Patricia Sheridan's Breakfast With ... Marshall Goldberg
August 11, 2014 12:00 AM
By Patricia Sheridan / Pittsburgh Post-Gazette
Lawyer turned writer Marshall Goldberg was working as counsel for the Senate Judiciary Subcommittee on Constitutional Rights when in 1979 he decided to leave it all behind for Hollywood. The Pittsburgh native became a scriptwriter for popular television shows including “L.A. Law,” “The Jeffersons” and “The Paper Chase.” His most recent creative endeavor is a fictional tale of corruption, greed and murder in 1880s New York City. In “The New Colossus,” real-life protagonist Nellie Bly, the young woman from Apollo in Armstrong County who turned journalism on its head when she got herself checked into a mental asylum and exposed the horrible, inhuman treatment patients endured, investigates the death of poet Emma Lazarus, who wrote the words “Give me your tired, your poor, your huddled masses yearning to breathe free.”
Currently in Los Angeles, Mr. Goldberg and his wife are moving at the end of August to Ann Arbor, Mich., where he will teach at the University of Michigan Law School. The couple have two grown daughters.
Did you always want to be a writer and law school was your safety net?
It came after law school. I had no idea I could write. I always had average or below-average grades in writing because I think I thought and wrote really stiffly. Incredibly enough -- and I may be one of the only people who can say this -- I learned how to write in law school. I learned how to write in a way that would connect with the reader and to not use so many words. I had one professor in particular who could actually inject a little personality into his legal writing. I thought that was pretty interesting and I tried it. In my legal jobs, I began to write with a little more color.
So then you just decided you would leave law and go write for movies and television?
Before that I was working in the Senate for the constitutional rights subcommittee and doing voting rights legislation and civil rights legislation. Washington ... was really dispiriting. I started to write just to keep my spirit going. A friend of mine knew Norman Lear. He sent my script and he read it and liked it and sent it to the “M.A.S.H” people and they invited me out to just talk. They encouraged me to move on out. So I did. I was really lucky. Ten months after I moved to Los Angeles, I had my first sale.
You went from such a dry field to a very creative endeavor.
Right. I would tell people, “Imagine the client comes through the door and instead of pulling out your notepad and listening to the client, you make up everything the client says.”
The New Colossus is filled with historical facts. Were you a history buff ?
Yes, I always liked that. I always liked reading about the past and seeing how we were just repeating the same lessons and the same mistakes.
In your research for the book, did you see a lot of similarities to today’s political and economic environment?
I was really drawn to that era. The fact that all that wealth was concentrated in so few hands. The fact that technology was completely uprooting the economy and putting a lot of people out of work. The fact that Congress seemed to be in the hands of the wealthy, where you really had congressmen bought and sold. You had a Supreme Court that didn’t seem to care a whit about individual rights. It just seemed to be a perfect description of what is going on now. Not to be too political. I thought, “Geez, this is 125 years ago and it’s the same.”
So why Bly?
You know, that’s really interesting. So many times in life you set out to do one thing and then you discover something along the way and that is where you set up shop. I wanted to write originally about Jay Gould, who was this really vile man, and Emma Lazarus, who was a poet and political activist. I couldn’t figure out a way to get them together, and then I came upon Nellie Bly. I just basically fell head over heels for her.
This woman was so courageous and so skillful and started off with nothing. The fact that she moved to New York at age 24 with no connections, no money and an infirm mother to take care of and within 10 months she had two front-page stories in the New York World, which was the biggest paper in the country, is just remarkable. So I just dropped everything for her. Also the fact that she is from Apollo, just an hour outside of Pittsburgh. I went to Apollo and saw the house where she spent her first six years and then was summarily kicked out when her father died. I went to the Carnegie Library and read her original letters. That was it. I was just hooked on Nellie Bly.
You can’t help but notice how ambitious she was. What feeds your own ambition?
I think just wanting to keep learning and keep growing. Someone asked me how you measure success and that is how I measure success, that you are constantly learning and gaining new insight and understanding into the way the world works.
In the personal and creative realm, I felt almost ignorant and I wanted to find out more about personal issues and creative issues. When I moved to Los Angeles, people tended to pigeonhole writers: You do comedy or you do drama or you do TV or you do film. I just wanted to keep learning so I did all of those. I did comedy, animation, movies, television. That was one of the reasons I started writing novels.
Do you write with an eye to turning the book into a film or something that could be easily translated into a film?
I am really aware of it. When you are writing a screenplay, the focus is on behavior. It is about how they act because that is what the movie audience is looking at and that is how they are swept along. With a book, it is that but it is much more what is in someone’s head -- how are they thinking, how are they feeling. You have to dramatize that to some degree, but you need to start off really plugged into people’s thoughts and feelings if you are going to write a novel. You hope there is a strong enough story there that it will transfer.
Would I like “The New Colossus” to become a movie? Absolutely. But, if I set out to write the book being too conscious of making it a movie, I think it would fall flat. It has to work as a book. You try to do it in a way that you are not painting yourself into a corner.
What are you doing now besides teaching?
I am doing two things. One is starting to put together the next Nellie Bly book. I liked her too much and I wasn’t ready to let her go. I really feel people who acquire certain skills have to give back so there is an issue I am trying to work on. I have a documentary laid-out, and now I am trying to get funding for it. It involves the terrible state of representation for indigent criminal defendants. People don’t realize how terrible the representation is. Public defenders are overworked and in some areas the counsel they get is completely incompetent. So I have this very ambitious documentary, and I am spending time trying to get that launched.
Patricia Sheridan: firstname.lastname@example.org, 412-263-2613 or follow her on Twitter at http://www.twitter.com/pasheridan.
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