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Interview: April 10, 2009

April 10, 2009

Nightmares take on new meaning in Joel Goldman's latest thriller, THE DEAD MAN, in which special agent Jack Davis investigates a serial killer who murders his victims according to the ways in which they each dreamed they would die. In this interview with's Joe Hartlaub, Goldman credits both a newspaper article and his longtime interest in science as inspiration for the book's plot, and elaborates on the neurological condition from which both he and his protagonist suffer. He also gives readers a peek into his own nightmares and shares details about his upcoming novel due out next year. The plot of THE DEAD MAN involves a number of individuals who die in a manner consistent with their dreams, which they had shared with the Harper Institute of the Mind (HIM) during the course of a dream research study. When HIM is threatened with wrongful death actions, Davis is retained by HIM to investigate the deaths. All good stories originate somewhere. How did this one get started?

Joel Goldman: All my books get started by paying attention to what's going on in the world, large and small, and asking myself "what if." A few years ago, I read in the newspaper about a mailman who lived and died alone, and, when his body was found, it was discovered that he'd stolen tons of mail throughout the years he should have been delivering it. I knew there was a story in his story, and I combined it with my long-standing interest in how and why the brain works the way it does.

BRC: HIM’s offices were quite impressive. Did you function as your own architect in their design, or were they modeled upon an existing building?

JG: The Harper Institute is located on the grounds of a world famous medical research facility in Kansas City called the Stowers Institute for Medical Research. The entrance to HIM is based on the entrance to the Stowers Institute, but the rest of the architecture is mine.

BRC: Jack Davis, your protagonist in your previous book SHAKEDOWN and your new novel THE DEAD MAN, has a neurological disorder --- a series of “tics” that result in unpredictable and uncontrollable shaking --- that precludes him from his prior work as an FBI agent. Undaunted, he has created his own job as private investigator. As a result, he is a character with whom one can empathize as opposed to feeling sorry for. What can you share with readers about Davis's condition, and how you came to infuse your character with it?

JG: I was diagnosed with the same condition five years ago. It is very similar to Tourette's Syndrome, the difference being that one of the diagnostic criteria for TS is that it occurs prior to age 18. The cause and cure are unknown. It isn't life threatening or life shortening, but it is life annoying. The more we do --- of anything --- the more we shake, spasm and stutter. Writing a character whose challenges mirror mine has been a wonderful way to process my own experience. Jack's response to his challenges proves what I believe to be true --- that although we often can't choose what happens to us, we can always choose what we do about it.

BRC: As is noted by one character in THE DEAD MAN, there are a number of different opinions as to the etiology of dreams. Some believe that dreams fulfill forbidden wishes; others feel that dreams are the echoes of our efforts to work out conflicting emotions; and still others believe that dreams don’t mean anything at all. What is your opinion? Is it possible that all three opinions could be right, on different occasions?

JG: Based on my research, I'm open-minded. The answer depends, in part, on what we choose to do with our dreams. We can ignore them, dismiss them or accept them as a vital and fascinating part of our personal tapestry. There are times we are glad to wake up and other times when we wish we could go back to the place where the rules of the physical world do not apply.

BRC: Can you share your most frightening nightmare with us?

JG: My most frightening nightmares are ones in which I do something awful that can't be fixed or forgotten.

BRC: While THE DEAD MAN is primarily a thriller, my favorite element of the narrative was that it is at heart a classic murder mystery, one that has the potential to keep the reader guessing until the very end, even though it is evident in hindsight that you provide a clue or two along the way as to the identity of the murderer. What authors in the mystery genre, if any, have influenced your work, or otherwise inspired you to begin writing?

JG: I was an avid mystery reader for many years before I began writing, covering the gamut the genre offers from cozys to noir. As a writer, I've been most influenced by people like Michael Connelly, Dennis Lehane, George Pelecanos, Elmore Leonard, Lee Child, Harlan Coben and Robert Crais.

BRC: I was especially impressed with the amount of research that went into THE DEAD MAN, particularly with respect to the scientific study of dreaming. Where did you begin your research? What sources were of most benefit to you? And did you do all of the research yourself, or did you have any assistance?

JG: I do all my own research. I'm an avid reader of The New York Times science section. I subscribe to Scientific American Mind and watch for interesting articles in other publications. I use the Internet for most of my research. One of my sons is getting a Ph.D in Clinical Psychology, so he and I talk a lot about the brain and brain science.

BRC: One of the characters in THE DEAD MAN mentions the use of a service called, and you have sung the praises of it elsewhere as well. What is it? And how has it been of benefit to you?

JG: Jott is a web-based service that allows you to dial a toll-free number and record a message to yourself or others. The message comes back to you as a text message or e-mail or audio file. You can schedule the date and time to receive a reminder about your message so you get it when you need it. I like to take long walks and think about the book I'm working on. The service was perfect for me because I didn't have to worry that I'd forget my brilliant insight before I got home. Originally free, Jott now charges a modest monthly fee. Other services, like, provide similar features for free. And, yes, I've switched to Reqall.

BRC: You used to practice law. If you were not writing for a living, would you return to the practice of law, or pursue another career? And what do you enjoy the most, and the least, about writing as a profession?

JG: I loved practicing law, but given my movement disorder, that's no longer an option. I've been teaching online at a local university, including a course on American Detective Fiction, and I really enjoy doing that. The best part of being a writer is the opportunity to explore and understand this world in a world of my invention. The toughest part of being a writer is that it's a solitary pursuit. But it doesn't have to be a lonely one. That's why my office is at Starbucks.

BRC: Are there any books you have read in the past six months that you would care to recommend to our readers?

JG: The latest books by Michael Connelly and Lee Child.

BRC: Can you tell us anything about your next novel? Have you considered bringing Lou Mason (last seen in your novel DEADLOCKED) and Davis together in some fashion?

JG: Lou Mason makes a cameo appearance in THE DEAD MAN and in the next book in the series, which I hope will be out next year and continues Jack Davis's story as his investigation of a kidnapping and murder takes him back to the case of a teenager who disappeared 50 years ago.

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