David Baldacci once wrote stories in secret at VCU. Now he has millions of readers around the world.
December 11, 2019
When David Baldacci attended Virginia Commonwealth University in the late 1970s and early ’80s, VCU educated a large number of local commuters and Baldacci was one of them. A native of Henrico County, Baldacci lived at home with his parents to save money — following in the footsteps of his older brother and sister, who both attended VCU — and rode his motorcycle to campus each day for classes. He became friends with a guy who oversaw one of the school’s parking lots, and the attendant let Baldacci park for free in a corner of the lot where a car couldn’t fit. It saved Baldacci a couple of bucks a day — “That might not seem like a lot now, but it sure did then,” he said.
Baldacci worked a series of part-time jobs while in school. Robert Holsworth, Ph.D., a former political science professor and dean at VCU, taught Baldacci and remembers that the first time he saw Baldacci he was sitting in the front row of class wearing a security guard uniform. Baldacci haunted Cabell Library at night in those days, writing papers in longhand alongside his stacks of books and occasionally taking a study break to go down to West Grace Street for a sandwich. He majored in political science and became obsessed with governance — both the intricacies of political theory and the stories of the personalities who rose to power — and reveled in a campus climate that he recalls as being exquisitely alive with debate and tumult during the end of the Carter administration and the beginning of the Reagan one.
In the midst of all of that, whenever he could, stealing moments between classes and studying and extra reading and writing papers and working his part-time jobs, Baldacci surreptitiously wrote short stories in the manner of his literary heroes, such as Eudora Welty, Raymond Carver and Flannery O’Connor. Those stories would never be published, instead receiving only dozens of rejection letters from prestigious magazines such as The New Yorker and The Atlantic Monthly, but they would mark the beginning of a writing career that would make Baldacci famous. He can still recall in detail the best of those stories — complete with the kinds of late plot twists that he would later relish springing on millions of readers.
Today, Baldacci is the author of 40 novels for adults. All have been national and international bestsellers, and several have been adapted for film and television. His novels, which also include seven books for younger readers, have been published in more than 45 languages and in more than 80 countries. In total, Baldacci has sold more than 130 million copies of his books. On Saturday, Baldacci will be the speaker at VCU’s fall commencement. He said the chance to speak to new graduates is a special honor for him, particularly because he feels such an enduring affection for VCU. Even now, decades after he graduated and left town for law school, he said he closely identifies with the university and its students.
“It’s always been a special place for me,” Baldacci said. “For students like me with a working-class mentality, it’s so great to go to a place that embraces you for that.”
Holsworth said Baldacci’s values align closely with VCU’s — from his interest in social justice and the common good to “the tremendous respect that he has for people who work hard.”
“Almost everything that VCU stands for, he has embodied both as a student and in his life after,” Holsworth said. “One of the wonderful things about David is that he has done extraordinarily well, but he has never lost the core values he had when he was walking into the classroom in his work uniform at 9 in the morning.”
In the classroom
Baldacci excelled as a high school wrestler and initially joined the VCU wrestling team, but he tired of starving himself to make weight and eventually dropped off the team during his freshman year to focus on his studies. Academically, he was drawn to “everything that involved reading a lot and writing a lot.” He loved English and history classes, but it was political science that most appealed to him. The inner workings of the American political system was endlessly fascinating. Dennis Johnson, Ph.D., a former political science professor at VCU, said Baldacci was a standout student from the outset in his constitutional law course. Johnson said Baldacci proved his seriousness with how well prepared he was for each class, and he excelled in exams when it was time to demonstrate the extent of his learning.
“David was very bright, very articulate, and he asked a lot of really good questions,” Johnson said. “He was a little shy, but you could just tell, ‘This kid’s going to go far.’”
Baldacci remembers with particular fondness when Johnson took Baldacci and the rest of his constitutional law class to Washington to hear oral arguments before the Supreme Court. Shortly before the trip, Baldacci had chopped wood at his parents’ house for the family’s wood stove and had not realized poison sumac was attached to one of the logs. He’d burned the sumac in the stove, breathed in the resulting smoke and been in brutal shape, missing school for a week while he recovered. He nearly had to skip the trip to D.C. but showed up when it was time to load up the vans.
“Everyone was really glad to see me because they knew how much that trip meant to me,” Baldacci said. “We went to D.C. and sat in on oral arguments at the Supreme Court. There were some legends on the court in those days — Thurgood Marshall, Harry Blackmun, William Brennan. … Those experiences really stuck with me because they allowed me to see things that I otherwise never would have gotten a chance to see. I never would have imagined going to the Supreme Court back then. It was incredible."
"It’s always been a special place for me. For students like me with a working-class mentality, it’s so great to go to a place that embraces you for that."
Holsworth said Baldacci was “an exceptional student who did extraordinarily well in class.” Baldacci also sought out the most demanding classes that he could, Holsworth said, noting that Johnson’s class was particularly challenging.
“He had tremendous commitment and a tremendous thirst for knowledge,” Holsworth said of Baldacci. “He was sort of indefatigable. He was always asking for more to read and always looking for ways to gain more knowledge. More than anything else, he was dedicated to learning.”
As an example of Baldacci’s determination to always give his best effort, Holsworth said Baldacci’s senior honors thesis was a “fabulous” piece of work and received a top score. However, Baldacci felt it could be better and asked Holsworth if he would read a revision if Baldacci rewrote it, though it would not be until well after graduation.
“He was going to do this for no other reason than that he thought he could improve it and make it more consistent with his high standards, and it was already one of the best honors thesis papers we had,” Holsworth said. “So I said, ‘Fine,’ assuming that would be the end of it, because who wants to rewrite a hundred-page paper in their spare time? But then about eight months later, after he’d graduated, he comes to me with a new revision he’d done, and it was just astonishing to me that he’d done that. That’s what I remember about him.”
Toward the end of his VCU tenure, Baldacci decided that being a lawyer seemed like interesting work, though he said he doesn’t think he’d yet met a lawyer at that point in his life. He was accepted to the law school at the University of Virginia and deferred admission for a year to work at a Richmond law firm as “a runner,” spending 10 hours a day doing a wide range of odd jobs and learning the basics of the field. The legal field still seemed exciting to him after the experience and he headed for UVa. Following graduation, he took a job at a law firm in Washington.
A rise to acclaim
Even as his legal career took hold, Baldacci continued to write short stories. In retrospect, he can see how he was learning the keys to good storytelling in those days — refining the way he approached characters, dialogue and plot with every story he wrote — and preparing himself for the novels that were in his future. The stories didn’t find a market, but that didn’t slow him down, he said.
At one point, he received a film script to read for fun. “I thought, ‘This is a really cool way of telling a story,’” Baldacci said. He decided to give it a shot and started writing screenplays. In 1991, he completed a script for a movie called “Reverse Order.” He describes the film as “‘Diehard’ at the White House” — a precursor to recent hits “White House Down” and “Olympus Has Fallen” — and it seemed to generate legitimate heat in Hollywood. Several film studios considered it, including Warner Bros., Universal, Paramount and 20th Century Fox, and Baldacci thought he’d found his breakthrough. While the script was with the studios, he traveled to Islip, New York, for work, reviewing ground leases for a client who was purchasing “a bunch of banks.” One night near midnight, Baldacci’s agent called.
“Here I am at this hotel killing my brain little by little reviewing these ground leases, and he said, ‘Yeah, Warner Brothers passed on it, and the herd mentality out here is so strong that everybody else thought that if Warner passed on it, there must be something wrong with it. So they all passed,’” Baldacci said. “So I'm staring out the window of this hotel in Islip, New York, and that was the first time after having written for all of these years that I thought, ‘Maybe it’s just not gonna happen for me.’”
"Almost everything that VCU stands for, he has embodied both as a student and in his life after. One of the wonderful things about David is that he has done extraordinarily well, but he has never lost the core values he had when he was walking into the classroom in his work uniform at 9 in the morning."
However, Baldacci was far from out of ideas. In those days, he often rode bicycles with his wife, Michelle, on George Washington Memorial Parkway, passing many of D.C.’s monuments to power. On lunch breaks, he’d take walks that often took him past the White House. As a student of history and politics, he knew about rumors of presidential affairs and secret tunnels. Occasionally, he’d see signs of the Secret Service on his walks. He began to formulate an idea for a novel centering on the president having an affair that leads to a murder and cover-up directed by Secret Service agents. He spent three years writing the novel, which was eventually titled “Absolute Power.” When he was finished, he sent it to a host of literary agents. All but one said they’d like to represent him.
“Absolute Power” was a massive hit, a national bestseller and ultimately a movie with Clint Eastwood as the star and director. Baldacci left his position as a lawyer and became a full-time writer. The breakthrough had arrived. He was often called an overnight success in those days, he said, but few knew it had taken “five- or six-thousand nights to make it happen.”
His life changed dramatically.
“I became my own boss, my own master, and I got to lead my life the way I wanted to lead it,” Baldacci said. “It was absolutely, astonishingly wonderful.”
The writing life
Success hasn’t dulled the appeal of the act of writing for Baldacci. He still writes prolifically, protecting time in his schedule to make sure he gets a chance to work on new novels. He believes novelists need to have “an incredible motor.”
“Writing is not a job or a hobby or even a career for me,” Baldacci said. “It’s more of a lifestyle. I’m constantly sitting down to write because I just can’t not do it. If I’m not doing it, something feels very off with my world. Words have been my life for as long as I can remember. If I’m not playing with them every day, then I’m not happy at all.”
Baldacci said he continues to read widely with a focus on news. He has always infused his novels with current events and issues of the moment, believing it helps give a story a sense of relevance and stakes that make it more compelling for readers.
“I look at fiction as a means to entertain and inform people,” Baldacci said. “Writing about contemporary issues that I feel are very relevant to people’s lives is a way for me to fulfill that ambition.”
Politics remains at the top of Baldacci’s interests, and he said he is active in supporting individual political campaigns and tackling certain issues, such as climate change. People frequently complain about politics, he said, but ignoring politics because of distaste with the process and people involved is dangerous. Engagement is essential, he said.
“There are a lot of really highly paid people who will tell you what you’re supposed to believe and who you’re supposed to vote for, but it’s not a good thing if you just listen to them,” Baldacci said. “An informed electorate is really critical. I think we’ve seen the shortcomings of what can happen when we’re not informed in this country.”
Baldacci has been a diligent advocate for literacy through the Wish You Well Foundation, which he founded with his wife. At VCU, Baldacci has served on the Board of Visitors, the VCU Foundation Board of Trustees and the College of Humanities and Sciences Advisory Board. He also served as the VCU Alumni Association Book & Author Luncheon speaker in the program’s inaugural year and will serve as its 10th anniversary speaker in May 2020.
The Baldaccis also have been steadfast supporters of VCU with large gifts through the years to a host of university efforts, ranging from political science programs to the Trani Scholars Program. In 2017, the Baldaccis provided a $1.1 million gift to the College of Humanities and Sciences. The gift created the Baldacci Student Experiential Learning Endowed Fund, which provides grants of $1,000 to $5,000 to academically promising VCU students from diverse areas of study and backgrounds to allow them to pursue internships, conferences, research, domestic or international study abroad, and social entrepreneurship opportunities. The gift also created the Baldacci Political Science Endowed Scholarship, which was the first such scholarship for the Department of Political Science and is one of the largest in the College of Humanities and Sciences.
"There are a lot of really highly paid people who will tell you what you’re supposed to believe and who you’re supposed to vote for, but it’s not a good thing if you just listen to them. An informed electorate is really critical.
The Baldaccis made an additional $1 million gift for the experiential learning fund earlier this year. Baldacci said the fund stems from a desire to provide students with life-changing opportunities they otherwise never would have considered. He loves connecting each year with the students who benefit from the fund and hearing about their experiences. Occasionally, he said, they get emotional recounting what they learned and how it affected them.
“I like to think that maybe these experiences will help them change the way they think about what they want to do with their lives,” Baldacci said. “It can help show them possibilities they didn’t know existed.”
The chance to speak at commencement marks a new way to connect with the students Baldacci still sees himself in.
“I’ve always believed that there are great things in the students that come here,” Baldacci said. “And VCU gives them an opportunity to move forward on whatever unique path they choose to take. That’s not a cliche to me. I sincerely believe that because I feel like I’ve lived it myself.”
By Tom Gresham
University Public Affairs