Best-selling novelist David Baldacci, known for his high-intrigue thrillers—The Collectors, The Camel Club, and Absolute Power among them—has taken a new turn in a life powered by his love of language. This shift from suspense-driven plots came with the creation of Wish You Well, a beautiful story steeped in his family history in the Appalachian Mountains of southwest Virginia. I remember my shock a few years ago when, on a search for his thrillers for my husband, I pulled out Wish You Well from the bookshelf and thought—as an Appalachian native myself—that this must be a mistake. Happily it wasn't. It's now, he says, his personal favorite.
Building on that commitment to family and community, Baldacci and his wife, Michelle, have been generous in their philanthropy to people in need. Among other efforts, they have created the Wish You Well Foundation, through which they support family literacy in the United States by fostering and promoting the development and expansion of new and existing literacy and educational programs. To date the foundation has funded 37 programs across the United States.
Q: What are you hoping to accomplish with the Wish You Well Foundation?
Our stated goal is to eradicate illiteracy in the United States, particularly among adults. There is more government money available for K-12. At a conference I asked someone why there was so little money for adult literacy education, and the response was that funding adult programs would be an admission that K-12 efforts had failed. We do fund kids' programs, but for the most part we focus on adults.
We have a new program in the foundation that links books and food. At one of our board meetings, we were reviewing proposals and several organizations had asked for a food component. At first we didn't see the link but we investigated it, and they told us that in order for people to participate, we need to feed them because it was the only food they might get.
We called this program "America's Second Harvest: Feeding Body & Mind." On book tours, we have a big box that holds 72 pounds of books, and we ask for book donations. Last year we toured 10 cities and collected 40,000 books. Now we've ramped it up and are involving food banks. With a lot of my author friends and corporate partnerships, we're going to collect and distribute millions of books a year to people who have few or no books at all. It's a beautiful fit, really—the entire publishing industry has joined this effort, with writers collecting books and food banks, with their vast distribution networks, delivering books and food. Food banks keep people from starving but they never get you out of poverty; learning to read and write, and reading books, can help break you out of the poverty cycle.
Q: Are you aware of the work speech-language pathologists do in the area of literacy?
Yes. I've met speech-language pathologists at conferences I've attended related to literacy. And I would say to them that by helping children to read, their work could have no greater impact on society, no matter what else they are doing. Literacy is the foundation of education and a necessity in living one's life fully.
A study at Johns Hopkins University looked at two groups of patients—literate and illiterate—with the same prognosis and the same treatment. Twice the number of illiterate patients died as did literate patients. Think about it—people who can't read or write can't read prescriptions, are less likely to drive to the doctor's office because they can't read the directions or street signs, and they're less likely to have insurance because they can't fill out the forms.
Q: When did you first discover your love of the written word?
I was 5 ½ years old when I found The Magic Squirrel, the first book I remember reading. I also loved those biographies of famous people written for kids. My mother took us to the library in Richmond, Va., where I grew up, and we would check out as many books as we could.
Reading opened my eyes to the power of words—and showed me the world. I thought then that if someone could capture my attention through language—symbols on a page—what power they had! We think in language, after all. How broad can your mind be if you can't conceive ideas using language, or think for yourself? Without that capacity, we are just spoon-fed our entire lives. The only reason I'm a writer today is because, as a child, I was such a reader.
Q: Many children today spend more time online than reading books. To what extent has technology affected literacy?
The rapid advance of technology hasn't helped literacy. Many video and Internet-based games teach another set of skills. Also social interaction on the Internet occurs anonymously, and we're finding that kids have not learned to pick up nonverbal cues and nuances. With language, often what people are saying to you is not in the words they speak but in the nuance of the delivery. In novels this is clear. Characters are developed through nuance and language and inflection. And much of that understanding is lacking in kids who don't read.
Q: You're famous for your suspense novels. What prompted you to write such a poignant, personal story based upon your family heritage? And was the writing process different for Wish You Well?
I wrote this book because I have always treasured family stories, and also have always been fascinated by the history of my native Virginia and the South in general. Also, as a father, I want my children to know where they came from, who their ancestors are, and how they struggled.
And yes, the writing process was different. I was able to linger over the prose, and didn't have to worry about placing clues and red herrings in the story, as is the case with my other books. I could write it more dramatically. I also researched the language from that area by going to the state library and listened to recordings from the '30s and '40s. I tried hard to get the language right, and to vary it appropriately according to a character's level of education.
Q: I like your offbeat characters like Milton Farb in The Camel Club who struggles with social communication.
The Milton Farb character has obsessive-compulsive disorder, which can ruin your life. I wanted to assemble a team of characters; readers will ask, "Why are these people together?" I give my characters back-stories. They're people looking for second chances. They're struggling, but what's great about them is that they have each other. I love people who make it through hard times and find each other, quirky characters who have no power individually but who become powerful because they have each other.
Q: You started out as a lawyer and turned to writing. How does the creative process work for you?
I try to do something different in every book. I have to find out what drives me for the next story. Some days I write nothing; other days I write all day and all night. Once the writing is done, I edit on hard copy.
The truth is that I became a lawyer because I didn't think I could make a living being a writer. I liked to do research and was good on my feet; so I figured I could be a pretty good lawyer. But my first love was writing. I've been doing that since I was a kid.
Q: What's next for you?
I will continue to write. Right now I'm writing a script and it's interesting. Writing another novel like Wish You Well would be a thrill for me, but I won't write one just to do it. I will wait for inspiration before beginning another project like that.