Last year I met Debra H. Goldstein at the Malice Domestic conference in Maryland, and we discovered that we were published by the same company. After that, we found ourselves in numerous group settings at the conference, and Debra moderated a panel I was on about academic mysteries. I am thrilled to interview her about her latest book, and I have read it and reviewed it on Amazon. Here’s what she had to say about Should Have Played Poker.
The title of your book is curious to people who haven’t read it yet. How does the game of Mah Jongg and its players fit into your plot? And Poker?
Should Have Played Poker is set in a small southern town. It utilizes two main settings: Carleton Industries corporate headquarters and the Sunshine Village Retirement Home. The protagonist is a twenty-nine-year-old lawyer who, after refusing an invitation from the Sunshine Village Retirement Home poker players to sit down with them and play a few hands of poker, walks into a situation which not only embroils her in a murder investigation but opens the door for the Sunshine Mah jongg players to become her sleuthing allies. The characterization and antics of the Mah jongg players and the rules of the game break the book’s tension while subliminally moving the plot forward.
Your main character is young Carrie Martin. How would you describe her personality?
Carrie is a study of contradictions, possibly caused by being abandoned by her mother when she was three. The concept of integrity governs her actions. She is serious, takes charge, is loyal to her father, and able to make big decisions, but she can be suspicious, jealous, and easily wounded even by her own actions.
In this particular book, two men are appearing or reappearing in Carrie’s life. One is a lawyer, Michael Shapiro, and the other is Detective Brian McPhillip. How do you help readers differentiate between the two?
Detective Brian McPhillip, the detective assigned to Carrie’s mother’s case, is identified as Carrie’s former live-in lover. Scenes with him focus on his physical and intellectual attributes and her reaction to them. There are elements of intimacy, albeit platonic, in the interaction between Brian and Carrie and Brian and Carrie’s father. This is shown through a touch, pulling back from the touch, or exchanges that include Brian’s long-term nickname for Carrie.
Carrie’s reaction to Michael is defined by his relationships with other characters – his mother, his daughter, his late wife, the Mah jongg players. She reacts to how she sees him in the context of the other characters so her perception at times is colored. The readers obtain a clearer understanding of Michael by having a more omniscient perspective of the other characters’ layered viewpoints.
Your setting is largely a retirement home. How does your novel touch on some of the issues of aging?
Should Have Played Poker is a “fun” mystery, but its subplots offer commentary on many social issues. One aspect of aging is explored by the contrast of where characters are in the life cycle. Six-year-old Molly, who is open to anything is a sponge compared to the slightly tinged viewpoints of the twenty-nine or thirty- something-year-old characters, including Carrie, Michael, and Brian, and Barbara. These characters have experienced triumph and happiness, but also pain and loss in their lives, so they are a bit more cynical about the progression of life. The Mah jongg players understand life’s balance of joy and sorrow. Although they provide comic relief, their actions and words also demonstrate humor, wisdom, feistiness, and a segment of the population that should not be marginalized, but there also is the ever present realistic contrast with mental capacity loss caused by dementia, brittleness of body parts, and the loneliness and isolation that no longer driving or having less physical independence brings.
Parallel to the plot in the retirement home is another subject: corporate responsibility. They don’t seem connected. How did you make that connection happen?
In Should Have Played Poker, both the retirement home and Carleton Industries are confined settings within Wahoo, Alabama, the master small town setting. In a small town, activities and family connections often overlap. Although I wanted to address issues of aging through the contained retirement home setting, more issues and aspects of characterization could be introduced through the corporate setting. By bringing in the dynamic and backstories of Carleton Industries and its employees, the same characters reached beyond aging to corporate responsibility, environmental issues, and the balance of work and play/family.
Your book has both an amusing and playful tone, and yet it touches on some very current, and not so amusing topics. How did you balance the two when you were writing this?
I believe truth often is said in jest. Consequently, rather than writing in a droning style that pounds a reader over the head with serious social issues (translation: in a manner that makes one close the book and never finish it), I write what I want to read – short chapters, fun or amusing tone, a plot that grabs me so I don’t want to put the book down or walk away from the characters even when I reach the last page. Using this style, I incorporate topics that demonstrate my respect for the readers’ intelligence. It is that intelligence that allows readers to experience any of my books with enjoyment while subconsciously grasping and thinking about the impact of the incorporated social issues.
You have been both a litigator and judge during your life. Did you find these professions helpful when writing Should Have Played Poker?
My past professions gave me a heads up to understand the motivation versus lifestyle questions young lawyers inevitably face. They also provided me with the ability to write certain legal scenes with a minimum of research.
How has your book enabled you to contribute financially to a good cause?
Whether through my book or in everyday life, I believe, no matter how successful we are, we have an obligation to give back or pay it forward or any of the catch phrases that often are used. Through the years, I’ve been very fortunate in terms of my family, friends and career, and I always have been an active civic volunteer. When I began writing books and short stories, I decided to directly contribute a portion of my royalties and make it possible for all or a portion of any profits associated with guest book talks and signings to be available to many of the groups inviting me to speak.
At the time my first book, Maze in Blue, a mystery set on the University of Michigan’s campus in the 1970’s, was published, Alabama was hit with devastating tornadoes. Although the proceeds of my official store-signing launch were designated for breast cancer research, I opted to give the royalties from online sales to the American Red Cross to help with the tragedy in our state.
All royalties from Should Have Played Poker’s pre-sales, official launch, live signings and online sales through May 31, 2016 are being divided between the YWCA of Central Alabama’s domestic violence and CJFS’s CARES dementia respite programs. One fun thing I am doing this month, which I envision other groups could also do for their charitable endeavors, is having me as the speaker for an event that kicks off an afternoon of mah jongg. The best of all worlds – money will be raised for a good cause, books will get in the hands of readers, and everyone will have a good time playing Mah Jongg.
I hate to be pigeon-holed. Debra H. Goldstein, judge, author, litigator, wife, step-mom, mother of twins, civic volunteer, and transplanted Yankee writer are all words used to describe me. My writings are equally diverse. Maze in Blue, my debut novel, received a 2012 Independent Book Publisher (IPPY) Award and was reissued in May 2014 by Harlequin Worldwide Mysteries. My latest mystery novel, Should Have Played Poker, is available as an ebook or hardcover at Amazon.com. You may follow me at my website here or read my blog postings.