Q&A: David Baldacci dishes on Virginia roots, new Will Robie book ‘End Game’

WTOP's Jason Fraley highlights David Baldacci's 'End Game' (Jason Fraley)

WASHINGTON — He’s renowned as one of the top thriller writers of the past 20 years.

But did you know that best-selling author David Baldacci is also a lifelong Virginian?

“I listen to WTOP all the time — the Glass-Enclosed Nerve Center!” Baldacci joked on WTOP. “I was born and grew up in Richmond, went to school at [Virginia Commonwealth University], went to law school in Charlottesville at U.Va., moved up to D.C. to practice law and have been here ever since. We got married here and raised our kids in Northern Virginia. I’m a lifelong Virginian and pretty much every book I’ve ever written has some element of Virginia in it.”

Now, he’s out with “End Game,” the fifth entry in his Will Robie series after “The Innocent” (2012), “The Hit” (2013), “Bullseye” (2014), “The Target” (2014) and “The Guilty” (2015).

“Robie and Reel are overseas on separate assignments [when] they’re told that ‘Blue Man,’ their handler and closest confidant, has vanished from the face of the earth,” Baldacci said. “They’re sent to [Colorado] to find him as quickly as possible, because he has a lot of very valuable intelligence in his mind. They’re afraid a foreign government has snatched him.”

Baldacci said he enjoys returning to these same characters over and over in franchise form.

“It’s kind of like a television series where you have a chance each week with a new episode to extrapolate out and evolve the character over the course of a season or two or 10 seasons,” Baldacci said. “It’s the same with a series of a book. Every book, I have 500 pages or so where I can evolve the characters — in this case Will Robie and Jessica Reel — to deepen it, broaden it, to make it more intimate and more personal, and allow it to grow and change over time.”

How does this fifth installment differ from previous entries in the Robie-Reel series?

“In all of the previous books, Blue Man has always been in the background,” Baldacci said. “In this book, he’s front and center. He’s the subject of the entire book. He is the goal at the end. They need to find him, so he permeates throughout the book. You also discover a lot about Blue Man’s past because they have to go to his hometown with the people who knew him before he was Blue Man. You’re also going to see Reel and Robie really struggle personally.”

Despite the fresh take, “End Game” still features many of the same beloved elements.

“They definitely in the first six chapters get to see what they’ve seen in every book with Robie and Reel, which is their skills and the mayhem they can cause and how deadly they are,” Baldacci said. “Also, how they work together and complement each other with their skill sets.”

While it’s always helpful to read the previous books, it’s not entirely necessary here.

“The answer my publisher would want me to give is: you need to read every book I’ve written in order to fully appreciate ‘End Game,'” Baldacci joked. “The reality is that you can read this as a stand-alone. I like, in all of my books, to give some background of the main characters. … You can read ‘End Game’ without having read the previous four novels and be largely OK.”

Where does this series rank among his favorite creative endeavors?

“As far as thrillers go, I have a lot of favorites,” Baldacci said. “The one, if I had to pick, would be ‘The Camel Club,’ an eccentric group of older guys getting into trouble, very different from anything you’ve read out in the thriller world. Even though I haven’t had a ‘Camel’ book in a number of years, fans still clamor for more ‘Camel Club,’ so it’s definitely a popular one.”

Ironically, his personal favorite is not even a thriller at all.

“Years ago, I wrote a book that was not a thriller called ‘Wish You Well,’ a family story, a very personal period piece set in the 1940s,” Baldacci said. “The story was fictional, but the setting was identical to how my mother’s family grew up. It was a very personal book for me on a variety of levels. If I had to pick a book that I loved the most writing, it’d be ‘Wish You Well.'”

In fact, it was his family that sparked his interest in storytelling.

“I grew up in a family of storytellers,” he said. “My maternal grandmother lived with us for the last 10 years of her life. She was a former schoolteacher from southwest Virginia. I’d go to her room every morning before school as a little boy and listen to her stories of yesteryear.”

His writing began when his mom bought him a journal around age 8.

“I was one of those kids who constantly told tall tales,” Baldacci said. “My mom bought me a journal and said, ‘Why don’t you try writing this stuff down?’ I did and thought, ‘My god, I can write something that other people can read and enjoy just like I do when I open a book.’ Years later, I went back to my mom and said, ‘My god, what a great gift you gave me.’ She said, ‘I’m so glad it worked so well for you, honey, but frankly, I just wanted to shut you the hell up.'”

Even if that was his mother’s “end game,” Baldacci began spending lots of time at the library.

“I really matriculated to two principal genres — one was fantasy and one was biography,” Baldacci said. “I also loved mysteries. I grew up reading Sherlock Holmes, Agatha Christie, the Hardy Boys and The Three Investigators. I loved the puzzle aspect of that, putting all the clues, pieces and red herrings together, and [the author] trying to be one step ahead of the reader.”

Which of his peers does he enjoy reading?

“Nelson DeMille, Scott Turow, Patricia Cornwell, Stephen King, Bob Kraus, Lisa Scottoline — and I’m a big mystery-thriller fan, so I read Mike Connelly,” he said. “I know them all. They’re all great people, great writers. It’s always nice to crack open their books and lose yourself.”

When he isn’t reading or writing, he is busy helping others with the Wish You Well Foundation.

“We give money to fund literacy organizations across the country,” Baldacci said. “We’ve funded programs in pretty much all 50 states. Several weeks ago, we had our latest board meeting and approved a grant of over $300,000. … We’ve also evolved as a foundation. Our core is literacy [but] we’ve also expanded to include other efforts, including life skills. Our goal is not just for people to be able to read a book, it’s for them to have increased job skills.”

He founded the charity 16 years ago with his wife, Michelle. Where? You guessed it: Virginia.

“I like to highlight the commonwealth as much as I can,” Baldacci said. “I’m very interested in Virginia politics, I have a lot of friends in Virginia from all walks of life, I’ve been all over the state and I think it’s a fantastic place both to live and to work — and to write about.”

Click here for more on “End Game.” Listen to our full conversation with David Baldacci below:

WTOP's Jason Fraley chats with David Baldacci (Full Interview) (Jason Fraley)
Jason Fraley

Hailed by The Washington Post for “his savantlike ability to name every Best Picture winner in history," Jason Fraley began at WTOP as Morning Drive Writer in 2008, film critic in 2011 and Entertainment Editor in 2014, providing daily arts coverage on-air and online.

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