Writing for long stretches, novelist Tod Goldberg often begins to inhabit his criminal characters.
PHOTOGRAPHS BY NATE ABBOTT
Editor’s Note: Tod Goldberg is set to release a new book, The Low Desert, starting Feb. 2, 2021. Visit counterpointpress.com.
They call him The Todfather.
I know. It’s too on the nose to have a protagonist named “The Todfather” in a story about organized crime. But it’s the truth.
Here are other truths about Tod Goldberg: He is the author of 15 books, and he runs the low-residency Master of Fine Arts program for creative writing and writing for the performing arts at UC Riverside’s Palm Desert campus. He lives in a manicured Indio neighborhood with his wife, writer Wendy Duren, and a cocker spaniel. And he’s a gangster in the way a person who destroys the New Yorker cartoon caption contest is a gangster. By which I mean, not at all.
But he knows a lot about crime for an innocent guy.
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That’s because the last decade of Goldberg’s life has been steeped in dead bodies, researching and writing the best-selling novel Gangsterland and its sequel, Gangster Nation, about a hitman disguised as a Las Vegas rabbi. He is currently writing a book of short stories set in the same world, Gang Related, plotting what might be the final book in the series, Death of a Gangster, and is poised to produce a streaming series of his stories.
Even before he wrote fiction, Goldberg read a life of crime, immersing himself in the novels his older brother, Lee, left behind when he went off to college. Elmore Leonard. Tom Kakonis. Gregory Mcdonald.
“That was my version of young adult fiction,” Goldberg says. “By the time I was 11 or 12, I knew how to solve a crime, commit a crime, and cover up a crime.”
Then there were the men who dated his mother, Jan Curran, society writer for The Desert Sun during the mafia’s heyday in Palm Springs. Men who Goldberg describes as “minor league mob bosses.”
“She always dated these guys who were somewhere in between celebrity and criminality,” he says. “Then, once we moved to Palm Springs, it was men from actual crime families.”
So in a way, Goldberg has pulled off the ultimate grift, taking his childhood love of crime fiction and thrillers, building upon his history on the periphery of Palm Springs’ organized crime figures, combining it with his faith, and fashioning it into a successful career.
• See related story: Read our 2013 interview with Tod Goldberg.
“You have to have an understanding of the con before you do it,” he shrugs.
This is how he did it.
“He has such a huge personality…Tod is never afraid to tell someone what he thinks — and everyone just wanted to be around him, even if he was eviscerating them.”
— Julia Pistell
Find the right guys.
A solid con hinges on finding the right man for the job. In this case, that’s Sal Cupertino, a Chicago mafia hit man who botches a massive job and is forced to take on the identity of Rabbi David Cohen, who leads a Las Vegas temple.
Goldberg conjured up the character when he was asked to write a short story for the Las Vegas Noir anthology. He needed to write about a crime in a bucolic place — in this instance, that’s Summerlin, an affluent master-planned community in the Nevada desert — and he also wanted to avoid writing an obvious bad guy.
“There’s the cliché of the gangster at home. That’s what made The Sopranos so compelling, that’s what The Godfather did. It’s been done,” Goldberg says. “So I knew I needed to write about the bad guy at a job, a fake job, but I needed the fake job to be something bizarre.”
Goldberg, who lived in Vegas for several years, understood the city’s religious leaders are the only people exalted there.
“It’s actually a very conservative town,” he says. “The religious leaders are the ones who are feared, respected.”
After writing the short story Mitzvah, Goldberg couldn’t shake the character of Rabbi Cohen and began to flesh out a longer version of the story. Around the same time, his mother died, leaving him stacks of Jewish theology and philosophy books. He took them home, and as he read, his idea came into sharper focus.
“At first I was looking for emotional enlightenment,” he says. “But what I found is that the Torah has a lot to say about crime, so it was relevant to what I was writing. There’s a lot about revenge and not taking shit and what it means to be hunted for your faith since the beginning of recorded history.”
As Goldberg expanded the Cohen character, he had to understand what the fake rabbi was learning, so the two were simultaneously discovering what it means to be a Jew, how it feels to restructure a family tree, what it means to have faith.
“When someone came to Rabbi Cohen seeking wisdom,” he says, “I was finding it in my mother’s texts.”
Get yourself some muscle.
Gangsterland was acquired by Counterpoint Press’ Dan Smetanka, a West Coast editor with extensive experience in both the American and international publishing landscape.
The book was good. Smetanka pushed it to be great.
“He challenged me at every step of the way to make it bigger and darker and weirder,” Goldberg says. “He made me more violent but also more religious. All the deaths needed to be grosser, and the tests of faith needed to be more profound.”
Working with an editor, any editor, means putting faith in someone else. It is a trust fall. And this was a particularly vulnerable period for Goldberg. He had written successful novels that ended up on bookstore shelves, but those weren’t necessarily the books he wanted to be writing. He also spent years writing a bad book that ended up in a drawer.
“I was 40 years old, and I was like, ‘OK, I want to write crime, but I’m not going to do it half-assed. This time I’m going to swing for the fucking fences,’ ” he says.
That’s where an editor helped.
“What choice did we have but to go for it?” Smetanka says. “This was an amazing, high-concept book. It was Tod’s moment, and we had to seize it. So we got down to work.”
And when it started to come together, when Goldberg was writing the thing he waited his entire life to write, what was that like?
“Emboldening,” he says. “I felt like I was Bruce Springsteen writing Born to Run.”
Have a front for the real business.
Outside of writing books, Goldberg is also the director of the MFA program at UCR Palm Desert. It’s low residency, which means students live all over the country, meeting in online classrooms most of the time, then staying at the Omni Rancho Las Palmas Resort & Spa in Rancho Mirage for two residency periods per year. Degrees are offered in fiction, creative nonfiction, screenwriting, and poetry.
The program recently celebrated its 10th anniversary. More than 350 students have received degrees since the program’s inception, and 75 percent of them have gone on to publish within two years of graduation.
“When I see these people succeed, it’s fulfilling a promise,” Goldberg says. “It’s not because of anything esoteric, like I believe that teaching is sacred — even though I do believe that,” he says. “But it’s seeing someone who waited half their life for the thing they wanted most of all. I want that to happen for them. I don’t have any children, so this is as close as I get.”
Goldberg emphasizes teaching the business of publishing, not simply writing for the art of the craft. That has made him the target of some criticism, says his brother Lee Goldberg, who is also a New York Times best-selling author and TV screenwriter who produced for numerous shows, including Diagnosis: Murder, Spenser: For Hire, and Monk. But that’s what distinguishes this program, he says.
“I went to one of those MFA conferences with Tod, and what a pompous group of boneheads they are. The kind of people who think somehow their writing has more value the fewer people read it,” Lee says. “No, you write because you want people to read you. If you’re not getting readers, you’re not writing. You’re masturbating.”
In between writing books and teaching others to write them, Goldberg talks books on Literary Disco, the podcast he hosts with essayist Julia Pistell and actor and filmmaker Rider Strong. The show launched in 2012, immediately found a sizable audience, and now consistently ranks on lists of best book podcasts. Last year, it was purchased by the website Literary Hub.
“It seems weird to us because it’s just the three of us talking about books, the same way it’s always been,” Goldberg says. “But I think what’s clear is our love for each other.”
The three attended graduate school together at Bennington College, where they stayed up late talking about literature and reading, so the podcast is an extension of those conversations.
“I don’t remember not being friends with Tod. It was basically instantaneous,” Pistell says. “He has such a huge personality, it could not be contained within a normal school structure. So after lecture, we always peeled off together to talk about books and stories and arguing — a lot of arguing, because Tod is never afraid to tell someone what he thinks — and everyone just wanted to be around him, even if he was eviscerating them.”
I need to take a break here to let you in on some more truths: I work with Goldberg at UCR Palm Desert, and I’m an alum of the MFA program. We share the same editor at Counterpoint Press, we co-host a radio show on KCOD FM, and we are close enough friends that he’s one of the emergency contacts on my child’s forms at school.
Here’s what I can tell you from our friendship. He describes his looks as “Clooney-esque” when he’s joking. He describes his personality as Ray Romano or Jon Lovitz, also when he’s joking. But the truth is somewhere in between all three. He has enviable hair, full and dark. His face is shaded by perpetual stubble, and I’m never sure if it’s from staying up late or waking too early, but it’s probably both. I know I’m not the only person who lists him as an emergency contact — because while he may mock you, he always shows up for his friends. And his charisma fills up a room like nobody else I’ve ever known.
Even as I’m interviewing him in the bar at Whole Foods, strangers stop their conversations and scoot their chairs a little closer, listening, pretending they’re not hanging on every word.
When things get complicated, pivot to a new con.
Time for some Hollywood talk.
Mitzvah, the short story that was the origin of Gangsterland, was in development at CBS. When that fell through, Caryn Mandabach Productions bought the rights to Mitzvah and Gangsterland. At the end of 2018, the Gangsterland franchise was put up for sale. There was a bidding war among several networks, streaming services, and production companies to turn the books into a series. Amazon won.
At that point, Goldberg was 100 pages into writing the conclusion of the series, Death of a Gangster.
“I had to make a decision,” he says. “I didn’t want to hamstring myself by wrapping up the series before we knew if it would become a
Goldberg huddled with Smetanka and his literary and film agents, and together they decided to put the third novel on hold. Instead, he’s at work on Gang Related, a collection of connected stories about gangsters, crooks, and criminals who inhabit the world he’s created.
In the process of expanding that world, Goldberg has begun thinking about additional books. Maybe prequels.
“I was pretty well done, or so I thought,” he says. “But talking to the people at Amazon inspired me to think in new directions.”
Just do the deed.
Like any professional, Goldberg has tricks to keep himself sharp.
He often ends a writing session in the middle of a sentence, so it’s easy to pick up again the next day. He stops when he’s hot.
He’s also a believer in repetition. He’s also a believer in repetition. He plays the same song over and over at the beginning of each writing day, so it has become a mental trigger to start writing. He tries to work at the same time every day.
“I don’t have the luxury to have writer’s block,” he says. “Coal miners don’t get coal miner’s block. There’s only the work, and the work needs to get done.”
Writing for long stretches, Goldberg begins to inhabit his characters, which is a problem when one of them murders people for a living. That’s Goldberg’s cue to turn off the computer and take a break.
“At some point, when you’re writing all day long, you start to get crazy and lose your grip on the real world,” he says. “The last thing I need to do is walk into Trader Joe’s like a fucking gangster. But that’s sometimes what happens.
“I know it’s bad when Wendy walks into my office and says, ‘I need to talk to my husband, not a hit man.’ ”
To research his novels, Goldberg attends the annual Writers’ Police Academy, where crime writers learn about police procedure, blood evidence, biological and chemical weapons, firearms, and the decomposition of bodies — all the fun stuff.
He uses the everyday stuff, too. He absorbs the strange tics and habits of those who exist around him, nabbing bits of people and turning them into the details that reveal character. Sometimes he starts a conversation with a stranger just to hear how they sound.
“In Gangsterland, there’s a scene where [FBI agent] Jeff Hopper interviews Sal’s wife, and she bites her fingernail, as people do. But then she bites it right down to the quick, until it starts to bleed, and then wraps the bleeding finger in her shirt to stop the flow as she continues to talk,” Goldberg says. “It was something I saw someone do in real life, and I couldn’t get over it. Like, ‘That person just bit an actual hole in their finger, they’re bleeding, and they didn’t even realize it. What could possibly be going on in their mind?’ I knew I had to use it.”
Ultimately, it’s all part of the game.
“The secret to a long career in crime — well, crime writing that is — is always trying out different skins,” he says. “Figure out the next new thing you want to do. Move on to the next con.”