Interview with “The Dead Man” Co-Creator Lee Goldberg
Lee Goldberg’s TV career dates back to the mid-80s, when he and writing partner William Rabkin sold their first spec script to “Spenser: For Hire.” The years subsequent have been both busy and interesting for Goldberg and Rabkin, writing on more than two dozen TV series and specials ranging from action-themed shows like “Hunter” and “Cobra” to more traditional mysteries such as A&E’s “Nero Wolfe” and “Monk.”
But Goldberg is an unabashed fan of TV and mysteries, and that was never reflected more than on his two-year run on “Diagnosis: Murder,” where they brought back Joe Mannix and stunt-casted special episodes such as a spy-themed episode with Robert Culp (“I Spy”) and Barbara Bain (“Mission: Impossible”).
And somehow he’s also managed to carve himself out a solid career as a novelist, writing the “Diagnosis: Murder” and “Monk” novels, as well as numerous stand-alone books. His blog is one of the best places for those interested in the ever-changing world of publishing and writing to get honest, unvarnished opinions (Lee’s not someone to hide what he thinks, and he’s scrupulously honest about his own time on various shows and dealing with their stars — his stories about working on “SeaQuest 2032” and “Martial Law” deserve books of their own).
Goldberg and Rabkin have kicked off a new series of action/horror novels called “The Dead Man,” reminiscent of the “men’s adventure” novels that filled bookstore shelves and truck stops from the 1960s to the 1980s. Primarily meant to be an e-publishing venture, it’s an interesting move and marks another author deciding to dive deep into the new technology and away from the so-called “legacy publishers.” It is also a hell of a read, and anyone interested in taking the first leg on a fun, fast ride should download it immediately from Amazon.
He was kind enough to grant an interview to my itty-bitty blog.
1. THE DEAD MAN is a callback to the “men’s adventure” novels of previous years, but you’ve also said it’s influenced by King’s “Gunslinger” novels, and certainly has some strong elements of horror. Can you talk a little about the novel’s origins, and what led you to decide to go somewhat astray of what might be seen as the more traditional elements of the genre?
The project began about 15 years ago as a television series idea that Bill and I were pitching around town. We always got a good response to it but were never able to quite cinch the deal. At one point, out of frustration at how close were getting, we ended up writing the pilot script, and 12 story ideas, on spec. But we still couldn’t sell it so we stuck the project in a drawer, though we’d pitch it again every so often.
Lately, I’ve enjoyed some success on the Kindle with my out-of-print back list, which includes four men’s action-adventure novels that I wrote for Pinnacle Books back in the 1980s. I’d been thinking that it’s a shame that the men’s action-adventure genre has virtually gone extinct.
One day, it occurred to me that “The Dead Man” would be make a kick-ass series of books…and we already had the story lines for twelve of them. It didn’t take me more than 30 seconds to convince Bill to go along with idea…and then I ran the notion past a few trusted friends, just to see if we were nuts. But they were as enthusiastic about it as we were.
So now, convinced that we were on to something, all we had to do was write the book that would serve as our “pilot” and the second book (which is actually coming out as the third book, as things turned out), which would serve as “a typical episode.”
We scrapped the script, but kept the basic story structure, the essence of the character and, of course, the concept of the series. We also made some basic decisions about the kind of hero Matt Cahill was going to be. The key difference between Matt Cahill and the typical heroes of these kinds of books is that we want to keep him as grounded, normal and as “human” as possible. He’s David Janssen as Dr. Richard Kimble crossed with The Man With No Name. He’s not a superman. He’s not Dirty Harry. He’s a decent, regular guy in an extraordinary situation who genuinely cares about people. He can be hurt emotionally…and physically…and should be in each adventure. We always want him to have some kind of emotional stake in whatever he’s doing…to ground the action and supernatural in something the reader can relate to on an “every day” level.
One of the things that we think makes “The Dead Man” the perfect springboard for a revitalization of the genre is that it has all the elements of the classic men’s action-adventure series….a rugged hero, an open-ended mission, a clear enemy and the potential for lots of violence … but with an occult edge that allows us to imbue a dated genre with more surprising twists and darker humor. We felt by embracing the supernatural, and the traditional elements of the men’s action adventure genre, we opened the door to story telling that would push the envelope a bit. More importantly, though, we adopted a voice, and an approach to the material, that we think is more character based, more self-aware, and perhaps more wise-ass than most of those series were back in the day (with the possible exception of “The Destroyer”).
2. You and writing partner William Rabkin are certainly best known for your television work, but you’ve both moved into novels in recent years. Does writing together for TV differ from writing a novel together?
On these books, one of us writes the first draft and then hands it off to the other writer to polish. These are short novels, so we’re only talking about 25-30,000 words, tops, or about 120 pages.
Bill and I have written together for so many years in television that it’s really impossible for someone to tell which one of us has written what. We’ve gotten very good at creating and maintaining a shared voice, though this is the first time we’ve collaborated on books.
On scripts, Bill and I tend to divvy up the scenes and then hand them off to one another when we’re done. Sometimes will divvy a script up into acts instead. I suppose you could divvy up a book by chapters but it’s somehow it doesn’t quite work as smoothly.
A script is more of a working document, a blueprint if you will, for the work that lots of other people have to do in collaboration.
A book usually represents a singular vision and voice. Bill and I are capable of creating that, but I think that’s harder to pull off in prose than in script.
That said, it wouldn’t surprise me if Bill and I wrote a “Dead Man” down the road by handing chapters back and forth to one another…if, for no other reason, than the challenge and fun of it. We might even try it without an outline, to see what happens when each of us tries to one-up or screw over the other!
I’ve been part of tag-team short story writing before … in fact, I just did it with a new story with my colleagues at Top Suspense…. and it’s a lot of fun.
Coming from television, this is not something that’s new to us. We are used to working with writing staffs and freelancers on episodic series. We are comfortable with it and very good at it. We’re simply applying that same model to a series of books.
We are, perhaps, giving the “freelancers” of the books more freedom then we would writers on a TV series, but most of the stories so far have been based on those original 12 episode ideas we came up with years ago.
We aren’t asking the writers to give us detailed outlines. Once we have okayed the arena, we ask them to basically give us a beginning, middle, and end in a few paragraphs. We give them some notes and send’em off to manuscript.
But keep in mind, these are writers we trust, that we know, and that we admire, pros like Joel Goldman, Mel Odom, James Reasoner, Marcus Pelegrimas, Harry Shannon and Bill Crider, to name a few. We’re confident they’re going to do a great job so we’re trying to stay out of their way and see what happens.
Once they turn in their first drafts then we give them notes, and so far its been mostly on voice and tone rather than plot. But these are pros and they know exactly how to turn those notes around quickly and efficiently.
4. You mentioned “The Fugitive” (which is actually my favorite series of all time), but certainly “The Dead Man” calls to mind other “men on a journey” shows, as well as something like “LOST,” which was also about a journey and a puzzle. Do you have an endgame in mind for “The Dead Man,” a point where you know you want the books to end, or, after the initial 12 and the books continue, are you sort of “24”-ing it, so to speak?
No, we don’t have an endgame in mind since we have no intention of ending the series until, and unless, interest dies down. There were 600 episodes of “Gunsmoke” and there have been hundreds of Mack Bolan novels and it’s that kind of episodic longevity we are aspiring to (not that we have any delusions about achieving it!) when the end comes, Bill and I will figure out a satisfying finale .
5. THE DEAD MAN has strong language and some great gore, without the restrictions you would normally find on more television shows, and certainly in your MONK or DIAGNOSIS: MURDER novels, though your standalone novels have what might be considered “strong content.” Is it freeing to be able to write without concerns of budget or studio bosses?
Oh yes absolutely. These books are an enormous amount of fun to write and I think it comes through in every word that were writing. Some of the readers and critics have already noticed that. It almost doesn’t feel like work. That’s because the genre, and the “Dead Man” franchise in particular, is sort of a literary thrill ride, for the writer and the reader.
It’s so exciting to be writing in a franchise that offers the opportunity for wild action, horror, sex, humor… damn near everything as long as the story keeps moving and yet remains grounded emotionally in stakes that the reader can invest in.
I think that freedom, and the opportunity to tell all kinds of stories, is part of the attraction of “The Dead Man” for the other writers as well. Several of them have long-running book series of their own and “The Dead Man” offers them an entertaining and invigorating departure from what they’re used to doing.
It’s certainly a real change of pace for me, after writing one of my Monk books respectively, to get to play in the action-adventure/occult sandbox.
6. You have certainly been one of the strongest voices into the world of e-publishing, though you have also maintained a foothold in the “legacy publishing” world. Was there ever a thought of taking the DEAD MAN series on the more traditional publishing route? Why or why not?
No, it never occurred to us to take this to a traditional publisher. They wouldn’t be interested. Remember, publishers have nearly killed the genre. They don’t see it as a moneymaker for them anymore. And bookstores, big-box retailers like Wal-Mart and Costco, just aren’t willing to give up the shelf space for these kinds of books.
The Kindle, the Nook and the iPad are actually the perfect mediums for the genre to make a comeback… and we’re hoping this is the series that can do it.
I get asked this question a lot. But this business is changing so fast that by the time my interviews appear, my comments often seem woefully out of step with events. But at this moment, I still hold on to the belief that it’s best for a new writer to resist the urge to self-publish…and that it’s far better to be published by a so-called traditional publisher.
A publishing contract doesn’t come along every day. You can always go back to self-publishing later. That option isn’t going anywhere.
I think the people who are doing best in this field right now, by and large, are those who already have established a platform in the traditional publishing business. More importantly, you pick up experience and skills along the way that are essential to survival in the self-publishing world.
One of the big problems with self-publishing is how easy it is. People are doing long before their work is ready for primetime, so to speak. There a lot of people putting a lot of unreadable swill on Smashwords and Amazon simply because they can.
Yes there is good stuff out there, but I think it’s getting harder and harder for readers to find amidst the overwhelming amount of crap that people are putting up.
I don’t know that we were better off with the defacto gatekeeping provided by agents and publishers under the old, and still prevalent, system. There are a lot of virtues to not having anyone standing in the way of you getting your work out there. I’m certainly benefitting from it.
But I think you can hurt your career in the long run if you start publishing your work before it’s any good simply because you are in a hurry to call yourself a published author.