Tod Goldberg: An Interview



Daniel M. Jaffe

Tod Goldberg’s novel, Living Dead Girl (Soho Press; $11), was a finalist for the Los Angeles Times Book Prize for Mystery/Thriller in 2003. He has also authored the novel, Fake Liar Cheat, and a short story collection, Simplify. His short fiction has also appeared in many journals and magazines such as The Sun, Other Voices and Santa Monica Review, and he’s twice earned Special Mention for the Pushcart Prize. Tod is a journalist whose work has earned him three Nevada Press Association awards in journalism for a long running weekly column in the now-defunct Las Vegas Mercury. And his nonfiction continues to appear regularly in such magazines as Las Vegas CityLife, Better Nutrition and Palm Springs Life Magazine.


Living Dead Girl is a complex, layered text. The reader quickly encounters a question that will drive the entire novel forward: What has happened to Paul’s estranged wife, Molly, who now seems to be missing? As the reader continues, other questions weave their way in. What happened between Paul and Molly to end their marriage? What happened to their little girl? Gradually, the reader begins to question the reliability of Paul as narrator, and then wonders, as Paul does, whether his version of reality is credible, given that he can no longer distinguish between what has actually happened and what he imagines to have happened.  

I asked Tod about the genesis of this novel and how it developed. “Living Dead Girl didn’t so much come to me,” he replied, “as it evolved inside of me over the course of many years. I’ve always been attracted to unreliable narrators and am constantly amazed by the fragility of memory. So much of what we think we know has been colored in by our lives, and by the telling of stories about particular events, the recasting of emotions to fit who we are today versus who we were when the things, good or bad, happened. But one thing that can’t be recast, that can’t be fundamentally re-manipulated, is the forensic evidence of our lives—the things we leave behind for others, the footprints we leave in the sediment. I knew I wanted to write about an anthropologist, a person who looks at history through the lens of quantifiable evidence, and I knew I wanted to take that person on a journey where what was most important, what was most difficult, was impossible to set forth with numbers or graphs or drawings on a cave wall. And to do that, I knew I had to begin subtracting from Paul’s life the things he cared most about: first his daughter and then his wife. The layer that came first was the truth, though I admit even I got confused about what was real and what wasn’t.”  


Stylistically, Living Dead Girl is a departure from Tod’s first novel, Fake Liar Cheat, which was a satirical comedy about the shallowness of life in Los Angeles.  Did Tod intentionally set out to write something so different? “Yes and no,” he explained. “I’d had the idea for Living Dead Girl prior to writing Fake Liar Cheat, but didn’t think I had the skills at that time to pull it off convincingly. Fake Liar Cheat ended up being a warm-up of sorts in that it is told, like Living Dead Girl is, in present-tense and features an unreliable narrator. The style is a bit more spare, but it was a style I’d used in several short stories of a similar ilk, which is to say stories that were more noir-ish and funny than bone serious. I did know that I didn’t want to write books like Fake Liar Cheat for the rest of my life. While it’s a good book, it’s not necessarily a book I’d read if I hadn’t written it; Living Dead Girl more closely resembled what I wanted to both read and write.”


The short stories in Tod’s recent collection, Simplify, all involve quirky characters or odd situations, as well as rich philosophical observations. I was interested in how Tod typically begins writing a short story. Does he start with character? A philosophical point? A biographical incident that he wishes to reexamine? He shared his process: “All of my stories first start with a character. Or, well, that’s not entirely true. Sometimes a situation will present itself and I’ll say: What kind of person would this happen to? What kind of person deserves to have this happen to them? Bits and piece of real life influence my stories, but it’s not a large component of what I do. The only story in the collection that comes from a point of real biography is ‘Simplify’ and even that is just a small bit of the story. I was terribly dyslexic as a child and was housed in a series of special education classes for several years for reasons still largely unknown to me. My father was a television newsman like the father in the story, but apart from that, the rest is just a story about a troubled boy. Most of the time, though, my stories are about the existential things I find myself fixating on—like why people love Elvis so much.”

Most of these short stories are told in first-person. Was that a conscious choice?  “It is insofar as anything I do is conscious. Stories present themselves to me almost fully formed most of the time (getting that on the page is another issue, sadly), and it’s up to me to figure out the best route to get to the most emotional point. Not to sound too metaphysical here, but I find that I almost have to become the character to write about them, at least in my head, and so I think first-person is a sort of natural progression from that.”

After reading Tod’s fiction, I assumed he spends a fair amount of time reading philosophy. To my surprise, he doesn’t. Then he tossed off an aside: “I do read a good deal of anthropology, and I spend a great deal of time each day reading up on the statistics of my fantasy football and baseball teams.”

Given that Tod writes both short stories and novels, I was curious as to when, in the development of an idea, he decides that he’s working on one form or the other.  “Pretty early on,” he said. “I’m not a very fast writer, so I prepare myself a good long time before I start a novel by writing as many short stories as I can, often stories that work through issues I’m going to deal with in a novel. In the case of the novel I’m working on now, I knew I wanted to work out some specific style issues before embarking on two years of work (and that’s not to produce a huge book; we’re talking 200 or so pages), so I have to make some hard decisions very early in the process. Most of my short story ideas wouldn’t translate well into novels, It’s just the nature of the beast, I suppose.”

Two of the most recurrent themes in his work are relationship break-ups and missing children. I asked if he’d be comfortable sharing the reason those particular themes keep recurring, and Tod generously opened up. “I didn’t have the most stable home life as a kid. My parents divorced when I was very young and my father, who has since died, didn’t pay child support, which made things very difficult for my mother, who was raising four kids (I’m the youngest) as a single mother. She ended up dating a series of men with perms for a few weeks or months at a time, got married and divorced within the space of six months to a certifiably crazy guy and then developed what was thought to be a terminal case of Lupus.

“It was a bad time, a stressful time, and being told at seven that your father didn’t love you, wasn’t sending child support, and that your mother was about to die, well, it didn’t lend a real sense of permanence to things. I often wanted to disappear. I thought that life would be easier on my mother if I just ceased to be—one less mouth to feed, one less problem. It was also a time hallmarked by missing children—Steven Stayner, Timmy White—and I know that made an impression on me. So all of that plays a role, I suspect, and then there’s merely the issue that I am compelled by loss, about the consequences of bad decisions, and that I’ve never quite understood how people who truly love each other lose the ability to express that.”

How has Tod’s journalism experience helped or hindered his fiction-writing? “It’s a completely different muscle,” he answered. “I wrote a weekly column for several years for a weekly in Las Vegas, and I’m just starting a new column for an online magazine called Jewcy, and in both of those cases I’ve been charged with simply providing my jaundiced view of the world. That’s easy. But it also requires me to become something of an alter-ego to myself, so that sometimes I look at these columns and I wonder what part of me is real and what part of me is conjured in hopes of filling 1,000 words once a week. I get asked by a lot of papers and magazines to do book reviews and I’ve found that I really like that, particularly since I think it helps me look at my own work more critically. But when I write a feature story on, say, golf resorts in Palm Springs, there’s not much of the novelist and short story writer that breaks through. One thing I’ve learned, however, and that was something my brother taught me (he’s also a writer) is that you can’t pigeonhole yourself into one medium. Be proficient at many things and you’ll have a long career.”

Tod is certainly well on his way. Interested readers can learn more about Tod Goldberg at

Dan is the author of The Limits of Pleasure, a rather controversial novel nominated by some for awards and by others for public burning (well, almost). A former corporate lawyer, he shed his suits to become a rebel with a cause—creative freedom in life and art. Dan frequently publishes short stories and personal essays in literary journals and newspapers such as The Forward, Green Mountains Review and The Florida Review. He compiled and edited With Signs and Wonders: An International Anthology of Jewish Fabulist Fiction, and translated Here Comes the Messiah!, a Russian-Israeli novel by Dina Rubina. He also teaches fiction writing for UCLA Extension. Dan can be reached at This e-mail address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it and his web site is:



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