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They’re smart. They’re successful. They’re philanthropic. And not one of them is a day over 40.
Best-selling author David Baldacci offers Amy Paige Condon some lessons in the art and craft of creative writing.David Baldacci’s political thrillers are as taut and tension-filled as a high-wire act, and have earned him legions of fans. His 24 young adult, crime and stand-alone books have sold more than 110 million copies word-wide. A former legal eagle and lifelong Virginian, Baldacci closed out the Savannah Book Festival before a packed Trustees Theater, where audiences laughed along with his humorous and humbling recollections from the road. Just before he took the stage, Savannah magazine stole a few moments to get his secrets to spinning a great story. Savannah Magazine: The biography on your website mentions that your mother gave you a journal, and you wrote all the way through high school and college. When you are exploring ideas for new books—especially your young adult and stand-alones—do you ever return to those journals for inspiration? David Baldacci: I keep them in my office—I have them all on a shelf—and you go back and realize, “Wow! I really was so bad.” Those will remain the hidden journals that only I will see. The one thing I’ve never lost from that phase of my writing is this youthful wonderment about things. This curiosity—that’s what drives storytelling. Your writing will always be better when you’re curious about what you’re writing about. If you’re just going through the motions, it’s going to show in the pages. I try to get psyched about a particular subject, dive in after it and have fun with it. If you’re not having fun, sort of a kid-like wonder in a creative process like writing, you should go do something else, because that’s 99 percent of the joy. SM: How did you keep that up even while you were practicing law? David: It was an outlet for me. Practicing law, I was paid to write what other people wanted me to write. Fiction writing was my outlet. I would come home, kiss the kids, go down to my little cubbyhole and write away. That was a catharsis—a terrific venue for me to get away from my daily job and write what I wanted to write, and I was able to dictate what I was going to jump into every day. It was a necessary outlet, because as a trial lawyer I litigated cases all over the country and it burns you up after a while. I’m not sure but for that outlet of creative writing, I might not have burned out a long time ago. SM: Did your creative writing ever creep into the briefs? David: Some of the best fiction I ever wrote was when I was a lawyer. (Laughter) Truly. You only have one trial record, one set of facts, and both sides have to take from that set of facts and come back with diametrically opposed views. How do you do that? You’re creative. You emphasize facts that benefit you, and de-emphasize and deflect the ones that benefit the other side. I was paid to tell a story as a lawyer. I lost cases I should’ve won because the other lawyer was a better storyteller, and I won cases I should’ve lost because I was the better storyteller. SM: In an earlier interview you quote screenwriter William Goldman as saying that “Fear is a great antidote to complacency” for a writer. Can you elaborate on that for a bit, because most people see fear as paralyzing, not freeing—yet a couple of other authors here at the book festival have mentioned how fear pushed them to write? David: I find fear both liberating and inspirational … and motivating. My precept on that is, as a writer, you have no idea what you’re doing, and every time you sit down to write a story, it’s as if you’re writing your very first story over and over again. There are no rules. No parameters. Yeah, you might know how to research a little better, but you’re creating a brand new world again. It takes faith in yourself that you can do it again. You’re afraid. Most jobs in life, you get better at doing them by doing the same thing over and over again. I fly a lot, and I would never want to be on a flight where the pilot says, “In 20 years, I never tried it this way, but today I am.” Or a doctor who’s going to operate on you says, “I always operated with my right hand. Today, screw it, I’m going to try it with my left hand and see how that works out.” We’d never want that, but as a writer you can never say to yourself, “How did I do it last time?” Because when you do that, you’re a hack, formula writer. It’s that great unknown each time out. How can I do it differently? How can I forget everything I just did with that last book and do it differently with this book going forward. And, that’s where the fear comes in, because you’re 10 years old again and trying to find your way. SM: With more than 20 books in an array of genres and screenplays under your belt, it’s hard for aspiring writers to imagine you ever encounter writer’s block—that the words spill forth fully formed from your fingertips to the page, some cosmic mind-body connection. Do you ever get to that point where you say, “I’m at my wall.” David: Sure. Absolutely. I tend to work on multiple projects at a time, two or three different things. It might be a young adult book and an adult book or a script, and if I get blocked on one—right now, I’m blocked on one that I’m working on, the new book based on the characters King and Maxwell. And I’ve got to figure out an important plot point before I can move forward with the story, and I’ve haven’t really worked my way through it yet. So, I’m working on another project that I needed to work on, but part of my brain is thinking about that issue as the same time I’m working on this other story. So, by the time I’m finished with this story, I’ll be ready to go back to the King and Maxwell story. Any writer that tells you they don’t get writers block is just lying. It’s a natural part of the creative process. Our minds aren’t perfect. For me, if you don’t get writer’s block, it’s almost as if–it sounds counterintuitive—you haven’t thought through the all possibilities enough. If you’re on this straight-and-narrow path following this outline you wrote, you haven’t explored from this block. That’s why I don’t write from detailed outlines. It’s so constraining to me … If I can surprise myself through writing, then I can really stun the reader. SM: You are a master at pacing and hooking readers from the first sentence. Do you work those first and move forward, or do you come back to them at the end of that first draft? David: I continually come back to the beginning. Every time I sit down to write the book again, I’ll go back to the opening. That probably gets edited and refined and finessed more than any other section of the book. But, I also get to the point where I’ve thought about an idea for the next novel, done a little research and jotted down a few plot points that I’m itching to get to that first page. Then, you’re like, I’m done with the prep work now, and you sit down and—Boom!—you hit it. Sometimes I think some of my best openings are just right like I’ve written them out the first time. It’s almost like a racehorse in the cage just ready, ready, ready to go and the door pops—and you’re never going to be as fast and as good as that second. SM: How do you get into the zone? David: It’s not a nine-to-five kind of thing. Some days I’ll go to the office and not really write a thing because I’m not in the zone. And I haven’t really thought through what I want to write that day, it’s not crystallized, and I don’t even feel like trying something … It’s mental preparation, of thinking it through, maybe jotting down a few bullet points you sort of mull over for a bit, but you’ll know because it’s almost like filling a glass with water and the tipping point comes. It’s when your fingers and your mind just can’t stay away from the pen or the keyboard … you have to get it out. And, when you have to get it out, you know you’re in the zone and you don’t stop until there’s nothing left in the glass. SM: Wish You Well, that’s also the name of your foundation to combat adult literacy. How did adult literacy, and those strong connections among poverty, nutrition and the ability to read and write become such a passion project for you? David: Early on in my career I would go everywhere—a lot of them were library-affiliated, literacy-based, book festivals and you run into a lot of people who are in the literacy field because they go hand-in-hand, you learn a lot. So over the years, I really educated myself on the dire need of adult literacy in this country where half the adults in this country read at too-low levels where we’re fast becoming an illiterate nation rather than a literate one—which is a tough sell, especially in the D.C. area where I live and everyone has three Ph.D.s. They’re like, “Really? Where are you talking about? Afghanistan?” No. I’m talking about the United States. So, we formed the foundation 12 years ago and we fund programs in virtually all 50 states—literacy programs, both public and private. The Feeding Body and Mind program came about because we were getting lots of requests from literacy organizations for a food component, dollar component, because a lot of times patrons seeking literacy assistance, you get them in there with the promise of a meal. Poverty and literacy go hand in hand. People seeking assistance from food banks are also literacy challenged. Our plan was that when I was out on book tour I would collect books and donate them to the food banks—there are 240-odd ones across the country. We partner with Feeding America. Over three years we have collected and distributed over a million books. David Baldacci’s The Forgotten is in bookstores now. King & Maxwell, a TNT series based upon two of Baldacci’s characters—both former Secret Service agents—premiers after Rizzoli and Isles in Summer 2013. An independent production of Wish You Well hits the film festival circuit this fall.
Jeff Kinney sold more hardcover books last year than any other author. More than 8.5 million editions from his Diary of a Wimpy Kid series are now in circulation—some in languages that don’t even have a word for “wimpy.” But the real proof of his success is in the laughter of children and adult readers alike—very much on display at Trustees Theater on Saturday. Savannah magazine editor Annabelle Carr and her 11-year-old son, Santo, sat down with Kinney before his sold-out presentation at the Savannah Book Festival.Santo: (Changing the subject) How did you pick the name Greg Heffley? Jeff: Well, my mother always said that she wanted to name a son Greg, but she never did, so I thought I would create that character. And Heffley is a name that’s very similar to Kinney if you line them up. Annabelle: I’m always surprised that you keep coming up with funny ideas that are age-appropriate. I laugh out loud, and so does he. When you started out, you were drawing on your own experiences in middle school. Do you have people sharing their memories at this point, or are you still drawing from your own past? Jeff: These days I’m using my imagination more than anything, so I have to be very inventive. I like writing about stuff that’s rooted in truth but I’ve tapped out my childhood in a way. Santo: Which is harder, writing Wimpy Kid books or planning for Poptropica? Jeff: Oh, you know I work for Poptropica! Well, it’s hard to keep a balance. I do Poptropica during the day and the Wimpy Kid books at night. It’s hard to do both, but I think it’s really hard to come up with a funny new idea for Wimpy Kid. Like, if I have four hours in the night, I might spend four hours without coming up with any funny ideas at all. Annabelle: Are you very disciplined about it? Do you sit down with your blank page every night no matter what? Jeff: I’m the most disciplined when it comes to drawing. In fact, I can draw in the summertime for 16 or 17 hours a day for a month or two months. Annabelle: Wow. And out of that, do you extract and refine you ideas? Jeff: Actually, drawing is the last part of the process for me. Annabelle: And a lot of the punch lines are visual. Jeff: Yes, that’s right, they are. Santo: What’s the most trouble you ever got into in middle school? Jeff: Well, that’s interesting. One time my friend and I were horsing around. We were boy scouts and we were throwing knifes through tents. It was pretty bed news. But I don’t do that kind of thing any more. (Laughter) Annabelle: Throwing knifes through tents? That’s could’ve been dangerous if someone was in there. Jeff: Yeah, no one was in there but we didn’t help the waterproofing of those tents very much. Annabelle: OK, my motherly reaction to that reminds me of the parents in your books. I know what it’s like to have parents like that. You know, kind of lame. I don’t like to think of myself that way, you know? Jeff: Right, right, right. Annabelle: But Santo calls me out for being lame all the time. (Laughter) Are you prepared for the fact that you’re going to be somebody’s dorky dad? Jeff: Yeah, I have a different perception of myself than my kids have of me and you can see the seeds of them being embarrassed of me. But we try to keep it loose in my house and the kids have a really good sense of humor so far. Annabelle: That helps! Jeff: Yes! You know, my son had to take this test, and the sentences were: “Daniel is the best at throwing. Daniel is the best at swimming. Daniel is the best at running. Daniel is ... ” And my son, Will, had to fill in the blank, and he wrote “Daniel is … a showoff.” (Laughter) And I’m like, you know, he’s going to be OK. Santo: Did you do a sport in middle school? Jeff: Yeah, I played sports like an average middle schooler. I did soccer and swimming just like Greg in the books. I wish I’d gotten into basketball. Do you play basketball? Santo: Yeah, I play on the team at school. Jeff: Cool. Have you ever made a shot? Santo: Not yet. But it’s still early in the season. Jeff: That’s the same with my son. He hasn’t made one yet. Someday, though, right? Santo: Yeah. Annabelle: What does it mean to you at this point to be “wimpy?” Jeff: When kids picked up the book, I wanted them to see that the character was flawed, not perfect. So I thought "wimpy" was a good word to show that he was not so powerful. Annabelle: You’re a middle school expert at this point. You’ve thought about how kids feel at that age more than most adults, aside from maybe a child psychologist. How would you advise a kid in middle school? We grow and change so much at that time in our lives. Jeff: I think I’d say that middle school isn’t always so much fun and you have some people around you who might be mean, and I’d say the same of high school, and then things start to really change. People in general act more kind. So remember it gets better, and do what I did. Take notes and make it into a book.
A feast for the eyes, SLIDELUCK Savannah serves up a side community along with local art and music.
At the intersection of boho chic and classic Hollywood, Andrea Goto peeks into the life of stunning young stylist, Lynn Serulla. >>Photography by Adam KuehlA self-proclaimed “experience junkie,” Lynn Serulla has quite a few helpings on her plate, including work as a production assistant for various Paula Deen projects and, most recently, a costumer for the feature film, The Sacrament. But despite long days on set, the Michigan native appears unfazed on a rare morning off as she sips a double-shot Americano from a cracked cup at Gallery Espresso. She is effortlessly hip in dark winter layers, accented with a burgundy vintage hat from which her platinum strands peek out. The classically trained painter talks as if she has nowhere to go and smiles as if that’s the only shape her mouth makes. This seems uncharacteristic, considering the time Lynn has spent living in New York City, Chicago and L.A., but it’s an attitude that’s right at home in the Hostess City.