On reading 1,987 pages of David Baldacci in 7 days

I was recently asked to interview bestselling author David Baldacci at the Library of Virginia Literary Awards Luncheon here in Richmond. The library was giving Baldacci a Lifetime Achievement award, and I would sit with him on stage and ask him about his writing process.

I was thrilled. The only problem was, the last Baldacci novel I’d read was Wish You Well, published in 2000. So I picked up the book that started his career in 1996, Absolute Power, as well as three newer releases: No Man’s Land, Memory Man and The Finisher. I tore through all four as the date of the interview approached. And I noticed a few things Baldacci does that help his stories succeed.

Good guys fall down. Bad guys stagger back to the straight path. In the first chapters of Absolute Power, it’s clear where the characters stand. Baddies include Chief of Staff Gloria Russell, who’s ruthless and calculating, and Secret Service Agent Bill Burton, a former good cop who’s now willing to commit heinous crimes. On the side of virtue are Jack Graham, a slobby but big-hearted former public defender, his old flame Kate Whitney, an idealistic prosecutor whose dad is a cat burglar, and dogged detective Seth Frank.

You know who you’re supposed to cheer for. Yet as the plot unfolds, Whitney betrays her own father, and Frank helps her do it. Russell is exposed as a failure as her machinations unravel. The true villain is revealed to be the president himself.

“I thought you were the good guys,” Jack Graham says to Burton in the climactic scene.
“So did I,” Burton replies.

Heroes’ own flaws redeem them. Amos Decker, the detective introduced in Memory Man, has an origin story as wild as something out of Marvel: he’s a former football player who took a hit to the head that gave him perfect, photographic memory. Now, if Decker were a lantern-jawed, steely-eyed guy, he would be boring. This book would be Cam Jansen and the Secret of the High School Massacre.

But that’s not who he is. Decker, because of the trauma he suffered when his family was killed, is a near-homeless, out-of-shape mess: “Bloated, dirty, wild-haired, bushy-bearded… Six-five and a blimp with bum knees. His gut was soft and pushed out, his arms and chest flabby, his legs two meat sticks. He could no longer see even his overly long feet.”

Decker’s physique mirrors his state of mind — Publishers Weekly aptly called him “a wounded bear of a detective.” And in the final confrontation, his own weight becomes the only weapon he has left, as he literally crushes his adversary to death. It’s great. It’s satisfying.

Characters’ decisions drive the action. Not one character in Absolute Power kicks back in the La-Z-Boy and lets things happen to them. In every chapter, they make momentous and risky decisions.

Chapter 1. Luther Whitney decides to stay, not run, when people enter the empty house he’s burgling.
Chapter 2. Chief of Staff Russell decides to cover up a murder involving the president.
Chapter 3. Luther, watching it all, decides not to intervene; he also decides to steal crucial evidence.
Chapter 4. Russell decides to keep the missing evidence a secret from the president.
Chapter 5. Luther decides to flee instead of asking his daughter for help.

The result is a plot in which the tension inevitably tightens, as characters paint themselves into tighter and tighter corners. This, I think, is how Baldacci successfully executes convoluted thrillers without outlining. He says he doesn’t know how his stories end until they end, but it’s a breathless ride all the way.

On the first seven sentences

I’ve attended more writing seminars than I can remember. Most were forgettable; a few proved useful; and one was absolutely life-changing.

This last was the “Seven Sentences” seminar created by YA authors Maggie Stiefvater and Courtney C. Stevens.  (I was fortunate to be one of seven scholarship winners in a contest sponsored by Fountain Bookstore, a must-visit destination for any book lover visiting Richmond.)

The central premise was that the first seven sentences of a novel should do everything. They should create the mood, set the tone, establish the place, and promise all that is to come – the essential truth of your story.

I recently read the first seven sentences of one of my favorite novels, Graham Greene’s THE POWER AND THE GLORY, with new eyes.

Mr. Tench went out to look for his ether cylinder: out into the blazing Mexican sun and the bleaching dust. A few buzzards looked down from the roof with shabby indifference: he wasn’t carrion yet. A faint feeling of rebellion stirred in Mr. Tench’s heart, and he wrenched up a piece of the road with splintering finger-nails and tossed it feebly up at them. One of them rose and flapped across the town: over the tiny plaza, over the bust of an ex-president, ex-general, ex-human being, over the two stalls which sold mineral water, towards the river and the sea. It wouldn’t find anything there: the sharks looked after the carrion on that side. Mr. Tench went on across the plaza. He said “Buenos días” to a man with a gun who sat in a small patch of shade against a wall. 

Mr. Tench is not the protagonist; he is a depressed British dentist who plays a minor role in the plot. Yet these seven sentences reveal the heart of the story, in which death is omnipresent, and yet the hero, the hapless, inconstant whiskey priest, possesses faith that dares challenge death itself. These sentences also establish the menacing mood of the story and the powerful sense of place — 1930s Mexico, in the grip of an authoritarian, anti-religion government — that makes THE POWER AND THE GLORY utterly unforgettable.

As Maggie and Court explained, there’s no shortcut to writing these seven sentences. The hard work of story-crafting and character development must be done first, and they guided us through that process too. As they did, they electrified the room. They made the audience cackle and weep, they sparred and bantered, they played Jenga with big cardboard boxes.

If they bring “Seven Sentences” to your city, go. And look for their new novels: DRESS CODES FOR SMALL TOWNS in August 2017, and ALL THE CROOKED SAINTS in October.

On meeting a death doula

Death doula Shelby Kirillin chats with client Kim McGaughey. (Photo by Julianne Tripp)

“I want people to understand that death gets beautiful,” Shelby Kirillin says. “Death is amazing.”

I recently began contributing to Richmond magazine’s Sunday Story, a series that highlights people doing extraordinary things in Richmond. That’s how I came to interview Shelby, an intensive-care nurse who has taken on a new role: helping terminally ill clients and families plan good, gentle and meaningful deaths.
All my interviews leave some lasting impression on me, but Shelby’s more than most. I’ll never think about dying in quite the same way.
The Angel of Death is surprisingly upbeat.

“I know death is sad, but what’s wrong with dying?” Shelby Kirillin says, green eyes alight. “It’s OK. We’re all going to do it.”

Kirillin is a death doula — someone who guides the dying, and their families, through the end of life.

“You have written so many amazing chapters,” she tells her clients. “Write your last chapter. Put an exclamation point at the end! Make it end in a crescendo. So many people, I feel like, choose death because it’s just better than the hell that they’re living.”


On reading other people’s letters

“I am so very sorry that I should have been obliged to let so long a time elapse without my being able to reply to your most kind letter…”

Isn’t that much more wonderful than “Sorry it’s taken me a while to get back to you…”?

I spent some time this week in the reading room at the Virginia Historical Society, sifting through the papers of Julia Gardiner Tyler, the tenth First Lady of the United States. I had no intention of conducting rigorous research, but rather hoped to hear Julia Tyler’s voice emerge from these letters, some 150 years old.

As an inexperienced researcher, I didn’t realize that most of the material would consist of letters to Julia instead of letters in her own hand. I also expected all of her correspondents to write in impeccable copperplate script; instead, I was baffled by their faded, sometimes hastily scrawled handwriting. Especially when they ran out of space and began cross-writing, as you see above.

I did, in the end, get a few glimpses of what Julia might have been like in life. Critical, for one thing. One letter from her 15-year-old granddaughter Julia Spencer, dated April 23, 1886, begins “My darling Marmee, I have received the dress and also letter, I think the dress lovely.” Someone — Julia Tyler, I think it’s safe to assume — has penciled in corrections to the spelling: carryed to carried, sollard to solid.

She was a tough, but loving mother. To her son John Alexander Tyler, she wrote: “Although you have shown such a want of honor respect and love for your mother… I cannot lay aside my duty to you…. so that your offenses in Richmond need not be talked of in the manner it would if it was known you had left me without my consent. … I hope you will have more regard for your Brother’s feelings than you have had for mine, and keep out of the company of the bad boys who drink play cards and have other bad vices.”

In another letter to John Alexander her tone is tender and anxious.

“I assure you no one will think of scolding you. We all know your motive was such a good one that we only praise your spirit and manliness so don’t let that fear make you hesitate to return. We all long to see you, and hear an account of your adventures. …. come quickly my dear dear son – JGT”

Both letters are undated, so I can only guess at the circumstances. Her son ran away to join the Confederate Army at 14 (and was rejected) — was that when she wrote her entreaty to come home? A seeker of adventure, he later served in the Confederate Navy and fought in the Franco-Prussian War. He died in New Mexico in 1883.

Heartbreak, anger, longing — so much is contained in these few scraps of paper, and so much more remains unsaid. I know Julia Tyler a little better now. Enough, anyway, to imagine her.





On the ancestral dens of timber rattlers

“Do you see them?” he asks.

I scan my surroundings: granite boulders, a carpet of brown pine needles, a few trees clinging to the thin earth.

My guide points, and then I see it: an adult timber rattler coiled on a rock shelf, just a few feet away.  It’s thick and tan with dark-brown bands. And it’s not alone.

Herpetologist Marty Martin has brought me to a rocky knob in Shenandoah National Park to witness the spring emergence of the timber rattlesnakes. These snakes hibernate for the winter in dens high in the Appalachian mountains. On warm days like today, they come out to bask and eventually, to disperse throughout the surrounding forest.

Some rattlesnake dens are as simple as a stump hole. Often, a colony will occupy a series of crevices spread out over the mountainside (so I don’t recommend scrambling up an unfamiliar rock face in the early spring). But others are known as ancestral dens: deep fissures or chambers in the rock that have been used for as long as 6,000 to 8,000 years. These ancient refuges are rare, because as soon as settlers found them they would destroy the sleeping snakes. Martin has spent decades mapping the remaining dens and zealously protecting them.

The biggest dens in the central Appalachians support 250 to 350 snakes, counting juveniles. At these, Martin has seen as many as 72 snakes on a given day. While the timber rattlesnake is venomous, it is not an aggressive animal.

The door of this particular den is a long horizontal crack in the granite. I can see about six snakes peering from within and several more sunning on the shelf that serves as their front porch. We count 18 timber rattlers in all: large males, skinny females and little babies. Most stay still. A few flow down the rocks like water.

I hear their tails buzzing in a chilling chorus. They know we’re here.

But they stay at a distance, and so do we.