NASHVILLE, Tennessee, USA - If you're a maven of mah jongg and a fan of mysteries, you'll find ‘Should have played poker’ easy-to-read, enjoyable, suspenseful, well-paced adventure belongs on your nightstand right between your good-luck tile and your playing schedule.
Judge Goldstein deftly immerses the reader in rich characters, cozy settings, complicated relationships, and intrigue. As the characters come together, cross paths, discover clues, and unravel relationships, you'll find yourself wringing your hands worried for Carrie's safety, wondering who should she trust, and who is the kikenhai (dangerous tile) in the lot.
Carrie’s life as a young corporate lawyer who is balancing her job and visiting her father at the retirement home is upset when her mother unexpectedly returns 26 years after abandoning her family. Her mother leaves her with a sealed envelope and the confession that she once considered killing Carrie’s father. Before Carrie opens the envelope, she finds her mother murdered and the woman who helped raise her seriously injured.
Instructed to leave the detective work to the police, Carrie and the ladies in the retirement home’s Mah Jongg circle attempt to unravel Wahoo, Alabama’s past secrets, putting Carrie in danger and at odds with a former lover – the detective assigned to her mother’s case.
Mahjong News knows mah jongg enthusiasts love to size up their fellow players, and we've taken an opportunity to talk with Mrs. Goldstein to learn what flowers she may hold in her hand.
MN: Let’s begin with you introducing yourself to the Mahjong News audience. Tell us a little bit about who you are and where you come from.
Debra: Judge, author, litigator, wife, step-mom, mother of twins, civic volunteer, and Michigan grad are all words used to describe me. My writings are equally diverse. In addition to short stories and non-fiction essays, two novels have been published: Should Have Played Poker: a Carrie Martin and the Mah Jongg Players Mystery (Five Star Publishing - April 2016) and the 2012 IPPY Award winning Maze in Blue, a mystery set on the University of Michigan’s campus. I also serve on several writing and civic boards including Sisters in Crime, Guppies, Alys Stephens Performing Arts Center, CJFS and the YWCA. I live in Birmingham, Alabama with my husband, Joel, whose blood runs crimson.
MN: You’ve chosen Mah Jongg as a tool to tie the various characters together.Tell us about your Mah Jongg experience, and how you came to choose this game for your book?
Debra: Mah Jongg has always fascinated me because of its combination of luck and skill and the fact that it brings together people from all walks of life. When I first moved to Alabama and later, when I stepped off the bench and was writing Should Have Played Poker, I let people know that while I couldn’t commit to a regular game, I’d be glad to sub. The calls rolled in – from people of all ages and backgrounds and I jumped at the chance to play whenever possible. Each game was different. Some serious, some comical, some where the players talked throughout the game, some where people played for blood, but the one thing that was consistent was that whether the players loved each other or not, the game brought them together and provided them with an opportunity to share whatever was going on in the community – perfect for a mystery.
MN: How long have you been playing Mah Jongg, and how did you first get introduced to the game?
Debra: Some of my first memories are of my mother and her friends playing Mah Jongg at our house or at a small table set up next to the community pool. I remember, before I was old enough to understand the game, being excited to mix the tiles and build the walls before her friends arrived.
The day I “got” the game and salted East with every joker was the last day she let me set up her game
Although I played sporadically over the years, being a regular didn’t match the hours and travel I put in as a litigator or judge. When I stepped down almost two years ago to write, I subbed in several games, which gave me an opportunity to meet many women I’d never had contact with. About a year ago, I accepted an invitation to become a permanent player.
MN: Tell us about your history in Mah Jongg: learning, competitions, travels and whatnot.
Debra: Most of my Mah Jongg learning was by the seat of my pants. Observing and later questioning my mother and other excellent players was a wonderful starting ground that I enhanced with reading the rules and mah jongg periodicals. I’ve only played in a few local tournaments, but my two maj goals are to participate in a Mah Jongg cruise and to take a group of women to Atlanta to play on the table that mixes the tiles and builds the walls itself.
MN: Were there any particular mentors that motivated you to continue your journey in Mah Jongg?
Debra: My mother was a Holocaust survivor, who came to the United States as an orphaned ten-year-old who didn’t know English. Not only did she learn English and have a career, she taught me by example to be passionate about family, reading, volunteering, and Mah Jongg. She was excellent with numbers and a very good bridge player, but Mah Jongg brought her the greatest joy because of the closeness she developed with her fellow players. Her enthusiasm motivated me to reach out to others through the game.
MN: You’ve successfully woven Mah Jongg into your story. What challenges did you face putting this story together?
Debra: My secondary challenge weaving Mah Jongg into Should Have Played Poker was not having too much or too little of the game. Too little wouldn’t let a non-Mah Jongg player understand the game while too much would detract from the story’s flow. It was a delicate balance explaining the tiles and rules so a novice would understand the game without boring a seasoned player.
The biggest challenge was conveying the joy and love Mah Jongg players have for the game to non-players using a show rather than tell method
MN: Endeavors often come together with much support. Are there resources your reached out to, or that reached out to you, to help this book come to be?
Debra: Any mistakes in the book respecting Mah Jongg are mine, but to minimize them I reached out to seasoned players, the rules, and articles I found in journals and on the internet. What was more important in bringing the book together was the editorial and emotional support I received from friends and family.
MN: What do you hope readers will take away from your book?
I hope readers will close the book asking for a sequel because they’ve had an enjoyable experience. My books are meant to be beach, airplane or bedside reads – moments of escape and pure fun.
Even though they are, for the most part, light and airy, they still contain social issues. In Should Have Played Poker, the issues of aging, dementia, and mother-daughter relationships are addressed, but so is the joy of life.
Hopefully, the reader will close the book smiling because the book has been fun
MN: As a lawyer and a judge, it’s no surprise your character, as a lawyer, draws from your personal experience. Can you expound on that?
Debra: I believe that all writers draw on personal experiences for characterization and plot, but we embellish those experiences far beyond what they ever were. If we didn’t, readers would be bored to tears. In my first book, Maze in Blue, a mystery set on the University of Michigan’s campus in the 1970’s, I used student memories and physical locations in Ann Arbor to create a sense of reality, but while the dorms, sororities, restaurants, concerts, and football rivalries existed, my personal experience didn’t include any murders or sinister activities. Similarly in Should Have Played Poker, I was able to enhance my story by remembering the fears, excitement and responsibilities I experienced doing corporate tax work for General Motors (at the bottom of the heap in my twenties) and drawing on the political interaction I’ve observed in my various legal and publishing jobs. Let me again repeat, both are works of fiction.
MN: What other aspects of your life can readers find reflected in your story?
Debra: As the daughter of a Holocaust survivor, I was brought up with a sensitivity to survivors and to my Jewish religion. The emotional aspects and factual patterns of stories told by mother and others colored at least one character. I also translated characteristics of people of all ages, who I’ve met playing Mah Jongg, into my colorful players. Being honest, characters and plots in my story all have seeds in the lives of my family and friends.
MN: Can you share with us any backstories regarding the characters you’ve developed for the story? Aspects of the characters which may not be explicitly in print, but which you had conceived to help you develop the character in question?
Debra: One of the things that helped me develop the characters in Should Have Played Poker is that I introduced the Mah Jongg players and Michael in my first published short story, Legal Magic. When I wrote that story, I decided the core group of Mah Jongg players had been neighbors and friends in the suburbs and that as they aged, they ended up in the same retirement home continuing to play together. They know each other’s secrets and weaknesses, but they also know who is the bossiest, who is the leader, who makes the best cakes, and who walks to her own drummer.
Being together so long, they have shared so many fears and happy moments that they have developed individual personalities colored by friendship
The interesting thing is that as rich as their backstories are, most of the information about each only appears in the book by suggestion.
For example, one of my favorite characters, Ella, is mentioned as having had some TIAs that her doctor believes destroyed her filtering control. That might be enough to explain her present behavior, but I have the other characters note she never filtered anything. This gives me the freedom to write her as a woman who always has believed in and lived by the premise of “me, me, me.”
MN: Character names are chosen for many reasons, like reflecting a personal meaning to the author, meant to serve as a subtle innuendo or clue, or sometimes even reveal details of the character’s personality. Would you like to share any such character inspirations with us?
Debra: The protagonist in Should Have Played Poker originally was going to be Candace, nicknamed Candy, but when the first readers reported an impression of immaturity and silliness from the name, I changed it. Carrie still gives me the word ending I wanted, but has a more serious and grown-up connotation.
The other character name that holds a personal meaning to me is Carolyn Holt. After Maze in Blue came out, I was a panelist at Murder on the Menu in Wetumpka, Alabama. As part of the conference, authors agreed to permit the naming of a character in a work in progress to be auctioned off. I was so excited that someone spent money to be in one of my books, I used her as a main character in my first draft. My editors objected noting that it wasn’t a good idea to have a character’s name (Deborah Holt) be similar to that of the author (Debra H. Goldstein). Hence, I’d just gotten some good advice and seen how Carolyn Haines and Carolyn Hart functioned in the mystery world, so I grabbed their first name for my protagonist.
MN: The book notes it is a “Carrie Martin and the Mah Jongg Players Mystery.” Does this imply there are more from this bunch to come?
Debra: I’d love to continue this as a series, but it will depend upon reader demand and sales. When Five Star, a division of Cengage, purchased the manuscript, I envisioned it to be a series, but Cengage is suspending its mystery line in late 2017. Consequently, this book will be orphaned unless another publishing house picks it up or the clamor supports self-publishing of a sequel.
MN: Any other projects in the works that readers should look forward to?
Debra: I’ve just finished the draft of One Taste Too Many, a mystery with cozy elements, and am working on several short pieces. For continued notifications about my writing, check out my website at www.DebraHGoldstein.com, like my facebook author page https://www.facebook.com/DebraHGoldsteinAuthor or follow by blogs: “It’s Not Always a Mystery” - https://debrahgoldstein.wordpress.com and The Stiletto Gang - https://thestilettogang.blogspot.com
MN: Besides Mah Jongg and this story, tell us a little about yourself. Who is Debra H. Goldstein?
Debra: I grew up in Newark, New Jersey and Jackson, Michigan. After earning my BA in English and History from the University of Michigan, I moved to New York to find a job in publishing and to try to get on Jeopardy. Goals accomplished, I enrolled at Emory University School of Law to obtain a juris doctorate.
Initially I practiced corporate international tax law, but then decided to focus on labor litigation. A high point of my trial work was receiving a U.S. Department of Labor Meritorious Achievement Award for Marshall v. Georgia Southwestern, a case of first impression that addressed equal pay in higher education.
After twelve years of litigating, I was one of the youngest individuals appointed as a U.S. Administrative Law Judge. Maze in Blue was published while I was on the bench. I had so much fun with the book that I decided to step off the bench and write during the day instead of after midnight. It has been quite a novelty.
MN: What else does the future hold for Debra H. Goldstein?
Debra: The future holds a continued balance of writing, family, and volunteering.
MN: Is there anything else that we haven’t touched on that you would like to share with the readers of Mahjong News?
Debra: I’d like to thank the readers of Mahjong News for sharing my passion for the game and hopefully for enjoying my book. I invite them to take the time to review it or to stay in touch with me (www.DebraHGoldstein.com) and learn about my future projects.
Should have played poker
By Debra H. Goldstein * April 20, 2016 * Five Star Publishing/Cengage * Mystery
ISBN: 9781432831592 (hardcover) * ISBN: 9781432831530 (ebook)