An interview with author Debra H. Goldstein . . .
In this issue, we’re very happy to bring you our recent chat with award-winning mystery writer Debra H. Goldstein. Debra is the author of the long-running Sarah Blair Mystery Seriespublished by Kensington Press, the latest of which, Five Belles Too Many, was just released on June 28!
She has long been a friend of Bethlehem Writers Roundtable, having first published a short story with us in 2013 and later garnering Honorable Mentions in two of our annual Short Story Award competitions. She recently joined us as a member of the Bethlehem Writers Group, and we look forward to publishing many more of her works in the years to come, including “Death in the Hand of the Tongue” in our anthology An Element of Mystery: Sweet, Funny, and Strange Tales of Intrigue to be published this fall.
Interview by BWG member Carol L. Wright
Bethlehem Writers Group: Welcome, Debra, and congratulations on your latest Sarah Blair Mystery, Five Belles Too Many. Can you tell us a little bit about the series and how you came to write it?
Debra H. Goldstein: After my first two books, Maze in Blue and Should Have Played Poker were orphaned by small publishers, I wanted to write a cozy mystery, but I quickly realized that although I could create an amateur sleuth and a small-town setting, I had a few “cozy” problems. Most cozies include cooking or a craft, two things I hate. I was about to give up on my idea when I realized there probably were readers, who like me, hate cooking and crafts. Hence, Sarah Blair, a woman who is more afraid of the kitchen than murder, was born. Happily, Kensington agreed with me that there were plenty of cozy readers like me.
I’m particularly excited about the new book, Five Belles Too Many, as it is one of my favorites in the series. In it, Sarah’s mother is a finalist in a reality TV competition to win the perfect Southern wedding. The show requires all finalists, whether twenty or sixty plus, to have a chaperone. Forced into being her mother’s chaperone, Sarah learns that the contestants and chaperones are being housed at Sarah’s greatest nemesis’ bed and breakfast. Her mother assures her that she’ll be asleep most of the time she is there; however, when the producer is murdered on the first night and Sarah’s enemy is kneeling by the body, Sarah must conquer her hatred and find the real killer before more of the cast and crew are permanently eliminated.
BWG: Your Sarah Blair novels are sometimes described as “Cozy Mysteries,” and sometimes called “Traditional Mysteries.” Can you tell us the difference between these two terms and how they differ from other kinds of mysteries on the market today?
DHG: A cozy mystery always features an amateur sleuth, a small or confined setting, no sex or violence on the page, cooking or a craft (something the protagonist either wasn’t familiar with from past life experiences or is an outgrowth of an interest the protagonist did as a hobby), and often humor and a cat. A traditional mystery contains more suspense as the reader tries to solve the mystery along with the protagonist, who may be a professional or an amateur. The traditional mystery is edgier in terms of language and characters interactions on the page. Both differ from thrillers where the reader knows a specific threat or crime will occur unless the protagonist stops it in time.
BWG: Your protagonist, Sarah Blair, works in an attorney’s office. You know a good bit about that setting from your work as an international corporate tax attorney and labor law attorney. Is this a case of writing what you know?
DHG: My legal background was specialized and tied to corporate or government work. Harlan Endicott, Sarah’s boss, is a small-town generalist who handles whatever type of case comes over his threshold. My intent was to make Sarah a receptionist/secretary and I decided that using my knowledge of the workings of law offices would be easier than a setting I didn’t understand, plus it might open up more storytelling as the series proceeded.
BWG: While Sarah Blair, works in a law office, her twin sister, Emily, is an accomplished chef. You admit that you are not much of a cook. What made you decide to use a culinary theme for your cozy mysteries?
DHG: For a cozy mystery to work, I needed either food or a craft. Although I am not much of a cook, I love eating out and have many friends who work in restaurants in either an owner/managerial capacity or as chefs. Consequently, I knew they would be gracious with their time and knowledge so I could make my books accurate and realistic.
BWG: You are a graduate of Emory University School of Law in Atlanta, Georgia, and received commendations for your legal work. But your career as a practicing attorney ended sooner than you might have expected when you became one of the youngest people to be appointed to be a U.S. Administrative Law Judge. Like all federal judges, you were given life tenure. Tell us what that was like as you also filled the roles of wife, step-mom, and mother of twins.
DHG: The twins were four when I received my appointment. The weeks I had to be in Washington for my training were particularly difficult as time was a concept they were just grasping. At one point, I almost cried when my daughter told me I’d be home in four toes and a thumb, but I laughed when my son asked if when I got home, he could have something different for dinner than pizza. For the next twenty-three years, I perfected a juggling act so that I could find time to be the Girl Scout leader, sit on community boards, take a role in PTA related activities (the monthly meetings didn’t meet my schedule but chairing or having a specific job did), and attend almost all of the activities of our four children. Luckily, I have a supportive husband who while he doesn’t cook any better than I do, was always there to share the responsibilities of parenting and catch any ball that I dropped.
BWG: As an attorney and a judge, writing was a huge part of your job—but legal writing is a far cry from fiction. What made you want to write fiction? Did you find it to be a difficult transition?
DHG: When I was in elementary school, I wrote a short story in first grade that received praise and I outsmarted my second-grade teacher, who wouldn’t give me a speaking role in a play because she didn’t think I spoke clearly enough, by taking the announcer position and expanding it to the largest speaking part by writing a poem that I recited in between the play’s two acts. At that point, I was hooked on writing. Law became the avenue for me to earn a living, but I continued to talk about wanting to write and was the one who wrote the skits and poems for parties and community projects. Eventually, friends said, “Do it, or don’t talk about writing again.” So, I did.
The biggest difference was that the legal writing is dry and factual while fiction needs to be engaging. Consequently, I had to unlearn some of the stylistic tricks that I used in legal articles, briefs, and decisions. To this day, I need to go back over anything I write creatively to make it include emotion rather than reading like a legal treatise.
BWG: You received an Independent Book Publisher (IPPY) award for your debut novel, Maze in Blue, released in 2011. It is set at the University of Michigan, where you did your undergraduate studies, majoring in English and history. How affirming it must have been to receive an award so early in your fiction-writing career. At that time did you have hopes of becoming a full-time writer in just a few years’ time?
DHG: I was thrilled when Maze in Blue won an IPPY award. As you note, it was an affirming event in my writing, but I didn’t dream of becoming a full-time writer at that point in time. I simply hoped I could have a side career writing for fun.
BWG: You then went on to write Should Have Played Poker: a Carrie Martin and the Mah Jongg Players Mystery for Harlequin Worldwide Mysteries in 2016. It’s said that while it’s really hard to write one book, it’s when you’ve published your second book that you know you’re really a writer. How was the experience of publishing your second novel different than your first?
DHG: Should Have Played Poker originally was published by Five Star, a division of Cengage and then mass-market rights, like those of Maze in Blue, were sold to Harlequin Worldwide Mysteries. Holding my second novel, which came out in hard cover, rather than Maze’s trade paperback version, made me realize writing wasn’t a fluke, but could be a real career. For Poker, I did a professionally organized book tour and worked with PR people, which also added to the reality of the experience.
BWG: You’re also a successful short-story writer with your work appearing in a variety of anthologies. Your story, “The Night They Burned Ms. Dixie’s Place,” published by Alfred Hitchcock Mystery Magazine in 2017, was a finalist for both an Anthony Award and an Agatha Award—two of the most prestigious awards in mystery fiction. How are the trials and rewards of writing short stories different from those of writing novels?
DHG: I love writing short stories. The theme and point of them must be reached more quickly and concisely than in a novel meaning each word must count or be left out. For me, writing a novel is more laborious because more plots and subplots must be interwoven with more characters. When I get an idea and write a short story, if it works, it is like going into a dream state where I write from the first word to the last word without knowing how much time has passed. At that point, I am exhausted, but satisfied. I also find that while writing novels, I revise constantly, but the short stories that work, like “The Night They Burned Ms. Dixie’s Place,” need very little editing after I type the words, “The End.”
BWG: What made you decide to retire your life appointment to the federal bench to become a full-time fiction writer?
DHG: When my first book was published, I tried to keep my two careers separate, despite some articles headlined “Judge Writes Mystery!” I thought I had succeeded until I sold my second book in August 2014. Because the publisher’s calendar was full for 2015, it wasn’t slated to be released until January 2016. During that time, I went about my everyday activities on the bench. After almost twenty-three years, I had the lawyers trained that at the end of each hearing, I would ask, “Is there anything more?” Each attorney would dutifully reply, “No your honor,” and I would give a standard closing.
On one occasion, things didn’t go as planned. The lawyer answered properly, but his client interjected, “Yes, your honor. There is one more thing.”
I looked at the attorney, who raised his hands to heaven indicating he couldn’t control this client. “What is it?” I asked his client.
“No matter how you rule, I’m going to buy your book.”
I’m sure he didn’t because I ruled against him, but that night I went home and told my husband I had to make a choice. We had no more children to educate and if the numbers worked, I wanted to follow my passion for writing. I reasoned that if I could stay healthy for another twenty plus years, I could have a second career based upon passion. So far, it has been a blast.
BWG: Your contributions to the mystery community are far greater than just your many books and short stories. You have held regional and national roles in Mystery Writers of America, Sisters in Crime, and the largest chapter of Sisters in Crime: The Guppies (which stands for the “Great Unpublished”). Through these endeavors, you have helped to create an enriching environment for mystery writers, including emerging writers who can only dream of having a successful series such as the Sarah Blair Mysteries. You’re also an active civic volunteer in your current hometown of Birmingham, Alabama. One wonders where you find the time?
DHG: My two standard answers are that I don’t need a lot of sleep and I’m organized, but the true response is that people have been so generous to me throughout my life, that I believe in giving back. As I taught the young women in my Girl Scout troop, ten of whom earned the Gold Award, the motto of leaving a place better than we found it applies to everything one does.
BWG: What advice would you give to aspiring writers who would like to try their hand at writing mysteries—either short fiction or novels?
DHG: Don’t wait! Take classes, read craft related books, read books and stories in every genre for joy and because technique will rub off on you, and write.
BWG: One last question that inquiring minds want to know. You mention on your website that you were once a contestant on Jeopardy! That sounds very exciting. What did you learn from that experience? Can we expect a game-show setting for one of your future stories?
DHG: From when I took the initial contestant test to when I appeared on the show, I learned that about how much occurs backstage that the public never sees. This includes contestant positioning, the giving of smiling directions, more than one show being taped on the same day (women are required to bring a second outfit in case they win, but men only need to bring a different tie), and how many people are needed to make things seem to go smoothly. Although I haven’t worked a gameshow into a short story, my new novel, Five Belles Too Many, incorporates many of these elements as the subplot of how the reality TV competition to win a perfect Southern wedding is taped.
BWG: Thank you so much for taking the time to share your thoughts with us. For those of us eager to read all your books, where can we find them?
DHG: You can learn more about me and all of my writings at my website, https://www.DebraHGoldstein.com. My books are available from Amazon, Barnes & Noble, and your favorite indie.