Honestly? Writing. And writing and writing and writing. But sometimes, that just means I’m not writing at all, I’m just thinking about writing, thinking about what I haven’t written, thinking about what I’d like to write, thinking about maybe never writing again because, these days, there’s just an awful lot of good stuff on TV and if my choice is to sit quietly in my office writing murder stories or watching an infinite number of episodes of Chopped, well, Chopped wins. It’s a sickness, it really is. I find it profoundly, psychically comforting to watch other people cook food I’ll never eat while I – with absolutely no acuity in the field whatsoever – make snap judgments on the quality, taste, and general success or failure of the meal. The other thing is that Gangsterland took me a long time to write. The finished draft was about 450 pages and it turns out if you write a long novel, it takes some time and I write more slowly now than I used to (probably because of the aforementioned Chopped problem). And then I had to rewrite a bunch of it, which took more time. And then it was baseball season and my team, the Oakland A’s, were in contention and thus I needed to spend a lot of prime writing time reading the tweets of the pitching staff and middle infielders.
I get the sense that most people don’t actually read author interviews to find out anything really important about the book said author has written, so why don’t we talk about the things people really care about. The important matters of the day.
I am so with you on this.
So, top 5 cover songs.
Well, I love cover songs, so I’m going to just have to give you my top 5 at the moment, which would be the most recent ones I listened to, and then you can judge for yourself if they’re any good.
1. “I Wish I Was Your Mother” by Dramarama. An old cover version of an even older Mott the Hoople song. It’s actually a pretty weird and unsettling love song – if some man walked up to a woman and said to her, “I wish I was your mother, I wish I’d been your father, and then I would have seen you, would have been you as a child,” as they sing in this song, there’d be pretty good cause to call the cops. Not only do I want to love you…I want to be you…and your parents…it’s some Flowers in the Attic shit right there.
2. “Corpus Christi Bay” by Todd Snider. A cover of a classic old Robert Earl Keene song. I love everything about Todd Snider, despite the clear fact that he doesn’t know how to spell his own name. His version of Keene’s song is much more mournful than Keene’s original, which is the sort of song that sounds like it’s about having a great time, but which is really about being a miserable drunk and making some pretty bad decisions. In short: my kind of song!
3. “Drive All Night” by Glen Hansard. I think, generally, you want to avoid covering Bruce Springsteen, because he’s Bruce Springsteen and you, whoever you are, are not. And then if the choice is to cover a nine minute song or something a little shorter, well, I’d say pick the shorter song. But what do I know? I can’t sing in the least. It’s like my thoughts on Chopped meals – I’m an expert with absolutely no expertise here. Anyway. Hansard does this song tremendous justice – and his harmonies with Eddie Vedder are quite lovely.
4. “Hold Me Now” by The Chain Gang of 1974. This was my jam in 1984. Once, many years later, I saw Joe Leeway, who played the congas and the bongos in the Thompson Twins, at a Thrifty in Woodland Hills. He was buying normal Thrifty stuff – paper towels, soap, that sort of thing – and I remember wondering if he knew what a profound effect this song had on me when I was 13. And then it occurred to me that he must, because here he was buying some household items and a complete stranger was staring at him with tears in his eyes and sort of, kind of, shaking a little bit. And, I mean, Joe Leeway was just the conga player. He didn’t even write the damn song. At any rate, this version of the song by The Chain Gang of 1974 came out a few years ago and I’ve been wearing it out ever since.
5. “Times Like This” by Steve Earle. You’ve never heard the original version of this song, because it was by Slim Dunlap, who played guitar for the Replacements after Bob Stinson got kicked out, and then put out a few solo albums that no one bought (well, no one but me, anyway) in the early 1990s. It’s a great song and this cover, which appeared on the Songs for Slim compilation last year is, frankly, better than the original.
Well, now that most of the readers have gone off to YouTube to listen to those arcane songs, let’s see about drawing them back in with a few questions they might care about. Because I value the people, I went ahead and asked the public for a few questions that they want answers to – that doesn’t bother you, does it?
No, that sounds like an excellent time-saving tactic and one sure to yield positive results.
Excellent. When you’re asked, “Where do you get your inspiration?” what do you wish you could say, but keep to yourself?
That as a child, my parents fucked me up, and the only way to cope with that was to imagine a better life in my head, or imagine profound violence and/or retribution. But that’s not the sort of thing most people want to hear when they’re standing in front of you with your book in their hands and it makes me sound insane. And of course it’s not true anymore, the truth now is that I’m inspired by just living in the world every day, that tiny little things I see or hear make me want to write, but, again, what that person is really asking you is how they can find inspiration, too, and so my answer tends to be different every time.
What assumptions would Homeland Security make about you based on your most recent Google searches?
That I’m super interested in someone named Tod Goldberg. That around 3am last night I found it very important to know if there was another store-bought gelato rated superior to Talenti and, if so, was it available within 500 miles of my home? That I have a strange obsession with men who played in at least one preseason football game for the Oakland Raiders at the quarterback position, and, finally, that someone needs to warn Tod Goldberg that there’s an obsessed maniac out there, looking for him at all hours of the day and night, and he’s got a taste for human flesh.
If you could be a Jeff Goldblum character, which Jeff Goldblum character would you be?
Oh, that’s an easy one: Brown Shoe from “Ten Speed and Brown Shoe,” when he was an accountant who wanted to be a private detective and so he and Ben Vereen, a con man, team up to fight crime together.
If you could throw a dinner party for any 8 people – living in this case – who would they be and what would be the topic of conversation?
1. My wife Wendy. I like eating dinner with my wife. She’s my favorite person on the planet, so she’d need to be there. Also, I feel like if I threw a dinner party at the house and didn’t tell her about it ahead of time, well, it would be an issue.
2-4. My three siblings, Lee, Karen, and Linda, because it would save me from needing to text them constantly during the meal about the weird shit going down, and also if I missed anything I could go back and see their collective live tweets and Instagram photos.
5-8: Bill Clinton, Rickey Henderson, Neil Diamond, and Rob Roberge.
The topic of conversation would be whatever President Clinton and Rob began arguing about while I wept on Rickey Henderson and Neil Diamond. I envision this would also be filmed for a variety show special or one of the Battle of the Network Stars-type programs.
You’re a teacher. Do you ever eat paste?
I must admit, I’ve not eaten paste in some time. But when I was a kid, that was a staple food item. I recall, pretty vividly, having my Kindergarten teacher pull paste out of my mouth with her hand and admonish me that it wasn’t food. What did she know?
Who would play young, current, and old you in a movie about you?
I’ve spent a lot of time considering this over the course of my life. So, 15-25: John Cusack, because, look, Lloyd Dobler. 25-43 (my present age): George Clooney, obviously, but specifically George Clooney in Out of Sight. 43-onward: I feel like this is the period in our history where Lou Diamond Phillips will ascend once again. And he should ascend as me.
Are you a hunter or a gatherer?
The sad truth is that if I wasn’t married, I’d be a total hoarder. I mean, I’m pretty much a hoarder as it is, and I’m also a slob, so I think gatherer is the obvious answer here. No man who still owns a Love & Rockets cassette tape from 1985 can ever truthfully call himself anything close to a hunter, since that would involve some ability to, you know, put down the melancholy Goth music long enough to go kill a bison.
Let’s close this out with a question that will showcase that, despite the paste eating, you’re still capable of complex human thought: How did your deep reading of the Torah for this book change you?
Oh. A real question. Well, to be fair, I actually learned more from the Talmud than I did the Torah, since I was already generally familiar with the Torah. The Talmud, however, has so much insight into the laws and philosophy that are the bedrock of the faith, plus essentially provides case law, which is pretty fascinating to read. I also read a great many books on Jewish thought and identity, which were incredibly helpful. What I learned and what I appreciated personally are vastly different than what was good for Gangsterland. What changed for me personally was a greater appreciation for what it has meant, historically, to be a Jew. That even if I don’t believe in every tenet of the religion per se, I am nevertheless a Jew, and with that comes history, and with that comes a certain a genetic duty. I also learned that the ancient Jews had an exceptionally nuanced understanding of human nature and were bedeviled by many of the same existential questions I still have, which made me feel pretty good, actually, because I think we all end up thinking our hopes and fears are uniquely idiotic, but here you have people in the 8th century concerned with the very things you are concerned by in the 21st. But the most important thing I learned reading all of these books was about forgiveness. Forgiving yourself. Forgiving others. Forgiving the mistakes you haven’t made yet. That was extraordinarily enlightening.
TOD GOLDBERG is the author of the crime-tinged novels, Living Dead Girl (a finalist for the Los Angeles Times Book Prize), Fake Liar Cheat, and the popular Burn Notice series. His essay “When They Let Them Bleed,” first published byHobart, was selected by Cheryl Strayed for inclusion in The Best American Essays 2013. He is also the author of the story collections Simplify, a 2006 finalist for the SCIBA Award for Fiction and winner of the Other Voices Short Story Collection Prize, and Other Resort Cities. Timberman/Beverly and CBS currently have Gangsterland under option. Timberman/Beverly have produced Justified, Elementary