Tod Goldberg is a New York Times bestselling author and a finalist for a ton of literary awards. He runs the best MFA program in the world through UC Riverside–Palm Desert, and he also writes badass crime fiction. His new book called Gangsters Don’t Die, the conclusion of his gangster series, is out now.
Also, he’s a good dude.
[Kelp Journal] So, all right, here's a real question for you. You've been on the New York Times list, you've won the Silver Pen, you've been nominated for big-time awards, and you've written some literary fiction. You've moved to crime. What drew you to crime fiction?
[Tod Goldberg] You know, it's a good question. So congratulations, that's a good one. I had always read crime fiction as I was growing up, but for some reason when I started to write, when I was in my twenties, essentially I had this sense that I was supposed to write literary fiction, that writing genre fiction was somehow a lesser art than literary fiction. So, while my first two books would probably be considered genre fiction now, at the time, I thought they were literary fiction. The short stories that I was writing always had a sort of criminal bent to them. But instead of ending on a gunshot, they'd end on an epiphany. And by ending on an epiphany, they suddenly became literary fiction.
At some point after my third book, which was a short story collection simplified, I was a little dissatisfied with where my career was. I'd been successful. I'd published three books to good acclaim and won some awards, all that stuff, but I wasn't where I wanted to be. And my brother very astutely said to me, you know, why don't you write stuff that people enjoy to read? Why don't you write books that play off what your strengths are, which is that you're funny and you like to write about violence. You know, you have a natural voice for noir fiction. At the same time, I was having conversations with my agent about the future of what I wanted to do with my career. And we had sort of a very blunt conversation where she was like, look, you're a good literary fiction writer, but are you Jonathan Franzen? No. And I just realized that I'm not ever going to be that in literary fiction, but I think I could be one of the top crime writers in the country because I felt like I looked at story in a different way, and I felt like my skills as a crime writer lined up nicely with my heroes, with Donald Westlake, Elmore Leonard, and Robert Parker, with Garry Rodgers and Dennis Lehane. I thought, you know, those people are writing books that I love, and I feel like I can write books in a similar vein and be successful.
And so, that's essentially what I did. But I went about it in a strange way because the next thing that I did was that I wrote five books based on the television show Burn Notice. But those five books essentially taught me how to write good crime fiction. You know, it wasn't a slow leaping off. It was like, all right, I'm going to dive right in. And I've never really turned back since then.
[KJ] That's fantastic. And so your brother is a crime writer as well—Lee Goldberg?
[KJ] And you don't have any other siblings that are jumping into the crime-writing game, do you?
[TG] No, but my two sisters have written several books together, but they write books about art. So all four of us have published books, which is pretty amazing.
[KJ] That is pretty amazing. Freakish, actually.
[TG] Yeah. Between the four of us, I've published sixteen books. Lee's published forty books or fifty books, or something crazy like that.
[KJ] He's prolific. That guy writes a book every six months.
[TG] Every six months, and my sisters, I think, have done four books together. So you know, the family is hugely prolific. And the funny thing, too, is that, though my sisters don't write fiction, they're excellent critics, and they're excellent readers. I could turn to any of them with a plot problem and get help. That's a really unique part of the family. But the large thing, I think, about having that success in the family is that it has opened the door to not being afraid to fail, because we've all also failed. We've all done projects that didn't catch fire, and it’s hugely helpful to know that you have that support system around you built in with your siblings, to also know that one of the great things about a career in the arts is being willing to take a risk and being willing to say it didn't work.
[KJ] Awesome. That is a wonderful answer. Now, specifically to this book series—so we've got Sal Cupertino, Italian gangster turned rabbi. How did this character come about? Did this come to you in a dream?
[TG] [deadpans]Yeah, it was a dream.
[KJ] I know you love dream sequences, so…
[TG] There were no dream sequences. [laughs]
[KJ] Didn’t you write a whole book that was in a dream sequence?
[TG] I should have—so I originally wrote this character fifteen years ago. The first time I wrote this character was in 2008 for a short story called “Mitzvah” that was in Las Vegas Noir, which is one of those Akashic Noir anthologies, and I wrote about his last day on the job as a fake rabbi. When I finished writing that story, I was like, huh, you know what? I think there's something there, but the challenge I had, honestly, is that I'm not a great Jew. I didn't have any sort of real notion of what it would take to be a rabbi other than like, you know, a lot of brises. So I had to really spend a couple of years reading to figure out what this character would become, and also so that as the character was becoming a rabbi slowly, pretending to be one, I would be reading along with him. So he was birthed in this short story. But it took me probably two, three more years of thinking about it and reading before I started to write the novel that would become Gangsterland.
The actual genesis of it all, to be perfectly honest, I had been asked to write the short story, and for the Noir anthologies, every single author gets to pick a neighborhood in which to write, and I had picked Summerlin, where I had lived for a few years. But I didn't really have any ideas. I just said, yeah, Summerlin, send me my $500. But there was one day I was here in the desert, where I live in Palm Springs, and there's an old Native American cemetery close to the airport. I was going to the airport to pick somebody up, and I was stopped at a red light. I've lived in the Palm Springs region most of my life now, and I'd never seen someone walk out of that cemetery. To my knowledge, people have been buried there since the 1800s. But then I saw someone walk out of the cemetery, and I was like, what the fuck is that? And I suddenly had this thought: man, if you wanted to get away with murder, the thing to do would be to kill someone, put them in a casket, and bury them in an old cemetery. And then I was like, wait. Wait a minute. Wait. How can someone make money from this? Well, what if the cemetery is owned by the mob? Well, why would a cemetery be owned by the mob? Oh, because it's attached to a church. No, a synagogue, where they're laundering money. And so all of a sudden. And this happened in the space of a red light. Like all of a sudden, it was there, and ding, ding, ding, ding, ding.
[KJ] Things line up.
[TG] Right. Things line up. And so by the time I got to the airport, I had Gangsterland the novel in my head. And that set off the next fifteen years of my life.
[KJ] That's fantastic. It's a wonderful book. Everyone should read it. And that actually ties into this next question. So this is the third and final installment, although we did have a book of short stories in the same universe. Did you know or when did you know during the process of writing this book that this was going to be a series? And if so, how did you?
[TG] Yeah, I knew from the moment I started to write Gangsterland that it was going to be three books.
[KJ] How did that come about? You just knew?
[TG] I knew because I knew how big the story was going to be. But I didn't have a three-book deal. I had a one-book deal to start. And the conversation that I had with my editor, Dan Smetanka, at the time was “I'm envisioning this as a trilogy,” and his thing was “All right, well, let's write a successful first novel and end it with a cliffhanger, but a cliffhanger that will still be satisfying to the reader if the book is not successful.” You know, he's a practical man; he runs a publishing company.
But even as we were getting close to finishing Gangsterland, we were already negotiating for the sequel, because to be honest, we knew we had something special. Part of that knowing is the collaboration between me and Dan, and we have a very close creative relationship where we can talk to each other honestly about the work that that we're doing, and where he can make suggestions and where I can make suggestions, but ultimately, of course, the decisions come down to me. But he had such great ideas for things further on down the line, that it was impossible that we weren't going to do three books.
The short story collection in the middle, though, came about in an odd way, and the truth is that I was working on a TV show adaptation of Gangsterland for Amazon, and we needed more content. We needed more stories, and we needed more B characters, and so I said to Dan, hey, I'd like to do a short story collection that can feed into this world and will help us sort of flesh out the show for Amazon. And he was very enthusiastic about that. We didn't think The Low Desert: Gangster Stories was going to be anything significant. Then all of a sudden The Low Desert came out in the middle of the pandemic, and it was a huge hit and garnered a bunch of awards, and it became something else entirely. So now we have a trilogy that's four books long.
[KJ] Well, that's awesome. And yeah, in The Low Desert, every single story there is a gem, so anyone that gets involved in this universe is gonna end up having to read all four.
[TG] And you know, the thing about The Low Desert, too, is of course it can stand alone; you don't need to have read the books. But if you've read the books, the stories are so much better because there's so many tangents that I've put inside them, so many Easter eggs for the reader. There's a story called “Mazel” about an FBI agent named Christy Levine, who ends up being the hero of Gangster Don’t Die. That's an important story to go read, and it's free online on my website right now.
[KJ] Yeah, that's one of the things I was going to ask: Where should readers start? If they first read this newest one, would they be really screwed up?
[TG] I wrote it in such a way that I've backfilled most of the information. I tried to clarify things as much as possible. But this is really a book that ties up the loose ends from every single book that I've written, and I took my sort of theory on this from The Wire, which is that, when David Simon and Eric Overmyer and all those guys were running The Wire, they had things in season one that did not pay off until season five. And I said I want to do that in a book; I want to have the confidence to play things out in real time. So the three novels cover four years of real time. I wanted these things to actually take long to reach their final conclusion. So certainly you can read the book by itself, but you'd be much better served reading Gangsterland and Gangster Nation first.
[KJ] So can you tell us a little bit about your artistic process from idea to how you flesh things out?
[TG] Gummies…espresso…chocolate-covered almonds…
[KJ] Is there a perfect gummies-to-espresso ratio?
[TG] Yeah, yeah, I can write it all out for you. They’re all so important—you know, process is a hard thing to sort of quantify. I don't plot extensively, but in my little notebook that I keep here on my desk, I know what's going to happen: beginning, middle, and end. I always know where I'm going. I don't always know how I'm going to get there. And for me, that's part of the process, that organic discovery that keeps the reader surprised as well. Donald Westlake once told me—as I drop that name—that he knew a book or a story was done when the reader could write the next page. And so my process is to make sure that the reader could never write the next page until the very the end. And if I do that successfully, the book will both be a page-turner and a mystery, even though in these books you know who the bad guys and the good guys are. There's still a mystery element to it, how anyone's going to work themselves out of these particular cons.
But my actual writing process is fairly mundane: I wake up. I drink a lot of coffee. I eat some FAGE yogurt. I have a banana, which I open from the bottom. I write probably for four or five hours a day, but the first thing I do every day is I rewrite the previous day's work. So I'll go back and I only read the previous day's work. That way I'm always fresh with it. Then I'll do rewrites in large chunks. I'll get to a hundred pages, and I'll go back and read all the way through, and I end up moving stuff around quite a bit, and then, when the editorial process begins, invariably Dan has thoughts about adding chapters or moving things around, or adding or subtracting the characters, things of that nature, and that's a whole different part of the collaborative process.
The thing that I like to do, though—which I tell my students, as you may recall—is write big. Let me help you find the good. Let me find that one line and then you can cut the rest. And that’s sort of the process that I have with Dan, where Dan says, all right, the book is going to be 110,000 words when we publish it, but right 150,000 if you need to, and we'll get rid of what we get rid of. And that's really been freeing for me. I don't feel constrained artistically, because that process allows me to just sort of go on a whim. I know that we'll be able to find the good stuff at some point later on.
[KJ] It's cool to have that that freedom to just get it all out.
[TG] Yeah, and it ends up getting out in pretty good shape. But you know, I overwrite just like anybody else. I have ticks just like anybody else. I fall in love with my own voice, my own jokes.
[KJ] Your books are funny. Like, you laugh out loud.
[TG] Yeah, and I try to be funny, but I don't try to write one-liners, and that's another hard part of it. How do you be amusing without the [in a cheesy, nasally voice] Hey, did you hear the one what about the hitman rabbi?
[KJ] Right. Yeah, you do a good job of it. Um. So, we're excited to read it. It came out on the twelfth of September this year, right?
[KJ] So everyone can pick up a copy now. And what's next on your agenda?
[TG] I've got a lot. I'm working on an anthology for Soho Press. It’s a series of stories about Hanukkah. I've conscripted a bunch of writers to join me in writing short crime stories that take place on Hanukkah, which is a companion to their book The Usual Santas that I was in a few years ago. I think we're calling it Eight Nights of Crime, something like that. Also, I'm working on a new novel for Counterpoint based on the short story of The Low Desert that takes place at the Salton Sea in the 1960s.
[KJ] I have a random question. Is there anything that you're terrified of that most people are not, like, I don't know, spiders or something?
[TG] I hate spiders. There's, well, there's a lot of things I'm terrified of that random people are not. [pauses to think] Oh! Moths. Moths. Yeah.
[KJ] And the reason I ask is because I'm putting together care packages for people so…
[TG] I'm terrified of moths. Really. Yeah. They're weird. They're too big. They're dusty. They're slow moving. They don't give a fuck. Get up in your clothes and your hair.
[KJ] They eat your clothes.
[TG] They eat your clothes. I've just—I don't fuck with moths.