Taking the Leap

David Baldacci on developing characters and fighting illiteracy

January 26, 2014

“What is he doing up there, writing a book?” A paratrooper on the ground said these words as David Baldacci, bestselling author of Absolute Power and King and Maxwell, stood atop a four-story tower at the US Army base at Fort Benning, Georgia, considering a jump. The nearly invisible wire attached to his shoulder strap would, the jump master assured him, keep him alive. Baldacci had been on the tower a few minutes and the Airborne Rangers on the ground at Fort Benning weren’t sure he would actually jump. But he did.

Baldacci shared this story and a few others as part of the Auditorium Speaker Series on Sunday at the 2014 ALA Midwinter Meeting in Philadelphia. As a child, Baldacci was a self-described “library rat.” He even managed to develop enough of a rapport with the local librarians that they waived the checkout limit for him. He’d take 12 books home, read them, and be back the next week for more.

Like many readers, Baldacci’s early love of books allowed him to experience things beyond the comfort zone of his hometown in Virginia.

“I was able to see the world through books. Not just places in the world, but to meet many different people,” he said. “Reading broadens our horizons, and so now I try not to judge anyone unless I’ve been able to walk in their shoes.”

And he walks the walk. When working on a new novel, Baldacci likes to do very hands-on research, and that is what led him to Fort Benning. His three days were planned out in a 140-page schedule broken down into 15-minute intervals. In addition to the jump, Baldacci spent time on the sniper range shooting rifles and trapped in a rolling humvee. The best part of the research, he maintained, was talking to people and trying to understand why 18- or 19-year-olds would enlist, especially with the knowledge that after they’d completed their eight weeks of training, they would be deployed to Afghanistan.

There are many perks to being a bestselling author, but one of the most rewarding for Baldacci has been doing book tours around the country.

“I’ve been to many places around this country and seen a lot that was encouraging and heartening, but I’ve also seen a lot that troubled me,” he said, referring to the high levels of illiteracy plaguing the nation. “This is a great country, and getting people to read is a big part of keeping it a great country.”

The rate of illiteracy that he witnessed encouraged Baldacci and his wife, Michelle, to start the Wish You Well Foundation, named for one of his novels. Part of his work for the foundation included discussing funding for various literacy programs with policymakers. When he asked why there wasn’t more money put into adult literacy, he was told that it would be a political admission that K–12 literacy programs aren’t working.

“Studies have shown that test scores for 4th graders determine the number of prison cells we have to create. So when parents can’t read or can’t read well, the children will follow, and we’ll keep adding prison beds,” he said.

With this in mind, Wish You Well partnered with Feeding America to start a program called Feeding Body & Mind, which collects and distributes books alongside emergency food assistance through food banks.

“I’ve never seen a bad result of having a book at home, but I have seen a bad result from not having books at home,” Baldacci said. “Ignorance and intolerance go together, and the only way to combat them is with knowledge and its rarer cousin—wisdom. The best way to acquire knowledge is through reading.”

See a video interview with Baldacci here.

See, hear, and read more about what’s going on at Midwinter—in real time and after. 

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