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Writer Lee Goldberg: ‘Almost all the work comes from personal relationships’

By Amy A. Ross

Lee Goldberg is a close as a person can possibly come to being born a writer. He was raised in a family of authors; as a kindergartner he would proclaim his vocation for writing; and as a child he would “print” a  magazine to sell to neighbors. Although fiction was at the root of his passion, his path towards a professional career as a consolidated novelist and screenwriter began when he freelanced for publications like The San Francisco Chronicle and UPI. Today his resume includes more than two dozen books, some of them collaborations with authors like William Rabkin and Janet Evanovich. His career in television includes credits writing & producing a broad array of genres from Monk and Baywatch to Diagnosis Murder and R.L. Stine’s The Nightmare Room.  In an interview with the MSLCE blog, Goldberg reminisced about his entry into the professional writing scene and offers insight into the industry:

At what point in your life did you realized you wanted to make a living from your writing?
I’ve always wanted to be a writer. I really mean always, since I was in kindergarten. When I was ten or eleven, I was already pecking novels out on my mom’s old typewriters. The first one was a futuristic tale called Tomorrow’s Warrior about a cop born in an underwater sperm bank. I don’t know why the bank was underwater, or how deposits were made, but I thought it was very cool.  I continued writing novels all through my teenage years, mostly rip-offs of whatever I happened to be reading (and I was a voracious reader) or watch (I watched a lot of TV cops shows).

What kinds of books did you write in your “earlier years”?
The childhood books of mine that I wrote that I remember most fondly are The Perfect Sinner, a blatant rip-off of The Saint, and a novel about a private eye named Kevin Dangler. They all went into a drawer. But they were good practice, though not all of them were practice: a non-fiction book that I started writing when I was nine years old, Unsold Television Pilots, was eventually published when I was in my twenties, stayed in print for over a decade, and was made into TV specials on ABC and CBS that I also wrote and produced. So I’ve always been writing fiction, I just wasn’t making money from it. Well, that’s not entirely true (either). When I was a little kid, I used to “print” my own fiction magazine and sell it to the families on my block. Fiction also got me into UCLA.  My admissions essay was a piece of noir detective fiction. I found out much later that the school didn’t actually believe I wrote the essay and called the Contra Costa Times to see if everything I was saying about myself was true. They confirmed that it was. 

You started off your professional writing work in freelance journalism. At what point did you begin to pursue more fiction-oriented creative work? It was my non-fiction that got professionally published first. I wrote TV and book reviews for the Contra Costa Times in northern California. From there, I started doing feature articles. From there, hard news, covering the police beat for a time. I put myself through UCLA writing freelance articles, mostly about the entertainment industry, for the LA Times Syndicate, Lesher Newspapers, UPI, The San Francisco Chronicle, Starlog, American Film and scores of other magazines. But I never stopped writing short stories and novels, I just wasn’t having any luck selling them. It was my non-fiction that led to my fiction break.

What did that fiction break look like? I had a journalism advisor at UCLA who wrote spy novels. We became friends and talked a lot about mysteries, thrillers, plotting, etc. One day in the early ’80s his publisher came to him and asked him if he’d write a “men’s action adventure series,” sort of the male equivalent of the Harlequin romance. He said he wasn’t desperate enough, hungry enough, or stupid enough to do it…but he knew someone who was: Me. So I wrote an outline and some sample chapters and they bought it. The book was called .357 Vigilante I wrote it as “Ian Ludlow” so I’d be on the shelf next to Robert Ludlum and had plenty of Letter-to-the-Editor-of-Playgirl quality sex in it. The West Coast Review of Books called my literary debut “as stunning as the report of a .357 Magnum, a dynamic premiere effort,” singling the book out as “the best new paperback series” of the year. I ended up writing four books in the series. Naturally, the publisher promptly went bankrupt and I never saw a dime in royalties. But New World Pictures bought the movie rights to .357 Vigilante and hired me to write the screenplay. I didn’t know anything about writing script. Luckily, I had a good friend who did, William Rabkin. We worked together on the UCLA Daily Bruin. So the two of us teamed up. The movie never got made, but we had so much fun writing it that we teamed up to write a spec episode of Spenser For Hire and that led to a TV career and a 20 year writing partnership.

How did you make your way from the book publishing world into television and screenwriting? Bill (Rabkin) and I wanted to break into TV. The way to do that then, and to some degree still is now, is to write a “spec” episode of an existing show to prove you can write in the voice of another show, come up with a story that fits its franchise, and that you  have mastered for episodic screenwriting format. We picked Spenser For Hire as our writing sample. We also wrote specs of Mike Hammer and a few other shows, but it was the Spenser script that we liked best. Our TV agent was a newbie and made a huge mistake. She sent our Spenser script to Spenser. You never send a spec to the show you are speccing because the producers are living, eating and breathing their show and will only see the mistakes you’ve made. So you send the script to producers of other shows, who are viewers like you, and will be able to tell right off if it feels like a typical episode to them. Any way, she sent it to Spenser… and it went into a black hole. We didn’t hear a thing. A year later, I was working as a reporter for Television Age (back then it was called Electronic Media) when the executive producer of Spenser called. I thought he was calling me back for some story I was writing. He’d pulled our script off a huge stack the night before and read it. he told me they wanted to shoot our episode the following week, as written, and wanted to invite us in to pitch another one. We ended up writing three episodes of Spenser and our TV careers were born.  

One often sees depictions of the competitive nature of careers in acting and music performance, and less often sees the creative work behind a lot of these careers. How competitive is your work as an author and TV producer? Writer/producers are extremely competitive and there is a real class system in Hollywood. Showrunners and staff writers occupy different universes. That’s not true in publishing. The biggest authors in the world are just as approachable as a first time novelist and are glad to hang out with fellow bestsellers, midlist authors, and newbies. It’s extremely friendly and non-competitive . Authors don’t seem to feel that if you sell a book that it means the loss of a sale for them or that for them to succeed, you have to fail. TV and film is much more about survival of the fittest. That said, almost all the work you get comes from personal relationships with showrunners (who are almost all writers).

What advice would you offer a person interested in pursuing a creative career and especially in the realm of writing (publishing and/or television)? Write and read if you want to be an author. Write and watch TV if you want to be a TV writer. If you aren’t writing, you aren’t a writer. And you won’t learn anything if you don’t read books or watch TV. You can learn so much from the creative accomplishments and and mistakes of others.