by Lorie Lewis Ham
KRL had the wonderful pleasure of interviewing mystery and TV writer Lee Goldberg, who was a writer for the Monk TV show and now continues the stories in books. I don’t know if he remembers this, but I first met Lee at a Left Coast Crime Convention in San Diego in the late 90’s when I attended his panel on Star Trek and Mysteries. After the interview is a review of the latest Monk book, Mr. Monk on the Road, & a chance to win a copy of this book!
Lorie: How did you first get into writing? And especially mystery writing?
Lee: 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). The childhood books of mine 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 20s, stayed in print for over a decade, and was made into TV specials on ABC and CBS). By the time I was 17, I was working in a bookstore and writing articles for The Contra Costa Times and other San Francisco Bay Area newspapers.
Lorie: You aren’t kidding you really have always been writing! Could you share with us the story of how you wrote your UCLA essay as a story?
Lee: My grades weren’t wonderful, so I knew I had to kick ass on my application essay for the School of Communications. I wrote it first person as a hard-boiled detective story in Kevin Dangler’s voice. The committee, at first, had doubts that I actually wrote it myself — until they reviewed articles I’d written for the Times, including one that used the same narrative device as my essay.
Lorie: I love that story! Shows what you can accomplish if you’re creative. How did you get into TV writing and what shows have you written for?
Lee: That’s a long story. My journalism advisor at UCLA was Lewis Perdue, who wrote spy novels. We became friends and talked a lot about mysteries, thrillers, plotting, etc. One day, in the early 80’s, 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. New World Pictures bought the movie rights, and hired me and my UCLA buddy, William Rabkin, to write the script, but the film never got made. So Bill and I wrote a spec episode of Spenser For Hire, which the producers bought and shot…and then hired us to write four more. And I’ve been writing for TV ever since. Bill and I have written for so many shows – like Baywatch, Hunter, She Spies, Deadly Games, Nero Wolfe, Monk and The Glades – and were the producers of many others, including SeaQuest, She-Wolf of London, Diagnosis Murder, Martial Law and Missing.
Lorie: Wow, seems I’ve been following your career for a long time without even knowing it. How many mystery novels have you published so far?
Lee: Hmm. Let’s see. Four Vigilantes. Eight Diagnosis Murders. Thirteen Monks. And there’s also The Man with the Iron-On Badge, Three Ways to Die, My Gun Has Bullets and Dead Space. So twenty-nine.
Lorie: Do you prefer writing a book or a script?
Lee: They are entirely different creative experiences. Television is very much a group effort and what you are writing is a blueprint that lots of other people are going to use as the basis for their creative work, whether it’s the actor, the director, the production designer. And when you write a script it’s not locked in stone. It’s going to change. It’s going to change because everybody has notes. It’s going to change because production concerns force rewrites. It’s going to change because of actors and directors. It’s in fluid motion all the time.
A book is entirely my own and unaffected by production concerns or actors. I’m the actors, the director, the production designer… it’s entirely mine. It’s not a blueprint. It is the finished product and it won’t change much once I am done with it. It’s not a group effort — I plot it myself and I write it by myself. It’s entirely in my head and I live it for months.
Lorie: What are some of the differences between writing a book and a script, besides those you just mentioned? Different types of challenges?
Lee: Creatively speaking, there’s a big difference between writing prose and writing a script. In a book, you are seducing the reader. You are bringing them into your imagination and holding them there for as long as they’re reading the book. You construct everything. You construct the sets, the wardrobe, the world. You’re God. You can even read a character’s thoughts. In a script, everything that happens and everything the characters do has to be revealed through action and dialogue.
In a script, you could introduce a scene like this:
INT– APARTMENT – DAY
As Detective Marshak enters. The room has about as much personality as a hotel room. There’s a matching bedroom set, a mass-produced print on the wall, no photos. And it’s all very clean. Too clean.
But in a book, you have to describe the apartment in detail. You have to tell us everything that’s going on. You have to set the scene for the reader. It’s an entirely different skill. That’s why some novelists are terrible screen writers and why some screen writers can’t write a book. They can’t jump back and forth.
The only thing that TV and books have in common is that both are mediums for sharing stories…in books, you tell stories, in TV you show them. That simple distinction is a difficult one for many writers to overcome when moving into one field from the other.
If books paid me as well as screenwriting, I might stick with books only because I could do it all at home and not have to answer to a lot of other people. On the other hand, I love being in a writers room plotting with a dozen other writers on an episodic TV series…it is so much fun.
Lorie: How did you get involved with Monk and when? And how did this turn into writing the Monk books?
Lee: It was a pretty standard situation. They were looking for writers and Bill Rabkin and I went in to pitch. We met with Andy Breckman, the creator/showrunner, for dinner when he was out here in L.A. (the show was written in Summit NJ and filmed in Los Angeles). He liked our ideas, so we started writing freelance scripts for him. Our first one was Mr. Monk Goes To Mexico, which became a huge fan favorite.
A year or so later, Penguin Putnam licensed the Monk books and immediately thought of me to write them, mostly because I was already writing the Diagnosis Murder books for them and they knew I had written for the Monk show. And, as it turned out, I was also Andy’s first choice.
I was thrilled to do it, but then they offered me a lot less money than what I was getting for the Diagnosis Murder books, so I passed on the deal. They went to other writers and I forgot about it. So six months or so go by, it’s April 1st, and I was packing the car to go on a road trip with my family when I get a call from my editor.
“Okay, you win,” he said. “We’ll give you what you want to write the Monk books.”
“Great, wonderful,” I said. “I’ll get started as soon as I get back.”
“Well, there’s one little condition,” he said. “We need it in eight weeks.”
They had wasted so much time hitting dead-ends with the other writers that they’d run out of time. So they had to have the book in eight weeks, which was actually seven for me, because there was no way I was going to write on my road trip if I wanted to keep my marriage. So, on the trip, while we were driving, I thought of a plot and I called Andy, told him my idea, he said “I love it,” and that was that.
Lorie: Do you know if there a lot more Monk books planned?
Lee: Well, I know I owe my publisher at least two more after the one I am writing now. After that, we’ll see.
Lorie: Funniest or best memory of working on the show Monk?
Lee: After I wrote my book Mr. Monk Goes to the Firehouse, Andy Breckman called and asked if I’d like to adapt it into an episode.
“It almost writes itself,” he said, mainly because it was, well, already written.
I immediately called Bill Rabkin, my screenwriting partner, and told him the good news. He was thrilled. We both were. And why shouldn’t we be? We’d be getting another trip to Summit, NJ, where the Monk staff was based, and it would be the easiest script to write ever — mainly because it was, well, already written.
But there was an especially geeky reason for me to be thrilled. There had been plenty of novelizations of TV episodes, but as far as I knew at the time, there had never been a TV tie-in novel adapted into an episode of TV series (it’s happened a few times since in the UK with Dr. Who). Mr. Monk Goes to the Firehouse would make TV tie-in history, a nice laurel for a geek like me.
A week or so before the trip, Andy called up, very excited. He’d been noodling with some ideas for the “Mr. Monk Goes to the Firehouse” episode. He wanted to make one tiny change in the story.
“What if Monk is blind?” he said.
So we ended up throwing out most of my book and starting from scratch. All we kept from the book were the basic bones of the mystery plot and a couple of clues. Everything else had to arise from the predicament of Monk being blind. We even changed the title to “Mr. Monk Can’t See a Thing” to reflect the new central conflict of the story.
When we turned in our script two weeks later, I couldn’t help thinking that it would have made a hell of a good book.
Lorie: What other projects are you currently working on?
Lee: A bunch of stuff. A crime novel called King City, a movie adaptation of Victor Gischler’s Gun Monkeys, a low-budget movie western based on Bill Crider’s Outrage at Blanco, and an original series of horror/adventure novels called The Dead Man. The first novel in the Dead Man series, Face of Evil, was written by Bill Rabkin and me and came out in late February. The second, Ring of Knives, by James Daniels came out April 4, and Bill and I have another one, Hell in Heaven, coming out in May. After that, there are at least a dozen more coming from a dozen top mystery, horror, western, and action writers, like Harry Shannon, Joel Goldman, James Reasoner, Bill Crider, Mark Ellis (aka James Axler), Marcus Pelegrimas, Mel Odom, and many more.
Lorie: Is there anything you would like to do career wise that you haven’t yet?
Lee: I’d like to write a New York Times bestselling novel. I’d like to create and produce a hit TV series (so far, I’ve been a writer/producer-for-hire on shows created by others), and I’d like to write a feature film. The film might happen sooner than the others…a major star, who I can’t reveal yet, is attached to Gun Monkeys, so I am cautiously optimistic that it will get made.
Lorie: Well, with your track record I’d have to say it won’t surprise me in the least if you do all of those. I’ve noticed you are re-releasing several past books as e-books. Would you like to share about that? Why you decided to do it, how it’s going?
Lee: I decided to do it because my buddy Joe Konrath talked me into it. I had a large out-of-print backlist just sitting in my garage, gathering dust, and he convinced me that there was still money to be made on them as e-books and print-on-demand paperbacks. So I started by re-releasing my thriller The Walk, and it’s become a big hit, selling about 1200 copies a month. I’ve now put almost all my out-of-print books out there and they are doing great…even my old Vigilante titles, which I have redubbed The Jury Series.
Lorie: Anything else you would like to share or promote?
Lee: My exclusive line of men’s hair-care products.
Lorie: lol Your website?
Lorie: Latest book, when it was or will be released?
Lee: The Dead Man: Hell in Heaven in May and Mr. Monk on the Couch in June.
Lorie: Thanks so much for joining us here, you are always a delight to interview and I always seem to learn something new. I’ll be anxiously awaiting my copy of Mr. Monk on the Couch!
Mr. Monk on the Road by Lee Goldberg
Review by Lorie Lewis Ham
I have always loved the TV show Monk, though I haven’t read many of the books so far. After reading this one I’m ready to go back and read others as I so miss the characters, and having been a writer for the show, Lee does a perfect job of capturing all of the wonderful characters and making them as alive on the page as they were on the screen.
Mr. Monk on the Road takes place after the series finale and here we find a bit happier Monk than we’ve known in the past—the way he puts it is that his life is more balanced now. Things are relatively slow, so Monk decides he’d like to try and bring some of that balance into his brother Ambrose’s life too. Since Ambrose won’t leave his house, Monk decides the best way to help him is by renting a motor home so Ambrose can see the world, yet still stay in a house of sorts. Against her better judgment, Natalie helps, as she is finding herself a bit at loose ends now that Julie is away at college. Besides, when has she ever been able to say no to Monk.
The pair resorts to drugging Ambrose and basically kidnapping him on his birthday to get him to go. At first Ambrose is angry with them and tries to call the police but he soon becomes enchanted by all the new things he gets to see. The trip takes them on a wild ride through much of California from San Francisco South, through the Grand Canyon and Las Vegas.
As usual Monk keeps running into murders but Natalie pushes him on not letting him get derailed into solving them, and while I was loving the book so much that I didn’t mind, I found myself wondering where the mystery would come into play in this story. Well silly me I should never have doubted because Monk, and Lee, bring the mystery side together beautifully in the end.
While I wish we could have seen more of Stottlemeyer, and I miss Randy’s bumbling antics—getting to know the Monk’s as brothers a bit more was really nice and the writing and story were excellent. It was nice to revisit characters from one of my all time favorite shows and I look forward to reading more.
Note: If you have not seen the season finale, be aware that there are references to it in this book.
To enter for a chance to win a copy of Mr. Monk on the Road, simply email KRL at firstname.lastname@example.org with the subject line “Monk”, or comment on this article. U.S. entries only please. A winner will be chosen next Saturday, April 23, 2011.