Announcer: Welcome to ASHA Network News, a continuing series that highlights issues of interest to ASHA members.
Joe Cerquone: I’m speaking today with the acclaimed author David Baldacci, who happens also to be a champion of literacy. David Baldacci, thank you for joining us.
David Baldacci: Thank you.
Joe Cerquone: Allow me to share with our listeners a bit about your career and accomplishments. You’re a native and resident of Virginia who started out as a lawyer and then switched to writing. You’ve authored 60 novels and other written works. Your books have been translated into more than 40 languages and sold in more than 80 countries. All has been national and international bestsellers. Your better known works are in the mysteries/thrillers genre. They include Absolute Power, which was made into a movie starring Clint Eastwood and Gene Hackman; and Total Control, long a bestselling favorite of the traveling public. Simple Genius and Stone Cold are among your more recent books. But you also share in something that many ASHA members play a big part in daily through their work— helping people achieve literacy. You do that through your Wishy Well Foundation which supports family literacy. David, I guess I’d like to begin by asking, why is literacy a leading concern of yours and what makes it so important, in your opinion?
David Baldacci: Well, I think it’s probably the most fundamental life skill that a person can have and as a writer who crisscrossed the country and seen lots of different systems in place and been to lots of different schools—both urban and rural and suburban—I can tell you that the United States has a huge literacy problem, not only in the children but also with adults. And quite frankly, unless you have strong literacy skills you’re never going to be able to achieve your potential as a human being. And if you look around, you know the sort of requirements that a person needs to get ahead in life, reading is probably one of the most fundamental—reading and comprehension and language and writing skills are just essential. And a lot of people have fallen through the cracks. I mean the most recent literacy census survey was taken a few years ago showed that half the adult population in the United States reads the two lowest levels of literature. That’s a hundred million adults. That’s a third world developing country statistic; not one for the United States.
Joe Cerquone: That’s the really very interesting and it’s also very concerning. As you’ve gone about the country and heard about this, what are the reasons that are being given for the problem?
David Baldacci: Well, I think your…in many it varied. One probably is that the education system in the United States is woefully underfunded and understaffed. We don’t spend nearly as much on education as we should as a country. A lot of education dollars come through local taxes and a lot of it is based on property taxes. It’s a system that a lot of states follow and because of that the more affluent areas have the better schools. But obviously the greatest need sometimes is in the areas that aren’t as affluent and don’t get as many dollars they really need. And also teachers are not paid what they should be paid. A lot of them are leaving by tens of thousands every year to other positions to give them a more livable wage. And I also think that schools sometimes—because they’re underfunded—they have not been able to really come into the twenty first century and teach kids who are used to, sort of, learning in different ways, the equipment and, sort of, the different techniques that they need to really realize their potential. I mean, nothing to substitute for books in the school and nothing to substitute for really good teachers who can encourage and motivate students. But at the same time, you need to also adapt to, you know, kids different and evolving needs and how they learn. And in a lot of successful schools, who have the money, have smart boards and where kids can have video control systems and they can interact that way in a classroom, it makes it more efficient, more functional and it’s also something the kids can pick up on very quickly and it teaches them very early on computer skills that will serve them well in life. So I think it’s a very…a lot of public schools and even private schools have too many kids in a class and not enough resources and money. ESL is a problem. Discipline in schools is a problem as well. It seems like, you know, a lot of the parents expect schools to also be the disciplinarian and a lot of parents…that seem to have advocated that responsibility, so schools face a lot of different crisis these days. And I think it all has resulted in the fact that a lot of kids are getting through the system without, you know, learning the skills that they’re going to need to be successful.
Joe Cerquone: Well, you brought up the fact that it’s not just kids, but it’s also adults with this problem. It is the case, as you may know, that many ASHA members are based in the schools, so we have a lot of members who work shoulder-to-shoulder with teachers and, you know, deal with kids daily as part of their professional life. So I’m wondering if you would please talk a bit more about why literacy is so important to children.
David Baldacci: Well, you know, for me being a citizen of a democracy, this country is sort of founded on some basic principles: One that you have literate, curious, well informed public. And I’m not sure that you can be curious, well-informed, and literate unless you read. These days, we have so much information available to us, and certainly kids do over the internet, that you think that we’d be incredibly well informed vis-a-vis generations past, but that’s not the case. A lot of the information flying out there, there’s no way to make sure that it’s actually true or real or factual, at all. And often times people are so overwhelmed by information that they tend to tune out. And I think sometimes kids fall into that as well where they will just follow their own sort of narrow set of tracks, their own sort of niche from the internet or basis of knowledge and learning and never explore other opinions. If you look at this country, we’re sort of divided down the map, politically at least. Where half believe this and half believe that and they don’t want to talk to each other at all; and that makes it very difficult. The next generation coming up, kids can…we have a very exciting Presidential campaign going on right now, for the kids coming up, they need to realize they have to change. This country is enfaced with incredibly difficult problems of the full brunt of which is going to fall on the young people in this country. You know, my generation, your generation is going to affect us some, but not nearly as much as the generations coming up behind us and they need to understand that reading and learning and being curious and going out and exploring different positions is critical if they are going to realize their potential as citizens of this country. I think about, you know, enable this country to keep going as well and unless you read, unless you’re really excited about learning through the written word and then on to other areas, that’s never going to happen; you’re never going to have the equipment, you’re never going to have the tools to be a successful citizen and this country. I’m not sure. I worry about this country’s survivability.
Joe Cerquone: Well, I know that, you know, you’re not just talking the talk, you’re walking the walk, you’re trying to address this problem through your foundation, could you talk a bit what you’re doing personally to address this problem?
David Baldacci: We set up the Wishy Well foundation a few years—my wife and I. We have a board of directors. We meet quarterly and we receive applications from literacy and other types of organizations all over the country. And we meet four times a year and we go through all the applications. We’re probably getting about a thousand applications every year; both from public organizations and public school systems, and private foundations and private organizations. And a lot of them are literacy-based, where they are requesting money for tutoring or content, or programs that they have. Some are attached to college and universities. Some, like I said, are in the public school systems and we’ll fund as many programs as we can, as many as we think are right in line with what our mission is; which is to eradicate illiteracy in the United States. And we have funded programs pretty much from, sort of, cradle on up to senior citizens learning centers. And we think it’s important to sort of address that broad spectrum. We’ve also funded programs where we have bought books for public schools that don’t have money in their budgets that allows them to buy books for the libraries. We have funded programs in prisons, where you’ll have peer prisoners tutoring; where prisoners are taught how to tutor other prisoners to read and they go into systems where they are actually inmates and they will teach other prisoners how to read. Because at some point, that population will re-join main stream society and you want them to be successful, instead of returning back a life of crime. So we are very interested in funding lots of different programs, lots of different needs, we’ve done programs in about 26 states and counting. One of our big programs that we do—we actually came up with—it’s called Feeding Body and Mind. And we partnered with American Second Harvest—which is one of the nation’s food banks—and whenever I’m out, I collect books, new and used books from people, and we had a data base of all the food bank locations, and so whatever city I’m in, once the boxes are filled with books, we pay to have them shipped directly to local area food bank. And I’m getting over writers, friends of mine, to do the same thing—to collect books. We’re getting the ALA, the American Library Association, on board creating a fundamental. What we want to do is recycle tens of millions of books and take them out the hands of people who got far too many books and have no place to keep them all, put them in hands of people who have no books at all.
Joe Cerquone: Well, that’s terrific. You’re a great storyteller, David. I’m just wondering if you have some individual stories about the needs in the literacy area that you’ve come across through the work on your foundation or just in your personal life?
David Baldacci: Well, I did program several years ago with the state of Rhode Island…picked Wishy Well, one of my thriller books a book that the whole state was reading. And I went up to a number of programs, over the course of several weeks, and one student really stood out for me. They had to do presentations for a large group of people based on something that was in the novel, Wishy Well, and there was this senior student, a male, and Wishy Well had been the first book he had ever read and finished through four years of high school. And he was a very nervous young man but he did a very nice presentation; presented me with an old baseball mitt that was very symbolic element in the story and since that day we have corresponded back and forth and he’s gone on to read not just my books, but lots of other books, and he’s really gotten to engaged and curious about reading again. I’ve gone to senior citizen centers and done programs there in connection with literacy efforts; where you have young people who come and read with senior citizens. And I’ve watch those two, you know, multi-generations interact and thought it was a great thing and also sat down with lots of senior citizens and listened to the stories they re-counted about their life experiences and encourage them and their families to write those stories down, chronicle them, because, you know, once those lives are gone the stories could be lost forever. We really try to pursue…and also help programs that will chronicle and memorialize lives that have come before, because they have such vast experience and, you know, across the country it’s very easy to find motivation to do what I do because you see the need is everywhere but you good people trying to make things better.
Joe Cerquone: When you see something like what that young man did, how does make you feel, what sort of satisfaction do you get from that?
David Baldacci: It wants me to keep going on 24 hours a day, 7 days a week, because just that small piece right there showed me how important, you know, the work that we were doing could be because the impact you could have on one life, a hundred lives, a thousand lives, a million lives. You know, that it all starts with people and it starts with one person and for me just the joy that I saw in his eyes, I want to have that same affect replicated many, many times over.
Joe Cerquone: Well, I would like switch gears a bit and talk about your writing. What are you currently working on?
David Baldacci: I finished a novel called, The Whole Truth. It’ll be out in April of this year. I’m currently working on a sequel to…I have a series called the Camel Club Series, and the last book in the series is out in the fall of 2007, called, Stone Cold. I’m working on the sequel to that and that’ll be out later this year. And, you know, it’s just…I’m getting ready go on a little bit of tour for the spring book. And, you know, I write because I can’t not write. I just love it too much and if I’m not writing a story, I’m not comfortable. People asked me, you write a lot books, why don’t you take a break? And I feel like, you know, my whole life is a break because I’m doing something that I really love.
Joe Cerquone: When do you write? You sound like a very busy guy.
David Baldacci: I…there’s no perfect place, physical place to write, the only perfect place to write is in your head. And I don’t need to be at the same desk or, you know, the same pen that I use. Wherever I happen to be, if I’m in the zone, I’ll write. So I write a lot when I’m traveling, you know, on planes or trains or wherever I happen to be. I have an office inside the house and I have a staff of people who help me do what I do and I come into the office every day. I’m in the office right now. And I work and write but it’s not a nine-to-five job, so even though I can write during the day if I want, sometimes I still find myself sitting up in the middle of the night writing because you never know where it’s going to strike you. But you have be disciplined about it, but you have flexible too knowing that’s it not going to come, you know during office hours it may come in the middle of the night.
Joe Cerquone: How much does the reader play in your thoughts when you’re writing something?
David Baldacci: Well, I need to be sort of a magician, a writer, and a psychologist all wrapped into one. I need to be a writer to write the words. I need to be a magician because, as a thriller writer, the reader is wanting to figured it out before I want them to. And I have to let them see all the facts and be fair about it and all the clues. But as a magician, I try to do something really interesting with my left hand while they’re reading something on the right-hand side of the book. And all of a sudden, when they look at what I’m doing very interesting, then all of sudden what I didn’t want them to really focus on is gone. The psychologist part—to answer your question—it’s…I need to know what a reader’s reaction is going to be to a particular, you know, set of words that I put down or situation or a character. That I want them to love the character, hate the character, be ambivalent or confused about a character, that I have to write that in a certain way. So the reader’s reaction to the words that I write is very important and I have to keep that in mind while I’m putting the story together.
Joe Cerquone: Well David, many ASHA members are concerned with language, which I know is something that you’re also concerned with, though in a different way. I’m just wondering how you assess the power of language and what is it that gives language its power in your opinion?
David Baldacci: You know, language is really the only way we have to communicate what we’re thinking. So really, it’s our brains as communicated to other people. And that is the most fundamental tool that you’ll have. If you have a great idea but can’t communicate it effectively to anyone, you haven’t done anything. You haven’t accomplished anything. So for me, the power of language and the power of words is taking the greatest tool we have—which is our brain—and making it available to other people. And for me, obsessing over the exact sequence of words, particular words, that I’ll use in a book, how I want a story to flow, all comes from millions of little pieces of matter that we call words and language that I have to sift through in my head and put down on pieces of paper to make it engaging and to make it something that other people would read. So it’s the most powerful tool that we absolutely have, because it’s the only way we can communicate what we’re thinking to other people.
Joe Cerquone: David, by just about any measure you’ve been very successful as a writer. What do you think is key to your ability to communicate?
David Baldacci: I think that I love words, I love to tell stories, and hopefully the passion comes through in the sort of work that I do. I’m not driven by money. I’m not driven by anything other than I’m obsessed with being able to put stories down on pieces of paper and letting other people read them. I think that’s really what I was always meant to do. I was a writer since I was little kid. I became a lawyer because I couldn’t make a living as writer. But all those years growing up, and all the years of college and law school, and practicing law, I was writing stories and honing my skills. And I think all those years of really hard work and dedication paid off in the fact that I think I know to tell a story well and in a way that other people are really entertain by it.
Joe Cerquone: Well, thousands of the ASHA members work every day to…with people who have communication disorders. I’m wondering what you would say to encourage someone who may be dealing with such a disorder?
David Baldacci: I would say, you know, the only thing is to keep going and believing in yourself and knowing that what you’re doing is critically important to your life and probably couldn’t be any more important in your life. Because without the communication skills, you can never really realize you’re potential. I would never want to see a human being that doesn’t have the opportunity to really go all the way that they are able to go. And communication and language skills are the most critical element of all those things. And I would say that even if you suffer setbacks or have frustrations, the goal is so valuable and so worthy, that you really need to keep going.
Joe Cerquone: And I guess, as a follow on to that question, what would you say to those who help people with communication disorders?
David Baldacci: I would give them my greatest encouragement. I would say that, you know, the work that they do and the work that all teachers do is critically important. There’s probably no more valuable job in this world, and I wished they were paid in accordance with that value. Sometimes our priorities can get really skewed in this world. But the fact that they’re helping other human beings realize their potential that…there can’t be a worthier goal really in life. And again, I know that there’s lot of barriers and hurdles and obstacles in the way, but helping one person, helping a hundred people, or a thousand people—it’s a fantastic goal and they should know what they’re doing is incredibly important to the quality of life that we all want.
Joe Cerquone: Well, ASHA members can read an interview with David in the October 16th 2007 ASHA Leader. Listeners can also go to davidbaldacci.com for more about our guest today. David, thank you for taking time to be with us on ASHA Network News.
David Baldacci: Thank you, I enjoyed it.
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