Sometimes I get a few hours more. A drug-addicted doctor who hates his patients!) … because they want to enjoy the ride. I want to be entertained. You know that to be true in our own lives. He directs the Low Residency MFA program in Creative Writing & Writing for the Performing Arts at the University of California, Riverside. 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). How to perpetuate a long con where you pretend to be that guy. Essentially, True Fiction is you at the top of your powers, both in terms of observation but also in terms of execution. We spent the weekends at a beach house we rented in Capitola. What gives me hope is that even McMurtry isn’t capable of doing it every time he writes a book. The first sequel, Killer Thriller, came very easily to me and felt like a natural extension of True Fiction. Exposition and lengthy descriptions are cut to their bare essence, usually a single line or two that makes the point. Open the drapes and let the sunlight in now and then. And I did. Can you sustain that level without becoming a parody of yourself? It’s something like 75 books. I’ve read it many times trying to see how he pulled it off. My father was a TV screen, and I knew that I was stronger than he was. She was a deft schmoozer and a big ego. 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. I wish I could survive on three or four hours of sleep a night. It’s a goal he still strives to achieve … with mixed results. That’s not all I learned from him. 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. Actually, I think I finally found it. There was the night we spent with Donald Westlake, asking him all the questions we’d been holding on to since childhood. 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. I wanted this book to show off everything I’ve learned from being a screenwriter and working with Janet. Your years writing Monk show up in your ability to make even secondary characters complete, rounded individuals. But it doesn’t have to be unrelentingly dark and bleak. A detective with OCD! Hold on a minute while I look up “atavistic.” No, it’s mostly conscious. 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. We’d eat TV dinners in front of the TV watching dad tell us the news. She went after what she wanted, personally and professionally. 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). For example, I know when I am exaggerating a story and, I like to believe, so does my audience. I have a lot of those same attributes, though I hope with less of the destructive flip side. 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). 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. 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. His first book, .357: Vigilante (under the pseudonym Ian Ludlow), came out in 1985. 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. When I wasn’t doing that, I was staging radio dramas and talk shows on my tape recorder. 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. You have a wife. Is that pulling-in a conscious part of your writing process or is it atavistic at this point? 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. 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. He made the TV part of my family. So yeah, I could break into TV. ¤
Tod Goldberg is the New York Times best-selling author of several books of fiction, most recently, Gangsterland. This one time? The influence of your time writing with Janet Evanovich was clear to me in the pacing. I’m a big believer that there’s always humor in our lives, even in the saddest, most dire moments. 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 was right, of course.
I do all of those things now, just like he has at one time or another. 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! 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. MAY 28, 2018
I FIRST MET Lee Goldberg on January 10, 1971, which is the day I was born, nine years after Lee showed up. 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). You have family. Think how much I could get done! 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? 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. The dialogue was so good that the publisher put a page of it on the front cover. To me, that’s a perfect novel. 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. 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. 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. 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). I’m facing that problem now as I plot the third book with these characters. 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. I wasn’t sure I could pull it off. 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). 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. Yet it was every bit as rich, in character and plot, as far wordier and less dialogue-driven books. 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”). 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. 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. Such is the benefit of having an older brother with the same profession … which, in our case, is writing crime fiction. But do you remember the first book you read that made you think, “Oh, I could do this.”
Yes, I do. No, really. 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. How to get rid of that guy’s body. In that environment, is it any wonder I turned out the way I did? Monk. LEE GOLDBERG: My first instinct was to reply with a joke … but I’m going to give you a serious answer. Mostly? (Later, Robert B. And launched a publishing company. I was too young at the time to know why or how it happened, or if mom was somehow to blame. Or the time we signed autographs for Stuart Anderson from the Black Angus. 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. He’s written dialogue for Dick Van Dyke and David Hasselhoff. 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. Since then, what I can tell you is that I’ve come to depend on him for the kind of advice only an older brother can provide:
How to kill a guy. It was the first time I read a great crime story told primarily through dialogue. No problem. That sort of thing. My pretend play was elaborate storytelling. He’s sold millions of books around the world. I studied Fletch and Confess, Fletch the way some Jews study the Talmud. I’m deeply afraid the day will come, though, when I lose that self-awareness. Plus you wrote or produced 25 different TV shows. 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. I didn’t have McDonald’s skill, but somehow I knew after reading his book that I could be a writer. Getting there had to take talent, drive, and confidence … but somewhere along the line he lost his mojo … or, more likely, his backbone. Mom had a big, outgoing personality and great sense of humor. She was a fighter. 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. But he became a weak, wishy-washy, superficial man. There’s no question that dad being on television and mom being a writer shaped me in profound ways. 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). He’s inhabited some of the legendary characters in the mystery canon: Nero Wolfe. I know where the truth ends and the embellishment, for comedic or dramatic effect, begins. We’re gonna fix that. 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. Let’s get back to me and mine. I get lots of sleep … it’s rare when I get less than eight hours. There was also the time he wrote for a non-talking dolphin. Dad was a TV anchorman and mom was a model/socialite. Seeing him on TV every night also made television — the industry and the medium — something approachable to me. 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. 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. Do you think that comes from your TV background, or is it something more personal?
I love reading. You have friends. It’s interesting to me that both of us write crime fiction but come at the genre from different angles. We even had a Ford Country Squire station wagon. God, I hope so. Our parents even had sitcom-y careers. But most of all, I wanted it to be a fun, fast-moving, exhilarating novel that felt like watching a great action movie. We’re in on the joke together. That doesn’t mean a book has to be funny. ¤
TOD GOLDBERG: What were those first nine years without me like? It’s an approach to writing that starts the moment you start plotting the story. We met the Black Angus.
But also, in all that time, I’ve never read a single interview with Lee that satisfied me. 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). 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). 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. 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. 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. He let people, he let life, walk all over him. 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. 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. You’ve had a bunch of great pets. Those were the years when mom and dad were still married, so it was the only time we resembled a TV family. Escaping into books was always how I coped, so I understand entirely. When, in the last 35 years, have you slept? There was the time he wrote for a talking dolphin. 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. There is a lot of both of them in me … though more of mom than dad. 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. 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. Lee’s been on the job for a long time now. You have a daughter. I don’t remember this meeting, though there are some adorable photos that mark the occasion. It was Fletch by Gregory McDonald. 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. He stood up for nothing and nobody and lost everything. We were moving up the ladder, from a starter house in Oakland to a brand new tract home in the suburbs. (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. He made it small and human. 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. 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. She was a profound exaggerator in her storytelling, for both comic and dramatic effect. Spenser. They were both comfortable in front of an audience, whether it was on camera or standing on front of people. 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. So perhaps it’s actually too late and I’ve already become a parody of myself. 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. So.