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Desert Companion

Zeit: 'Murderous rages pretty frequently'

Gangster NationHow does writing violent crime fiction mess with Tod Goldberg’s head?

September 1 sees the publication of Gangster Nation, by novelist and former Las Vegan Tod Goldberg, the follow-up to his Vegas-set best-seller Gangsterland. What’s important about the setting isn’t just where, but when: September 2001. Obviously, a lot of themes come together in the narrative, but at its most elemental level, it’s about a mob hitman, Sal Cupertine, who’s masquerading as Las Vegas rabbi David Cohen while doing favors for his old masters — and who wants out. Complications ensue. Violence ensues.

What’s it like to climb into the heads of such violent characters for the long period it takes to write a novel? Let’s ask!

 

How hard is it to get into the violent mind-set required of your crime fiction?

It’s not terribly difficult, because I think the violence in my books has always sprung out of characters involving themselves in situations where their best intentions swing out of their control, so there’s usually a lead up to the violence, an escalation in screw-ups that results, eventually, in someone getting killed. But I’ve made a concerted effort these last several years to not make the violence in my books cartoonish — I try to make it as messy and realistic as possible, both in the violence itself and then the consequences of the violence — because I think there’s a responsibility involved in what I do. I’m not trying to make this stuff look cool. 

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How hard is it to get out of violence brain?

Much more difficult! I didn’t finish the last re-write of Gangster Nation until April, so there were plenty of opportunities to have sustained bouts of rage at the world without also needing to do so on the page. Thus I found myself in murderous rages pretty frequently. I’d wander out of my office, and my wife would have to remind me that I am not, in fact, a Mafia hitman pretending to be a middle-aged Jew, and that I needed to turn off the dialogue running in my head while we discussed what we needed to pick up at Target. My editor called me one day to talk about something, and midway through the conversation — in which I’d threatened his life and the life of everyone who’d ever known him, over my book cover, as I recall — he said, “Am I talking to you or am I talking to a hitman?”

 

What kind of effect does that immersion have in the long run?

I’ve spent the last 20 years imagining how bad guys think, and in some ways I think it’s made me kind of paranoid. I’m always seeing how a scam could happen, always thinking about the potential angles people are taking to screw me over, or seeing little ways I’ve put my life in jeopardy. Which is no way to live, obviously. You have to think that most people are pretty good, that they aren’t out to kill you or rob you or somehow hurt you, or else you’ll drive yourself crazy, never mind that you might end up getting into fist fights in Whole Foods over the smoked chicken on a daily basis. And the fact is, I abhor violence, though a couple years ago I went out and shot a bunch of guns because I figured I needed to have that experience to write about it convincingly. And, boy, I have to tell you: I absolutely loved it, which solidified my desire to never own one.