Dead Serious Absurdity: A Conversation with Tod Goldberg
By Ivy PochodaMarch 2, 2021
IVY POCHODA: Before we get into The Low Desert, I want to ask you something more general. Over the last decades you’ve ranged wildly through the world of crime fiction (and fiction), from your Burn Notice books to your Gangsterland series to your collaboration with Brad Meltzer. I’m wondering how the genre and the appreciation of the genre has changed during that time. People from all over the literary landscape seem to be paying more attention to crime fiction, right? Has the genre changed to accommodate this, and what do you see as the evolution of the crime landscape going forward?
TOD GOLDBERG: Oh, it’s changed dramatically. Part of it has to do with television — “prestige” television in particular. You can trace it from The Sopranos to The Wire to Breaking Bad to True Detective to Boardwalk Empire and on and on. People suddenly found that crime stories that were particularly well written were — surprise! — a compelling way to examine the world in far more complex and interesting detail than your average cop show (though of course NYPD Blue and Hill Street Blues helped set that stage). By examining the lives of the good guys and bad guys, not making anyone a hero, and by conditioning the audience to not expect a pat ending or easy answers, it became more like … life. Once shows like that began to get more popular and more acclaimed, you really began to see crime fiction change and the appreciation of the genre changed, too.
Though, on the flip side, I’ve long argued that crime fiction is embedded in the history of the most acclaimed and beloved novels published in America — The Great Gatsby and Of Mice and Men are noir novels, To Kill A Mockingbird is a legal thriller, Death Comes for the Archbishop is practically an espionage thriller, and then through present day, with books like The Sympathizer or The Road or Empire Falls or, back 40 years, The Executioner's Song, all of these books are hinged on criminal behavior, on murder, on violence, on grifting. So in that regard, crime has always had a vaunted place in the literature of our time. I guess, too, there’s an idea that some crime fiction is more literary because it’s not just people shooting each other, and that makes it safe for readers of literary fiction to say they enjoyed Steph Cha or Attica Locke or Don Winslow’s latest book without revealing some insidious dark truth about themselves … you know, that they enjoy books with plot …
But what I think is that the ghettoization of genres of all kinds has gone through a massive change, probably because of our online buying habits versus wandering shelves, and that’s nice to see. The frustrating thing to me, however, is how reticent academia is to this reality — this is my soapbox, as the director of an MFA program — when there are still creative writing programs (“still” is the wrong word, because it’s the majority of programs) that don’t “let” their students write or read genre fiction, as if somehow it’s a lesser art. But that’s okay. I’ll just keep turning out writers who actually publish and they can keep turning out really well-read accountants.
I’m actually stunned by this collection and I’m not sure that I’ve read anything that comes close to what you’ve achieved in these stories in terms of scope, genre, and genre-bending. These are entirely literary stories but with a gangster lean, and I’m hoping that when folks read them they’ll say “genre be damned.” How did you approach this collection — one by one, or as a world you wanted to investigate in pieces?
The truth is somewhere in between. A few of these stories are very old. For instance, the first version of “The Last Good Man” was written in … 1997? I had, even then, this idea of writing about this character Morris Drew over different parts of his life in law enforcement, but didn’t quite know his full story yet, and so over the years as I wrote about him, I’d go back and rewrite that story. It wasn’t until I wrote the title story of this book that I fully understood who he was, so I rewrote the story again.
And then many of these stories are brand new — like “The Spare” — and were written to flesh out the universe surrounding the characters in my Gangsterland books, but soon, as I was writing those, I began to see that I’d been creating this gangster universe all along, over many years, and had already connected them to each other in subtle ways (mostly for my own amusement). Once I saw that, I went about it all a tad more conventionally, and began to write stories that would investigate the aspects of this world that I was compelled by, or which I thought might prove fun to write. So a story like “Goon Number Four,” which outwardly is more satirical, is also more closely rooted in the real world, so that you can (hopefully) see how the tendrils of the dark world sometimes end up touching you.
My favorite thing as a writer (the only thing I truly love and that brings me joy on the page) is when I find one of those unbidden connections between characters in my books and events that I hadn't intended to link together. It's like, Yeah, I got this, fist-pumping glee! What I love in this collection is that it zooms in on the between moments of gangster life and often pushes the conventions of violence into the background. I am always in favor of finding the root of violence and humanizing the violent but it has to be approached with a degree of caution. How did you strike this balance?
Yeah, I agree — I mean, I think I realized a few years ago that I couldn’t write violence just for the sake of violence anymore. It felt somehow sordid to put all this bad shit into this world when there’s so much real horror out there already. So if there’s going to be some kind of profound violence that I actually put onto the page, that I actually write (versus merely showing the aftermath of it, which is arguably an easier task), I find myself being a lot simpler these days. I’m not going to show every drop of blood, every bit of brain matter, I’m just going to say, “And so he shot him in the face,” and leave the rest to the reader, because I’m more interested in what leads someone, mentally, to the logical conclusion that killing a person is the only way out of a situation than I am in making a Jackson Pollock painting of human viscera on the page.
You know what’s funny, what I think about when I read your books, is that somehow we’ve both found ourselves, these defrocked literary writers, trying to make beautiful sentences out of the most horrible people and situations on the planet! I don’t know what it says about how our brains work that we both find ourselves taking nice people out into the middle of nowhere and putting a bullet into them … but at least we then cover their bodies in metaphor … but that’s the balance you speak of, right? The reader needs to know that the violence has some larger meaning, because otherwise it’s just nihilism. Even in the stories that are more black comedy than the others, I tried to make the violence mean something.
Violence qua violence, or violence in a vacuum just doesn’t work anymore. I think as a genre, crime fiction has pushed past that into something deeper and usually more meaningful, or at worst, at least halfway considered. And your work is exemplary in this, pivoting past the conventions of crime into a more profound understanding of the moral and emotional universe from which it springs. Crime is not the moment the trigger is pulled — it’s all the thousands of moments that led up to that decision.
Now, this is your second collection of stories, and let me pause here and say how much I admire anyone who has enough ideas for a single collection. Your first, Other Resort Cities, treads the same ground literally and figuratively but in a more so-called literary fashion. Or is that unfair to say? What is it about this landscape that compels to revisit it and what about it suggest this darkness you see?
I am so much more interested in the aftermath than the action, but people don’t rush to bookstores looking for books that take place slightly after the drama, do they? But I’ve found that writing stories lets me explore those moments in ways that I can’t really do in my novels — I can linger on an image or an emotion or a moment of grace in a way that might seem kind of out place in a book about, you know, hitmen rabbis, but which the format of short fiction allows me to. Other Resort Cities did indeed travel some similar ground as this collection — there are a few stories from that book in this book, but they’ve been significantly changed in the intervening years as those connections I mentioned before started to show themselves to me, but also, in just a tangible sense, I’m a different (hopefully better) writer now than I was when that book came out 12 years ago.
But the cool thing is that those old stories gave me the framework for so much that I’m doing now, it felt right to go back to them and dig in further, and actually more fully embrace the crime fiction aspect of them. I think the landscape itself — the American desert Southwest, primarily — compels me because you really have to want to be here, you have to want to make a go of it in a place that, actually, is not hospitable for human life. When you realize, as I sometimes do, that I literally live on the San Andreas Fault, in the middle of a desert that is one broken AC unit away from killing me, and that I’m surrounded by poisonous snakes, fairly bold coyotes, and a fuck ton of Canadian tourists … well, one starts to ponder the nature of this life and what might drive a person to bad deeds.
You just touched on something that fascinates me — the moment after, or even before — the time period covered in a novel. As writers we have to know what our characters were doing in the moments before we decided to zoom in on them and where they are after we finish with them. They cannot exist solely on the pages we write alone. I’d venture that I could, or should, be able to tell you where any character in any of my books is right this moment. I love that this is one of the functions of your stories — the need to investigate this continuum. Writing this way allows you to build a three-dimensional panorama for your characters rather than rely on the conventional linearity of a sequel. This seems to me (and I hate to say this) a rather more literary approach than the average conventions of genre. Where do you see this collection on that spectrum? Or are those rules completely out the window as I hope they are?
You know what’s funny, is that I still wonder what Michael Westen is doing and I haven’t written Burn Notice in a dozen years. I sometimes think, “Oh, is he doing okay? He must miss his brother. That must be hard.” I did spend a fair amount of time making sure the continuity worked, even for stories that are only tangentially related to the Gangsterland books, to the point that we didn’t include my story “Mitzvah” in this collection — which launched this world into existence 13 years ago in the great Las Vegas Noir anthology — because the continuity of that story doesn’t line up at all with the subsequent books or stories. My editor wanted me to rewrite the story and try to make it work, but I just decided it would be way too confusing and I didn’t want to do it. I like that this story is out there as its own thing, where you could see me working out the ideas that I only had the vaguest notions of at the time.
And it really is a more literary approach, because the other bit is less a creative choice and more a business decision. I wanted to expand this universe. I wanted to write about characters I don’t get the chance to write about. I wanted to give myself some additional options for future books down the line. I wanted to try out different voices for the books I may write in two, five, 10 years. And so in the stories, I found myself both expanding the world and deepening the known characters (hopefully), while also narrowing my focus. Here are these gangsters and the people in their orbit, let’s zoom in and look at how someone’s choices in Chicago in 1972 causes a woman to lose her child 50 years later. I am fascinated by those ripples.
You’re a funny dude in the best possible way, yet you are drawn to the darker stuff which you often temper with humor. Where does this intersection of the violence and irreverence come from? Are these things inherently linked or do you think this connection is unique to your perspective?
I think it’s hard to separate comedy from tragedy, in both life and books. I have a skewed sense of reality. I have a tendency to say or think the wrong thing in moments of profound sadness. Surely it’s a defense mechanism or it’s a function of the history of Jewish humor or it’s merely how I look at narrative: there’s always some other angle to view. But that said, I think part of where I sometimes have a problem with crime fiction is that the wanton disregard of life — typically, let’s be honest, young women’s lives — in service of an absurd Silence of the Lambs rip-off in some way desensitizes us from violence, or makes us view certain people as disposable (things, obviously, you talked about a lot in your own last book). Which isn’t good for, you know, humanity! So when I’m going to go for the jokes or the black comedy, I’m more likely to do it in a way that is one step from reality, or it’s a reality that is intentionally altered by the people who are living in that life.
In my novels, I recognize that the very premise of a hit man hiding out as a rabbi is absurd … but I treat it as 100 percent possible, which causes the reader to take it seriously, even when I’m basically setting the reader up for mounting absurdities or satirical sidebars. That allows me to have the kind of violence I want and the kind of comedy I want in the same space. But not every story is constructed for that to happen, so in this book, there’re a few stories that are obviously not funny at all. And some that are predicated on highly suspect realities, which it’s then my job to make seem true.
But also? I just like to laugh at shit. I tend to find things funny that other people do not. Which might make me a sociopath.
Ivy Pochoda is the author of Wonder Valley and These Women.
Banner image: "California Desert Landscape 38" by Beachboys5500 is licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0.
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