Interviewer: Elizabeth Zelvin
Lee Goldberg is a versatile and prolific author whose mystery novels based on the TV shows Diagnosis Murder and Monk have been highly praised.
When did you know you wanted to be a writer?
When I was ten or eleven, I was already pecking novels out on my Mom's old typewriters. The first one was a futuristic tale about a cop born in an underwater sperm bank. I don't know why the bank was underwater, or how deposits were made, but I thought it was very cool. I followed that up with a series of books about gentleman thief Brian Lockwood, aka "The Perfect Sinner,” a thinly disguised rip-off of Simon Templar, aka "The Saint." I sold these stories for a dime to my friends and even managed to make a dollar or two. In fact, I think my royalties per book were better then than they are now.
I continued writing novels all through my teenage years. Some of my other unpublished masterpieces featured a hapless detective named Kevin Dangler. Being a packrat, I still have most of those novels today in boxes in my garage (some were destroyed in flooding a few years back).
By the time I was 17, I was writing articles for The Contra Costa Times and other Bay Area newspapers and applying to colleges. I didn't get a book published, but my detective stories got me into UCLA's School of Communications. My grades weren't wonderful, so I knew I had to kick ass on my application essay. I wrote it first person as a hard-boiled detective story in Kevin Dangler's voice. The committee, at first, had doubts that I actually wrote it myself -- until they reviewed articles I'd written for the Times, including one that used the same device as my essay. Once I got into UCLA, I put myself through school as a freelance writer...for American Film, Los Angeles Times Syndicate, UPI, Newsweek. Anybody who would pay me. I had a girlfriend at Playgirl and she got me a gig writing sexually explicit Letters-to-the-Editor at Playgirl for $25 each.
You broke into journalism and then into TV relatively young. How did you do it—besides having scads of talent and an exceptional sense of humor?
I had a journalism advisor at UCLA who wrote spy novels. We became friends and talked a lot about mysteries, thrillers, plotting, etc. One day his publisher came to him and asked him if he’d write a “men’s action adventure series,” sort of the male equivalent of the Harlequin romance. He said he wasn’t desperate enough, hungry enough, or stupid enough to do it…but he knew someone who was: Me. So I wrote an outline and some sample chapters and they bought it. The book was called .357 Vigilante I wrote it as “Ian Ludlow” so I'd be on the shelf next to Robert Ludlum and had plenty of Letter-to-the-Editor-of-Playgirl quality sex in it.
The West Coast Review of Books called my literary debut "as stunning as the report of a .357 Magnum, a dynamic premiere effort," singling the book out as "The Best New Paperback Series" of the year. I ended up writing four books in the series. Naturally, the publisher promptly went bankrupt and I never saw a dime in royalties.
But New World Pictures bought the movie rights to .357 Vigilante and hired me to write the screenplay. I didn’t know anything about writing scripts…luckily, I had a good friend who did, William Rabkin. We worked together on the UCLA Daily Bruin. So the two of us teamed up. The movie never got made, but we had so much fun that we are still a writing team today…twenty years later.
Bill and I broke in to TV by writing a spec episode of Spenser For Hire which, against all odds, they bought and shot… and then hired us to write three more episodes. We’ve been writing for TV ever since.
Why mystery? To what extent did you choose the genre, or if you didn’t, how did it happen?
I've always loved reading mysteries...starting with "Encyclopedia Brown," "The Hardy Boys," and "Alfred Hitchcock's Three Investigators." And before I knew it, I graduated to Lew Archer, Travis McGee, Phillip Marlowe, Shell Scott, etc. I didn't know it then, but I think what I liked about mysteries was the strong central conflict and the relentless, forward motion of the stories. There's always a lot at stake for the characters, always something to discover. Then again, I believe all the best stories are mysteries...whether they are called mysteries or not.
You’ve been closely associated with the long-running TV show Diagnosis Murder. Was the concept your idea? Besides the writing, what exactly did you do on the show?
I didn't create the show, author Joyce Burditt did. One of my mentors in TV was Michael Gleason (creator/EP of Remington Steele). He was running DM during the second season and signed Bill and me to write four freelance episodes, one of which turned out to be the season premiere. We were thrilled. But a few weeks later, we got hired as supervising producers on The Cosby Mysteries. So we found ourselves balancing two jobs and two TV icons at once ...Bill Cosby by day and Dick Van Dyke by night. We did it and somehow we even managed to write a pilot that year, too. Little did we know that our relationship with Diagnosis Murder was only just beginning. Gleason left the show after a season and, a year or so later, we were hired by his replacement to be supervising producers. The following season, the guy who hired us was fired and we took his place. We were executive producers of the show for the next two years before deciding to quit to take over a show called Martial Law.
As executive producers, you not only are in charge of the scripts...you are in charge of everything. Casting, editing, hiring the directors, the budget, everything. It's a big job. There's a reason so many showrunners end up becoming alcoholics and drug addicts!
What’s your favorite kind of writing as a writer? As a reader?
Mysteries and thrillers of course! Though, as a reader, I also devour mainstream novels and western fiction. I love Larry McMurtry, John Irving, Elmer Kelton, Richard Wheeler, William Hoffman, Thomas Berger, Billie Letts, Frederick Manfred, to name a few. Anita Shreve is a guilty pleasure of mine. And I loved Susanna Clarke's Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell. I really enjoyed the first few Stephen King novels, and then I just got burned out on him.
How does writing a TV script differ from writing a novel?
It would take a book to answer that question...luckily, I've written one (Successful Television Writing). They are, basically, two entirely different story-telling forms with very different rules, structure, techniques, etc. The only thing that TV and books have in common is that both are mediums for sharing stories...in books, you tell stories, in TV you show them. That simple distinction is a difficult one for many writers to overcome when moving into one field from the other.
How different is writing a novel based on a TV show from writing a novel from scratch?
Again, there's a big difference -- you are working with someone else's characters and, in effect, writing in their voice. You are also trying to take something that was created for a visual medium and translate it, without losing any of its character or appeal, into an entirely different form. It's not easy. On the other hand, you are working with terrific characters with clear voices...something you don't have to create on your own. It's a help...but also a constraint. You also face the challenge of trying to live up to the pre-existing expectations of readers...and the performances of the actors, which are indelibly etched in the reader's mind.
Has there ever been a writing project you wanted but either couldn’t get or couldn’t complete? Any failures or disappointments? Any items on your long-term wish list of dreams or achievements?
Oh, sure, there have been lots of failures and disappointments, but I don't dwell on them. I still would like to write a novel that isn't a mystery or a thriller. And I wouldn't mind creating and exec-producing a hit TV series, either!
What do you find most rewarding about the TV business?
I love the writing, of course. I like knowing that most of what I write will actually get produced (unlike, say, toiling in features). And I like seeing how other people shape what I have written. Because writing for TV is a group effort…and what you envision when you create a story and what eventually ends up on screen are never the same. Most of the time, that’s not a bad thing. The creative contributions that the director, the actors, the editors, the composers, the wardrobe people, the stunt people, etc. bring to what you’ve written are often surprising, exciting and inspiring.
The best part of being a TV writer… besides the money… is the time you spend with other writers. I love sitting in a room with some of the cleverest, most creative people you will ever meet, and talking story for hours. It’s exhausting…but in a good way.
What are some of the pitfalls of the TV profession and how do you deal with them?
The job insecurity. The fact is, unless you reach a certain star level in the business, it never gets easier to find work. You are always pitching, always looking for the next gig, always auditioning, always competing for a limited number of available positions and assignments. It’s exhausting…but in a bad way.
There is also an enormous amount of ego and dick-measuring in TV. I’m sure I’m guilty of it, too…sadly, it’s part of the TV culture. But I’m lucky that I have some perspective. I am fortunate to also be very active and reasonably successful in publishing, specifically in the mystery-writing genre, and there is surprisingly little professional competitiveness and ego.
The majority of superstar authors of the mystery novels – the wealthiest and most acclaimed in the field – are amazingly nice, approachable, and helpful to their fellow writers and to “fans.” They will treat an unknown, first-time author or someone mired in the mid-list with the same respect and courtesy as they do a fellow “superstar.” I’ve seen it time after time and it always impresses me. I don’t think the same can be said of writer/producers in the TV business.
What is your philosophy toward your two professions?
I decided long ago that I was going to be a writer first and a TV writer second. There's no question that I make most of my living in television...but I believe it's important to me professionally, financially, psychologically and creatively not to concentrate on just one field of writing. (It probably helps that I started my career as a freelance journalist, then became a novelist, then a non-fiction author, and finally, a TV writer/producer.) So I write books, both fiction and non-fiction, I teach TV writing, and occasionally I write articles and short stories... most of the time while I'm simultaneously writing & producing TV shows (though the TV work always takes priority over everything else, except, of course, my family).
While the income from books, teaching, and articles doesn't come close to matching what I make in TV, those gigs keep some cash coming in when TV (inevitably) lets me down, keep me "alive" in other fields, and, more importantly, keep my spirits up. As a result, who I am as a writer isn't entirely wrapped up in whether or not I have a TV job or a book on the shelves. I often have both, or one or the other -- but if I have neither, I have a class to teach or an article to write.
The other thing I try to be is a nice guy. Writing isn’t my life…it’s what I do. There are more important things than a TV show. And I know that’s also true for the writers and other professionals who work for me and with me. I respect their time and I try not to waste it as a result of my own disorganization, ego or insecurity.
What advice would you give to someone trying to "break in" to TV?
I get asked this question a lot. Everybody’s story of breaking in is unique. Most of those stories, however, share one common element. You have to put yourself in the right place to get your lucky break. And it’s easier than you think.
The first thing you have to do is learn your craft. Take classes, preferably taught by people who have had some success as TV writers. There’s no point taking a class from someone who isn’t an experienced TV writer themselves.
You’d think that would be common sense, but you’d be astonished how many TV courses are taught by people who don’t know the first thing about writing for television. Even more surprising is how many desperate people shell out money to take courses from instructors who should be taking TV writing courses themselves.
There’s another reason to take a TV writing course besides learning the basics of the craft. If you’re the least bit likeable, you’ll make a few friends among the other classmates. This is good, because you’ll have other people you can show your work to. This is also good because somebody in the class may sell his or her first script before you do… and suddenly you’ll have a friend in the business.
Many of my writer/producer friends today are writers I knew back when I was in college, when we were all dreaming of breaking into TV some day.
A writer we hired on staff on the first season of Missing was in a Santa Monica screenwriters group… and was the first member of her class to get a paying writing gig. Now her friends in the class suddenly had a friend on a network TV show who could share her knowledge, give them practical advice and even recommend them to her new agent and the writer/producers she was working with.
Another route is to try and get a job as a writer/producer’s assistant on an hour-long drama. Not only will you get a meager salary, but you will see how a show works from the inside. You’ll read lots of scripts and revisions and, simply by observation, get a graduate course in TV writing. More important, you’ll establish relationships with the writers on the show and the freelancers who come through the door. Many of today’s top TV producers were writer/producer assistants once. All of the assistants we’ve had have gone on to become working TV writers themselves… and not because we gave them a script assignment or recommended them for one. We didn’t do either.
But the one thing you simply have to do is write a spec episodic teleplay. There are lots of books out there -- including mine -- that will tell you how to do that.
You can read more about Lee at www.leegoldberg.com and www.diagnosis-murder.com.