Acclaimed TV scribe is here to talk story
Goldberg won his stripes penning scripts for "Monk" and "Diagnosis"
It's no mystery why Lee Goldberg writes mysteries. He was driven to it by his parents, the way the rest of us were driven to Little League practice.
"I started writing mysteries when I was 8 years old. I guess it was inevitable," said Goldberg, best known for his work on the TV series "Monk" and "Diagnosis Murder." "Mom wrote a newspaper column and dad was a television anchor, so I brought the two together and began writing for TV. And it seems like every relative I have is a published author."
Meet the writer
Screenwriter and mystery author Lee Goldberg will host a series of free television script-writing workshops at Oahu libraries:
Sunday: 3 p.m., Kaneohe, 233-5676
Next Monday: 6:30 p.m. Pearl City, 453-6566
Feb. 7: 6 p.m., Wahiawa, 622-6345
Feb. 8: 10 a.m., McCully, 973-1099
Feb. 8: 6:30 p.m., Kapolei, 693-7050
Feb. 9: 7 p.m., Aiea, 483-7333
If you're similarly driven, Goldberg is hosting a series of television scriptwriting workshops at various Oahu libraries, starting Sunday. His textbook, "Successful Television Writing," has become a must-have for those breaking into the business.
And it is a business, no error. A good portion of Goldberg's writing career is now consumed with writing paperback page turners based on the characters in "Monk" and "Diagnosis Murder." When the owners of each show franchised out the rights to publishers, the nationwide talent hunt to pen the books was immediately narrowed to Goldberg.
"I was the executive producer and principal writer of 'Diagnosis Murder' for several years. During that time, it was my show. Although I didn't create it -- Joyce Burditt did -- I was in complete control of every aspect of the writing and production for about 100 episodes. The books are an extension of what I was doing on the show and reflect the tone, the style, the storytelling and all the other decisions I made during my tenure on the program. I feel as if the characters are my own -- even though they aren't! -- because they were under my stewardship on TV for so long and I had such a decisive role in shaping them."
The "Diagnosis Murder" and "Monk" books are licensed to the studio, which controls the final product, explained Goldberg. Royalties are divided among the studio and writer, as well as the creator, star and producers of the show.
"I give the books the same effort, attention and passion that I do with anything else. I write them in 'my voice,' informed by my experience, my humor and my view of the world. I can't help it. That, in itself, makes the books my own," Goldberg said.
"I don't approach tie-ins as hack work -- even if that is the pay scale! I write them as if I've been given a million-dollar contract. To me, each book is a labor of love, not labor. That's the key."
Why mysteries? "It's narrative; it works for me. The best stories are driven by conflict, and a mystery is at it's core a conflict. I don't think I could write a love story or a family drama. My heart wouldn't be in it. Nothing is spared in a mystery. Everything is always about something, every line or dialogue or action, and so there's always a momentum."
He broke into "Diagnosis Murder" the "old-fashioned way, by banging on the door." The CBS show ran for 178 episodes, starring Dick Van Dyke as a doctor who, every week, was somehow involved in solving a murder.
"I wrote some scripts on spec and was eventually put on staff, and eventually was made producer of the show," said Goldberg. "It seems like we wrote hundreds and hundreds of episodes! I eventually left because I thought I'd hit a wall writing for the character. I thought we'd squeezed it dry. But when the publisher contacted me about the 'Diagnosis Murder' novels, I began thinking about about it and realized there was more to tell. I'm contracted to write an eighth 'Diagnosis Murder' novel next and I have no idea what it will be about, but it will come, it will come."
When it comes, what comes first is character for Goldberg, who asks himself: "What would be an interesting situation to put the hero in, one that would create conflict and show us aspects of who he is that we haven't explored before? Character is the driving force behind every aspect of the plot. The crime and the solution come next. You can't come up with one without knowing the other."
The first half of the latest 'DM' book, "The Death Merchant," takes place on Kauai. Goldberg's descriptions of the island ring true and his command of pidgin is pretty good. Turns out Goldberg is a frequent island visitor -- just not this island.
"I try to come every year and spend time in Poipu or Maui -- why? Because it isn't Santa Barbara! -- and all I do in Honolulu is transfer flights. ... I spent most of my time on Kauai, which is probably why I've set three books there."
Expect the third, "Mr. Monk Goes to Hawaii," this June.
"Let's say that Mr. Monk and poi don't get along," laughed Goldberg. "When I'm writing a book, I'm spending months at the keyboard. By setting a book in Hawaii, I can spend that time on the islands, at least in my mind. It's certainly a more pleasant place to be mentally than, say, Poughkeepsie in the winter. Hawaii may just be the most beautiful place on Earth ... and every time I visit, I leave renewed physically, emotionally, and creatively."
The adventures of obsessive-compulsive detective Adrian Monk have become the highest-rated basic-cable show ever, a monster hit for the USA network. Creator and head writer Andy Breckman hit it off with Goldberg after reading Goldberg's novel "The Man with the Iron-On Badge" and brought him aboard to pen episodes. Naturally, when publishers were looking for a writer for a "Monk" book series, Breckman plumped for Goldberg.
In last week's "Monk" episode, a street bum was reading a "Diagnosis Murder" novel and complaining about the last two pages. "That was Andy doing a shout-out for me," said Goldberg, delighted.
"In the case of Monk, I made the decision to write the books from the first-person POV of Natalie Teeger, Monk's assistant. That decision, more than anything, set the books apart from the show and gave me a unique opportunity to tell the stories in a different voice, one closer to my own.
"Andy paid me a wonderful compliment after reading the first 'Monk' book ... he said it was like he was a singer/songwriter and I'd just done a cover version of one of his songs. ... He recognized his tune and his words, but I brought my own unique voice and interpretation to it. But he keeps a close eye on things. I run every story past him and he reads each manuscript before publication."
Writing scripts and writing books are entirely different, explained Goldberg. "In a book, you can get inside characters' heads. You can convey stories by thinking. On TV, it's all dialogue and action."
There is also the indelible image of the main character, and how he's portrayed by actors, such as Dick Van Dyke in "Diagnosis Murder" and Tony Shaloub in "Monk." "A book has to measure up to what people's preconceptions are," said Goldberg, who admits that when he writes about Monk, visions of Shaloub dance in his head.
"The challenge is making the book feel like an episode of the show without it feeling like an episode of the show. Sounds like a contradiction, doesn't it? It is. It's a precarious balancing act. The book has to deliver what the show does, and more. You want to give the reader the same satisfaction he gets from watching the show but take him places emotionally and creatively that the TV show can't. You want to flesh out the characters in ways that haven't been done before.
"In the case of a tie-in of a canceled show, you are providing the only new stories. It's your book or reruns. For a show that's still on the air, you have to provide some kind of added value, but within limitations set by the studio."
The "entire landscape of writing for television has changed dramatically in the last decade," said Goldberg, thanks to the advent of DVD boxed sets, the Internet and to syndication.
"We even have blogs online 'written' by the characters in the shows," said Goldberg. "You can download 'Monk' via iTunes! And every scrap is saved for the box-set special editions. These aren't just shows, they're franchises."
How about a Hawaii-based TV mystery series?
"How about 'Hawaii Five-O?' " said Goldberg. "That was a great series and deserves to be brought back as a movie or as a series of novels. The movie sucked -- the new movie, the one they made a few years ago and never released."
You SAW that? How?
"I have my sources," said Goldberg. He tried to make it sound, well, mysterious.