Tod Goldberg on Burn Notice

Novelist Tod Goldberg entered my realm of knowledge through my appreciation for the USA Network show, Burn Notice. In August 2008, Goldberg saw the release of The Fix, his first original Burn Notice novel (one of three that he is contracted to write; Burn Notice: The End Game [his second Burn Notice novel] will be released in May 2009). I was fortunate enough to email interview him about his career to date, including his upcoming second collection of short stories, Other Resort Cities (set for release in October 2009).

Before jumping into the interview, here’s his full bio from his site: “Goldberg is the author of the novels Living Dead Girl (Soho Press), a finalist for the Los Angeles Times Book Prize, Fake Liar Cheat (Pocket Books/MTV), Burn Notice: The Fix (Penguin) and the short story collection Simplify (OV Books), a 2006 finalist for the SCBA Award for Fiction and winner of the Other Voices Short Story Collection Prize. His short fiction has appeared in numerous journals and anthologies, including Other Voices, Santa Monica Review, The Sun and Las Vegas Noir (Akashic), twice receiving Special Mention for the Pushcart Prize. His essays and nonfiction have appeared widely, including in the anthologies When I Was A Loser (Free Press), Don’t You Forget About Me: Contemporary Writers on the Films of John Hughes (Simon & Schuster), and Off The Page: Writers Talk About Beginnings, Endings and Everything In Between (WW Norton). A contributing writer for a number of magazines and newspapers, Tod’s journalism and criticism frequently appears in the Los Angeles Times, Las Vegas CityLife, Palm Springs Life, E! and many other publications, and have earned three Nevada Press Association awards for excellence. Tod Goldberg is currently the Administrative Director of the MFA Program in Creative Writing and Writing for the Performing Arts at the University of California, Riverside’s Palm Desert Graduate Center and previously taught creative writing at the UCLA Extension Writers’ Program, where he was named the 2005 Outstanding Instructor of the Year. He lives in La Quinta, CA with his wife, the writer Wendy Duren.”

Tim O’Shea: Last August you wrote in the LA Times about why–after writing three novels–you chose to write a Burn Notice novel. What were some of the more unique responses in the literary community (or in other circles you travel) regarding the piece?

Tod Goldberg: It was overwhelmingly positive, really, so that was unique in and of itself. Writing is a profession and sometimes you do different things just to see if you can, if you’re any good at it, if it might be another way of doing your job. In this case, I’d always wanted to do some straight crime writing (versus, say, the terribly depressing criminal behavior I normally catalog in my fiction…) and doing it in a fashion where I was assured an audience seemed to strike people as fairly savvy. Mostly, though, I think they just found it funny. I had a ton of other information from Max Allan Collins that I would have loved to have used about his experience writing tie-ins and such, but his story about writing the novelization of Road to Perdition (which was adapted from his graphic comic…and then which he adapted from the original screenplay) was by far the most horrifying.

O’Shea: In terms of the other details from Max Allan Collins about writing tie-ins, is there anything that you care to share–I’m definitely curious.

Goldberg: He also said something very interesting about his career trajectory — he writes his own crime novels, and then novels under a pen name, and also has done dozens to tie-ins and novelizations. He said, “I have a reputation as a mystery writer, with a speciality in historical crime novels. I’m typecast, but I’m cool with that, because it’s nice to have a reputation. But movie novelizations allow me work in lots of different areas, and that’s one of the real pleasures of the craft — imagine if I’d announced to my agent that I was going to write a war novel, then a farce, then a science-fiction novel and finally a horror-fantasy. I’d either be committed or out looking for a new agent.”

It’s really true — and not something I’d thought of previously — that at least for Max, he’s able to indulge all of his storytelling desires by working in the field.

O’Shea: Last year saw the release of your first Burn Notice prose novel, and your second adaptation will be released in May 2009. While writing the two novels, were there certain supporting characters that grew on you, or you felt more comfortable writing their “voice”?

Goldberg: Just to be clear, they aren’t adaptations. They are all original, not based on any episodes or existing scripts or anything. I really love writing Sam — in the new book, I have a couple more sections from his POV, as well as a section in Fiona’s POV, too — and for some reason I find writing Barry to be very entertaining and easy. Michael is tougher because so much about him is mystery and in first person I don’t want to give up too much of what I know lest Matt Nix kill me.

O’Shea: What’s the most enjoyable aspect of getting to write the adventures of Michael Westen?

Goldberg: Being a bad-ass for 300 pages. Typically, I write fiction that is hero-free, meaning my narrators aren’t usually good guys, are less likely to help someone in need and may or may not have killed their wives, small pets, etc. But writing in Michael Westen’s POV allows me to play cops and robbers again, like I was 9. It’s really quite a bit of fun.

O’Shea: When the show gains great actors like John Mahoney, do you hope to get the chance to write a character like that?

Goldberg: Well, I need to keep the books kind of evergreen so that they can be read at any time, so in a way I’m forced not to fall in love with anyone who might be temporary. So, for instance, I really love the character of Larry, the assassin from last season who enlists Michael to help him with a murder, but I can’t really use him since who knows when he’ll be back or if he’ll live through the next episode. So I end up using characters like Barry and Virgil more often because they are pretty safely placed on the show and then I create the characters I need for the various adventures.

O’Shea: What is it about Matt Nix’s writing and approach to Burn Notice that you think made it click with so many viewers (including yourself)?

Goldberg: First, Matt and the whole writing staff are exceptionally funny (and I should note that Matt has always gone out of his way to keep me in the loop with what is happening with the show, which is unusual) and they all really love the genre. But more than that, I think it’s that Burn Notice, apart from being about a cool guy blowing stuff up, is really about a guy having family problems. He’s also having work problems. He’s having girl problems. He’s not sure if he really trusts his best friend anymore. So there’s an immediate empathetic response to Michael. And, on top of it all, he actually gets hurt when he jumps out of a moving car, unlike the PIs and spies of yore. Do you ever remember seeing The Equalizer with a broken rib? Did Mannix ever bleed from the eyes? Matt and his writing team have made Michael a vulnerable hero and that, above all else, makes him someone we can appreciate.

O’Shea: I don’t see many novelists reference Mannix very often–of those type of TV series in the 1970s and 1980s, which was your favorite?

Goldberg: Rockford Files, bar none.

O’Shea: Have you seen an increased interest in your other novels since folks became aware of you through your Burn Notice work?

Goldberg: Yes, sales have certainly gone up, though my two fan bases don’t really mix. I’m not sure people who read my Burn Notice books are the same people who might normally purchase a collection of short stories, but I guess I’ll find out in October when my new book of stories comes out!

O’Shea: Can you tell ma a little bit more about your new collection of stories coming out in October?

Goldberg: It’s my second — after SIMPLIFY, which came out a few years ago — and it is called OTHER RESORT CITIES. I’m really quite passionate about the short story, which perhaps makes me a minority member of American society, but if I could write only one thing for the rest of my life, it would short fiction. This collection features stories that I’ve published over the course of the last three years in various magazines, journals and anthologies, including, for crime fans, a story that was recently in Akashic’s Las Vegas Noir anthology and is perhaps the greatest book of fiction ever written. (It is also, perhaps, not the greatest book of fiction ever written.) The book is my normal combination of deeply fucked up protagonists doing deeply fucked up things to themselves and others in quest for simple human happiness.

O’Shea: If the situation presented itself, would you want to write an episode of Burn Notice?

Goldberg: I don’t write television, so it’s not even something I’ve considered. I leave that for my brother Lee.

O’Shea: Have you had more folks try to befriend you on Facebook since your recent measured rant on certain Facebook aspects?

Goldberg: Oddly, I thought I’d lose some friends, but I’m going strong with 736 as of this writing, most of whom I wouldn’t know if they kicked me in the nuts.

O’Shea: You and your brother are novelists, and you have two sisters that are writers, plus you are the nephew of writer Burl Barer. Are either of your parents writers–and if not, how do they explain the number of their children that make a living as a writer?

Goldberg: It is pretty amazing how the four of us kids have turned out. My brother Lee has written and produced dozens of television shows in addition to writing probably 30 novels. My sisters Linda Woods and Karen Dinino have written two best-selling books on art journaling that even got them a sit-down with the ladies of The View — they really are something of a sensation, which is awesome. But our genes are pretty good: My mother Jan Curran — Burl Barer’s sister– was a journalist for many years and wrote a book on divorce (a topic she was familiar with, I assure you) in the 1970s called The Statue of Liberty is Cracking Up. My father was a television news journalist for several decades as well. I have several cousins on both sides of the family who are also writers and journalists and artists, which again speaks to a pretty rich literary gene pool. But to have all four of us siblings successful authors must be some kind of record.

O’Shea: What all do you do as Administrative Director of the MFA Program in Creative Writing and Writing for the Performing Arts at the University of California, Riverside’s Palm Desert Graduate Center?
Goldberg: I direct the program, which means I shape the philosophy of the program, both creatively and academically, run its daily operations, and sit in a very large office dispensing wisdom to graduate students. It’s a great job, a dream job, really, to be able to be a professor and have the chance to craft a graduate program that will ensure the students that they not only earn a degree, but also find the path to publication or production. It is extremely gratifying.

O’Shea: How do you juggle the demands of running the MFA Program, your own fiction writing, the blog and still stay happily married?

Goldberg: Oh, I spend a lot of time ignoring the blog, so that’s ten minutes right off of the top. Look, as writers, part of the deal is we are required to have long stretches of time where we sit alone in a room and speak only to ourselves, so you learn to partition your time so that you can have a normal life. Writing books is great fun, and teaching and directing the program is great fun, but they are both jobs, too, and I think most of us, when we’re working, would rather just be hanging out on the sofa watching The Amazing Race with our spouses, so I make sure I spend a lot of time doing a lot of nothing.

2 thoughts on “Tod Goldberg on Burn Notice

  1. I must admit that the success of Tod, Lee, Linda and Karen makes me feel a bit as if we are the Barrymores. It goes back another generation as well. Tods “Nana” was a newspaper woman in Spokane, Washington; his great uncle Sid wrote for Time Magazine, and was VP at Cole and Webber Public Relations. My daughter, Anea Barer, writes brilliantly in the business/corporate realm. When everyone in the family is a writer, there isn’t anything “unusual” or “unique” about a cousin having a book published, a nephew producing a TV series, or an uncle winning an Edgar. My only concern: if we are the literary Barrymores, which one of us is Ethel?

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