What’s one memory that came into your mind recently that you haven’t thought about for ages?
Weird memories come to me all the time – it helps to have siblings who like to remind you of the various horrors of your life – but the one that came to me today was from when I worked at an infomercial company in the 1990s. I think about that time fairly frequently, actually, because every time I see someone who looks like Ed McMahon – which, living in Palm Springs, is pretty frequently; he has a lot of doppelgängers among the retired golfing set – I remember how I worked on his ill-fated Miracle Fryer (the miracle of which was that there was no frying involved – it was a pan that you baked chicken on). But I suddenly remembered the day I realized that the company I was working for might be involved in something nefarious – there was a cult involved, and a defective exercise device, which I recognize doesn’t sound like two things that go together, and it turns out, well, they don’t – and so I emailed the one person I’m still in contact with from that job to confirm that a strange meeting happened where it was announced we would no longer be getting free bagels and snacks…which everyone then intuited was some very bad, bad news for our jobs. (Well, that and because there was talk the government was coming to seize our computers and that we should all delete our Napster accounts.) (It was the 90s.)
If you were any Keanu movie, which one would you be?
It’s here I should probably tell you – whoever you are – that I didn’t actually come up with these questions. I asked people on Facebook to suggest questions. I received about 300 responses. Many of them were truly disturbing. A few were thought provoking. Way too many somehow involved my personal anatomy. That said, I think this question ends up answering a lot of things at once. A few years ago, I probably would have said Point Break, because I have seen it 500 times. Maybe more. In fact, there was a period of time when I was in college when the fraternity house I lived in acquired an illegal black box – for those of you not from the 20th century, this was a box that gave you free cable and free pay-per-view, but you had to find some shady cable installer who would sell it to you, which in the San Fernando Valley in about 1991 was not terribly difficult – and Point Break played on a continuous loop and I’d sit there numbly drinking Keystone and watching Keanu rob banks, surf, and pretend to have played college football (and let’s be clear: being a famous college football player named Johnny Utah would make you the LEAST likely person to become an undercover FBI agent), which is why in 1991 my GPA was a robust 1.85. But now, I’d say if I could be any Keanu movie I would be John Wick. And if I couldn’t be John Wick, I’d opt for John Wick 2. One of my main life goals these days is to meet the people behind those movies and hug them until it’s awkward for all of us.
What have you learned from writing a sequel?
I’ve learned that it’s harder than I thought. I’ve written series fiction before – I wrote five Burn Notice books – but with a character like Michael Westen, who was fixed in place in the books, it was essentially a process of finding new stories to tell without fundamentally altering the character in the least. You can’t cut off one of Michael Westen’s fingers, you know? But with Gangster Nation, all of the characters from the previous book (that are still living) are in the midst of some profound personal changes, the timeline has jumped forward two years, and the plot – while still hinging on the key plot point that a Chicago hitman is pretending to be a Las Vegas rabbi – has moved forward on several different fronts. But, still, I recognized that what people liked about Gangsterland was the mixture of black humor and absurdity with a level of social critique while maintaining the beats of a contemporary thriller. So I had to figure out how to do the same things that worked earlier…differently. The last thing I wanted to do was write the same book twice. But I also had to be honest with myself about what I wanted to accomplish with this book – which I have always envisioned as the second book in a trilogy – and the fact was, I knew this book would be a little darker, had to be a touch more ambitious, and was going to hit on some major topics related to the history and future of crime in America, all while still being about, finally, a man who just wants to get back to his wife and kid and will kill anyone who gets in his way.
I also had what is a pretty big champagne problem: people really seemed to like Gangsterland and I wanted to make sure I wrote a book for those readers that they’d love, that would keep them compelled for another couple years, and which I could be really proud of, too. Fingers crossed!
What was your best/worst interaction with a real rabbi?
Well, funny story. When I first wrote about this character in a short story called “Mitzvah” in 2008, which was about Rabbi Cohen’s last day on the (fake) job, I set it up down the street from where I’d lived briefly in the 1990s, on a street called Hillpointe in Summerlin, which at the time housed a couple churches and a temple and some houses, a nice suburban street of worship and tan-colored gated communities. When I came back to the characters in 2012, when I began Gangsterland, I went back and set it all right there again, even though I was writing the story over from the start. What I didn’t do was go look to see what the name of the rabbi was of the synagogue on that street…and, well: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=qXU7X9xqsyM
Fortunately, Rabbi Cohen has a wonderful sense of humor.
About Gangster Nation: What does this novel mean to you at this time of your life?
Each book I write means something different to me, of course. When I wrote Gangsterland, I told my wife that this was either going to be the book that defined my career or the book that told me crime fiction wasn’t meant for me, because it was an idea I’d chewed on for four years before I ever started writing it. And it turned out to be the book that did define my career at that point, the book that changed perception of my work and which also led to a great, fun pairing with Brad Meltzer to write The House of Secrets, a book that took me into a whole other realm. So when I started Gangster Nation, I was in a pretty good place emotionally and creatively – I was ready to write this book from the moment I sat down on day one and fired the computer up – and so I thought it would be easy. But then the world turned upside down, politically, and while the book takes place in 2001, it was impossible for me not to be influenced by some of the hateful things happening in our country while I wrote, but specifically how many people I knew were falling for the Ponzi scheme being offered by Donald Trump, how many people failed to see that they’d entrusted their hopes and beliefs to a guy who took his social cues from movie crime bosses. And so I found myself working through some of that anger and rage and in the pages of this book, dealing with the role of the media in our lives, the role of religion, the role of government, and, of course, the way we as readers yearn to be the bad guy who can right injustice when it finds us. These were all things I was planning on writing about anyway, but in the present political climate, it seemed all the more important. So what does Gangster Nation mean to me? It means readers will get the chance to see what it looks like when bad guys without much of a moral code make bold decisions based almost entirely on self-interest. Sounds familiar, right? But also, that every decision has a consequence and in a book like Gangster Nation, that consequence can mean a bullet behind the ear and a burial in an unmarked grave.
TOD GOLDBERG is the New York Times bestselling author of over a dozen books, including the novels Gangster Nation (Counterpoint), The House of Secrets (Grand Central), which he co-authored with New York Times bestselling author Brad Meltzer, Gangsterland (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. Goldberg holds an MFA in Creative Writing & Literature from Bennington College and directs the Low Residency MFA Program in Creative Writing and Writing for the Performing Arts at the University of California, Riverside.