Judge Debra H. Goldstein is the author of Should Have Played Poker: a Carrie Martin and the Mah Jongg Players Mystery (Five Star -2016) and the 2012 IPPY Award winning Maze in Blue, a mystery set on the University of Michigan’s campus. Her short stories and essays have appeared in periodicals and anthologies, including Alfred Hitchcock Mystery Magazine, The Birmingham Arts Journal, Mardi Gras Murder and The Killer Wore Cranberry: a Fourth Meal of Mayhem. In addition to being the Sisters in Crime Guppy President, Debra serves on the national Sisters in Crime board, numerous civic boards in Birmingham, Alabama and is an MWA member.
I love the title of your website, “It’s Not Always a Mystery.” Your first two books—including the IPPY Award-winning Maze in Blue—were mysteries. Do you have an alter-ego who’s writing in another genre?
For years, my alter-ego could be found in the decisions I issued as Judge Debra H. Goldstein (much more boring than my mysteries). I called my blog “It’s Not Always a Mystery” because, under my own name, I write both mystery and literary short stories and non-fiction essays, as well as my novels.
You grew up in New Jersey and Michigan and worked in New York before moving to Atlanta to attend law school. Now you live in Birmingham, Alabama. Was it an adjustment, a culture shock when you first moved to the South?
For me, moving to the South was a charming experience. I embraced it although I came South by accident. I was working in New York and had been accepted to several law schools. I got on a plane to tour some of the ones offering me scholarship money. It was snowing when I left New Jersey, snowing harder in Pennsylvania, snowing even harder at my next stop, but when the plane broke through the clouds in Atlanta, I saw the red clay Margaret Mitchell described in Gone With the Wind and this English major was hooked. I didn’t know it was the day after one of our terrible rainstorms when the air is clear, the pollen washed away. At that point, I thought I would be here for three years, but when I took my first job out of law school, it was in Michigan during a winter which had thirty-four inches of snow. I moved back to the South the following year.
You worked in publishing before becoming an attorney and then a judge. What led to that career change?
I was always torn between writing and becoming an attorney, so I graduated college in December, half a year early to give myself eight months to try out the publishing world. Two days later, I flew to New York and resume in hand applied for publishing jobs. At night, I typed law school applications. I was lucky and landed a publishing job, but realized the technical side wasn’t what I wanted to do long term. In the fall, I went to law school, but I the idea of writing more than briefs and later opinions always nagged at me.
Your short fiction has won awards and been collected in other anthologies. Do you find it hard to “switch gears” when you go from short to long fiction?
No, I don’t find it hard switching gears from short to long fiction because for me, stories write themselves to the length they belong at. My short pieces have tighter scenes, less characters, and usually only one or two specific themes. I wander more in my longer works, but I really think the final product is exactly what it should be.
That said, sometimes the story grows. When I wrote Legal Magic, which won an Alabama Writers Conclave award and was my first short story published, it introduced the Mah Jongg Players who later became the supporting players in Should Have Played Poker: a Carrie Martin and the Mah Jongg Players Mystery. At the time, a 1500-word story said everything I wanted about the Mah Jongg Players, but three years later, I was ready to add another 70000-80000 words to their lives.
You’re a member of both Sisters in Crime and MWA. Have you ever gone to Bouchercon or one of the other genre conventions?
I love to learn and believe that can be accomplished through reading, taking classes, and especially by being on panels and listening to panels at conferences. Since my first book, Maze in Blue, an academic mystery on the University of Michigan’s campus in the 1970’s, was published in late 2011, I have attended multiple conferences. These include Malice Domestic, Bouchercon, Killer Nashville, Murder on the Menu, Murder in the Magic City, Sleuthfest, Crimebake, and the Writers Police Academy.
Who are your favorite writers (not necessarily mystery writers)?
Being a fast reader, I’ve always read everything and anything for relaxation. My work was detailed and intense, so when I traveled or vacationed, I preferred mysteries and biographies, but I usually had a more literary work going on my bedside table. The result is that I whip through people’s series and then am hooked on buying their books as they are published, but I don’t have a favorite author.
How would you describe your story (“Golden Eclipse”) in the Day of the Dark collection?
A Golden Eclipse is a tongue in cheek examination of a young law enforcement agent’s plan to take down a con man. The story reminds us that no matter what the event, there are always people ready to use any occasion to take advantage of others.
Have you ever seen an eclipse? Is Birmingham in the path of totality for this eclipse?
I’ve seen an eclipse, but not one that is a total solar eclipse like this one. We kid the only way to get to Birmingham is flying through Atlanta. I’m afraid the only way to view the eclipse will be through Atlanta, too.
Do you have a dedicated “writing time’ carved out of your day or do you have to catch an hour here, an hour there?
I wish I had a dedicated writing time, but I write when the muse hits me. Unfortunately, this limits my production because my writing is done in limited bursts of time. What is exciting is when the words are flowing. Then, I lose of track of time. Hours and even days pass where I take short breaks to eat and sleep, but then I revert to not touching my computer. In the few years since I began seriously writing, my production is reflected by three books and twenty-five published short stories. Okay by my standards, but nothing compared to writers like Kaye George or Edith Maxwell.
Do you listen to music while you work?
Yes, I listen to show music when I’m writing. I find I type and get into a mood that reflects certain songs, so I play only specific albums while working on a long piece. Should Have Played Poker was written to the repeated playing of 1776 and They’re Playing Our Song. Maybe One Taste Too Many contains mentions to freezers because it was influenced by the music from Frozen,
What’s next in your writing queue?
My immediate project is to write the synopsis for the second book of a three-book Sarah Blair cook of convenience series I recently agreed to write for Kensington (One Taste Too Many is the first book in the series). Once the synopsis is completed, in the next week or two, I’ll begin writing the book and working on a short story.