This month Gangsterland is our featured book, and I personally flew through the book, finishing it in just over 7 days. So you can imagine that it’s with great pleasure that I’ve been able to interview the author behind this extravagant novel, Tod Goldberg. Read on below…
Gary S: When did you first know you were a writer?
Tod Goldberg: I come from a family of writers – my older brother Lee Goldberg is a bestselling crime writer, my sisters Karen Dinino and Linda Woods write art books together, my mother Jan Curran was a newspaper columnist and author, my father a TV news journalist…and then there are the uncles and cousins and all that – so writing is the family business, unless you’re one of those relatives who ends up a lawyer, so I think I knew I was a writer from a very early age, despite being profoundly dyslexic.
Even then, when I couldn’t read, I was making up stories using my Star Wars actions figures as my narrative device. Apart from playing professional sports of some kind – an unlikely option, since I am also profoundly un-athletic, though I’m pretty good on the PS4 and in fantasy sports – writing was all I ever wanted to do professionally.
GS: You mention being dyslexic. This is also something I struggle with as a website owner and content writer. Many writers do suffer with this, can you let us know what it’s like overcoming the challenges of writing with dyslexia?
TG: I appreciate the ability to read and write much more — I couldn’t do either until I was about 10 — and, you have to realize, this was the 1970s when I was first diagnosed, which wasn’t exactly a time of great understanding of dyslexia, so it could have ended up much worse for me. I was put in classes with kids with pretty severe developmental problems — kids with cerebral palsy, kids with Down’s Syndrome, kids who were essentially 100% handicapped — because they simply didn’t know what to do with me and didn’t have the teaching resources to actually figure out what was wrong with me. I recall, finally, when my mother found some folks at either Berkeley or Stanford — I can’t recall which, and it may have been both because I know I went out to both schools at some point to meet with specialists — who were doing some cutting edge stuff that there was a real breakthrough for me.
In addition to dyslexia, I also saw in double vision frequently, and I am also terribly color blind, so, basically, everything I saw in front of me was wrong. I also remember very vividly an eye doctor telling my mom, just behind me in an exam room, that I would never read or write above a 4th grade level. I had the same thought then that I do now: fuck that guy.
GS: Do writers tend to have a wild imagination, and do you daydream?
TG: Good writers, I would imagine. Though I think, really, you also need to be pretty well grounded in the real world if you’re going to convey humans in a believable fashion. If you’re just in the clouds all the time, I think attempting to create empathetic characters might be difficult, since part of a writer’s job is to create people you can believe in, people you care about, and if all you have is wild imagination, then perhaps you don’t quite know as much about the human condition as you might need to achieve that goal.
I daydream constantly. Usually about killing people and getting away with it. It’s not a great comfort to my wife, I promise you, but it comes with the job.
GS: We’ve heard of your short story “Mitzvah” and it seems like Gangsterland was based on it. Can you tell us how Gangsterland came about exactly, and how much it resembles Mitzvah?
TG: “Mitzvah” was originally written for Las Vegas Noir, an anthology of short stories about Las Vegas published by Akashic Books – they’ve published a bunch of these, for major cities around the world – and later a slightly different version of the story appeared in my story collection Other Resort Cities. I was tasked with writing a story about the neighborhood I’d lived in in Las Vegas (I lived there from 1998-2000) for the anthology, which meant I had to come up with something dark and nefarious about a fairly bucolic part of town, which is when I initially came up with this idea of a hitman hidden away in Summerlin as a rabbi. The story is actually the last day on the job for Sal Cupertine/Rabbi David Cohen and once I completed it, I realized that there was a whole book – maybe a few – in this character’s story.
I didn’t stay married to some of the details in the original story – I changed the timeline, I changed some key details about the main character and the secondary characters, and generally expanded and deepened everything, and altered the plot pretty elementally, which is what you can expect to happen when you go from a 20 page short story to a 400 page book. So there are things mentioned in the story that became entire subplots, elements that were dumped, etc.
So, Gangsterland essentially is the origin story…and the “Mitzvah” is the end point…except that I doubt that “Mitzvah” will be how the story ends.
GS: We love the dark humor and sometimes sensitive themes that are bought up in Gangsterland, but I’m sure that it’s easy to be viewed as racist or prejudice because of something you may write in your stories. Do you ever feel the need to hold back when writing?
TG:No, I never feel the need to hold back, because it’s all make believe – I don’t think anyone believes I’m running around the world shooting people in the back of the head and, by the same token, I’m certain people don’t think I share the beliefs of my characters (in Gangsterland or otherwise). That I can conjure those beliefs isn’t to be taken as an endorsement, you know? Many years ago, I wrote a novel about a man who may or may not have killed his wife and child and sometimes people ask me, Is there any part of that novel that’s true? And I always think, well, no, of course not – I’m not some fucking maniac!
Interestingly, though, I really don’t think someone who wasn’t Jewish could have written Gangsterland without being criticized for it – in fact, just the other day, I did a talk at a temple in Las Vegas, and posed that question to the congregants and rabbi (a rabbi, I should note, named Rabbi Cohen!) and asked if someone whose last name was O’Neil had written about someone pretending to be Jewish if it would have come off differently to them vs. seeing an obviously Jewish name like Goldberg on the cover of the book, and the answer was pretty uniformly in the affirmative. There was a review in the Forward, a Jewish magazine, that called the Sal Cupertine/Rabbi David Cohen character “one of the most compelling and repulsive crime fiction protagonists in a long time” and I took that as high praise. It’s supposed to be an uncomfortable transformation he’s undergoing and, as I write the sequel right now, it’s becoming even more uncomfortable.
GS: Would you say that writing short stories is just as tricky as nailing a novel?
TG: No. A short story can just be one really compelling idea or emotion – you don’t even need a plot, really – and if you can sustain it for 5000 words, you’ve got yourself a pretty good short story. A novel requires much more complexity and, on the part of the author, dexterity. They’re both super hard to do in the way any piece of art is difficult to create, but not compared to, you know, working in a coal mine or practicing medicine or working as a plumber or being a decent parent or teacher or husband or wife.
That said, a great short story – like, say, Passion by Alice Munro or The Ceiling by Kevin Brockmeier or Aftermath by Mary Yukari Waters or The Things They Carried by Tim O’Brien (or…or…or…) – still has the power to be just as emotionally satisfying as any novel.
GS: What are your views on the book publishing industry in 2015?
TG: Any year when there aren’t mass book burnings in the public square = a pretty good year for publishing. My views aren’t terribly complex – it’s a difficult business, but so is every art form that is dependent on people spending their disposable income in a time when a lot of people don’t have a disposable income. I love to read and I take great comfort in having a book in my hand – a real book, not an ebook, which just doesn’t have the same allure for me – knowing I’m about to drift away from the real world for a few hours. And I’ve read a lot of great books this year – A Manual for Cleaning Women by Lucia Berlin, All This Life by Joshua Mohr, Naked at Lunch by Mark Haskell Smith, The Whites by Richard Price, which I just finished the other day, The Cartel by Don Winslow, Dragonfish by Vu Tran, just to name a few – and have a TBR pile the size of a small child.
GS: As someone who teaches creative writing, what single piece of advice would you give to an aspiring author?
TG: Get a really good desk chair.
GS: We’ve all heard of the popular TV show Burn Notice, but some may not be aware that you’ve written the novels. Tell us about the series of novels and how the TV show iteration came about.
TG: Actually, I wrote the books after the TV series – the books were based on the show, not the other way around. Matt Nix, the creator of the show, was an old friend and when Penguin, the publisher, came to him with an offer to turn the show into a series of novels, we were able to hook up and make a deal.
It was a great deal of fun – I wrote five of them, starting right after the first season, and Matt gave me free reign to do what I wanted, which took enormous trust on his part, and hopefully I didn’t drive the bus into a wall while I was at the wheel. I could have kept writing those books forever, but the fact is I had this idea for Gangsterland and wanted to move over to do that. But I still have Michael Westen in my head and often have story ideas that would be perfect for him. And sometimes, when I’m driving around, I mutter “When you’re a spy…”
GS: Are you working on any upcoming projects?
TG: I just finished a super –secret book project with another writer, which hasn’t been announced just yet, but which is very cool and which I’m quite proud of, and I’m hard at work on the sequel to Gangsterland, which is due to be released in America in fall 2017.
Head on over to Tod’s website for more information on the man behind the novel.