by Leslie Gonzalez
Tod Goldberg, the celebrated writer of Gangsterland and Gangster Nation, is releasing a collection of short stories The Low Desert: Gangster Stories in February 2021. Readers will be delighted to find characters familiar and new in Goldberg’s upcoming release, characters who might just end up having their own television series. Join Kelp Journal as we dig under the powdery, desert layers of Goldberg’s new book, which discusses his ties to the Coachella Valley, its locals, murderous clowns, and (of course) the creation of his gangsters.
DISCLAIMER: This interview has spoilers
[Kelp Journal]: How long have you been living in the Coachella Valley (CV) area?
[Tod Goldberg]: My family has had a presence in the desert since the 1950s. My grandparents bought homes and condos in the desert because it was one of the few places in the country where Jews could come and play golf. I used to spend every December, basically out here [CV], staying at my Nana's house. Then I moved in the year 2000 after my first book came out. So, I've lived here half my life, basically.
[KJ]: Your book is set in different parts throughout the country, but I feel like anytime there's a desert setting brought up, there’s this tone of helplessness. How is it the desert, the Coachella Valley, has inspired you to write that way? Was it intentional?
[TG]: I mean, everything is intentional, you know? Of course, when I sit down to write a story, I pretty much know how it is going to go before I start. The reason I've always set my work in the Coachella Valley, in the low desert itself—Vegas and places like that—is because the desert is a place where you can lose yourself. I mean this both literally and figuratively. You can come here and change who you are because no one cares about who you were in LA or New York or Chicago. When you get to Palm Springs and you're working as a bartender or at the spa or something, you're only important for fifteen minutes. Your past is meaningless.
And I think that's true of resort towns in general. Growing up here, my mom was a gossip columnist for the Desert Sun for many, many years, and the people she covered and the people who were her friends, none of them had grown up here. They all ended up here or ran here because every other town in America had been closed off to them for some reason or another. Sometimes it was for criminal purposes. Sometimes their reputations were ruined. They came here because they had some small talents that they could use to make money living in a resort town, in the desert, basically. So, there's always been, I think, a sense of hopelessness that exists as an undercurrent to any resort town, because when the season is over and the town empties out, it's weird. It’s like vacation is over.
I've always tried to tap into the sort of impermanence—of the glamour—of this place. That it's a show. We built a resort in a desert. That's absurd. It's like, “Oh, we're going to build a resort in a place that's inhospitable to human life.” I am fascinated by the presumption that we could turn a bad place into a good place.
[KJ]: It's funny that you’re mentioning this, because a lot of that feeling, feeling helpless, resonates particularly well with your character Morris Drew. I think because, as you said, you're talking about seeing the bad and good, whether it’s a place or a person. The contradiction happens in the desert, like a push and pull. You mentioned this while writing about the Salton Sea. It’s curious how you were able to marry the setting and character with the mood and tone.
[TG]: Well, I sort of have an ethos where the writer hosts, and Josip Novakovich talks about it in a fantastic book of craft that he wrote many years ago, about where story comes from. He said that setting begets character begets plot. From a place comes a person, from a person comes a story. I had always written like that, but I've never given it a form. I believe that a person is influenced by where they are and how they act in accordance with the politics of a particular place. So, a character like Morris Drew, you get to see through three distinct periods of his life. You get to see him when he's thirty, you get to see him when he's sixty and you get to see him when he's seventy-five or however old he is in “The Salt.”
Each place, the rules of that particular place, dictates his reaction to a crime and his reaction to the mechanics of the human heart. The desert infects him, he can't wash the sand off of him. It's always there now. The time he spends at the Salton Sea causes him to be the kind of sheriff he is in Granite City, and the kind of sheriff he is in Granite City causes him to be filled with regret when he moves back to the desert. I don't explain why he comes back to the desert in the book, but it's obvious that he's haunted by this thing, this thing that he did in 1962. I want that to be a real part of this, because as you know and as I know, no one leaves the desert, we always come back. If you've lived here at some point in your life, you will be back.
[KJ]: It has its own gravity.
[TG]: It does! It absolutely has its own gravity. You go somewhere else and you realize like, “Oh, it's nice here, but it takes me an hour and a half to get where I want to go. Yeah, it's beautiful, but I can't breathe the air,” or whatever it might be. Then you start to yearn for the simplicity of the life that you had somewhere else, the places you liked. That's why people come to visit here. It feels like the kind of place you would like to go to, but the people who choose to live here, they're also choosing to live in a place that will eventually, might very well, kill them.
[KJ]: I know there are familiar characters, characters readers will recognize from your earlier work, but you also have characters who are unfamiliar, like Morris Drew. He was a curious case. He has more screen time than most of the other characters in the book. I feel like you’re sending some kind of message.
[TG]: Well, you know, the thing about the Morris Drew character is I've actually been writing him a lot longer than anybody probably knows. He appears for about three pages in Living Dead Girl, he's the sheriff.
I first wrote a short story about him around 1996. I've been trying to figure out how to write the story about him at the Salton Sea in the 1960s for about twenty-five years. I've had the champagne problem of having other jobs, of having other books to write. I kept returning to him in different forms, and it wasn't until I was putting together the new stories for this book that I was like, “All right, I'm going to try to write this story about 1962 at the Salton Sea.”
The funny thing is, I got halfway through the short story and I was like, “You know what? I think this is actually a television pilot that I'm writing.” As I was writing it, I called my agent—my film agent—and I was like, “Hey, I'm writing a short story that might be a TV show. I'm going to write it in such a way that I could easily adapt it, and I'm going to send it to you.” We had the kind of conversation you often have with an agent, which is like, “Sounds great!”
Then I wrote the story, and I wrote the story in a different style than I would. Some of my other work is a lot less dense. So, I sent it to her [film agent] and she was like, “You should adapt that! You should adapt that right now.” So, I've been working on that for a while. I've been working on this adaptation for the past couple months, and I think it’s something bigger. I think the character of Morris Drew is unusual for me because he’s in law enforcement and he isn’t a bad guy.
[KJ]: We also see another character: Shane. He appears in the first story of your book and you end it with a clown, Hermie, in the backseat of his car. What happens to Shane? Does he reappear later? What is his involvement in the book?
TG: Well, the thing about that short story, you don't have to worry about seeing Shane again. Shane’s dead.
[TG]: See, that story is for the locals, because they'll recognize the clown. It gets weird. For locals specifically. That's a story where I thought, “Oh, they're really going to know who I'm writing about.”
I wrote the story, “The Royal Californian,” for the upcoming Palm Springs Noir anthology from Akashic Books, which is set to be released the same time my book is being released. In those anthologies, each writer writes about a particular neighborhood that they are familiar with and live in. I was like, “Oh, I want to write about Indio because I live in Indio now.” I basically—I just wanted to write about that strip of land on Highway 111 where there's a prison, a fairground, and a Wienerschnitzel.
It’s a really weird place. If you ever just drive down that portion, it's like, there's a fairground next to a prison. What a dumb idea. Whose idea was that? “We're going put the prison next to the fairground.” Like, with the smell of churros and the screaming of young children? I'm sure that's great for all the pedophiles in there.
I wanted to write something that the locals would understand. There are a thousand hotels, like the fake one I wrote about, The Royal Californian. It sounds like a great place but is not a great place.
[KJ]: I can’t speak for everyone else, but this story was very nostalgic for me. I had to ask myself why it sounded like my whole childhood even though it wasn’t anywhere near as dark.
[TG]: That’s the reason why we put that story first. There's a method when stacking stories in a short story collection. I wanted to have the ebb and flow of a novel where you're hitting certain points along the way. So that, by the time you get to the last story, “Gangway,” it feels like a conclusion. That one story has all the elements of all the stories that are to come. There's a serious part, there's a sad part, there's a violent part, there's a weird part, there's some beauty involved, and there’s the fundamental essence of desert life where everyone's on a grift, and everyone's from someplace else. I wanted to get all that stuff into one story, so that when I hit these little points later on, even when I hit a story like “Palm Springs,” you sort of see it’s just one standard deviation away from that story. So, Shane is basically your guide into how fucked the desert can be. Because he's a stranger who gets out of a car and walks into something that's beyond us.
[KJ]: You said it perfectly. Knowing what the rest of the book is going to be about, knowing where the keynotes are, and from there, it was really easy to digest the rest right afterwards. It was one fluid story after another.
[TG]: The thing is, some of these stories are quite old. I wrote the original version of “The Last Good Man” in 1998. There were different versions of it. I rewrote it for an anthology called The Usual Santas and turned it into a Christmas story. Then I rewrote it again. So, each time I reworked the story, I was improving as a writer. I was seeing different ways I could improve the story each time. Then, “Palm Springs” and “The Salt” are both—gosh—twelve years old, something like that. I rewrote them significantly for this book because I was creating a universe. I had things that connected them already in my mind and on the page, but then as I was going through them, I was making those connections more overt. For instance, in “Pilgrims,” in my mind, the dude in prison is Hermie.
[KJ]: How many stories are new?
[TG]: One, two, three, four, five. So, seven out of the twelve stories are new. By new, I mean written for this book. I knew after I wrote Gangster Nation, I needed to take time off from writing novels. I had written three really long books in the course of five years. So, I'd written The House of Secrets, Gangsterland, and Gangster Nation between 2013 and 2017. All three of those books are over 450 pages. I was pretty worn out from the process. There was other stuff I wanted to write. I had been writing about this gangster rabbi so much that I hadn't written anything else in eight years.
We pitched a short story collection to my publisher, and they were all for it. They liked the idea. I also wanted to introduce some characters that I might write books about later on, specifically Sheriff Drew. It was a business decision, but I also wanted to spread my wings and write about other characters for the first time in a long time and not write about the Talmud every five pages.
[KJ]: Has it been challenging to write this book considering the current state we're in? Was it easy to write or did it help you fuel this process? Was it overwhelming at certain parts?
[TG]: Well, it was for sure overwhelming in certain parts. I had finished the book in September of 2019. Originally, the book was going to come out in the summer of 2020. That was the original plan. So, I've been sitting on the book for a while, then we realized towards the end of 2019, we sort of had the realization that the world's going to be super fucked up in the summer of 2020. To try to put out a book when everyone's paying attention to the election, it seemed really foolish. So, we just sort of made the decision to push this book to 2021. So, I said, “Look, if we're going to push the book to 2021, I want to write another story or two and subtract some other stuff out.”
In the meantime, my editor wanted me to do some rewrites on stuff as well. I didn't end up turning in the final version of this book until April of this year, until April 2020. By then, of course, we were in the midst of the pandemic. The world had turned to absolute shit. Everyone was absolutely focused on the elections, and I felt really smart for saying “Let’s push the book back.”
[KJ]: Is there anything that you would like to say about the book or the script you're writing?
[TG]: No. Nothing about that.
[KJ]: Let’s keep it a mystery then.
Leslie Gonzalez is a writer, editor, and certified copy editor from Indio, California. Her work is published in LOCALE magazine, OK Whatever magazine, FLAUNT magazine, and History 101. She is a hardcore lover of all things fantasy and science fiction and has earned her BFA in Creative Writing from California State University, Northridge and earned her MFA in Fiction from UC Riverside Low Residency program in Palm Desert.