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He’ll Thrill You

David Baldacci writes political thrillers read by millions

Mark Jenkinson

Crooked politicians shamelessly use their clout for personal gain or to cloak their own corruption. Civilians find themselves trapped in government conspiracies and unspeakable secrets involving the highest levels of power. Assassinations, murder, kidnapping and espionage—they’re all in a day’s work for David Baldacci (Law ’86), who went from a career in law straight to the top of the bestseller list, where he has remained for well over a decade. Baldacci’s career could serve as an inspiration to any struggling writer, providing a lesson on the value of sheer perseverance and hard work. After getting a law degree from the University of Virginia, Baldacci was headed for a typical law school graduate’s career: For nine years, he spent his days practicing law in Washington, D.C., as a trial and corporate lawyer. But at night Baldacci nursed his burgeoning literary ambitions, crafting screenplays and short stories—which were roundly rejected.

Undeterred, he decided to try his hand at novel writing. In 1994, he finished his first novel, Absolute Power, a thriller about a cover-up involving the U.S. president’s accidental murder of his secret lover. Two years later, he found himself with a $2 million advance for that debut novel and a new career as an internationally bestselling author. His fame grew when Clint Eastwood directed and starred, along with Gene Hackman, in the film adaptation of Absolute Power. Since then, Baldacci has written 18 more novels, all of which have been bestsellers both domestically and abroad. Many of his books place regular people in extraordinary situations, possibly reflecting his own upbringing in the suburbs of Richmond, Va., as the son of an auto mechanic.

For someone whose books have sold 90 million copies worldwide, Baldacci seems as hardworking and down to earth as ever. Unlike many other mass-market blockbuster authors, Baldacci does his own painstaking research for each of the books he writes—and that is no small feat, considering the blistering pace at which he produces his books (on average, one every seven months).

Writing is only one of the many demands on his time. Baldacci is an active philanthropist whose primary focus is on family literacy. He founded the Wish You Well Foundation with his wife, Michelle, to promote literacy and educational programs. He often returns to UVA; he gave the law school’s commencement address in 2006 and was the valedictory speaker for both the Class of 2002 and the Class of 2010. This year, he exhorted the new graduates to take responsibility for preserving America’s best qualities. “We’ve taken the poor, the persecuted, the hungry and the huddled masses, and we’ve done so for centuries,” he said. “We are a shining beacon in a sometimes bleak world ... So long as we have people who love this country and believe in the many outstanding principles for which it stands, that beacon will continue to shine on for centuries to come.”

Baldacci’s plots and literary interests also seem to focus on doing good in the world. “As a lawyer, as a private citizen, you see a lot of injustice. You see a lot of people who should have been punished and are not, and people who were punished wrongfully are not vindicated,” he told Newsweek. “Fiction is sort of a way to set the record straight, and let people at least believe that justice can be achieved and the right outcomes can occur.”