Okay, if you don’t know who Tod Goldberg is, you’ve probably wandered onto this blog by mistake. Because everyone who knows Other Voices knows that Tod is the author of the inaugural OV Books title, the collection SIMPLIFY, which absolutely rules and has yet to get a bad review anywhere that I know of. The likes of the LA Times, the Washington Post, the Chicago Tribune and Bookslut all agree that Tod is a seriously warped, seriously funny, seriously talented dude—but we at OV loved him first. We published the title story of the collection in my very first issue as Assistant Editor in 1997. Years later, in Chicago on a book tour, Tod took me (and current Managing Editor Kathy Kosmeja) out for really garlicy Italian food and lots of scotch in a “dope Lincoln” he’d rented for his trip; it was a very Goodfellas type of evening (albeit two of us were chicks, and I was hanging with a Pole and a Jew, but hey.) Not surprisingly, I was absolutely over the moon when Pam Houston chose Tod as the winner of the OV Books contest in 2004, and he recently joined the OV Books Board. Put simply, we at OV are never planning to let him out of our sight again—so here, for another dose of Tod, he joins our interview series . . .
OV: How would you describe the current publishing climate? What do you see as the role of the independent literary press today?
TG: Publishing is largely an upside down business where the authors who already have the largest fan base – and thus are fairly guaranteed a significant amount of sales on name alone – get the lion’s share of the advertising and publicity while those they are attempting to introduce to a new audience get very little, or none. If Ford decided not to advertise its newest cars, people would think they were trying to hide something, that the Edsel had been reincarnated and was fixed to attack the food supply. That being said, publishing can’t afford to be a speculative business anymore – it’s run by large conglomerates who operate at a bottom line and thus it makes sense to feed the audience what it already wants. It doesn’t mean it’s right ethically or morally or artistically, but what in the world is? The role of the independent press is hard to quantify, exactly: is it to fill the gaps that James Patterson and his fiction-vetting elves can’t slather prose into? Is it to highlight voices that mainstream publishing might ignore? Is it a quasi-panacea for the people who dress all in black and quote Beckett? I think it’s a little bit of all those things. Having my work published by both the conglomerates and the indies, what I can tell you is that both, at bottom, want to find the best work they can find. What they choose to do with it – or what they are financially able to do with it – is another story all together.
OV: Can you tell us how your fiction first broke into print, how you got your first book published, and what, if any, barriers you encountered en route to publication?
TG: How I got my first book published isn’t much of a story – my agent sent it out, it was rejected 24 times and on the 25th submission, Pocket Books/MTV got right with God and made me an offer – but my first story publication is something of an odyssey. The story, “Love Somebody,” was originally published in a literary journal called the Timber Creek Review and later went on to garner Special Mention for the Pushcart Prize, but before that, it was rejected 64 times. Because I’m the kind of guy who keeps this shit, I still have my little rejection notebook from that period and I can tell you that the New Yorker rejected it in one month. It took the Atlantic Monthly two weeks. Other Voices got back to me in seven weeks. ZYZZYVA said it sucked in three weeks. The Chariton Review rejected me in two months. Esquire, which still published fiction at the time, still has it under consideration and I think I have a pretty good shot with them. Same with GQ. The Antioch Review, Black Warrior Review, TriQuarterly, Glimmer Train and every other conceivable literary journal doing business in 1996 all said “Love Somebody” was a horrendous piece of fiction defecated from the ass of a hack and that I should die on the alter of Richard Ford within about three months time. But #65 was the charm, man, and I haven’t looked back since, well, about five minutes ago.
OV: How do you juggle teaching with writing? Does teaching enrich your work, or is it simply essential to pay the bills?
TG: I really enjoy teaching (which says something from a committed C student) and love the interaction with my students and I do believe it enriches my work because I spend far more time really contemplating craft issues than ever before. That said, I’ve found that I really can’t teach more than one or two days a week and not have it have a negative effect on my own writing. I want to do a good job for my students and that means I have to commit the time to really evaluate their work and that means less time to write, which, in turn, makes me an angry and depressed fuck who might, on occasion, when overworked and underwritten, tell a student that their dialogue is reminiscent of a Chicago song. But I think teaching is part of the contract writers make with themselves, that what we learn, what we know, about writing doesn’t have to be proprietary information and to share that knowledge is, for lack of a better term, the right thing to do. Is teaching essential to paying the bills? Sometimes, sure, but for me it’s essential in a more karmic way, I guess: I’ve been blessed to learn under some great writers and the opportunity to give that back is something I cherish.
OV: Do you believe writing workshops are necessary to the development of a young writer?
TG: I don’t think you can write in a vacuum, so in that way, yes, I believe workshops help. I also think that instruction in creative writing can only improve the craft of most writers, if only to get them to strictly use the word “said” in dialogue and to excise adverbs from their lexicon, he ejaculated firmly. And I believe the criticism one receives in a strong workshop will enable them to better look at their own work in the future. That being said, workshops and writing groups can also become counter-productive after a time. Eventually, you have to stand on your own two feet, figure out what works and what doesn’t and become your own editor.
OV: What are your five favorite novels of all time?
1. Empire Falls by Richard Russo
2. Fifth Business by Robertson Davies
3. The Sportswriter by Richard Ford
4. The Great Gatsby by F. Scott Fitzgerald
5. And a six way tie between some short story collections and novels-in-stories and other novels: The Things They Carried by Tim O’Brien, Rock Springs by Richard Ford, A Prayer For Owen Meany by John Irving, The Laws of Evening by Mary Yukari Waters, The Ice Harvest by Scott Phillips and You Remind Me of Me by Dan Chaon.
OV: What are your five favorite short stories?
TG: In no particular order:
1. “The Prophet From Jupiter” by Tony Earley
2. “Since My House Burned Down” by Mary Yukari Waters
3. “Rock Springs” by Richard Ford
4. “The Things They Carried” by Tim O’Brien
5. And a ten way tie between: “In The Cemetery Where Al Jolson Is Buried” by Amy Hempel, “Fitting Ends” by Dan Chaon, “The Rememberer” by Aimee Bender, “This Is What It Means To Say Phoenix, Arizona” by Sherman Alexie, “First, Body” by Melanie Rae Thon, “Communist” by Richard Ford, “The Last Voyage” by Tom Filer, “People Like That Are The Only People Here” by Lorrie Moore and, most recently, a story I gave prize to in a contest and have used in classes lately, “A Slowly Darkening Sky” by Clarke Knowles.
OV: What is the most important book (fiction or non) that you’ve read in the past year?
TG: In fiction, Cruisers by Craig Nova and in nonfiction (though I actually read it two years ago, but keep picking it back up off of my shelf and looking at it again) And The Dead Shall Rise by Steve Oney.
OV: If you could have dinner with any fiction writer, living or dead, who would it be and what is one question you would ask him or her?
TG: I’ve been disappointed by a lot of my heroes in the past – it turns out they are just regular people, which is endlessly upsetting – so I guess I’d be inclined to just have dinner with one of my fiction writing friends instead, so, I’ll pick Scott Phillips since he’s a pretty good cook (as is his wife Ann) and I’d probably ask him to tell me some juicy gossip, since he usually has lots of juicy gossip, or for Richard Russo’s phone number, since he actually has it, a fact I find very exciting.
OV: What are you working on now?
TG: A new novel, a new story, a new essay and a feature story on an actor named Taylor Handley who, apparently, was on The OC and is supposed to star in a TV show called Palm Springs and who I found myself inexplicably interviewing the other day for a lifestyle magazine.
OV: What is the worst thing a professor, agent, editor or reviewer has ever said about your fiction?
TG: The worst review I’ve ever received came via Publishers Weekly. They called my first novel “smarmy and self-congratulatory,” which was a mitzvah, since they could have just as easily walked over to my house and kicked me in the nuts.