How to kill a guy.
How to get rid of that guy’s body.
How to perpetuate a long con where you pretend to be that guy.
That sort of thing.
Such is the benefit of having an older brother with the same profession … which, in our case, is writing crime fiction. Lee’s been on the job for a long time now. His first book, .357: Vigilante (under the pseudonym Ian Ludlow), came out in 1985. His first script, an episode of Spenser: For Hire entitled “If You Knew Sammy” co-written with his longtime writing partner Bill Rabkin, was produced in 1987. In the intervening years, I’ve seen Lee hit the highest highs — number-one best sellers, like his new book, True Fiction, which spent the better part of March and April atop Amazon’s best-seller list, and top-rated TV shows, like Diagnosis Murder, the classic crime drama he executive produced — but also the lowest lows. There was the time he wrote for a talking dolphin. There was also the time he wrote for a non-talking dolphin. And then there was a debilitating fall that cost him the use of both of his arms for many months, a frightening experience for anyone, but particularly daunting for a person who makes a living typing. Through it all, what has never changed is the devotion Lee has had for the crime genre, his optimism that luck is a thing you create for yourself, and his sense of humor for the absurd things in the world. He’s sold millions of books around the world. He’s written dialogue for Dick Van Dyke and David Hasselhoff. He’s inhabited some of the legendary characters in the mystery canon: Nero Wolfe. Monk. Spenser.
Mostly? He’s just my older brother.
So when I told him about 25 years ago that I also wanted to be an author, that I wanted to take my shot — this was after I’d graduated college and tinkered around in advertising for a few years — he gave me the best piece of practical advice I’ve ever received, which was this: Learn how to do more than one thing. Write short stories, write novels, write essays, write screenplays, write criticism, teach, become flexible, so that you always have a way to tell your story, so that you always have a way to earn a living as a writer, because there will come a time when you can’t sell something, when you need to have a back-up plan that doesn’t crush your soul, because as much as he had succeeded, he’d also failed, over and over again.
He was right, of course.
I do all of those things now, just like he has at one time or another.
In the last two decades that we’ve had this job — without ever actually working together — we’ve been able to experience a lot of cool things with one another. There was the night we spent with Donald Westlake, asking him all the questions we’d been holding on to since childhood. There were the weeks we were both on the New York Times best-seller list at the same time, Lee with a book he’d written with Janet Evanovich, me with a book I’d written with Brad Meltzer. Or the time we signed autographs for Stuart Anderson from the Black Angus. No, really. We met the Black Angus.
But also, in all that time, I’ve never read a single interview with Lee that satisfied me. He’s a funny guy, and so I think he gets a lot of questions that are set-ups for easy quips, which is a uniquely Goldbergian trait that I know we share — the ability to take any serious topic and turn it into a joke — but it also makes me feel like his hundreds of thousands of readers only know one side of him as person. So. This one time? We’re gonna fix that.
TOD GOLDBERG: What were those first nine years without me like?
LEE GOLDBERG: My first instinct was to reply with a joke … but I’m going to give you a serious answer. Those were the years when mom and dad were still married, so it was the only time we resembled a TV family. Our parents even had sitcom-y careers. Dad was a TV anchorman and mom was a model/socialite. We were moving up the ladder, from a starter house in Oakland to a brand new tract home in the suburbs. We spent the weekends at a beach house we rented in Capitola. We even had a Ford Country Squire station wagon. All that was missing was a shaggy, Please Don’t Eat the Daisies dog (which we got shortly after dad left … better late than never). We’d eat TV dinners in front of the TV watching dad tell us the news. In that environment, is it any wonder I turned out the way I did? You missed that tiny window of time when mom was, well, a mom and could be a lot of fun … but wait, this is about me, not mom, or the inspiration for all of your fiction. Let’s get back to me and mine.
I spent a lot of those nine years play-acting TV shows like the Wild Wild West and Batman with Karen (for you, dear reader, she is our sister, who is two years younger than me). I got to be James West and Batman … while Karen always got stuck being Artemus Gordon or Robin or whoever the second banana happened to be … and she wasn’t too happy about it.
When I wasn’t doing that, I was staging radio dramas and talk shows on my tape recorder. (I fell asleep each night listening to talk radio and old-time radio dramas.) I cast our neighborhood friends as guest actors (in the radio dramas) and either in-studio guests or callers for my talk radio programs. I would then play the recordings back, recording them on a second recorder, to edit out stuff that didn’t work and to add music (the theme song of my radio show was “Up, Up and Away”).
My pretend play was elaborate storytelling. I suppose I did it because I was imaginative … but probably to shelter/cocoon myself from all the arguments going on in the house (and there were a lot of them). I didn’t know, of course, that I wasn’t just playing, I was rehearsing for my future career … like a guy who plays doctor and then, like, actually becomes one.
I often get asked what it’s like to have a family of writers and artists, and it’s hard to explain, exactly, because it’s the only way we’ve lived. Our sisters are both writers and artists, our mother, after her socialite period, became a newspaper columnist covering socialites, our father — not that I ever lived with him as a sentient human — as you noted, was a TV news journalist, and then there’re all the uncles and cousins and whatnot, too. But you were the first one, really, to make it on a national stage, which I know gave me the confidence to aim big, and which I suspect made it easier for our sisters, too. Did seeing mom’s and dad’s success and, in many ways, eventual failure — both of them had these sort of big-league dreams but ended up never quite getting there, which ended up driving them both a bit mad — provide some motivation for you?
There’s no question that dad being on television and mom being a writer shaped me in profound ways. There is a lot of both of them in me … though more of mom than dad. They were both comfortable in front of an audience, whether it was on camera or standing on front of people. Mom had a big, outgoing personality and great sense of humor. She was a deft schmoozer and a big ego. She was a profound exaggerator in her storytelling, for both comic and dramatic effect. She went after what she wanted, personally and professionally. She was a fighter. I have a lot of those same attributes, though I hope with less of the destructive flip side. For example, I know when I am exaggerating a story and, I like to believe, so does my audience. We’re in on the joke together. It’s like when an audience buys into the franchise of a TV series … no matter how ludicrous it might be (she’s a nun — and she can fly! A detective with OCD! A drug-addicted doctor who hates his patients!) … because they want to enjoy the ride. Unlike mom, I don’t believe my exaggerations are the truth and then exaggerate them the next time I tell the story, and then exaggerate that, until I am heading into something approaching clinical delusion. I know where the truth ends and the embellishment, for comedic or dramatic effect, begins. I’m deeply afraid the day will come, though, when I lose that self-awareness.
I haven’t talked much about dad because he wasn’t really in my life after I was 10 years old (though he was in my life more than you or our sisters). Dad grew up wanting to be a TV anchorman … despite coming from a small logging town and having zero contacts … and yet he achieved that dream. He eventually became an anchorman on KPIX, the CBS affiliate in San Francisco … a major station in a major market … and it should have been a stepping-stone to the national stage. Getting there had to take talent, drive, and confidence … but somewhere along the line he lost his mojo … or, more likely, his backbone. I was too young at the time to know why or how it happened, or if mom was somehow to blame. But he became a weak, wishy-washy, superficial man. He let people, he let life, walk all over him. He stood up for nothing and nobody and lost everything. He showed me it was possible to achieve your dream, but through his failure, he also showed me you had to be strong to keep it. That’s not all I learned from him. Seeing him on TV every night also made television — the industry and the medium — something approachable to me. He made the TV part of my family. He made it small and human. My father was a TV screen, and I knew that I was stronger than he was. So yeah, I could break into TV. No problem. And I did.
One of the nice things about having siblings who are also writers is that they give you the unvarnished truth about your books — so when you’ve told me in the past that a book I’ve written is good, I know it’s good, and when you tell me a book I’ve written is just okay, it validates my impostor syndrome and saves me a trip to the therapist that week, which is also nice. And so I was pretty excited to tell you the other night how much I loved True Fiction, and not just because I thought it was your best book — which it is — but because I thought it marked an evolution in your writing, which is a thing that excites me as the biggest Lee Goldberg fan in the country. This is your funniest book, but it’s also one that lovingly shows an admiration for the thriller genre, and it shows your growth as a writer. In scenes where you might have gone for an easy punch line 20 years ago, you now have something that is funny but has a larger emotional relevance as well. Where you might have held back on a scene because it was too absurd, you now blow scenes up to be beyond absurd, because the genre you’re skewering requires it. Essentially, True Fiction is you at the top of your powers, both in terms of observation but also in terms of execution. Can you sustain that level without becoming a parody of yourself?
God, I hope so. I’m facing that problem now as I plot the third book with these characters. The first sequel, Killer Thriller, came very easily to me and felt like a natural extension of True Fiction. I never wanted either book to be a satire of thrillers, but rather an exploration of the difference between fiction and reality, between who we think we are and who we really are … and how the stories we consume in movies, TV, and books shape so much of what we expect out of life and from ourselves. I wanted to acknowledge the clichés, formulas, and tropes of the genre, confess my love for them, and then totally subvert them … while delivering the same pleasure that thrillers do. But most of all, I wanted it to be a fun, fast-moving, exhilarating novel that felt like watching a great action movie. I wasn’t sure I could pull it off.
Here’s the funny thing, and it’s probably blatantly obvious to a lot of other people, but I didn’t realize until one night recently, when I was talking to you, that I’ve explored these same issues and themes now in three books — The Walk, Watch Me Die, and True Fiction (four if you count the sequel). So perhaps it’s actually too late and I’ve already become a parody of myself.
I think the most satisfying thing for me, as a reader of your books, was seeing how the influence of different parts of your writing life came together to make True Fiction such a joy to read. The influence of your time writing with Janet Evanovich was clear to me in the pacing. Your years writing Monk show up in your ability to make even secondary characters complete, rounded individuals. And of course your life as a TV writer and producer makes the action set pieces come alive (in a way that I, frankly, cannot do — when I was writing the Burn Notice books, for instance, I’d go and look at your books and scripts to see how you choreographed big fight scenes, or scenes where you’re blowing things up, and they really worked as a primer for me). Is that pulling-in a conscious part of your writing process or is it atavistic at this point?
Hold on a minute while I look up “atavistic.” No, it’s mostly conscious. I wanted this book to show off everything I’ve learned from being a screenwriter and working with Janet. That means I wanted it to be as visual and fast-moving as a screenplay, to be driven by dialogue and action rather than by clever prose or internal monologues that get you inside a character’s head (usually to give you exposition). When you write a script, everything has to be conveyed through dialogue and action … unless you use narration as a crutch for bad writing (which it is 90 percent of the time). One of the reasons Janet and I work so well as collaborators is that she thinks like a screenwriter, even though she isn’t one. She believes the writing should never call attention to itself, that the clever lines or observations should be in the character’s mouths, not in the prose, and that there should never be any boring parts (bla bla bla as she calls it). Exposition and lengthy descriptions are cut to their bare essence, usually a single line or two that makes the point. It’s an approach to writing that starts the moment you start plotting the story. I discovered, from writing a number of novels with her, how to take my screenwriting instincts and apply them to writing a novel without losing my voice. Actually, I think I finally found it.
It’s interesting to me that both of us write crime fiction but come at the genre from different angles. You have always written more about heroes — not always traditional heroes, exactly, but people who are invested in fighting crime, at any rate — and I’ve typically written about bad guys or antiheroes. I remember a conversation we had, however, after my second book came out and it lost a bunch of nice awards, but no one read it … and you said, “You could try maybe putting a joke in between the suicide attempts, the carving up of little children, and the murdering of women who look a lot like your wife, see how that feels.” You were being funny, of course, but it was also one of those moments of self-realization that I had that maybe you’ve always known: that people read crime fiction to feel satisfied at the end, not to feel like they want to kill themselves. So your approach to crime novels has always been very satisfying — a love interest, a heist, glamorous locales, a mystery that is solved in 285 pages, the world largely set right again by the time the credits roll. Do you think that comes from your TV background, or is it something more personal?
I love reading. I want to be entertained. That doesn’t mean a book has to be funny. But it doesn’t have to be unrelentingly dark and bleak. There are a lot of “literary” writers who think they aren’t good at what they do, or won’t be taken “seriously,” unless they are making the reader feel absolutely miserable. There are some readers who might find that experience engaging, relaxing, and an escape from their day-to-day lives … but it’s a very small number, certainly not one that will sustain a lucrative writing career. People can take heartbreak, pain, and continuing tragedy and despair in a novel as long as you also give them some humanity, some heart, and especially some humor. Open the drapes and let the sunlight in now and then. I’m a big believer that there’s always humor in our lives, even in the saddest, most dire moments. You know that to be true in our own lives.
Escaping into books was always how I coped, so I understand entirely. But do you remember the first book you read that made you think, “Oh, I could do this.”
Yes, I do. It was Fletch by Gregory McDonald. The dialogue was so good that the publisher put a page of it on the front cover. It was the first time I read a great crime story told primarily through dialogue. Yet it was every bit as rich, in character and plot, as far wordier and less dialogue-driven books. I studied Fletch and Confess, Fletch the way some Jews study the Talmud. I didn’t have McDonald’s skill, but somehow I knew after reading his book that I could be a writer. (Later, Robert B. Parker’s Spenser novels gave me the same feeling … but Fletch was the revelation.)
So maybe the better question is: Do you remember the first time you thought that you didn’t want to consume a book, you wanted to be the one who actually made the thing?
Larry McMurtry’s Lonesome Dove. To me, that’s a perfect novel. I’ve read it many times trying to see how he pulled it off. What gives me hope is that even McMurtry isn’t capable of doing it every time he writes a book. It’s a goal he still strives to achieve … with mixed results. But in every book he writes, even the truly bad ones (and he has a few), there are moments of brilliance that I wish I had the talent to achieve.
Last question and then I promise I’ll let you get back to refreshing your Amazon page: I tried to count how many books you’ve written or contributed to, but I have two English degrees, so it got into math I’m frankly not qualified to do. It’s something like 75 books. Plus you wrote or produced 25 different TV shows. And launched a publishing company. You have a wife. You have a daughter. You have friends. You have family. You’ve had a bunch of great pets. You have profoundly odd hobbies, like smoking meats and flying your drone around, which essentially means you’re one step away from being one of those guys with a big-ass train set in the basement. When, in the last 35 years, have you slept?
I get lots of sleep … it’s rare when I get less than eight hours. Sometimes I get a few hours more. I honestly feel like I waste a lot of time, that I procrastinate too much, that I’m too lazy, and that I should be getting a lot more done. I feel like I’m capable of being much more productive than I am and that I’m letting myself and my family down, that I am not living up to my potential creatively. I wish I could survive on three or four hours of sleep a night. Think how much I could get done!
Tod Goldberg is the New York Times best-selling author of several books of fiction, most recently, Gangsterland. He directs the Low Residency MFA program in Creative Writing & Writing for the Performing Arts at the University of California, Riverside.