Writers Resist: New York Times Instant Bestselling Author Tod Goldberg on Joining the Company of Lions

01/30/2017 03:52 pm ET

This is the fifth in the Writers Resist/Power of the Pen series on how authors are coping in the Trump era.

Tod Goldberg is the New York Times bestselling author of over a dozen books, including the novels The House of Secrets (Grand Central), which he co-authored with New York Times bestselling author Brad MeltzerGangsterland (Counterpoint), a finalist for the Hammett Prize, Living Dead Girl (Soho Press), a finalist for the Los Angeles Times Book Prize, Fake Liar Cheat (Pocket Books/MTV), and the popular Burn Notice series, including The Fix, The End Game, The Giveaway, The Reformed and The Bad Beat (Penguin), and the short story collections Simplify (OV Books), a 2006 finalist for the SCIBA Award for Fiction and winner of he Other Voices Short Story Collection Prize and Other Resort Cities (OV Books). 

How did the election and inauguration impact you?

I’m answering these questions on Holocaust Remembrance Day, which, probably not coincidentally, is the same day that President Trump announced what, in effect, is a religious ban on Muslim immigrants. It would be shocking if it weren’t precisely what he said he’d do. What would have been truly shocking, however, is if one member of the Republican leadership showed even a bit of marrow was present in their bones. Instead? Silence. As a Jew, I am disgusted and feel such profound anger and sadness. We have Holocaust Remembrance Day because we, as a nation, turned our back on the Jews. Never again extends beyond Jews. I am sickened.

And then, in a tangible sense there was this: The morning after the election, I flew to Reno, NV, where I was being honored by the Nevada Writers Hall of Fame with their Silver Pen Award. My wife doesn’t like to fly, so she left early that same morning to make the 8 hour drive from our home in Palm Springs to Reno, so I was on the plane by myself. It was nine in the morning. The flight, a connector through Phoenix, was half-full. I hadn’t slept the night before, or at least I didn’t think I had, and as I sat there watching people board around me, everyone looked the same: drawn, weary, sad. There was a couple sitting across the aisle from me, an older man and woman, and they had the newspaper with them. The woman started to read it and the man said, “I can’t. I just can’t.” And then both of them started to cry. And then I started to cry. And then looking around I saw that even more people were crying. It was like that in the airport Phoenix, too. People staring at their phones, crying. Grief makes you feel alone in the world and in one way, it was heartening to know that I wasn’t alone. But it was also shocking. When Al Gore lost, I was angry. When John Kerry lost, I was angry, but unsurprised. This felt like a refutation of American ideals in favor of mendacity and carnival. And in the intervening weeks, that sense has not improved.

That night, though, at the awards ceremony, I made a speech where I noted the irony of being honored for my writing one night after our country had turned its back on intellectualism in favor of bluster and fear, and wasn’t it odd that we’d elected a man who hadn’t even read the books he’s written? Afterward, a woman came up to me and told me I was inappropriate and had angered people and how dare I say such things. She practically wagged a finger in my face. I told her that I was being honored for the way I express myself and that no one was going to tell me what to say and when. And that’s the thing: I’m not a writer who is resisting. I am a writer who is fighting for what I believe in. It is what I have always done. It is what I will always do. It is what was instilled in me from a very young age. My grandfather, at nine years old, had to escape from Russia in 1920. I’m not sitting here biding my time. And so that means I’ve been in direct contact with my representatives. It means I’m writing things that, hopefully, speak for those who perhaps have neither the platform or nor the will. It means I’m giving my money to the causes I believe in. It means I’m involving myself in my community in ways both large and small. I will be in front of causes and I will be behind them. But silence is not in my genetic code.

The fact is, I have never been more prepared in my life for this fight.

The Los Angeles Review of Books says this about your novel GANGSTERLAND: “This ribbing of contemporary Jewish life — or taste-challenged American affluence in general — runs through the book, though it’s mostly gentle. The book’s real bite comes from its exposure of corrupt religious authority, and the story is at its best when it’s mocking our unquestioning acceptance of whatever morsels of wisdom our leaders decide to feed us."

Two bits of this snippet apply to our current situation. Trump is the epitome of ersatz-gold-plated affluence, and is doling out lies in an attempt to quench his insatiable need for attention and popularity. Do you feel like you are watching a novel or screenplay unfold? Are you swallowing what he's feeding us?

No, a decent novel wouldn’t be so predictable. But I think there is something to be said about the public’s culpability in deception. I joined a group on Facebook before the election that our local newspaper hosts in part to witness this – well, to be fair, a friend of mine would regale me with daily horrors of what she witnessed in this group and so I at first just joined to see if her tales of conspiracy theorists and propagators of delusional news stories about the murders Hillary Clinton had personally committed was really true, since they were all locals and Palm Springs is actually a pretty small town, so I was worried that these people might be behind me in line at Target, and thus I wanted to protect myself – and in part as sort of research, which has been why I have stayed in the group. I don’t generally find myself in the company of conspiracy theorists, but I’m fascinated by them (my last book, THE HOUSE OF SECRETS, which I co-wrote with Brad Meltzer, is all about them, in essence) and about the path a person takes to end up believing in vast, historical conspiracies…that are so poorly formed that every single person on the internet has figured it out! What I found in this group was almost comical, if it wasn’t so sad: People who believe Sandy Hook was a hoax. People who believe Huma Abedine aided and abetted the 9/11 bombers. People who believe global warming is a plot to redistribute wealth. People who troll through others’ Facebook profiles for evidence of Communist leanings. People who would tell people that disagreed with them to move to Russia, which they ironically stopped saying shortly after the election.

It all got me wondering how and why these people have decided to have conspiracy theories replace their rational thought, the process by which each morning, they went looking for some dreadful plot that fulfilled their base desire – that anyone other than a Democrat be elected President – and it occurred to me that plot was the very thing. In the absence of an agreeable reality, a world filled with plots Robert Ludlum would throw out as contrived seems better, as if policy disagreements weren’t enough, the opposition candidate has to also be a secret serial killer.

The odd thing is this: even after Trump won, and even today, they are still so angry that they are still rolling out conspiracy theories every day. And that’s why Trump’s presidency is so troubling: they are still looking for conspiracy theories to explain why people are opposed to Trump, still looking for a narrative that they can hold onto other than people honestly distrust the man and his motivations. So George Soros paid the women who marched on Washington DC and LA and Chicago and tiny little towns in the middle of nowhere. That’s what happened.

So, no. It’s not a novel. It’s the largest folie a deux in world history.

Another review mentions that you have a preoccupation with our potential for violence and self-deception. Both are destructive enough for average schmucks. What happens when those traits go nuclear and get elected to the presidency?

Self-deception I think is the trait of every successful politician, so that’s not anything new. And neither is the potential for violence, at least as it relates to presidents. No one assumes the role of commander-in-chief without possessing the moral ability to kill people. I think what we assume with most presidents is that their moral center, as it relates to using their power to take human lives, will not be petty, will not be personal, will not be to silence dissent. When the president announces that writers and journalists are enemies of the state, he presents the potential of justifiable violence to anyone in the country. That is what keeps me up at night.

You often write about criminals versus law enforcement and the gray area in between the two. What are your thoughts about Trump's criticism of our intelligence agencies, and the potential that he may create his own?

The thing about writing crime fiction is that, in your travels, you meet a lot of good guys and a lot of bad guys. I have to say that the men and women I’ve met in law enforcement and intelligence have been some of the best men and women I’ve ever been around – they know why people commit crimes and they have an unusually high level of empathy, by and large, which I suspect makes them good at their job. If you understand the human being, you understand their motives, you can predict how they might act, which maybe makes them easier to catch. Are there problems in law enforcement? Of course. Problems in intelligence? Of course. I can’t pretend to know how to fix either of them and thankfully, I just get to write about these people, not manage them. But what I find shocking about Trump’s distrust of our own intelligence agencies is that he’s been hired to do a job that depends on them to, literally, keep him alive….and, literally, keep all of us alive, too. These are the people you need to trust or you don’t apply for the job.

The reason I write about criminals is simple: I like the question of complexity. My grandfather once said to me that anyone with a checkbook was one bad day from making a big mistake. It was such a strange thing for him to say to me – I was maybe 12 and we were on a boat, still-fishing for trout – but the context was that I’d spent the afternoon reading a crime novel and was talking to him about what I’d read – I think it was a Robert Parker Spenser novel, since that was my preferred summer reading back then – and I don’t remember the question I asked him, but his response has rung in my mind ever since. Money, power, sex, desperation, all make people do stupid things. I think we’re in a position where the gang and the government are ruled by the same idea: take what you can, take what you will, try not to get caught.

Your book Living Dead Girl is written in the first person and employs the technique of an unreliable narrator.

Are there tricks for reading around the unreliable narrative of a psychologically unwell person in order to get at what's really going on?

I think understanding the difference between truth and fact is the key here. An unreliable narrator recounts their truth irrespective of the facts. Several years ago, before her eventual death, my mother had a complete psychotic break. She’d earned it: years of cancer and lupus, what was likely untreated bipolar disorder, months and months of chemotherapy. At any rate, I found her in her home, naked and lost, ranting at the world, looking for an ex-boyfriend who she would periodically find and then lose again. My siblings and I ended up getting her 5150’d. We had to. It was horrible. A horrible experience. She’d been having delusions that men in black Suburbans were chasing her off the road. She had the rapid speaking. The delusions of grandeur and persecution. Sort of textbook stuff. After the 5150, she was better, because we got her on medication that helped her, but frankly, she was never the same. We didn’t talk too much about the actual day that we had her taken away, but sometimes she’d bring it up, and I would remind her that what she was experiencing wasn’t real. And it would be as if that made sense for a bit. But the problem was, she couldn’t fathom how she’d been duped, how she’d believed in some delusion more than reality, and so it always boiled down to a simple thing: We were the ones who didn’t know what was real. It was a tiresome thing. And she was sick, so we didn’t want to fight with her about it, because there’s no sense in fighting with your dying mother. But Donald Trump believes – or wants his followers to believe – a set of lies, a reality that is his alone, as if the rest of the world does not see the truth. Eventually, in a novel, an unreliable narrator bumps up against reality, and that’s when there’s a moment of reckoning. The American people are going to have to provide the President and his administration a moment of reckoning every single day. It will be exhausting. But there’s a lot of us.

You frequently play with the theme of unraveling interior mysteries once the protagonist is under duress. What are your bets for Trump going through that process when he inevitably crashes and burns?

I don’t actually think crashing and burning is in his future. I think he will be President for four years. I think it will be a terribly destructive four years. But he will be there until the end. At some point, he will tire of being the most hated man in the land, and he will try to get higher approval ratings by doing something that he thinks will appease liberals – because, look, there’s no way that man is an actual conservative; he’s a megalomaniac, but one with thin skin, which is a strange combination – as if liberals are dogs who can be made happy by getting a chew toy. And I don’t think Donald Trump’s interior mystery is that compelling. He is what he is – it’s obvious to see from the outside. I guess what compels me about him is why is he’d want this job. He doesn’t look like he’s actually enjoying it.

You direct a writing program at the University of California, Riverside. Has the Trump presidency changed your messaging to students about truth telling?

No. But one of the alums of our MFA program is Congressman Mark Takano, who has been exceptionally outspoken about Trump’s proposals, particularly as it relates to things like the Muslim ban, or Trump’s lieutenants floating out the constitutionality of internment camps. Congressman Takano’s parents having been in internment camps. So many of our students follow Congressman Takano pretty closely because they feel a connection to him – plus, he represents the district UC Riverside falls in – and so I think there’s a unique social thing going on with our students right now where they see the power of words at work. That words have meaning and that what they’re saying matters, on either side of the political fence.

Are you hearing anything inspiring or unusual from your students about how they themselves are responding?

Oh, more than I can even begin to list. My students are such smart, interesting, empathetic people. And you know, we don’t all share the same political beliefs by a long shot, but what’s been so heartening to me is that these writers speak to each other about issues they disagree on in really productive, nuanced ways. I see this online – you know, on Facebook and such – and in person and what makes me so happy is that they can articulate their emotions, their feelings, their morality, their stance on issues in the same way they attack their creative work, which is by first recognizing that conflict is an ongoing conversation. The other thing is that my students have read so much, have talked about the motivations of real and imagined people on a daily basis for so long, that their reaction to political tumult is first to ask why, then ask how, and that ask what to do next. So I’m seeing all kinds of activism, but I’m also seeing such profound support for each other – the writers in my program, current and alumni, love each other. I don’t have any kids, so a lot of the pride I feel in these students comes from seeing them grow to care for each other like family. That gives me hope.

What writing projects are you working on now?

I am finishing – this week! – the sequel to GANGSTERLAND. It’s called GANGSTER NATION and it will be out next fall. And then I plan on working on my Netflix queue for about six months.

Is the turmoil of the Trump transition feeding or forming your work in any way?

Oh, feeding, for sure. I’m writing a novel where one of the central tenets has to do with the gangsterization of American culture. There has never been a more rich time than now to discuss thuggery in all its forms.

What do you hope other authors will do?

Not be scared. Say what they want to say. Be bold. Be vulnerable. Stand up for the people who can’t speak. There’s a line in the Talmud that speaks to me on this: “Join the company of lions rather than assume the lead among foxes.” The writers I know are lions.

You can follow Tod on Twitter and Facebook, or learn more about his work on his website.

Read more entries in the Writers Resist series here.

Suzanne DeWitt Hall is the author of Rumplepimple, a hilarious illustrated story book featuring a misunderstood doggy hero and his two moms. You can follow her on Facebook and Twitter, or check out her website.

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