Indio resident Tod Goldberg, 48, talks very fast—which makes sense, because he has a lot to say.
The author of hundreds of books and articles, he is also the founder and director of the 10-year-old low-residency master’s program in Creative Writing and Writing for the Performing Arts at the University of California, Riverside’s Palm Desert campus.
“I wanted to have an MFA program on the business of writing,” he says, “so our participants get published or get their works produced. I see my job as getting my students’ work sold, and we’ve been extraordinarily successful.”
The program has had more than 300 students, with more than 75 percent of them being published or produced within two years of graduation from the program. Goldberg oversees a faculty of 16 and an online-mentor program, in addition to the intensive 10-day residency workshop, held annually at Omni Rancho Las Palmas Resort and Spa in Rancho Mirage.
Goldberg, born in Walnut Creek and raised in the Coachella Valley, comes from a family of writers. His mother, Jan Curran, now deceased, was the society editor for The Desert Sun for many years. She had been a columnist and editor long before coming to the desert.
“I used to fall asleep to my mom writing her column. To this day, the sound of an IBM Selectric typewriter can make me fall peacefully asleep,” Goldberg says.
His father was a television news reporter and station manager; his parents divorced when he was 2 years old. Goldberg has three siblings, all older: his brother, Lee, a novelist and television producer; sister Karen, a lawyer and author; and sister Linda, an artist and author. “Between the four of us,” says Goldberg, “we’ve published about 100 books!”
Goldberg’s wife, Wendy Duren, is also a writer. They married in 1998, lived in Las Vegas until 2000, and then settled in the desert.
“We have no kids,” says Goldberg, “but we do have two dogs.”
Goldberg didn’t really learn to read until he was about 10 or 11 years old. “I was dyslexic,” he recalls, “and the first book I remember that had a profound emotional effect on me was Of Mice and Men by John Steinbeck. I stole that book from the library, because it was considered too old of a read for me at that age. My mom had a great appreciation of literature, and when she found I had taken the book, she marched me back to the library and told the librarian, ‘Every single book in this library belongs to my son!’
“Steinbeck was easy to read, but asked difficult ethical questions, like about the nature of love between men, and what it means to care for someone in such a profound way that you would take their life to save their life. It also made a difference that the book took place in Northern California, in places I had been. It was important to me as a writer to know that something that was made up happened in a real place that I could see.”
After graduating from Palm Springs High School in 1989, Goldberg earned his bachelor’s degree in English at California State University, Northridge, in 1994. “I have to admit I majored in ‘frat boy,’” he says. “I was a terrible student, but I was involved in student government and was homecoming king!”
He went on to receive his master’s degree in fine arts from Bennington College in Vermont: “I became an excellent student. I really cared because I was finally doing the thing I loved most—writing.”
Goldberg’s first book, Fake Liar Cheat, was published in 2000 by Simon and Schuster.
“I was very lucky,” he says. “After college, I had published short fiction pieces, so I had established a literary reputation. That makes agents take notice of you. I started writing the book in 1998, and it’s really something, seeing what you write in print.”
Although Goldberg’s primary focus revolves around crime and criminals, he cites Empire Falls—a 2001 novel by Richard Russo which won the Pulitzer Prize for fiction in 2002—as a major influence. “He taught me how to write from multiple points of view, and how small towns could mirror all the problems of a big world,” Goldberg says. “I’ve also been influenced by writers like Margaret Atwood, Aimee Bender and Susan Straight, who changed my view of magical realism, dystopia and our own Inland Empire.”
Goldberg has also written opinion pieces for various newspapers across the country, focused on violence in the United States: “I remember once seeing a boxer die in the ring when I was a kid, and I’ve written essays about the terrible side of life. I’m always trying to understand why seemingly normal people do abnormal things.”
A prolific reader, Goldberg can quickly rattle off a host of titles he read in various decades of his life: The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy (“It showed that absurdity had a place in the world”); crime authors like Ralph Ellison and Lawrence Block; Richard Ford’s Rock Springs and The Sportswriter (“He taught me that genre fiction could be mixed with other concepts”); and Tim O’Brien’s The Things They Carried (“I learned the ability to look at the vulnerability of people in combat”). Goldberg is currently working on a series of four books about Rabbi David Cohen, a fictional character based on a real hitman from Chicago.
“I prioritize the things that are most important to me,” he says. “I write one to two hours every other day, but once I’m into it, I’m pretty regimented. Mornings, I read students’ work and sometimes write book reviews. I’m most creative in the evening, and when there are no classes, I’ll write from 8 p.m. to 1 a.m., but I also need to be able to turn it off. Wendy’s also a writer, so she understands. She’ll ask, ‘Who am I talking to right now: the hit man, the rabbi or my husband?’
“I’m a kind of method actor when I’m writing. I need to replicate a character’s language and keep it in my head; otherwise, the character doesn’t feel human. I’m fascinated by what gets people to kill. People make irrational decisions when they feel pressed against the wall. There are lots of great books about killing in a war, but in crime fiction, there’s a glorification of violence I find disturbing. In my books, there is always a ripple, a ramification, a consequence.
“I write because I have to, and because it’s all I’ve ever wanted to do. I’ve satisfied what I always wanted out of my life: a beautiful wife, and the desire to write and to teach.”
Tod Goldberg has a lot to say, and he has found a way to build his life around saying it.
Anita Rufus is also known as “The Lovable Liberal.” Her show That’s Life airs Tuesday-Friday from 11 a.m. to noon on iHubradio, while The Lovable Liberal airs from 10 a.m. to noon Sundays. Email her at Anita@LovableLiberal.com. Know Your Neighbors appears every other Wednesday.