What is your creative process/What does your creative process look like?
Ideas don’t come to me easily. I end up ruminating on a character and then trying to find a plot to fit that character and then once that happens, my process involves a lot of eating chocolate covered almonds and drinking espresso. And then once I find the story in my head, it becomes a bit obsessive and won’t let go of me until it’s done. As many of my stories involve bad people doing bad things, it doesn’t always make me a pleasure to be around.
What do you think draws readers to your work?
I think I tend to write about good people doing bad things. Or bad people trying to be good people. Within that, there’s a lot of wish fulfillment, which is to say that I often write characters who say the things we wish we could have said in any given moment, but due to social mores and/or the desire not to be punched in the mouth, don’t. That’s fun to read. I hope.
Outside of writing, what do you like to do?
I love to travel, to read, to watch movies and TV, follow almost all sports and get deeply offended when my team loses, and I genuinely like to sit outside with my wife watching the sun set.
How did you initially get into writing?
It’s the family business. My mother was a journalist, my father was a TV news journalist, my brother is a novelist and TV producer, my sisters write books on art together, my uncle writes true crime, my cousin writes about classic cars… it’s endless! So it was always something I’ve done. Professionally, it’s also always been what I wanted to do.
What is a cause you care about?
Women’s rights. Book banning. Equal access to education. Voting rights. Equal protection under the law. You know. All the things the Supreme Court is trying to strip from citizens on a yearly basis these days.
Could you tell us about authors who have inspired you?
The list is long. Perhaps too long for this simple interview. So let me just tell you about one thing. I got to spend a day with one of my heroes, Donald Westlake. Westlake essentially created the genre of crime fiction that has defined my career and so talking to him was like sitting at the hand of God and finding out the secret sauce, to mix metaphors. He was so kind, so open and vulnerable, so filled with practical wisdom, and he gave me the best piece of writing advice I’ve ever received. More than that, though, was that he was just a mensch. There’s nothing worse than meeting your heroes only to find that their capes are made of asshole.
What advice do you have for aspiring authors?
Read as much as possible and as widely. Don’t be an asshole. Get a really good chair. Don’t scrimp on the chair. Over-pay on the chair if need be.
What does your working space look like? What do you need in order to be productive?
All right, let’s talk about what you can see here. There’s always a stack of books or magazines on my desk, things I’m reading or things I mean to read or things I’m in. So over there today we’ve got Matthew Zapruder’s excellent collection of poems Father’s Day, which I’ve been re-reading for inspiration for something I’m writing; Lou Berney’s new novel Dark Ride, which I’m reading out of pure unadulterated jealousy; a copy of Publishers Weekly that has a starred review of Gangsters Don’t Die in it, which I mean to file away, but, you know, STARRED; and the latest issue of Palm Springs Life magazine, which I’m required to have in my home as a resident.
There’s two coffee mugs from the LA Times Festival of Books – one holding pens, one holding the memory of coffee. There’s an old box from Italy meant to hold stamps but it holds USB drives – it belonged to my grandfather, so it’s nice to see it everyday. There’s some snow globes of favorite places – the Bay Area, the Hotel Del – and then there’s a tiny leather box embossed with another grandfather’s initials. I keep more USB drives in there. I have a lot of USB drives. There’s a nameplate for myself, in case I begin to disassociate. There’s a copy of my latest book, so I can hold it up in Zoom interviews. There’s my Macbook Pro, my podcasting mic, various bits of detritus. And then over to the left, on an antique table of my nana’s, there’s an old typewriter, some classic photos of Palm Springs, some Jason Isbell paraphernalia, and forty pound book of Shakespeare’s collected work.
I require all of this to write books.
Talk to us about music. What are your favorite songs for writing? How do you switch it up? Do you have a theme song for yourself as a writing professional?
I always listen to music when I’m writing. At some point it becomes white noise, which helps me concentrate. But I also use music to prime me for emotional scenes, to get me in a ruminative mood, to get me ready to have big shoot outs, that sort of thing. So I listen to a lot of different music depending upon what I’m using the music for in my head. I tend to make big playlists for my books and play the songs over and over again, or until my wife Wendy goes absolutely batshit and tells me to pick new music. I tend to listen to a lot of Jason Isbell & the 400 Unit, The Replacements, The Hold Steady, the Drive-by Truckers, Lori McKenna, Bruce Springsteen, the Jesus and Mary Chain, Mary Gauthier, Ceschi, Beastie Boys, Lucinda Williams, Tom Petty, Kyuss, and then a ton of old 80s music, gangsta rap, and Neil Diamond, obviously.
My theme song? Sure Shot by the Beastie Boys. You can’t, you won’t, you don’t stop…
What has it been like working with Dunham Literary?
It has been a very productive 25 years! Jennie and I started working together when we were both kids – I was 28, I think Jennie was maybe a year older? – and were both so filled with hope and promise. We’ve had such incredible heights – the New York Times bestseller list! Great reviews for a decade at a time! – alongside tough lows – the book I shouldn’t have written because we both knew it wouldn’t sell, and then, lo and behold, it didn’t! – and then spots in between – losing awards but going out for ice cream sundaes afterward and laughing into the morning – and then all the real life shit that is part of a true partnership. I couldn’t ask for anything more.
What are your favorite moments of suspense, happiness, or other in your upcoming book?
Oh, there’s a scene in my new book that, when I wrote it, I said to my wife: I think I just wrote one of the most fucked up scenes in the history of American literature. She read it and agreed. I won’t spoil it for you.
But the biggest thing, for me, was satisfying for the readers the long wait to complete the trilogy. Everything gets answered. But not everyone gets the ending you might want.
What are your favorite jokes and quotes in your upcoming book?
I think it all comes down to the very last word in the book: “…mitzvah.” That was the title of the short story that started this 15 year journey with the Rabbi David Cohen and it’s a fitting end.
How do you celebrate a book release?
Mild panic attacks, a great dinner with my wife, and then I just refresh my Amazon number until I fall asleep in a pool of my own saliva.
What have you put in your story that you also look for when writers apply to your MFA program?
A thing I learned from the wonderful writer Megan Mayhew Bergman: I try to put something strange or something beautiful on every page. A thing I learned from Elmore Leonard: That even the worst humans deserve some level of empathy. That thing I learned from Donald Westlake: That a story is over when the reader could write the next page.
Are your dogs with you while you write or are they too distracting?
Always! There’s one sitting beside me right now, licking her foot. Gracie Goldberg, stop!