Author Goldberg and Monk co-star Traylor Howard
My latest contribution to the Kirkus Reviews site is an interview with Southern California screenwriter-author Lee Goldberg, whose new novel, Mr. Monk on the Couch, is being released today from Obsidian/New American Library. It’s the 12th installment of his remarkably enjoyable tie-in book series featuring TV detective Adrian Monk. (I say “remarkably,” because while I don’t usually read tie-in novels, I find the Monk books delightful. And as mysteries, they’re rather more believable than some of the Monk TV episodes.) Goldberg is also the co-creator, with William Rabkin, of the recently launched Dead Man series of thrillers and the author of standalones such as The Man with the Iron-On Badge (2005), which was nominated for a Shamus Award.
You’ll find my post here.
* * *Because of Kirkus’ article-length restrictions, it often happens that my interviews can’t be fully presented on that Web site. This was certainly the case with my Goldberg conversation. For Kirkus, we talked mostly about Mr. Monk on the Couch. However, we went on from there to discuss his decision to make the Monk books first-person tales, his hopes to write novels beyond the TV tie-ins, and some of the classic televised crime dramas he would have loved to write for, but didn’t.
To borrow a familiar line from old-time radio host Paul Harvey, below you will find “the rest of the story.”
J. Kingston Pierce: The Monk TV series and your work on these books overlapped by three years. During that time, how did you steer clear of conflicts between the stories you were writing and the small-screen episodes broadcast every Friday night?
Lee Goldberg: Some of that I was able to avoid by working very closely with Andy Breckman, the creator of the series. Although he never expected me to stick with the continuity of the TV series, we still tried pretty hard to, anyway. For the most part, we were able to avoid situations where the books conflicted with the TV show. I can only think of two examples where we ran into trouble.
I did a book called Mr. Monk Goes to Germany  that involved [villain] Dale “the Whale” Biederbeck and the guy with six fingers on one hand [introduced in an episode titled “Mr. Monk Takes Manhattan”]. Shortly before the book came out, they broadcast an episode called “Mr. Monk Is on the Run” that also dealt with Dale the Whale and a guy with six fingers on one hand. Naturally, those elements conflicted with my story, but thankfully not in a big way.
The other instance was when I brought back Sharona [Fleming], Monk’s first assistant, in my fourth book, and first hardcover in the series, Mr. Monk and the Two Assistants . In the last season of the show, they decided to bring Sharona back and did it in a different way.
But now I don’t have to worry about any of those things. And [Breckman] called me shortly before the TV series ended and let me in on how things would wrap up in the final episode. He told me then that Monk was now in my hands and I should feel free to do whatever I wanted to with the character.
JKP: Breckman must, in fact, have been interested to see what innovations you could bring to the books that added to what he was already doing on television.
LG: He once told me that reading my Monk books was like a singer hearing his song covered by another artist. It’s his song, but it’s clearly been interpreted by somebody else. He recognizes his own work, but he’s also able to enjoy it on a different level. He paid me a great compliment by saying he really enjoys reading my books because he sees the character as his own and he likes where I’m taking him ... and is often pleasantly surprised by where he ends up.
JKP: You’ve said before that telling these stories from the first-person viewpoint of Monk’s assistant, Natalie Teeger (played on screen by Traylor Howard), rather than from a third-person perspective more similar to what we saw on television, “humanizes Monk.” Could you explain that further?
LG: [I]t’s allowed me to add an emotional resonance to the storylines that goes beyond just Monk’s eccentricities and the solving of puzzling mysteries. The underlying theme of the book (and yes, there always is one in each tale) is often reflected in whatever is happening in Natalie’s life. Her personal story frames the way in which she perceives the mystery and reacts to Monk, so it’s all of a piece. It’s allowed me to make her a deeper, more interesting, and more realistic character. By doing that, I ground the story in what I like to think of as “a necessary reality.”
Without that reality, Monk would just be a caricature and cartoon character. Natalie humanizes Monk and makes the world that the two of them live in believable to the reader. Through her, we are able to invest emotionally in the story. Without that crucial element, I believe the books would have failed.
JKP: Natalie really comes into her own as a detective in Mr. Monk on the Couch, taking on a case independent from Monk. Were you feeling the need to shake up their association a bit?
LG: If Natalie didn't grow as a character, and Monk didn’t, either, I think it would be really dull. More importantly I’d be bored writing the books. That said, I don’t want to veer too far away from their core characters. Just enough growth to make the books interesting, but not so much that they are radically different characters from who they were in my first book, Mr. Monk Goes to the Firehouse , or in the last episode of the TV series.
JKP: Do you see cop-turned-police consultant Adrian Monk mostly as a caricature, or are there traits/quirks you share with this protagonist that help you to relate to him?
LG: The real danger with a character like Monk is treating him like a caricature. It would be so easy for him to become just another Maxwell Smart or Inspector Clouseau. But Andy did something brilliant in the pilot. He made Monk a sad, tragic character. The things we find so funny about him, the things that make him such a brilliant detective, all stem from enormous pain and loss, namely the murder of his wife.
He has a psychological disorder. It’s what makes him special, it’s what makes him funny, but it’s also what makes him real, if you do it right, if you balance all the eccentricities with enough tragedy and sentimentality. If that sounds self-conscious and premeditated, that’s because it is. I’m always careful when plotting these books, and creating the funny situations, to make sure that there’s always a real, emotional, and painful conflict at the center of it all that Monk and Natalie are grappling with. It’s that conflict that not only provokes the humor but that also keeps Monk grounded in reality. It’s what prevents him from becoming just a cartoon character.
I need you to care about him, to believe in him, because otherwise you won’t keep reading. Monk as a caricature would become hollow and boring very, very fast.
On a personal level, I need to care about Monk. I need to believe in him, or I couldn’t write these books. It’s not enough for me just to tell jokes and a clever mystery. I need to be invested in Monk and in the story that I’m telling. The books need to be about something. Nobody is ever going to mistake these books for great literature, but I want them to be able to stand on their own against the likes of Hercule Poirot, Nero Wolfe, Kinsey Millhone, and Spenser. I’m not saying I’m in their league--far from it--but these books won’t work if they’re just narrative cartoons.
JKP: Prior to penning the Monk books, you wrote eight tie-in novels to Dick Van Dyke’s Diagnosis: Murder series, beginning two years after that show ended in 2001 and concluding in 2007. Can you envision at least as long a lifespan for the post-TV series Monk books?
LG: In terms of number of books, Monk has already surpassed Diagnosis: Murder. There were eight Diagnosis: Murder books and there will be 15 [Monk novels] by the time I’m done with this current contract in May 2012.
JKP: While most of your novels have been spin-offs from television shows, you’ve written a few others of your own invention. Do you find both types of work equally satisfying? Or are you hoping to someday leave the tie-ins behind and work solely on your own stuff?
LG: I find the Diagnosis: Murder and Monk books very satisfying, because they weren’t just work-for-hire jobs for me. I was the executive producer and principal writer of the Diagnosis: Murder TV series for many years, so I felt a very strong, personal connection to the show and, later, to the books. I was a writer on the Monk TV series before I started writing the Monk books, so I have that same kind of personal connection.
That said, these aren’t characters I created. And while I feel an enormous affection for them, and protective of them, and in many ways they feel like my own, I don’t own them and I’m not getting the full value of my work. By that I mean, my percentage of the royalties is crap. It might be fun creatively, but it’s no way to make a living.
I do intend to leave tie-ins behind and concentrate solely on my own work. It’s hard for me to justify, creatively or financially, continuing with Monk when I am making so much in e-book royalties from backlist titles of my own that I self-published on the Kindle. That income wouldn’t be possible if I didn’t own those books. I don’t own Monk or Diagnosis: Murder. So with tie-ins, I am investing huge amounts of my time and talent in something that I will never see full value from. I am making a lot of money for other people, just not for myself. I’m writing two Monk books a year now, which doesn’t leave me much time to write books of my own.
So whether that means a clean break with Monk after my contract is up in May 2012, or a re-negotiated contract that gives me a higher royalty and only requires me to write one book a year, is yet to be seen.
JKP: As a screenwriter, you’ve concocted episodes not only of Diagnosis: Murder and Monk, but also The Glades, Spenser: For Hire, A Nero Wolfe Mystery, Martial Law, and Hunter. What crime drama(s), though, would you most like to have written for, but never did?
LG: Taking my own age out of the equation? Well, The Rockford Files and Harry O, of course. Also Kolchak: The Night Stalker, Remington Steele, The Saint, It Takes a Thief, The Sopranos, and Inspector Morse.
And I’d still love a shot at Justified.