Spies on Television & Radio ~
Having a Burn Notice
Jones This Week? Tod Goldberg Has the Fix For You
By Wesley Britton
In the literary realm of media tie-in novels, one family holds a
unique place for crafting great reads in that often overlooked
First, there was historian Burl Barer, who drew from his expertise
regarding Leslie Charteris’ character, Simon Templar, to pen
the 1997 novelization of the Val Kilmer film version of The
Saint. Then, Barer’s nephew Lee Goldberg, former
producer and script-writer for the Dick Van Dyke CBS crime drama,
Diagnosis: Murder, continued the saga of Dr. Mark Sloan
in novels based on that show – before going on to write a
successful series of books based on the USA network hit,
Now, another Goldberg, in this case younger brother Tod, adds
his stamp to the family legacy.
In 2008, he was contracted to write the first three novelizations
based on another USA phenomena, Burn Notice. But
make no mistake – Tod Goldberg is riding no one’s
coat-tails. Among his many achievements, he wrote the novels
Fake Liar Cheat (2000), the 2002 Living Dead
Girl (a finalist for the Los Angeles Times Book
Prize), and the short story collection Simplify, a 2006
finalist for the SCBA Award for Fiction and winner of the Other
Voices Short Story Collection Prize. He’s also published
travel books on the delights of Las Vegas and numerous articles
in a variety of periodicals.
But, as Tod can tell you, there’s a major difference
between creating stories with your own characters and voice and
writing books that not only employ faces familiar on TV screens, but
coming up with stories using a tone and approach as distinctive as
what we know and love in Burn Notice. Not only have
viewers come to enjoy the relationships between Michael Westen
and his mother and brother, not to mention Fiona and Sam, but we
look forward to Michael’s voice-over commentary on the
tricks of the spy trade. If these characteristics are going to transfer
over into print, then any novelist has a tall order to fill.
Judging from the first offering from Tod – the new Penguin
edition of Burn Notice: The Fix – fans of
the show won’t be disappointed by hearing even more
from Michael and his circle, more than can be jammed into a weekly
45-minute outing. Readers who’ve never seen the show
(where have you been?) can also get a good fix on what the show
is all about, its humorous tone, the twists-and-turns of simple tasks
gong awry, the plight of a modern “Equalizer” trapped
in one city while trying to find out why he got that burn notice in the
How did Tod Goldberg accomplish this balancing act? Spywise.net
asked him to share his insights in how he wrote The Fix
– this is one conversation we hope inspires you to both
check out a new TV spy classic and a book that captures what makes
it so special.
Q – As a writer of award-winning fiction, what
lead you (other than the pay-check) to take on a series of books based
on a television series?
The paycheck didn’t play a role, really. I’ve been
lucky enough in my writing career to do the things I want to do,
writing-wise, and so when I was approached to do this the decision
was more about completely changing speeds and doing something
different. I wrote an essay about it in the LA Times recently –
“‘Burn Notice’: The
Novel” [Aug. 24, 2008].
The essence is that it gave me an opportunity to find a lot more
readers for my work while writing about a character I already really
liked. I’m a huge Burn Notice fan, so having the
chance to add a little something to the franchise sounded really
Q – What discussions did you have with
Matt Nix and any other show participants as you began drafting the
first book? What sort of guidelines were given as to what should or
shouldn’t be in a Burn Notice novelization? For
example, I noticed some background details on Michael Westen’s
father in The Fix I haven’t seen in any of the
episodes so far.
I had a lot of preliminary discussions with Matt about what should
or shouldn’t be in the book in terms of some very tangible
physical things – the amount of actual violence, when it might
be appropriate for Michael to actually shoot someone, what might be
un-Burn Notice-y in sort of a macro sense, but in terms of
the actual writing of the story he was very hands off. We met and
talked about my ideas, he gave his input, and then during the few
months when I was writing the book I’d frequently eMail him
in the middle of the night with specific questions about things, but he
wasn’t interested in reading every word as I wrote it, which
made me feel very trusted.
I know a lot of writers who’ve done books like these and
have had the producers and writing staff dogging their every step and
the results have been . . . stultifying, to say the least. But Matt is
absolutely terrific and we have a nice working relationship. Before I
started work on the 2nd book, I actually went in and hung out with
the writers as they broke the season that’s on now, which
was also very helpful in understanding how they all think of the stories,
the character beats, things like that, so that when I’m
approaching the books I can model a bit of what I'm doing on how they
approach things, too. It’s been very gratifying to have that
kind of access.
In terms of the background stuff, that was one of those things that
I actually had to really work with Matt on. I felt like I had to give the
readers something the viewers might not get normally, but without
fundamentally altering the show’s franchise elements or
introducing things in Michael’s past that run counter to the
direction the show was going. So the little bits about the dad or about
Michael and Nate as kids I had to sort of argue for more specificity,
which I think a reader demands.
On TV, you can get by with some general backstory things, but
no one wants to watch an episode where Michael ruminates on his
shitty childhood for 43 minutes with specific memories played out in
real time. But in the book, I think the readers want to see some things
like that, so I put in a few small moments that reinforce what we know
from watching the show: Dad was an asshole, mom was . . .
unconventional . . . and Nate and Michael had a difficult upbringing.
From the eMails I’ve received, this has been hugely
successful for the readers, which makes me happy.
Q – I felt you really captured the flavor of
the show, especially Michael Westen’s wry commentary on
the spy trade. How did you come up with this material, especially
as you needed much more than would be in a TV episode?
Actually, long before I started writing the books I started watching
the show fairly religiously because I knew Matt casually – my
oldest friend was in his fraternity in college. So we’d been
introduced years and years ago when we were both, you know,
dumb frat boys and then kept in periodic contact over the years
– and was invested in the show from that standpoint already,
but then anytime you put Bruce Campbell in something, well,
you’ve got me hooked.
Anyway, in terms of the material: I did a lot of research. A ton.
And I have a lot of sources in law enforcement who are happy to
help with things, and then sometimes, I’d want something
to happen – specifically, there’s a scene where
Michael has to open an envelope he thinks might contain a letter
bomb – and then I’d sort of backwards engineer it
so I could use it, which is half the fun to me. The joy of research, in
my opinion, is not learning about things ahead of time, but learning
about things when you need them, so that way when you write about
it some of that exuberance of discovery ends up in the prose.
Q – What specific sources did you look at
in your research?
One book really had a profound effect on me and that was the
book On Killing [by Dave Grossman], which talks about
the mental toll killing has taken on soldiers over the years. It was
particularly useful in talking about when Michael does and does not
kill people. He doesn’t kill anyone in The Fix
– and he rarely kills anyone on the show, either . . . last
season’s final episode might be the one time that really
sticks in my head where people died – and so looking at that
book helped me in understanding the why of it all. It was also
interesting to find out, in that book, how people avoid killing even
when they are charged with doing it. So a lot of that sort of
anecdotal stuff ended up influencing some scenes in the book.
Q – You published some travel books
on Las Vegas and live in California. Are you that familiar with
Miami or were all those descriptions also part of your research?
I’m not familiar with Miami in the least and I feel a little
bit like a fraud writing about it, truthfully, without visiting, so I intend
to go at some point this year to really get the feel for the place. So
I’ve leaned on a lot of books about the city, lots of maps
and the joy that is Google Maps.
Getting the street views now, in particular, has been very cool.
Plus, I also have some friends in the area and have been known to
post things on my blog asking for help, which has always worked
Q – Are you a fan of other spy series on
TV or film? How about any other books?
I’ve seen every James Bond movie – I’m
a Sean Connery man, with a strong Daniel Craig vibe rising in me
– and loved things like The Man From U.N.C.L.E.,
which I watched in reruns as a kid, and shows like The
Equalizer and Stingray, which I think share a lot
of Burn Notice elements.
My favorite spy book would probably be David Morrell’s
Brotherhood of the Rose, which is probably more literary
than conventionally action packed. But honestly, I’ve never
been a huge fan of spy books as I prefer more noirish crime novels
Q – One thing that seemed to distinguish
the book from TV episodes is the amount and length of dialogue
between the characters. What did you have to do to develop the
story to make for a full-length novel?
Well, the plot had to be more intricate. The episodes follow a
pretty straightforward arc that just doesn't translate very well to
print – readers demand far more twists and turns if they
are going to spend five or six hours reading the book, so everything
had to be elongated. So the characters had to interact more and the
conflicts needed to be drawn out to a point where you can fill 300
pages of text.
My natural inclination, honestly, in writing crime fiction is more
towards minimalism, but I feel like the fans of the show read the
books to be with the characters intimately and what is more intimate
than being privy to their conversations? If it were solely up to me, I
would do these like old Gold Medal paperbacks: 200 pages of brisk
action and snappy dialog and that’s that. But 200 pages
in a mass market these days feels very, very small!
Q – Were you tempted to play a bit with
the characters outside of the relationships we see on the show?
For example, speaking of temptation, Fi seems more desirable to
Westen in many scenes than what we see on television.
Not too much. But in the case of Fi and Michael I think he
always finds her exceptionally desirable, but has to play outwardly
cool towards her. That’s the difference between the show
and the books: you’re inside his head in the book, so
you’re going to get a bit more of his particular truth. The
real fun for me, actually was getting inside Sam’s head,
something the show never does, so that was my one big creative
Q – Earlier, you mentioned liking Bruce
Campbell. I take it you’re a fan of either Brisco
County Jr. and/or Jack Of All Trades? What
about his Sam Axe character intrigues you so much?
Oh, no, I’m all about The Evil Dead. Bruce
Campbell played a very important role in my development as a
teenage boy with certain macabre tendencies. His character on
Burn Notice, Sam, is great because he’s an
absurd figure – an ex-Navy SEAL with girl problems, a
yen for the drink, lots of strange “buddies” and
a skill set that frequently requires him to get hit in the face as a
diversion. He’s a little nutty and I like that.
Q – I noticed one of the
“heavies” Westen gets to torment was named Burl
– which made me think of your uncle, Burl Barer. Are there
inside jokes in your book most readers wouldn’t know
about? Is the relationship between Mike and Nate at all similar to
that of you and your “older, less attractive” brother
The book is filled with inside jokes that fans of my other books
and my siblings’ books would get, plus stuff I put in just to
make myself giggle. The three heavies are actually named Burl,
Stan and Danny . . . after two of my uncles and one of my cousins.
There is an appearance from Harvey Mapes, from my brother
Lee’s book The Man With the Iron-On Badge.
My sister Linda Woods makes an appearance. Even a character
from my first book is mentioned in passing.
No, I wouldn’t say the relationship between Mike and
Nate is similar to the one Lee and I have, specifically since I’d
be the Nate in this equation and I’m far more suave and
Q – The Fix was clearly set
before the circumstances we see in season two. In future books, will
we be seeing Carla and situations drawn from the new season?
Tough to say. I know how season 2 shakes out, but the problem
of having the books work in lock step with the show is that things can
change at the last minute. I certainly make allusions to things
happening in season 2 in the book I’m writing now, but my
goal is to make these books evergreen, so you can pick them up
without ever seeing an episode and pick up the drift without issue.
Plus, my 3rd book is due in February for release in August of
2009 . . . and I don’t expect I’ll have a clear idea of
everything that’s going to be happening in season 3 by that
point. It’s more likely that the books will have a “case
of the week” vibe to them vs. advancing the Burn
Q – Speaking of, when will book two be
coming out? Can you share any insights into what readers can
Book 2, which is called The End Game, will be out
in February of 2009, I believe. Readers can expect a lot of sentences
that begin “When you’re a spy . . . ” and
all of their favorite characters doing things to make life hell for Michael
I haven’t finished the book yet, so I can’t be
precise with everything that’s going to happen, but I
imagine if you liked The Fix, you’ll like The
Q – Are you working on any non-Burn
Yes. I have a new collection of stories that’s set to come
out in late 2009 that I’m finishing up, I just wrote a new story
for another of those very cool Akashic Noir anthologies (I was in Las
Vegas Noir and this new one is for Orange County Noir . . .) and, in
addition to my fictional pursuits, I direct the Masters in Fine Arts
Program in Creative Writing and Writing for the Performing Arts at the
University of California, Riverside’s Palm Desert Graduate
Center, which means I’m actively molding young minds . . . a
frightening thought, huh?
Spywise.net has two related interviews with members of
Tod’s family ~
Burl Barer is interviewed in
“‘The Saint’ in
Fact and Fiction – An Interview with Historian and Novelist
Burl Barer”. in the
Spies in History &
Lee Goldberg talks about Diagnosis: Murder in
“Behind the Scenes of
‘Discards’ – How Diagnosis: Murder
Brought Back U.N.C.L.E., The Avengers,
I Spy, and Mission: Impossible”,
in the Spies on Television & Radio
Tod Goldberg’s many novels are available in bookstores
everywhere, as well as through these on-line merchants ~