Whodunit fans know they can count on lawyer-turned-novelist David Baldacci for first-rate page-turners. Since the 1996 publication of his debut novel, the razor-sharp political thriller Absolute Power, Baldacci has published 27 consecutive bestsellers for adults, plus three books for young readers. His work has been translated into 45 languages, sold in more than 80 countries, with more than 110-million copies in print. He and his wife, Michelle, are also cofounders of the Wish You Well Foundation, dedicated to combatting illiteracy across the U.S.
Two Christmases ago, Baldacci’s gifts included a blank journal from his wife, which some writers believe is a bad-luck omen. Instead, he was blessed with a wellspring of creative inspiration. On page one, he wrote the name “Vega Jane.” From there, a richly imaginative fantasy novel poured forth. Baldacci’s mythical world of Wormwood, where townsfolk, known as Wugmorts, live in constant fear of the dense and mysterious “Quag” that surrounds them (entry within is said to guarantee instant death), is as magical as J.R.R. Tolkien’s Middle Earth or J.K. Rowling’s Hogwarts. Though The Finisher, its name taken from 14-year-old Vega Jane’s factory-like job, is aimed at young adult readers, it is sure to prove, much like the Harry Potter and Hunger Games novels, equally popular with readers of all ages.
Baldacci sat down with Walmart Live Better to discuss the joys and challenges of creating a monster-filled fantasy world and, as a 53-year-old father, writing from the perspective of a feisty teenaged girl.
Walmart Live Better: Is there really a belief among writers that blank paper or notebooks as gifts is bad luck?
David Baldacci: I guess what I really meant is that you do it at your own peril, because any writer will see the blank paper and they’re just going to run off, even though it’s Christmas, and start writing. So that’s the problem, my wife should have known better, because I disappeared. Everybody’s singing Christmas carols and drinking eggnog, and they don’t know where dad is.
And the first two words you wrote were “Vega Jane.”
Over the years I’ve read a lot of astronomy, and I know Vega, the star, [is] supposed to be one of the most researched in all the heavens. It just sort of popped into my head. And years ago, when I was researching stuff for a military thriller, I was reading some of the Jane military books. So, those two [names] just hit. Sometimes names are hard, but this one kind of just hit me, you know. Vega Jane. It just seemed like it went together really well, so I wrote it down.
Was writing a fantasy novel a specific goal?
It was at that point. I knew it was not going to be a thriller, a mystery, or set in modern times. It was going to be set in a time period that was vague. Obviously, it seems primitive, or post-apocalyptic, or whatever. I knew it was going to be fantasy. I wanted it to have magical elements, and I wanted to have things that were not of this world. That really was my goal.
In terms of creative development, how did the process differ from your political thrillers?
Well, obviously, I was telling it first person, which I’ve never really done before in my thrillers. It is seen through the eyes of a young teenage girl, so that was a challenge. I raised one, so I think I know sort of what they think and how they think, but it was different because this is a fantasy. Everything you see and hear and what happens comes through Vega’s mind and her eyes. It is a world markedly different from our own. As far as the research, you think it’s a fantasy and you can just make stuff up and there’s not a lot of research. But there is a ton of research. I have enormous, 11-inch thick binders strewn all over the place. I researched history and mythology and religion, things like that. I wanted to ground a lot of this in legend and folklore.
You not only had to get inside the head of a teenage girl, but of one who is different because she’s not of this day and age.
Absolutely, and I knew that from the beginning Vega Jane was not going to be a Pollyanna type. She was going to have a really rough life. And this is not a dystopian novel, there is not this all-powerful force enslaving people. They live in peace and freedom, if not much luxury. They come and go as they please, they have jobs, they have [homes]. They’re not all that nice, but it’s not like they have people beating them or making them work for nothing. They’re not slaves. At the same time, I needed to focus on her life, what was she going to be. Was she going to be a survivalist? She has a lot of baggage with her parents and with her brother. I wanted her to be realistic and pragmatic. She works hard, she’s proud of what she does, she takes care of her brother, she cares for her parents. But she’s not perfect in many ways. She has a temper, she says things that she shouldn’t, [and] she sort of puts up the middle finger with authority figures. She argues and she doesn’t take guff from people. She really stands up for herself, and that gets her in trouble, as we see throughout the book. She’s a unique personality. She’s the one who sticks out.
Reading about Wormwood and the Wugs, it’s difficult not to be reminded of Middle Earth and Harry Potter and the Catching Fire saga. Are you fans of Tolkien and Rowling and Suzanne Collins?
Yes, absolutely. Tolkien, I read growing up and re-read. And I love the Harry Potter books, I’ve read them all and we all listen to them on tape. Each of these authors brought their fantastic storytelling, and really created their own worlds. And that’s what I wanted to do. You go out to Hollywood and they’ll tell you there’s no original storytelling anymore, everything’s just derived from something that came before. And there is some truth to that. But when you’re doing a fantasy, you try to build your own world as uniquely as possible. I had two paths I could have taken, and I consciously chose one over the other. I could have built this enormous world that had a lot of elements to it, and touched each of those elements superficially… Or I could have taken a really small plot of dirt and describe it in great depth, [and] that’s what I did. Wormwood was going to be small, confined, there was going to be a limited number of characters. You were going to get to know a number of them really well and a few of them with great depth. I think with each of these authors, Tolkien, and Rowling and Suzanne Collins, they all decided what sort of story they wanted to tell, whether they wanted to have this broad landscape, or this small, sort of intimate experience, and then filled it with unique characters based on their imagination. And that’s really what I did. I love reading other authors, and seeing how they do what they do. I read for pleasure, but I also read like a coach breaking down game film. How did they make that character so compelling, and why did that scene work so well?
Creating an entire world seems like such a formidable challenge. For one thing, you have to be a master of continuity; because you have to remember everything you created to make sure it’s consistent.
Absolutely, and that was a challenge, because I had to remember what sort of things Vega had discovered along the way, what sort of power she might have been granted. I didn’t want to go too far in that regard, because that will be in other books. But since I created it, I had to make sure it was consistent throughout. And when you’re creating a fantastical world, you also want to give readers a touchstone that seems a little more familiar. That’s why some names are really weird. Thansius I took that from a Catholic bishop in 300 A.D., and Morrigone is the Roman goddess of magic and war. But some of the other characters have more normal names, which allows the reader to say ‘Okay, I get the stuff that’s really out there, but I’ve also got this touchstone of things that are really familiar.’ They ride around in carriages, nobody is flying through the sky on dragons right away, there’s a place Vega goes to shop, and a place to eat; but there’s also Stacks, which might have been a castle and has secret rooms. You throw them way out into outer space and they have these amazing adventures, but then you bring them back down to Earth and she does some normal things.
In biblical terms, Wormwood can be interpreted as meaning cursed. Is that a valid connection?
Very much so. Cursed. Bitter. Wormwood was this star that was supposed to have struck and wiped out a third of the animals and half the population; and there’s the wormwood plant, known as mugwort, that has a very bitter taste. I just flipped that around and made it Wugmort instead of mugwort. So cursed and bitter, absolutely.
Creating monsters must be particularly fun.
It really is. Some of them are grounded in real mythology. Garms and freks and amarocs are variations of mythology. The jabbit is based on Persian mythology, a large serpent, though it’s not multi-headed, I made that my own. It’s called the dabbet, and I just thought jabbit was such a better name, because that’s what snakes do, they jab you. It was just a blast…. But I didn’t just create creatures willy-nilly with no reason, all of them had to have a reason for being in there, and some of them had to have multiple reasons for being in there. The jabbits are one example of that; they are in there for a very particular reason. It was a lot of fun.
This really is an amazing story of female empowerment.
In the way [Wormwood] society is set up, it’s no surprise that it’s a male dominated society as, historically, lots of societies were. Females were very much second-class citizens. And Wormwood is no exception. I really wanted this. I have a daughter, she’s grown now, she’s in college, she’s very independent, very strong, and she’s very secure and confident in herself. And I grew up with women like that. My mother was like that, my sister is like that and my wife is like that. So I’d never write about damsels in distress because I’ve never met any. I’m a big student of history, I was a poli-sci major in college, but I minored in history and was very well versed in early societies, [understanding] what women had to go through and the potential that was lost for so many of them because they didn’t have the opportunity. My mother grew up in a time period where she had the abilities to go to medical school, for instance, but the opportunities were never there. Those thoughts have never left me; so in writing this I wanted to show that regardless of gender and background, people are people and everybody has potential, and if they have the opportunity to exercise and realize that potential, everybody is better off for it. It was absolutely one of my objectives with this book to show that as strongly as I could.
The ending is pretty wide open, so it seems safe to assume there will be more of Vega Jane.
I know this is going to be series, [though] I don’t know the exact number at this point. It was very important for future books that I needed the readers to really be incredibly grounded and well versed in Wormwood and what Wormwood was all about. [It] will be significant later on, because what goes around comes around!
The Wish You Well Foundation you cofounded with your wife is truly remarkable. What specific advice would you give parents to encourage their kids to become lifelong fans of reading?
Kids, particularly early on in life, emulate their parents. I have a lot of parents come up to me and say, ‘I can’t get my kids to read, they’re either on the computer or playing video games.’ I always ask them the same first question: ‘Do you read?’ And they say, ‘I try to, but I’m busy. I get home and grab some dinner then, and then I have to get on the computer and check my emails.’ And I say, ‘Well if you’re on the computer, the kids are going to be on their computers too, because they look and see what you do.’ I would say, first, read. Then read with your kids from an early age. Fill your house with books if you can. If you can’t, take your kids to the library. My parents took us to the library every weekend. Every Saturday was our ritual. We went there and checked out as many books as we possibly could, took them home, read them the whole week, and then went back the next week; and libraries are free. It’s a fact that kids from more affluent households, by the time they’re age four of five, have heard like 49 million words that their parents have uttered. Kids from less affluent backgrounds, by the time they’re four, have heard less than half that number. And once you’re in that deep of a hole, it’s really hard to get out. So I would say, fill your home with books, read so your kids can see that you’re reading, and read with your kids. When my kids were little, we would have this little game that we would read a book and I’d ask them how the ending was, if they liked the ending or didn’t. And I would say, ‘Well, write another ending. Tell me another ending to it you think is a better one.’ Once you get kids involved in the actual aspects of storytelling, it’s amazing how energized they get, because all kids are creative, it’s just a natural thing.
The Finisher releases March 4, 2014.