it. Sometimes the clues are so small and yet so definite, and there's something satisfying about that. There always has been from Sherlock Holmes forward. I was fascinated with that part of this book. I liked that. I felt there's a certain sense of being in real sure hands where the writer is handling that data. I guess that's what you're saying.
David Baldacci: Yes, it is. I really, to the extent that I could write this book, I mastered it as much as I could for someone who is a layperson. But I really, if you saw all the books that I read and all the interviews I conducted and the morgues I went to and the bodies that I saw, I think you would get a better feel for what went into writing those pages in the book. It was a lot of work.
Ron Carlson: Let me remind everybody that we're talking with the writer David Baldacci about his book "Hour Game" and the way -- you're working on another book now?
David Baldacci: I am. It's a standalone thriller set in Washington D.C. Without giving too much away, when I worked in D.C., the subject matter of this book are people that I would pass at a very special place in Washington every day and they're still there and their story really never has been told, and I decided to tell it in the context of a thriller.
Ron Carlson: Sweet. It sounds interesting. Hey, listen, before we go any further, let's give a little flavor of this book. Will you just read us all the first paragraph of this book "Hour Game"?
David Baldacci: Sure. "The man in the rain slicker walked slightly bent over, his breathing labored and his body sweaty. The extra weight he was bearing, though not all that substantial, was awkwardly placed. And the terrain was uneven. It was never an easy thing to tote a dead body through the woods in the middle of the night. He shifted the corpse to his left shoulder and trudged on. The soles of his shoes bore no distinguishing marks, not that it would have mattered, since the rain quickly washed away any traces of footprints. He checked the forecast. The rain was why he was here. The inclement weather was the best friend he could ask for."
Ron Carlson: "The rain was why he was here." So he checked the weather before he brought his body and then he puts the body down -- I’m not giving too much away, just on the same page -- then he sets the first watch.
David Baldacci: Yes, he does. He sets the first watch and it's a Zodiac watch as well and its set to the hour 1:00.
Ron Carlson: So we're immediately in -- we know a little bit, we want to know a lot more, and we're dealing with a strong, capable shrewd character. I noticed in the pacing of the book, I would look forward to when we would be with him again. I knew it was a man. I didn't know who it was. So then I went back to the book and I wrote the chapters down. This book has 101 chapters. What is that? Is that by design is it how it came out?
David Baldacci: Well, some of the action scenes are short and to the point and there's a natural breaking point there. Some of the other scenes, you'll look and see some chapters are two pages, three, pages, some chapters are seven, eight, nine pages. Over the last two or three books, I think my chapter lengths have shortened somewhat because it seems to be a better break. Some chapters where I sort of would carry the action forward and maybe combine two or three chapters into one, I found that having a complete sort of cutting off point and beginning anew I felt was a better narrative drive.
Ron Carlson: If I was a brand-new writer and you were going to tell me how to end a chapter, give me some advice.
David Baldacci: Well, one thing I would do, there's the old cliché' ending on a cliff hanger, but it need not be something melodramatic. It may just be that there's a piece of information the reader needs but it's on the next page. Also, end of a chapter should have some conclusion to it, but always leave the possibility of something more happening. And the types of books that I write, I found that they lend themselves to having chapters end in a certain place, a death has occurred, important clue has been uncovered, or something else has happened. There's a car chase scene in here. Natural conclusion was, okay, the car chase scene very exciting, then they open the door and they find out who was chasing them, boom, the next chapter. There's no reason not to stop there.
Ron Carlson: Right. Exactly. Well, as I said, it's quite a page-turner, but I don't want you to make it sound like it was easy to write. Let's talk about rewriting or readjusting. When you had all these chapters laid out then, you didn't just write it from page 1 to page 424, or did you? Did it come out that way? Or did you have to move things back and forth or add? Just talk about that.
David Baldacci: Much like in film making, writing, a real book is shaped in the editing process, and I tend to edit as I write. So the book I’m working on now, let's say I have 125 pages, when I go back home and I start to write it again, I’ll probably go back to chapter 1 and rewrite chapter 1 again to get a feel for the story again and then I’ll jump ahead to where I am in the book. Oftentimes, I’ll write from page 1 all the way to the end, but that doesn't mean during the course of the writing it, I haven't taken pieces here and put it back where it's better located. I have a good sense for where the story is going to go the longer I get into the book, but it takes me about 50 pages, I know this may sound a little bit unusual, it takes me about 50 pages into a story before I actually know my characters well enough to understand what they can do.
Ron Carlson: That's not strange at all. Their strengths and their weaknesses.
David Baldacci: It took me in "Split Second," the book before this, Sean King and Michelle Maxwell, I really worked hard on trying to define their characters because even then I thought I’m going to bring them back. So I really needed to make them right the first time.
Ron Carlson: Exactly. Tell me about -- you are a lawyer?
David Baldacci: Yes.
Ron Carlson: And have you always been writing or did you practice law for a while and then move into writing? Talk about that transition. There are a lot of writers who were lawyers. We've got Scott Turow, we've got John Grisham and others. What is it about the law that brings us these writers?
David Baldacci: Well, the first point, I’ve always been a writer. I’ve been writing since -- seriously since I was in high school. Started out a short story writer. There's no way you can make a living doing that. I would get free copies of the magazine. But I wouldn't get a check. So I went to law school because I thought I'd like to write, I like to research, I thought I was a good oral advocate, and I became a lawyer, but I wrote all the way through high school, college, law school and the 10 years I practiced law. But with that said, as a lawyer, what did I do during the day? I was paid to write persuasively. If you think about it, it could be said that some of the best fiction I ever wrote was when I was a lawyer. Because each side is the same set of facts you work with. So how can they both be right? Well, they're right because each side writes persuasively, take the facts, slant them this way to favor my client, and this is the truth, believe me, this is the truth. And I would work on big projects for long periods of time and I would work on it a little bit of time, I had great patience and great discipline, and as a writer that's what you need to have. So many aspiring writers, they get frustrated early on when they don't have a book done in three months and they get frustrated and they quit. You have to love it. It's a craft. It takes years in order to -- even come close to mastering it, not that any of us do, but you have to love it because it's very frustrating at times, you get a lot of rejection at times, but the love and passion of it will carry you through all those things. And if you do quit, you probably weren't meant to be a writer. Even when I was rejected year after year after year, and never thought I would even be published, I never thought about quitting because it would be taking a big piece of me out of my life.
Ron Carlson: So it wasn't an initial success. It wasn't one day you put your briefcase down and turned around at your computer and sent your novel in and they said, "Quit your day job."
David Baldacci: No, I had written short stories for years, and I turned to screenplay writing. I had an agent in Los Angeles and thought maybe I'd be a screenplay writer. Got lots of rejections there as well. I attempted some novels here and there, never quite finished them. But this is after 15 years, I sat down and wrote a novel called "absolute power," and "absolute power" was the one that just took off and all cylinders hit, and I was an overnight success after about 6,000 nights.
Ron Carlson: Tell me about -- you have a staff now.
David Baldacci: I do.
Ron Carlson: What do they do for you and how do you work with them?
David Baldacci: Well, I have an office in my home and I also have an office outside the house, and I did that because to sort of keep a wall. I have a family and I have kids. If you're at home all the time, you never stop working. Also we get tired of reporters and photographers coming to our house. So the office is sort of that buffer zone. That's where we have all the research materials there, that's where we conduct all interviews, that's where people come and see me, I have my own foundation, we have board meetings there, all the fan mail, all the e-mails, all the books from bookstores who want them signed, everything comes to that central location, all the contracts, publishing, film, things are all kept there. That's the point of contact. And for years it was just me. But after 10 books and 38 different publishers and a lot of different contacts and film and stuff like that, it's a business. You know, for lack of a better term, it's a business.
Ron Carlson: I understand exactly.
David Baldacci: And you have to have that. Because otherwise I don't think I would ever have time to write.
Ron Carlson: Does your staff do any of the research for you, in terms of when you -- there are writers who make a call and say, "I need to know where the elevator is in the Hyatt in Atlanta." is that the kind of thing, are people doing that for you at all?
David Baldacci: Yeah, something that simple or that you could get off the internet, sure. I have no one do one-to-one interviews except me. I do all the one-to-one interviews. So I was down at the Secret Service's Washington field office a few weeks ago. Met with all the people there, went top to bottom of the building for the new book I’m working on. It's funny, when I was there, another agent walked by, he wasn't part of our group, he walked by, he's got his badge and his gun, and he stops and he turns around answers he points at me and he says, "Are you David Baldacci?" I didn't know what to say. You know, the guy's got a gun. I said, "Yeah, I am." he said, "Good, I knew you were either a guy that I’ve read or a guy that I’ve arrested." I said, "No, I’m the guy you read." So those things I do myself.
Ron Carlson: David, your success has led you to do some awfully good things. One of them is this foundation you started with your wife, and it's called "Wish You Well." do you want to talk about that for a minute?
David Baldacci: "Wish You Well Foundation," the names comes from the title of one of my books that I wrote years ago, not a thriller. It was sort of a "To Kill a Mockingbird" kind of tale set in 1940. The "Wish You Well Foundation's" mission is to support literacy efforts across the United States. We focus on adult literacy, but we do a lot of literacy involving kids as well, and what we typically do is we will fund proposal, grant proposals, or funding for existing organizations, that's one thing we do. The second thing we do is we try to come up with new programs where there's a need for that. The third thing we do, we bring existing organizations together. You might have one literacy organizations, and it's like the federal government, it's very territorial. You might have one that has a lot of volunteers. You might have another that has a lot of content. Each of those needs the other but they never thought about working together. We try to bring them together to work on that. I think that illiteracy is the biggest problem we face as a country right now. It affects everything from crime to poverty to healthcare. I mean, people talk about uninsured Americans. The reason a lot of them are uninsured, they have no marketable job skills.
Ron Carlson: Right. Well, it's valuable work. It's so necessary. In my travels, more and more organizations are turning some of their attention to this issue of getting people able to read and not only able to read but able to reason.
David Baldacci: Yes.
Ron Carlson: It's been a privilege to talk to you. It's fun. Congratulations on your success, and I want to remind everybody we've been talking with David Baldacci. His book is called "Hour Game." It's his tenth book. I’m Ron Carlson. This has been Books & Co., and we'll see you next time.