Commentary - An overnight success, me?

The multi-million-selling concept thriller writer David Baldacci attacks literary jealousy

Most sane people don't believe they can play basketball like Michael Jordan or wear the Yankees' pinstripes like Babe Ruth did, or paint like da Vinci or Pollock, or sing like Kathleen Battle or Celine Dion, or act like Olivier or De Niro. Yet most people, sane or mad, believe they can write fiction. Writing is probably the one creative endeavour that everyone believes they could do, if they just had the time. And therein lies the problem - and the fun.

I didn't wake up one day with the epiphany of wanting to be a writer over every other conceivable life occupation. As a child I lived to tell stories, all made up, many designed to get me out of trouble with my parents or various school officials, others concocted for pure entertainment. I starting writing some of them down, moving words here and there to make it, at least in my mind, better. I kept journals, was one nosy little bastard, ever curious about the world around me.

I never really had a serious notion of joining the ranks of those who lived by the written word until I started reading fiction when I was in middle school. Then I was hooked. The power those writers held over me, for even a brief period of time, was power I wanted to have. To keep people's interest when they had so much else to attract them was a version of treading the boards on a stage. Except your words, your stories, were the epicentre. For a somewhat shy, reserved person who still wanted to enthral people with his work, it was a perfect match.

I started writing fiction because it was fun. I never expected to make a dime doing it. There were (and are) many wonderful writers who were never published. I didn't see myself as a wonderful writer, and still don't. I saw myself as an apprentice learning a labour-intensive, solitary, often frustrating and yet time-honoured craft that seldom rewarded its disciples with anything other than the cruellest of rejection.

Success for me was spending over a decade in complete obscurity, dutifully reading and writing and trying to learn how to tell a story with words in such a way that people other than my mother would enjoy reading it. I never perfected anything, but I got better because I kept at it. My writing time was ten at night until three in the morning. I did that for more than ten years while working full-time as an attorney in Washington.

My law clients wouldn't want to hear this, but it was in the middle of the night, creating my little fictional worlds, that I was most lucid, at my most energetic. There is no perfect time to write; there is only the perfect love of writing. To a person who truly lives to tell stories, no excuse will avail. The idea of wanting to write but being unable to find the time would make absolutely no sense to someone who feels compelled to write.

I actually wanted to be a short-story writer, and was one for five years. You'll never get rich writing short stories, which was fine with me. My law practice was where I earned my living. I never expected my writing to generate any money. When success came, however, it came fast. I am perceived as an overnight success but, being somewhat slower than others, it took me over 5,000 nights to get there, if only people realised. Going from obscurity to a small measure of celebrity was difficult.

Still, I gleefully accepted all the money, but have done as much good with it as I could. And one has to understand that without the years of writing behind me I could never have written a novel like Absolute Power, which, whatever one may think of its literary quality, was a book that a goodly number of people enjoyed reading.

Now as a published author, my time is hardly my own. I've gotten myself on more charitable boards than I can actually remember. Fund-raisers here, speaking engagements there, a book due here, a screenplay or short story due there, and before you know it, you need more than 24 hours in a day. And I'm loving every minute of it because I well know what it's like to labour at a job just for the money. I had little if any zest for climbing out from under the covers each morning, getting dressed and going into the office to sue people for all they had. That just wasn't me.

I know there are people who think my success is unwarranted. Every creative person in the history of the planet has gone through the same scrutiny. I certainly don't see it as us against them. It's being human; that's how we are. We all want something other people have. Before I was published, I found myself thinking along those lines sometimes. It was out of a sense of frustration, of thinking that I was as good as those who were published, and didn't I deserve to be, too, dammit?

So my response to any prejudice people may feel towards me is to encourage everyone to write, to be creative if they feel the least urge to do so. I conduct writing workshops for people of all ages, from high school upwards. It's fun, it helps people understand what you went through, how hard you worked to fulfil a dream of yours. And, surprise, surprise, all of a sudden the petty jealousies we all carry around to a certain degree disappear. They understand it's not so easy, but it's not impossible either. It's no longer us and them. It's just people having fun, interacting, trying to do something together.

You know, even Jordan, da Vinci and Battle had to work at it. And so do we all, in our own small way.

David Baldacci's new novel is "The Simple Truth" (Simon & Schuster, £12.99). His first novel, "Absolute Power", earned multi-million dollar advances