The author David Baldacci and the formula of no formula
At last count, David Baldacci had sold 110 million copies of his incredibly popular thrillers. And as the 50-year-old American sits in his publisher's offices in London, some of the benefits of writing a series of international bestsellers are obvious.
He's dressed immaculately. He talks of his European holidays with his family and the fine wines he likes to drink. He admits he has "staff" to deal with his many projects - which include an impressively philanthropic organisation supporting literacy projects.
Baldacci, then, isn't just a self-assured man, he's a successful worldwide brand - in everyone's eyes, it seems, apart from his own.
"I'm scared to death every time I sit down to write a book," he murmurs. "And I've written 23 of them, so you'd think I'd have more confidence. But I always think 'I don't know if I can do this again'."
It's not what you'd expect to hear from a writer who admits he churns out a book every seven months. We're here to talk about not one, but two of his novels that are out this summer - the next in the King and Maxwell thriller series, The Sixth Man, and, in something of a departure for Baldacci, an emotional family drama called One Summer. A third, Zero Hour, will follow in November. Baldacci, then, isn't so crippled by doubt that he can't write. In those dark times, I wonder, does he fall back on a formula?
"Actually, you have to think, 'what am I going to do differently?'" he says. "Because if you have to ask yourself how you did it last time, that's when you're dead as a writer. That's when you become a formulaic hack."
And yet, of course, this is exactly the criticism regularly levelled at the bestselling thriller writers by the literary set: that the books are crushingly obvious stories plumped out with average writing designed to cater to middle-aged men passing time at the airport.
It's true that The Sixth Man features dialogue between two main characters, private investigators, that is hilariously cliched. But it is also page-turningly exciting. It has a superb, unforeseen twist. In the end, it is entertaining and easy-going in a way that some of the slightly serious novels on the recently announced Booker longlist could never be.
And most new thrillers don't merit mention in newspapers these days. Baldacci, James Patterson, Wilbur Smith and the rest don't exactly need the publicity. But Baldacci does find the ghettoization of his work strange.
"Film critics will review movies that will win Oscars and also the big summer blockbusters. But nearly always they do so in a way that will consider whether the film fulfills what it set out to do. Book reviewers don't do that. It seems to me that if something isn't going to win the Pulitzer or the Booker, if it wasn't written as a piece of art, then critics will deride it as rubbish. It's getting a bit silly, actually.
"I mean, I love books with dense, beautiful prose ... but laying clues and red herrings, entertaining the reader, while still making it all make sense? That takes quite a bit of talent, too.
"See, I can write a great plot - I know how to do that now. But just plot, no matter how clever, becomes tedious. You have to put characters inside the story whom the readers care about, too, so that when things happen there is a visceral reaction. I think that's why people return to my books - and perhaps why I sometimes return to the same characters, too. There's always more to find out about them."
And although it might seem that Baldacci's new books inevitably hit the bestseller lists these days, life hasn't always been so straightforward. He started out listening to random people in cafes to get an ear for dialogue and behaviour, rushing home to try to write down what he'd observed. He progressed to short stories and, in the end, took a job as a trial lawyer when writing didn't pay the bills. Baldacci wrote, in fact, for 15 long years before he sold a single copy of a book - but believes now that his big breakthrough in 1996, Absolute Power, (a film version was directed by Clint Eastwood the following year) would never have happened without such a lengthy apprenticeship.
"I couldn't have told the story properly," he says. "You can't take shortcuts as an aspiring writer, knock out a book in a couple of months. It doesn't work that way. Absolute Power took me three years to write."
But what is it that makes a particular novelist suddenly click with hundreds of millions of people?
"Well, when I look back at other authors who have got to this level, it's usually because they've written something that caught people by surprise. So The Firm by John Grisham or The Da Vinci Code by Dan Brown both did something new. And I think in Absolute Power I wrote about the president in a way that hadn't really been done before. I mean, the hero is a burglar who has the highest morals of anyone in the book. I got told at the time that it was a great story but a bit far-fetched. The president would never have an affair and behave in this way. And then, two years later, Bill Clinton came along..."
Political subtexts can certainly be found in Baldacci's books if you want to look for them - Absolute Power and The Sixth Man both deal with how power can be corruptive - and he grapples with terrorism in another series, Camel Club, writing about a Muslim character who took the US government to task over foreign policy.
What Baldacci hopes is that these kinds of storylines might give people more to think about than simply the action on the page. Refreshing, when the genre is often derided as fiction for those who don't want to think at all. However they're written, though, thrillers are without a doubt the dominant literary form of the 21st century.
"True," Baldacci says, "and it's because people are looking for heroes, really - somebody who can make sense out of this strange world, do something about a bad situation and turn it around. People like to have a sense that there is some order in the world. That's why, I think, the books sell so well."
And Baldacci, 110m copies later, should know.