Baldacci in Blount

Best-selling author entertains to benefit Friends of Literacy

Fans of best-selling author David Baldacci take notice. The latest novel in the Camel Club series will have a Blount County connection.

Well, sort of.

Baldacci was in town Wednesday, May 26, to speak at the Clayton Center for the Arts on Maryville College campus as a fundraiser for Friends of Literacy. Near the end of his hour-long talk, he answered questions from the audience.

Someone in the crowd asked when the author would write again about the Camel Club and when it would be finished.

“When I get back to my hotel tonight, I’ll be writing the last chapter to it,” Baldacci said.

Baldacci entertained the more-than 400 people at the B97.5-sponsored event that is a fundraiser for Friends of Literacy.

Baldacci, a Virginia native whose first novel, “Absolute Power,” was published 10 years ago, has become one of the world’s best-selling and best-known writers. His novels have been translated into 45 languages with more than 100 million copies sold in more than 80 countries. “His support of family literacy is why he’s here tonight,” said Jennifer Alexander of B97.5 radio.

Baldacci echoed Alexander’s sentiments. “Literacy is so important,” the author said. “If you can’t read, you can’t fulfill your potential.”

While signing autographs at the end of the evening, Baldacci said he first realized there was an adult literacy problem about 10 years ago during book tours and stops at high schools, colleges and retirement homes. “Someone who can’t read is doomed. They can’t be a benefit to society, and they can not reach their own potential,” he said.

Baldacci said it is going to become increasingly difficult to compete with job seekers in other countries who have multiple doctorate degrees and want to work in the U.S. when many Americans do not have even a Graduate Equivalency Diploma. “These are tough times, and what is the first thing that is cut - education,” he said. “We spend a lot of money on a lot of things, but we don’t spend enough on education, and that’s our future.”

During Baldacci’s presentation, the author poked fun at himself, his fame and his popularity.

“Many people think best-selling authors have amazing lives,” he said. “Then my wife tells me it’s trash day - get on it.”

He said the fame he has attained is often lost on his children. He told the story of taking his daughter with him to a book signing and of her being asked if she knew why all the people were waiting for her father to sign books. To which his daughter replied: “He has the best hand-writing.”

Later, he took his son to a bookstore, and he proudly announced, “My dad will sign any book you have for $2.”

Baldacci said he started out as a youngster writing short stories to entertain himself after his mother gave him a journal book with blank pages. “I never looked back. I loved putting stories on pages.”

Rejection from publishers are just part of the process, Baldacci said. “I got plenty of rejection slips. It’s a badge of honor. You take their criticism and get better, and you get all sorts of nasty notes,” he said. “One letter (from an agent) said, ‘We only represent talent.’”

Baldacci said he writes because he has a passion for writing. He wrote throughout college and law school. As to why he went to law school, Baldacci quipped, “I graduated with a political science degree. I could be unemployed, or I could go to law school,” he said.

The writer said he tried his hand at screen-writing before his first novel “Absolute Power” was published, and he said was not the best at evaluating a good script even when a friend asked his opinion on a script for a comedy.

“I read the screenplay, and I was convinced no one would really pay to watch it,” he said. ‘“Austin Powers’ went on to be hit. Some of you may have seen it,” he said as the audience laughed.

Baldacci drew some laughs when he explained that he usually never approaches anyone he sees reading his novels in public. “One reason is that I’m a private person, and I don’t want to intrude. The other reason is, if you’re not enjoying the book, I don’t want to hear it,” he said as the audience laughed.

Baldacci shared how he broke that rule about four years ago when he was walking through Los Angeles Airport late at night and introduced himself to a man who seemed engrossed in one of Baldacci’s novels. When the author offered to sign it, the man balked and said, “You’re not David Baldacci. Get away from me, freak.”

Baldacci shared how he once planned a trip to his grandfather’s hometown in Italy. Somehow the mayor of the town learned of the plans and invited him for lunch. The writer said when he arrived with his wife and family, he thought it was going to be a low-key affair until his wife pointed out the 12-foot tall poster at the front wall of the city promoting his visit.

The writer said that just then the doors of the town swung open, and the mayor had an American flag and an Italian flag draped over his shoulders as a band played music and the town’s people flocked to welcome him to David Baldacci Day. “It was an intimate lunch with the mayor, my family and 1,100 residents,” he said.

Baldacci said he does a lot of research and that he does his own research. “Sometimes research can get you in trouble,” he said.

Baldacci told of riding an Amtrak line to New York to meet with a medical examiner in the Bronx to research for his novel “Split-Second.” He called her and she said they would just have to do a phone interview on the spot since she was leaving the country on assignment.

“I said, ‘OK doc, here’s basically how I want to kill this guy. And doc, when I murder this guy, I want to do it in such a way that they can’t tell. I want to fool the police and the medical examiner.’ I ended the phone call by saying, ‘Thanks doc. If I ever need to kill someone, I’m calling you.’”

At this point Baldacci said he looked up at the men standing at the table with him and “the guy beside me was speechless, and the guy across from me had his hands up. Then here come Amtrak police.”

While taking questions, Baldacci said he always encourages aspiring writers to learn from what they enjoy reading. “It’s like game film in football. Break it down. Why is the book so wonderful? What is good about it?” he said. “We all go through the process. It’s a craft. Work on dialogue by listening to people. Don’t get discouraged by waiting a long time in obscurity. Every writer is scared to death they won’t be able to bring the magic.”

Baldacci wrapped his speech by explaining that most help for fighting adult illiteracy comes from private foundations and not from government. “That’s why we’re here, to celebrate the fight against illiteracy,” he said.

Friends of Literacy executive director Melissa Nance said final figures on how much was raised after expenses wasn’t available yet but about 400 people showed for the event.

“I thought it went great. We had a great turnout. People not normally involved in our organization were there. People signed up to get information about volunteering, and we made some money,” she said. “We sold over 200 tickets at the door and we sold about 175 before hand.

Nance said she and the others planning the event knew there were a lot of people who were fans of Baldacci’s work. “We tried to remain positive and hope a lot of people would want to come out and hear him. He’s a good speaker, he’s entertaining and is open to taking pictures with fans. He’s a likeable guy and because of that, he draws a good crowd.”

Fans were excited to speak with Baldacci as they waited in line to get books signed.

Ike Munn of Louisville said he has been a big fan of Baldacci and has read all of his books. “I’d say it’s his research that makes the books so good. It is very thorough,” Munn said of why he likes Baldacci’s work. “He’s very detail-oriented and takes you different places. You’re in it, and you’re running with the characters. That’s what I enjoy.”

Lisa Gift of Maryville said she enjoys the dialogue in Baldacci’s work. “He writes like he talks,” she said. “He’s captivating, entertaining and real.

Sue Wolaver of Beaver Creek, Ohio, drove five and a half hours to see Baldacci. “We love his books,” she said.

Mary Driscoll stood in line to get an autograph for her brother who is a science teacher in the town where Baldacci lives in Virginia. Her brother had Baldacci’s daughter in his science class, and Mary shared that story with the author.

“My brother was a surgeon for years and when he retired, he went to his first love of teaching and one of his students was David Baldacci’s daughter. When I read about this event, I had to come get an autograph,” she said. “He was very kind and wrote a very kind note in the book.”

Rev. Jerry Mantooth of Monte Vista Baptist Church stood with his wife, Kim, and waited for an autograph. Kim Mantooth surprised her husband with the tickets for his birthday. “He was shocked when he saw them,” she said.

The pastor said he has read every one of Baldacci’s books. “I’m always hooked on the first page,” he said. “He weaves it all together; he has great character development, and he’s my favorite author.”

Marty Millsaps, advertising director at Blount Today, has read all 18 of Baldacci’s books and stood in line to speak with the author. “All his books are great escapes,” he said. “You can become a very exciting character or hero for 400 pages.”

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