Tod Goldberg and I go way (way) back. I published an over-the-transom short story of his, “Simplify,” in the very first issue of Other Voices magazine I ever edited, in 1998, when neither Tod nor I had yet hit thirty. A couple of years after that issue came out, Tod happened to be passing through Chicago on tour for his debut novel, Fake, Liar, Cheat (2000), and I went to hear him—he proceeded to take me out for swanky Italian food and even swankier scotch in his rented “dope Lincoln,” and to—as he has done pretty much every time I’ve ever seen him since—make me laugh until my face hurt. Fast forward nearly fifteen years and I have now edited/published two of Tod’s short story collections, Simplify and Other Resort Cities, on Other Voices Books/Dzanc Books. It was he who originally introduced me to Brad Listi of The Nervous Breakdown, where I later became the fiction editor in 2009, and to boot, he is now my boss at the University of California-Riverside Palm Desert’s low-residency MFA program, where he’s known as “the Todfather” due not just to his passion for crime fiction, but even more so for his tendency to take care of his friends, faculty and students. I suppose that, to dispel any last notions of my Goldberg-impartiality meter, I should also add that the bar my father owned for years, here in Chicago, even makes an appearance in his latest novel, Gangsterland (a fact I suspect might amuse my dad more than everything I myself have ever written combined). So it was my extreme pleasure to talk with one of my oldest and dearest friends in the industry, in my last interview as the Sunday Rumpus editor, about all things Gangsterland—out this month to starred reviews in Kirkus and Publisher’s Weekly—as well as the importance of literary versatility, philosopies of teaching, the boons of a spiritual crisis, and writers’ ability to survive on coffee alone…
The Rumpus: Your latest novel, Gangsterland, is brand new this month, but the novel comes into the world already possessing a history. The novel grew out of a short story, “Mitzvah,” in your collection Other Resort Cities, which I published on Other Voices Books in 2009, and subsequently “Mitzvah” was optioned by CBS for Timberman/Beverly, the producers of Justified and Masters of Sex. So the hitman-turned-rabbi protagonist of Gangsterland is obviously a character who really compelled both you and others who read about him—in fact, I remember when you first wrote “Mitzvah,” you emailed me and said, I just finished the best story I’ve ever written. Which is…a luminous feeling for a writer, one of those rare moments when you just know, yourself, even before others have read it, that you are on to something, that something has really clicked. Talk to me about the inspiration for “Mitzvah,” and what it was about that story that wouldn’t let you go and inspired you to dig deeper and novelize those characters and their world.
Tod Goldberg: I originally wrote “Mitzvah” for Las Vegas Noir after Jarret Keene and Todd James Pierce, who edited the anthology for Akashic, contacted me to see if I was interested in writing something about Summerlin, a master-planned part of Las Vegas where I’d lived briefly in the late 1990s. The idea for the story and the idea for the novel are somewhat different—when I wrote “Mitzvah” my first goal was to write just a really good, inventive, comic-noir and this idea of a temple and cemetery run by the Mafia came out of one of my fucked up obsessions: getting away with murder. There’s an old, private cemetery here in Palm Springs, where I live, just down the street from the airport, that belongs to one of the local Native American tribes, and it occurred to me one day that if you really wanted to get away with murder, you’d kill someone, put them in a coffin and bury them in a private cemetery or, better, an abandoned one. And then suddenly this whole idea of a long con appeared before me and I had this idea of using a Jewish cemetery, because of the rules related to burying Jews (namely, no embalming), and then the opening line of the story just appeared before me: That Rabbi David Cohen wasn’t Jewish had ceased, over time, to be a problem.
At the time, when I was working on the stories that would comprise Other Resort Cities, I was thinking a lot about the aftermath of bad choices, how people deal with the trauma of having survived trauma, if that makes sense, and so I wrote about this character’s last day on the job, how after spending 15 years pretending to be a rabbi, he’d in effect become a rabbi. As soon as I was done with the story, I knew I had to write the whole thing, but I really didn’t know how that whole thing was going to shake out. Also, at the time, I still had three more Burn Notice books to write on my contract, so I knew there was going to be a gestation period on this that would take some time whether or not I wanted it.
So it was three years between writing “Mitzvah” and starting Gangsterland and in that time a lot of stuff happened, not least of which was that my mother died and I turned 40 (I’m 43 now) and I found myself thinking a lot about my own spirituality. What it means to be Jewish, what it means to forgive, what it means to sacrifice, but mostly what it means to be alive, how to be a better person, how not to make the mistakes my parents had made. I guess that’s what one might typically call a midlife crisis. At any rate, as the story of this hitman who is forced to hide out in Las Vegas started to come into full view, I realized that if I wanted to write this novel, it also had to be about the transformation of faith…and that I really didn’t know enough about my own religious background to write convincingly about it, which meant as Sal Cupertine transformed into Rabbi David Cohen, I had to read what he was reading, which, as it turned out, was just what I needed at the time. That said, I mean, this is still a crime novel about a hitman who shoots a lot of people in the back of the head, not some canonical text, and is also a lot about a strange time in Las Vegas—right before the turn of the century—when the city was fully embracing its gangster past while also becoming a giant, cookie-cutter suburban resort. That’s a pretty big tableau for a crime novel, but I felt like I’d been priming for this book for a good, long time and I was ready to see what I could do with it all.
Rumpus: Americans are fascinated by the Mob. This has been particularly true in cinema, but even in real life, things like Mob trials are voraciously devoured by the public, and there are journalists and even just…I guess you’d call them hobbyists or Mob aficionados who devote their lives to chronicling the intricate activities of crime families and writing histories and timelines and conspiracy theories and so on. In fact, in the neighborhood I grew up in, in Chicago, I lived across the street from the alleged then-number-three man in the Chicago mafia, and that man was an object of immense fascination and respect among others in the neighborhood—instead of being negatively judged, he seemed deified. Why do Mafiosos seem to be the folk heroes of American culture?
Goldberg: I’ve spent a lot of time thinking about this and I think it’s this: We like the idea of a guy who gets away with it (“it” in this case being a variety of things: murder, robbery, general mayhem, adultery, screwing over the government, basic intimidation and thuggery, etc.). It’s a very American ideal—the freedom to break the law. The fact is, though, what I think we really like is Marlon Brando, Al Pacino, Robert De Niro and James Gandolfini. We like what the media has created of the mob bosses in movies and TV and books, because it’s something the average person never comes into contact with, it’s almost as outwardly outlandish as a sexy vampire, and so we can romanticize it, it’s non-threatening.
I think it also slides into that Old West gunfighter myth we love as Americans. The noble killer. We all want to be the person nobody fucks with, and we also want to be the person who rights the wrongs. De-fucks the situation, as it were. So we see these media portrayals—and I recognize that I am now guilty of this by writing about gangsters, though my attempt is actually to de-glorify it in a pretty specific way—and here are these almost royal families of crime, they’re living well, they dress great, no one fucks with them, they make their own hours, eat lots of great food, they steal from the rich, they’re bound by some honor-code. All of which is mostly bullshit. The reality is that it’s just like any other Ponzi scheme: the guys at the top are doing pretty well, but the guys on the bottom are doing Amway pitches in trailer parks.
I’m really fascinated by how the mob ethos permeates places like Las Vegas and Chicago. I have the book set in Las Vegas and Chicago for pretty specific reasons, some of which are that in both cases the mob history has become a tourist attraction—I’m actually doing a book signing in Las Vegas at The Mob Museum, which I am positively giddy about!—and I find that especially unusual. If you don’t call these people “the Mafia” they’re just a band of psychopaths killing people for profoundly dumb reasons. You don’t see Los Angeles erecting a museum dedicated to the birth place of the Crips and the Bloods and the Mexican Mafia, with a special guided bus tour highlighting the rise of the crack trade, yet you can hop on a bus in Chicago tomorrow to see the famous locales of murders. I have to imagine there’s some wonderful academic book on the sociology of this out there.
Rumpus: Yes, you talk about the outlaw, the kind of mythic gunfighter, and there’s definitely been an increased fascination with renegade outlaw figures even outside of Mob lore. What’s fascinating is how sometimes this seems to far exceed the expectations or intentions of the original writer, such as the public’s response to Hannibal Lecter, which was so over-the-top that it actually led to spin-off books in which Hannibal and Clarisse end up married—something that, I think it’s fair to postulate, would not have seemed a…feasible outcome in the author’s mind when he wrote the original book! But it was almost like the public demanded it, you know? And more recently this seems to have escalated to the point of Walter White from Breaking Bad, or Lorne Malvo in Fargo, where you see Facebook posts from regular bookish guys proclaiming things like “Lorne Malvo is my hero” or “My new role model: Malvo”—as a longtime fan of crime fiction and noir, is this something that’s increasing, or is it just that people’s responses to the outlaw figure is now more widely disseminated via social media? Has the outlaw always really been the star—the one people want to identify with? Why does no one seem to want to be the guy in the white hat anymore—or did they never really want to be that guy?
Goldberg: It’s nothing new. The rise of the anti-hero can be traced to a litany of social reasons. Post World War I, for instance, saw the blooming of some pretty dark stuff—I’m thinking of Dashiell Hammett’s Red Harvest, for instance, when “The Continental Op” shows up in Poisonville to clean up the town…and proceeds to kill something like thirty people. But I think, generally, the flawed anti-hero is much more interesting than the normal hero, and that’s really what we’re talking about here as it relates to outlaws or renegades. We understand a person with problems, someone who is wrong about a lot of things in his or her life, who makes messes. We don’t understand someone who is constantly right, who is only felled by Kryptonite. Chuck Klosterman had a pretty great book about this whole thing—I Wear The Black Hat—that came out last year and which I greatly enjoyed.
I came really late to Breaking Bad, which is to say I watched the first four seasons about six months ago in a frenzy of about two weeks. I still haven’t seen the last season and don’t actually know how it ends, though I’m guessing Walter dies, since people with terminal cancer tend to die, even if they aren’t cooking meth, but nevertheless I think that show in particular is a perfect example of the sort of thing I mentioned above, that if the option is to be a normal person in society or to get away with it, the fantasy is the latter.
At least at it relates to the films, TV and books from, say, the last 25 years, I think the direct correlation is the popularity of Elmore Leonard—there’s no Pulp Fiction without Elmore Leonard, there’s not a single TV show on USA or FX without Elmore Leonard, and there’s not the proliferation of comic-noir crime novels without Elmore Leonard, at least not the ones where there’s a traditional bad guy in the role of the hero.
Rumpus: You’re an incredibly versatile writer—you’ve written just about everything there is to write! Your short stories and essays are what would probably be classified as highly literary, and you’ve also written popular fiction like the Burn Notice novels, as you mentioned. You were a pioneering blogger, and you’ve sold a bunch of stuff to Hollywood, are a book critic and occasional journalist. What are your thoughts about the ways writers are characterized and put into marketing boxes, i.e. “crime writer,” “commercial writer,” “literary writer,” “memoirist?” The renowned critic David Ulin, who’s on faculty in the MFA program you direct, has said things to the effect there shouldn’t really be genres, there should “just be books.” What do you think about that, and how do you encourage your students to think—or not think—about their label in the marketplace? Is there a way you think of yourself, or do you simply think of yourself as a “writer,” period—as one who writes?
Goldberg: You know, the best piece of advice I ever received about being a writer came from my brother Lee about this very topic. I was just starting out and he told me that if I wanted to have a long career, I had to be versatile, that I shouldn’t just think of myself in one way, because there would come a time when maybe that one thing wasn’t working out for me—this was at a point in his career, too, where this had already proven true: he’d already published a few books, and then was working as a journalist, then went into TV and then went from TV back to books and so on, always keeping a foot in everything—and I’d still want to earn a living as a writer. So for a long time, I did a lot of freelance writing in addition to writing fiction and such—I was a food critic for a magazine for a bit, I did writing for nonprofits and political things, I was the editorial consultant for another magazine for a couple years, all sorts of jobs. I do less of that stuff now because I figured out that when I was writing things I didn’t care about, it made me angry and depressed, so I turned my focus to what does make me happy, and also I recognized that one of the things that gives me great happiness is teaching creative writing, and so I could write profiles of professional golfers or I could be a professor. Being a professor made me much happier.
But as for the labels, I agree with David (I agree with David on most things, including the role Mott the Hoople should play in the canon of rock music history, but that’s for a different interview…), but by the same token I had to make a conscious choice before I started writing Gangsterland, which is that I was writing crime fiction. And there are rules for crime fiction. Or if not rules, at least expectations and you have to give the audience what it wants. And here I really have to give Matt Nix, the creator of Burn Notice, a lot of credit. When I agreed to write the Burn Notice books, we had a conversation about our views on what constitutes a crime story—Matt and I had known each other a long time, but we’d never really talked about writing before—and I realized that I’d been avoiding something I really love for a long time, which is writing a story that is both smart and entertaining and which makes people want to keep reading…versus which is smart and makes the reader want to kill themselves from depression. It was something that I didn’t really know how to write before I wrote those five Burn Notice books, even though it was what I gravitated towards in my own pleasure reading—writers like Donald Westlake and Elmore Leonard, who knew how to tell a great story, but who also didn’t dumb it down to the lowest common denominator—but which I really pay attention to now, and specifically when I was writing Gangsterland. Matt taught me how to do that by basically giving me the keys to his car and trusting me not to drive it into a brick wall. It did—and does—mean a lot to me and it changed the way I view myself as a crime writer, a label I’m happy to wear now.
Rumpus: Is it true that Gangsterland is the first of a series? Is there another book already written, or is that something you and Dan Smetanka, your editor at Counterpoint, are just tossing around and brainstorming on at this point? Were there particular craft decisions you had to make in Gangsterland to allow for the possibility of additional books—things you had to do differently than if this were conceived of only as a single novel?
Goldberg: Well, I wrote it with the idea of there being several sequels, to be perfectly honest. I had to divorce myself from some of the initial ideas that are in the short story (most notably, I moved the time of Sal/Rabbi Cohen’s arrival in Las Vegas up from 1993 to 1998) for the logistical purposes of what I have in my long view of the ongoing plot. I haven’t started writing the second book yet, but as I was writing I saw myself planting seeds for things that I knew probably wouldn’t pay off entirely until the next book, and that was some of what Dan and I actually talked about when he sent me his first edits—and I should note, Dan edited the hell out of this book; it was close to 450 pages long when he got it, he cut about a million words off the top (most of them involving people silently driving together), had me write two new chapters, and really got me to refine a lot of the motivations of the characters, had me seeing things I didn’t even know were there and building upon them—which is that I was writing a book that didn’t pay off every single plot point.
It’s an unusual way to write a crime novel, to have these lingering, fairly large story points, but it’s something I knew I had to do if I wanted to write a sequel…but, you know, people still have to read and enjoy this book, or it’s a moot point. And it’s sort of what I tell my students when they say, “Oh, this is book one in what I’m viewing as The 12 Books Of K’Naath’L: The Warrior Unicorn, so I’ll explain what happens to that character in book seven…” which is that, well, great, but if book one sucks, no one is going to be reading book seven, much less book twelve. So, I was aware that I had to pay off things in a convincing emotional fashion, that I had to address the lingering plot points in some real tangible sense, and that I had to make this a self-contained novel, in case I’m run over by a bus tomorrow or in case there’s no demand for anyone to ever see a sequel. (Two things that I hope don’t happen, incidentally.) But Dan and I have talked about some of the things I see happening in the second book, yes, and I’m eager to get to work on it…though I don’t know how long it will take me to write. I will say, if the TV show gets on the air, I’ll type faster!
Rumpus: I’ve been teaching for nearly twenty years—which itself is a little horrifying!—and you are among the most gifted professors I’ve ever seen in action in a workshop. You also may be the most blunt! I personally just love that—when I let you guest teach one of my classes at Columbia College almost a decade ago, I came out of that class thinking, Why the hell am I so fucking nice? and feeling, frankly, like I was not sure I was at all serving my students well by ever sugar-coating anything. I can’t say I “became Tod Goldberg” after that, but it really did make me more resolved to be as honest with my students as I would be with a writer I was working with when I’m wearing my “editor” hat. Students are going to go out into the world, submitting their work, and clearly editors are not going to just give them a love fest about how great everything is and throw money at them—they’re going to face hard rejections and have a major wake-up call if they’re not at the top of the game. Tell me about your philosophy of teaching, when it comes to this sort of thing. Obviously not every student getting a BA in creative writing—or even, of course, half the students in MFA programs—can go on to be a successful publishing writer. Some people don’t have the craft skills or tenacity or the desire or whatever elusive alchemy adds up to being able to have a long-term writing career. Yet at the same point, there are other reasons that getting a degree in writing can be enriching or personally fulfilling, even if they may not lead to a career of selling their books or screenplays. As the head of an MFA program, what are your feelings about how to deal with different levels in the workshop, and how different types of writing students can be nurtured and encouraged to develop and grow, and yet not coddled or led to expect unrealistic things?
Goldberg: I had a very tough mentor—a gentleman named Tom Filer, who passed away in 2013—who once told me, essentially, that no one ever got better by being told their work was good when it wasn’t. This was a long time ago—almost twenty years now—and I’d just had a particularly brutal workshop experience in his class. It was brutal not because the other students had ripped me to shreds, but because they’d praised the story almost uniformly, and then when it was Tom’s turn to talk he essentially chastised the entire room for praising my sloppy, derivative crap, for giving me a pass because they liked me, and for demanding so little from me above competence. (My friend and colleague Mary Yukari Waters, the excellent short story writer and novelist, was in this class, too, and I can so clearly see her raising her eyebrows in surprise…and then measured glee…as she always liked seeing me get yelled at…) After class, he sat me down and showed me how to fix the story, almost paragraph by paragraph, showed me all the shortcuts I’d taken, all the clichés, and then said, “Someone would probably publish this as it is, but it’s not worth sending out.” That really stuck with me. And the interesting thing is, he was a man who got a few bad reviews of his first novel—this was in 1961—and it admittedly stymied him for years. So he was speaking from a place of his own personal pain and experience. That mattered to me, still matters to me, and it has stuck with me in regards to how I teach.
Particularly with MFA students, who have so much invested—literally and figuratively—I feel like honest criticism is something they’re owed. It’s not going to be easier in the real world, surely. But I think my philosophy has evolved over the years. I started teaching almost fifteen years ago and I’ve learned that how one student learns is obviously much different than how another student learns and so I’ve had to figure out how to get through to people honestly without hurting their feelings—which is no easy task just in the scope of being a human being, much less in the classroom, but which is something that is more important to me now than it was when I was thirty—and to show them a path to improving. It does no one any good to say their novel sucks if you don’t have an idea how to make it better, how to approach it from different angles and make it work. It’s obviously a subjective process, right? But the thing about subjectivity, at least in the classroom, is that you’re banking on your professor’s subjectivity to be both personal and professional—that he or she has some sense about the world outside the workshop.
When I started the Low Residency MFA at UCR in 2008, that was part of my working blueprint: figure out how to teach not just for the workshop, but for the real world, which also meant having a multi-disciplinary approach, since my personal feeling is you need to know how to write more than just one thing…and then finding professors who believed that, too, and then attracting students who wanted that experience. I’m not Pollyanna—I know that my personality and my opinions and how I approach the teaching of writing maybe isn’t exactly how it’s done traditionally in the academy…wherever that academy is…but, you know, the academy is broken as it relates to many creative writing programs. They have no concept that the world has changed, that publishing has changed, that filmmaking has changed, and if you’re not constantly looking at your education model and adjusting for the change, you’ll find yourself teaching antiquity. Like all of these programs that won’t accept students who are writing genre fiction—what an institutional ego! My god, people are selling their work and people are reading it! The horror! That MFA programs have to advertise that they’ll let you write YA or fantasy or what-have-you is just absurd, but we do, because the presumption is that they’re closed to that sort of thing. You’re offering an MFA in creative writing? Teach people how to write well, worry about that part, let the writers come up with the stories.
Rumpus: Your wife, Wendy Duren, is also a published writer and you two—well into your marriage—pursued your MFAs together at Bennington. What was it like being in workshops with your spouse? Is it a miracle that you both got out of Bennington alive? What advice do you have for other two-writer marriages out there?
Goldberg: Yeah, I got my MFA very late, basically because I’d been hired to run an MFA program and didn’t have one, so it seemed prudent. This was 2007. We were only in one workshop together and it was…awkward. Obviously, we didn’t critique each other in class, but the larger issue is that it took all of my strength not to act like a homicidal maniac each time someone had anything vaguely critical to say about her work. I suspect Wendy felt the same way about those critiquing my work. I read an interview with Daniel Woodrell once where he said something like, basically, if people had said what they said to him in a bar instead of workshop, he would have punched them…and I finally understood that when in a class with my wife. Every time someone said something about her work, I wanted to climb across the table and stab them in the neck with my pen. And these were people I liked and respected.
Wendy’s my first editor, even before the words hit the page, and that’s invaluable. But that’s not the important thing. The important thing is that she understands the demands of being a writer, gets that me sitting silently in my office and staring out the window has a practical function. I don’t really have any advice for people who love each other and both happen to be writers, other than one of the two people in the couple better be slightly less in the clouds all day, or else you’ll both starve to death. Humans really can’t survive on just coffee alone, I don’t think.
Rumpus: You have your hand in so many different things—two of note are Literary Disco, your podcast with Rider Strong and Julia Pistell, and The Coachella Review, the literary magazine of UCR-Palm Desert’s MFA program, which has just been re-envisioned and released a debut issue under the new leadership by Stacy Bierlein. What can you tell us about exciting things these two endeavors may have in the pipelines, and also about what’s next for you as a writer?
Goldberg: I don’t actually have anything to do with the creative direction of The Coachella Review other than it being the literary magazine of the program I run—since we started it in 2009, I’ve left the management and decision making to the student editors and the three managing and executive editors we’ve had in the past: Kimbel Westerson, Lindsey Smithson and now Stacy. I micromanage enough things in my life…I’m happy to just get to read a good literary magazine that people I admire create.
As for Literary Disco, I absolutely love doing the show and—I know I speak for Rider and Julia here—am completely and regularly surprised by its popularity. The three of us just thought it would be a fun little thing no one listened to, but this whole community has sprung up from it, which is quite gratifying. We’re always tweaking the show, thinking of new things to do, but the fact is that a lot of time we just turn on the mics and start talking. People seem to enjoy spending time with us, which is cool, and letting people into a conversation about books and stories and essays feels like a good thing. And it’s great to turn people onto the books I’m passionate about—I do a lot of professional book reviewing, but I’m never really sure who actually reads those things, other than writers and publicists, but on the show, I’ll mention some arcane story or novel and then I’ll get a bunch of emails from people asking where they might find X, Y, or Z, which is such a nice validation. The best thing, though, is that twice a month I get to have a literary date with my friends Julia and Rider, where the three of us have the conversations we’ve always had, except that our producer Tucker edits out a lot of my swearing.
What’s next for me creatively? Well, I’ve got a couple secret projects I’m working on that I can’t yet reveal, and as I said before, I’m eager to start a sequel to Gangsterland, though that may need to wait a bit while I work on the aforementioned secret projects. I’m also working on a few new essays—I’ve found a lot of gratification in writing essays lately, but they come slowly, it seems, because I tend to be plumbing my own life and history and that can be spiritually difficult, which doesn’t make the act of writing pleasant, but it makes the end result typically something I’m pretty proud of. All that being said, football season is starting and I need to devote a lot of time to my Fantasy Football League, so all of the above is fungible.