Always Hustling: A Conversation with Thriller Writer Lee Matthew Goldberg
I recently had the opportunity to talk to New York City author Lee Matthew Goldberg about his new thriller The Ancestor, as well as his thoughts on empathy, the attraction of doppelgängers, his writing process, and making it in Hollywood. Full-disclosure, I’ve been supporting Goldberg’s efforts to bring this book out into the larger world and I’m honored to do so. In part, this is because I find The Ancestor to be a true page-turner and coursing with a dread I might otherwise want to avoid during these already stressful times. More than that though, I’m taken with Goldberg himself. He’s always hustling, writing, pushing, pitching and trying to make things happen. I’m always excited to be around this kind of energy and today I’m equally excited to share some of that with you.
Please tell us about who you are and what we need to know about The Ancestor.
I’m the author Lee Matthew Goldberg. The Ancestor is my fourth Book after Slow Down, The Mentor, and The Desire Card. I write thrillers with a literary bent to them. I’m born and raised in NYC and run a literary series there called Guerrilla Lit. My aspiration for The Ancestor is for it to be made into a TV series, so I’m working on it as a pilot too.
The Ancestor is about a man named Wyatt who awakens in the Alaskan wilderness with amnesia. He has a mirror around his neck and sees another man who looks exactly like him. He follows that man back to his family, which brings forth a memory of his own wife and son, except these memories are from the late 1800s when he left them to be a prospector in Alaska during the Gold Rush. The book is a meditation on identity and what makes us into the person we are, but also a thriller as Wyatt decides he wants his doppelgänger’s family as his own.
We'll come back to what you feel makes for a good thriller, but first I'd like to hear more about why writing "a meditation on identity and what makes us into the person we are" was important to you?
I wanted to grapple with what it was like for my character Wyatt to lose everything about himself and basically have to start over from scratch. He slowly begins to have memories of his past, but because they were from over a century ago, does it really add up to who he is in the present time, or has he become someone new? Is our make up a sum of our past experiences, or is it more? Will Wyatt wind up repeating some of the same mistakes he did a hundred years ago, or will he veer from who he was and become a more formed human? Many of the supporting characters feel chained to their pasts as well. Some will break free while others are unable.
There is interesting conflict here, Wyatt wants to become "a more formed human," while also deciding "he wants his doppelgänger’s family as his own." From this perspective we can cheer for Wyatt, though he also sucks. One means for addressing a conflict such as this is to create empathy for the character. How did you approach this with Wyatt? Also please speak to the importance of creating empathy for one's characters in general.
There’s definitely good and evil in Wyatt. He’s an anti-hero. A lot of my books are about flawed people. No matter what, you need to create empathy for your characters. They have to be living and breathing, warts and all. Readers will want Wyatt to be good and do the right thing, and they’ll be sad when he doesn’t. It's what makes him human. But from very early on in the book, Wyatt tells the readers exactly who he is. He’ll do anything to get his family back, even if that means creating a new family that belongs to someone else. As much as he may try to fight it, he’ll step on anyone that gets in the way of his goal. He’s a walking time-bomb and closer to exploding as the book progresses. My job was to make readers still root for him, even when he’ll inevitably let them down. The trick is giving him qualities that readers can relate to, evoking sympathy enough so you understand why he does what he does, even if you don’t agree with it.
Taking one more beat on the doppelgänger element of your story, I find myself concurrently reading the new release from author Matthew Salesses, Disappear Doppelgänger Disappear, which is a rumination on identity, race and erasure, and I wonder what you think is (or was) happening in the world that authors such as yourselves have looked to this trope as a means for telling the stories you want to tell?
I haven’t read that book yet, but I love the title and will put it in my TBR pile. I’ve always been intrigued by the notion of a bizarro or double of yourself existing. A lot of my books deal with characters struggling for dominance. In my novel The Mentor, it was with a mentor and his best pupil meeting later in life. In my debut Slow Down, it was with a film director and someone trying to break into the industry. While both weren’t doubles, they dealt with relationships where one character had put the other on a pedestal only for it to come crashing down. In The Ancestor, it goes deeper when one character believes his lookalike to be his descendent. There is genuine love for the doppelgänger, but also a desire to erase them. Because there could only be one, ultimately. This battle is an interesting one to explore because there could be very different outcomes. A lot of the novel accelerates toward an ending you wish won’t happen, but know is inevitable.
I'm intrigued by you describing your work as "characters struggling for dominance." Why do you feel you're drawn to this theme?
I like it as a theme because the book then becomes a battle, a test of wills. In each of my novels, there are moments when both characters are ahead, but ultimately the one who wants it more will be triumphant. In The Ancestor, as Wyatt begins to peel back the layers of his past self, he will have the upper hand because he can identify the lengths he’ll go to get what he wants. Even if Travis begins to see him as a treat, it’ll be hard for him to believe it. That could be his downfall. This struggle adds for tension because the readers know in a battle there could only be one winner. It’s a good trope to use to maintain suspense from the beginning to the end. We’re used to a hero and a villain fighting it out, so I like to incorporate that, except the lines are more blurred. It’s not always clearly defined which is the hero and which is the villain. In that way a reader roots for both and is despondent when either inevitably loses.
Having discussed heroes and villains, tension, identity, conflict and empathy, I'd like to circle-back to what you believe makes for a good thriller. Can you diagram that for us?
There are a few key elements to a good thriller that differ from other genres. A great plot is necessary, and obviously well-drawn characters are important like in every book, but thrillers must have a successful amount of suspense and tension to keep the readers turning pages. Adding twists and turns in the right places is essential too. I like a thriller where I applaud all the choices the author has made, but they are still able to pull the rug out from under me and surprise me until the end. Lastly, because I think I write literary thrillers, the book has to say something as well. Whether it’s a comment on Hollywood, or the publishing industry, or Wall Street, or fishermen in Alaska, I want my novels to teach the readers something they didn’t know while making their hearts accelerate throughout, and for the pages to rapidly turn.
Building on this, can you talk about your writing process?
I usually edit in the mornings, take a lunch break, and then write in the afternoons. When the weather is nice, I write in Central Park under my tree that has a perfect mix of shade and sun. I always plot out my books now with a chapter to chapter outline. I leave myself open to make changes, and often as I near the end, things from the outline do change. Before I even write the outline, the book has probably marinated in my head for a while as I get to know the characters. I just finished a new one about a family of bank robbers. Originally, it was going to be set during the Great Depression, but I switched it to the 1980s after the Stock Market crashed. It had been in my head for a while.
I've always been very taken with your productivity, as well as the fact that you are among only a handful of authors I know that are able to truly write full-time. I find that a component of your ability to live and work this way is your ambition and I'm curious whether you see it that way as well. I'm also curious what you think about being viewed as ambitious, which can embarrass some people?
Thank you! I’m hoping I can always write full-time. I was an adjunct professor for ten years too, so eventually I will go back to teaching maybe a class a semester. To really be a full-time writer, things would have to hit on a bigger level in regards to film or TV adaptations. I have a few projects bubbling and maybe The Ancestor will be the one that gets me there. I’m very ambitious and like to be viewed that way. I consider myself a hustler in terms of this career. I’m always hustling, writing and getting my projects out there, dipping into film and TV more. I’m relatively young for a novelist so I consider myself just getting started. I think all the great and successful writers these days are good at hustling too.
You're welcome! I love hustle and the people who hustle. So there's that. Now please talk about these bigger levels in regards to film or TV adaptations. Many of us would love these things to happen. How do you think that actually happens?
A lot is luck and being in the right place at the right time. I try to make inroads with that world. I’ve written scripts and gone out to LA to meet with producers. I’ve had a book optioned. Nothing has fully come to fruition, but I’m meeting people and then pitching them my next thing. There’s some interest with The Ancestor as a TV series, so we’ll see. My vision with it was always for it to be more than just a novel. Hopefully, I’ll get lucky.
There always has to be some luck. We can't get away from that. That said, good luck with The Ancestor and all your hopes and plans for it. And thank you for making the time to talk with me. Let's finish up with this, what didn't we cover? This last question is all yours to do what you want with it.
Thanks for the great interview and for taking the time to talk with me too! This book is very special to me. It was written after my father passed away, and even though it isn’t about him, I feel like he’s alive on every page. I’m ready to have it out in the world and see what happens next with it.
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