Please contact E. B. Davis at for information on guest blogs and interviews. Interviews for July: (7/6) Jennifer J. Chow (7/13) Meri Allen/Shari Randall (Book 1--Ice Cream Shop Mystery), (7/20) Susan Van Kirk, (7/27) Meri Allen/Shari Randall (Book 2--Ice Cream Shop Mystery).

Wednesday, May 15, 2013

An Interview with Barb Goffman

Few writers are nominated for an Agatha Award for their first published story. Barb Goffman’s fame precedes her collection Don’t Get Mad, Get Even, recently released from Wildside Press. The collection contains fifteen short stories including those nominated for awards, which are numerous. Barb’s nominations include the Agatha Award (five times), the Anthony Award (two times) and the Macavity Award and Pushcart Prize (once each). My favorite story, “Evil Little Girl,” I hope will garner a nomination in next year’s awards, proving that you will relish reading every story in Don’t Get Mad, Get Even because they are all winners. Welcome to WWK, Barb.    E. B. Davis

In 2005, Quiet Storm Publishing published Chesapeake Crimes II containing “Murder at Sleuthfest,” your first published short story, which was nominated for an Agatha Award. How long before this nomination did you start writing fiction?

I began writing crime fiction in 2001. I wrote a dozen chapters of a mystery novel before getting stuck on a research problem. While waiting for an answer, I got an idea for another novel, which I began writing. The first draft poured out of me over sixteen months. That novel, Call Girl, remains a work in progress, having sat in a drawer for several years, but I hope to get it out there circulating soon, newly revised.

As for short stories, in 2004, the Chesapeake Chapter of Sisters in Crime put out a call for stories for Chesapeake Crimes II. I’d never written a mystery short story before, but I thought this might be a way to get my foot in the door. So I read a bunch of short stories written by Jan Burke and I read the first Chesapeake Crimes anthology to get a feeling for how mystery short stories worked. And then I sat on my balcony for about two hours, trying to come up with a plot that would work. I knew who I wanted to kill: the person who stole my ring at the 2004 Sleuthfest conference. What I needed was a plot that would work both as personal catharsis and as a story. Once I came up with the plot, I wrote the story, submitted it, and was pleased to have it accepted. It was all very fast.

You’re an active member of your local MWA and SinC chapters. How do you do it all?

Yes, I’m secretary of our MWA chapter and a past president of our SinC chapter. For the last few years, I’ve co-edited the Chesapeake Crimes anthologies with Donna Andrews and Marcia Talley. I’m also program chair of the Malice Domestic mystery convention. Malice, especially, is a labor of love, but it’s a big time suck. So I make a lot of lists, which enable me to keep juggling the ever-changing number of things I need to do.

Frankly, when push comes to shove, it’s often my writing that takes a back seat. I know it shouldn’t, and I’m making an effort to say no to more things so that I can concentrate on writing. (Of course, having said that, I just accepted a request to teach a class about writing short stories to the Northern Virginia Writers Club. My just-say-no campaign is still a work in progress.)

Your settings are varied; West Virginia, Illinois, New Jersey, North Carolina. Do you travel? Where
did you grow up?

I grew up on Long Island, went to college in Michigan, grad school in Illinois, and law school in North Carolina. I worked as a newspaper reporter for a few years, moving at one point six times in fourteen months, which helped me to learn about different people and communities (good for writing) and helped me realize I don’t like moving. Instead, I like being settled and being home. So I don’t travel much, except in my head. Several of my stories are set in the South. I love southern settings, and I often will hear characters talking to me in a southern accent. Remnants of a past life perhaps?

Do you think conflicted writers have an advantage?

Perhaps. The more stress or bad times you’ve been through, the more you have to draw upon when coming up with interesting and real characters and plots. I have a friend who says he never gets angry. It’s not an emotion he understands. He says it seems a waste of time. That’s probably good for his blood pressure, but it impedes his ability to write angry characters. Anger is an important factor in mystery writing, particularly in my stories, which so often involve revenge, so I guess it’s good that I can call up anger pretty easily.

Only a few of your stories have a male protagonist and only one of your stories has a police officer protagonist. Do you prefer writing main characters that possess more of your own attributes?

I didn’t write any male protagonists for a long time, fearing I wouldn’t get the voice right. But once I dived in, I found it wasn’t that difficult. I loved writing “The Lord Is My Shamus,” whose main character is the biblical Job. I hear his voice as a little old Jewish man and write him accordingly. My friend Laura says I also write blue-collar men well. I’m not sure what that reveals about me, but I’ll take any compliment.

Regarding police officers, I had a similar fear of not getting the details right. It still concerns me, but I’m trying to stretch in my writing, so when I chose to write about a female sheriff in “Suffer the Little Children,” I just made sure I did enough research.

Mostly, though, I write characters that suddenly appear in my head. They’re often women. Lately, they’re often teenagers. And they’re all often funny. My characters probably all have my own voice, to a certain extent. I’ve had people tell me that when they read my stories, no matter how varied the characters are, they can hear me talking. It’s hard to shed your own skin.

You are a lawyer, but none of your stories touches on your profession. Why?

Most legal stories/novels involve lawsuits. It makes sense. You can have conflict and a big courtroom scene. But I’m a regulatory attorney. I specialize in telling people if they can do what they want to do legally, and if the answer is no, I help them figure out how to change their plans so they can reach the same goal under the law. I haven’t had an idea of how to make that exciting for my fiction. But never say never.

Often editors prescribe the topic wanted for short stories. Do you like writing to topic or would you prefer to let the story roll off your imagination regardless of topic and place them later?

I’m often inspired by story calls. I like the challenge. For example, last year I was invited to submit a story for the anthology Nightfalls. The story could be in any genre, the editor said, but it had to show how people would spend their last night on earth, knowing that the world would end tomorrow. That was a real challenge, because if the world were about to end, a lot of crimes would be ruled out. Robbery for instance wouldn’t happen because money would be irrelevant. I spent a while thinking about that conundrum, and I realized that, in the end, all a person really has is love, self-respect, and ... perhaps ... revenge. And the story “Bon Appetit” flowed from there. That said, I also like writing stories that simply come to me, promptless, but it’s usually easier writing with a specific market in mind.

Do you like a story that ends with a twist?

I love it. I especially love the double twist, which isn’t easy to do. I pulled it off in “The Worst Noel.” I can’t say more about that without giving things away. That said, I also like stories that end on a satisfying note, where there’s perhaps less of a twist than an epiphany. Both story-telling approaches can work if done well.

One of the themes in your short stories is distinguishing reality from fantasy sometimes through a child character’s growth or an adult character’s confirmation or degradation of beliefs. Does the truth set you free?

Yes and no. When a character grows enough to see things as they really are, it may be good for the character, especially in the long run, but boy, the short run could be difficult. For instance, in my story “Volunteer of the Year,” my main character had lived many years with her eyes closed to something horrible going on practically right in front of her. Once she realized what was happening (again, I’m not giving details so not to ruin things for folks who haven’t read the story), she took steps to fix the problem. Yes, doing so was probably best for her, but boy, ignorance sure had been bliss. Similarly, in “Truth and Consequences,” a fourteen-year-old girl learns a family secret, and suddenly finds her world isn’t so cookie-cutter after all. Was it good for her to learn this truth? Probably yes in the long run; no in the short run.

That said, sometimes the truth really can set you free. In my story “The Lord Is My Shamus,” God sends Job back to earth because a man has died and everyone thinks it was an accidental death. Everyone but the murderer ... and God. So Job is sent to right some wrongs. And in the end, the murderer is unburdened from carrying around the shame and the secret. So in that story, the truth did set someone free.

Along with the realizations that your characters undergo, there are bits of horror that double back to bite them. How did you learn to write horror?

Do I write horror? I’ve had a cannibalism story half-written for a few years now. That’s horror, and I think I’ve been hesitant to finish it because I don’t really want to put those words on the page. But I guess I do write some dark psychological stories that might be called horror, broadly defined. In “Evil Little Girl,” for instance, a bullied twelve-year-old is subject to some horrendous things—violence, ostracism, and adults who don’t believe her or take her complaints seriously. The story may not be technically horror, but it depicts a girl going through something horrible. I’m not sure how I learned to write these types of stories, or any stories, other than reading good writing and letting it inform my own work. I think of myself as a method writer. When I’m writing a character, I am that character, and I try to feel what that character would feel, so that I can get the voice and the reactions correct on the page.

Is reality then, part horror?

For some people, it unfortunately is. There are a lot of people who live perfectly safe, ordinary lives, where things go wrong, but nothing terrible, nothing horrendous. That’s wonderful for them, but they don’t make good story models because a good story needs a good plot, and conflict drives plot.

Do you think holidays are hell?

No, I love holidays. Granted I used to despise Valentine’s Day because it shoved in my face that I was single.  But in the last few years, I’ve come back to the fun approach to holidays I had as a kid. On Valentine’s Day, I wear red or pink (no longer black). On St. Patrick’s Day, I wear green, even though I’m not Irish. And I’m not Christian, but on Christmas, my dog wears an elf hat. Basically, I like the extra zip holidays can bring to an otherwise ordinary day. Of course, holidays are also a good time for crime, as readers will see firsthand next year when Chesapeake Crimes: Homicidal Holidays is published. We’ll have fourteen stories set on seven different holidays, ranging from Halloween to Christmas to Presidents Day (your story, E.B.) to Talk Like A Pirate Day. My own story “The Shadow Knows” is set on Groundhog Day. It’s one of my lighter, funnier tales, and I’m looking forward to sharing it with readers.

Have you ever looked up the sexual offenders list for your zip code?

 I have. When I lived in Maryland, I checked the list and found that a couple of sex offenders lived
right near a park with a playground. I was surprised that was allowed. There’s probably a story in there somewhere. A dark story.

Which is your preference, beach or mountains?

Beach. I love the smell of salt water, the sound of the ocean rolling in and out, the breeze on my face, the squawk of seagulls, and the feel of sand between my toes. I grew up near the beach. It’s calming and inspiring.

Chihuahua or Great Dane?

Great Dane because I love big dogs. My dog, Scout, is probably a lab/shepherd/malamute mix. He’s not quite as big as a Great Dane, but at eighty pounds, there’s more than enough to love.

Thanks, E.B., for inviting me to talk about writing short stories and about my new collection, Don’t Get Mad, Get Even. I’ve been fortunate to have so much success with my fiction, including an Anthony Award nomination just last week for “The Lord Is My Shamus.” I’d be happy to chat today about writing short stories with Writers Who Kill readers. I also can be contacted any time through my website:

Barb’s collection can be bought at Amazon or at Wildside Press paper or  eprint.


Jim Jackson said...

Having just attended my first Malice, I am in awe of all you accomplished to have a successful conference. Jan and I had a great time and enjoyed meeting you and all the other folks I only knew online.

I loved “The Lord is my Shamus” and wish you the best of luck with both your current compilation and future short stories.

~ Jim

E. B. Davis said...

I usually see Barb at Malice, but this year I missed her. My short story and one by WWK blogger, Shari Randall, appears in the same anthology as "The Lord Is My Shamus," Chesapeake Crimes: This Job Is Murder. The rest of us gain a bit of glitter from Barb's nomination, and I hope sales for Wildside Press, which also published Fish Tales and Fish Nets.

E. B. Davis said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Jacqueline Seewald said...


Great to learn more about you. My older son is also an attorney. In fact, he is co-author on my next mystery novel published by Five Star/Gale in September.

This is a wonderful in-depth interview! Impressive when the interviewer has read the author's work and can offer intelligent commentary. Congrats on the book of short stories which is certainly a major achievement.

Susan said...

Thanks to you both for such a great interview! Barb, when will you teach that NVWC class? I checked the website but don't see it listed. I'll get in touch about that via email.

Barb Goffman said...

Good morning, everyone.

Thanks, Jim, about Malice and about "Shamus." I had a lot of fun writing that story, always asking myself, How can I make Job suffer more?

And thanks, Elaine, for giving me this opportunity to get to know the WWK readers. The interview was a lot of fun.

Jacqueline, a new book is a huge accomplishment. Major congratulations to you. How did you like co-writing with your son? How did you divide up the work?

And Susan, the NVWC class will be at the end of September. I don't think their website is updated that far out. Once they have the site arranged (which I think can occur two months in advance), I'm sure they'll post about it. Thanks for the interest, and I hope to see you there.

Anita Page said...

Great interview, Barb and E.B.

Barb, I was struck by what you said about reading short crime fiction to learn about the form. This is the best advice one could give to anyone interested in writing short stories.

It was good to see you at Malice. Best of luck with Don't Get Mad, Get Even.

Barb Goffman said...

Thanks, Anita. It was so nice to see you at Malice Domestic, too. Regarding learning how to write short stories, I think reading them (good ones and not-so-good ones) is a great way to see what works and what doesn't.

Linda Rodriguez said...

Welcome, Barb, to Writers Who Kill! It's so good to see you here! *big virtual hug*

I'm always in awe of short story writers. I find the short story the most difficult form--I'd rather write a novel or a poem any day. I usually only write one when I've been asked or commissioned to. So my hat is really off to you on all your great success with the individual stories and now the collection. Mazel tov to you and to dear Scout!

Gloria Alden said...

How nice to see you here, Barb. I don't know if you remember or not, but we sat beside each other during lunch at Bouchercon. It's the first time I met you, and I enjoyed our conversation that day.

I liked reading your interview and getting to know you better. What a great job you did for Malice this year. "The Lord is my Shamus" was my favorite short story up for an Agatha, and the one I voted for. I also bought your book, and look forward to starting it as soon as I get a grip on all the mowing, weeding and planting that needs done. Spring is a tearing out of the hair time of year for me much as I like it.

Debra H. Goldstein said...

Excellent interview! Having read your short stories and the comments you made after each in Don't Get Mad, Get Even, I appreciate how you explained your motivation and process in this interview. Also appreciate the excellent job you do with the Malice programming.

Barb Goffman said...

Thanks, Linda, for the welcome! (And Scout says woof.) Short stories really appeal to the newspaper reporter in me. A book takes a long time to write, but I can finish writing a short story quickly with the right idea.

Hi, Gloria. Good luck with the gardening. I love looking at pretty yards, but I don't have it in me to do it myself. Too many bugs. And yes, of course I remember sitting next to you at lunch at Bouchercon. You were on my right, and Gigi Pandian was on my left. Thanks for buying the book. I hope you like it.

And Debra, thanks for always being such a big supporter. I so appreciate it.

And thanks everyone for your kind comments about Malice!

Kaye George said...

Barb, I don't see how you can write at all for the 6 months before Malice. Don't take that for permission from me to quit working on the conference programming,though!

Very nice interview, with a bit of insight into your storytelling. Thanks!

Elaine Will Sparber said...


I've been collecting members' accomplishments for the SinC Guppy Chapter's newsletter for roughly two years, and I'm always amazed at how much you publish and are nominated for. I enjoyed this interview with you, and I also enjoyed meeting you at Malice.

Paula Gail Benson said...

I agree with Debra that reading your comments after the stories only enhanced my enjoyment of the stories. Thanks to you and Wildside for this wonderful compilation.

Is your course in person or online? If in person, would you consider offering an online course? I might be able to put you in contact with a group that would sponsor an online course.

Thank you for another marvelous Malice.

Paula Gail Benson said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Polly Iyer said...

Loved this interview, particularly the description of a method writer. I can't imagine writing a character without being her/him. I wish I could contain my word count and plot diversions to write a short story. I was so intrigued, I just ordered Barb's ebook and look forward to reading it.

Anonymous said...

What a great interview! It's nice to read about all your accomplishments. And while you're still working!I have read some of the Chesapeake Crimes, and enjoyed them. You & the others do a good job on that.

What can I say--I can check a fair number of the addresses on my holiday card list by pulling up Maryland's sex offender registry (that's not its purpose, but it's convenient) As an attorney, you may be aware of the problems with the registry, and that Maryland's highest court has set new guidelines that will probably remove more than half the names from it, but at this point, each individual has to petition the court individually, and hiring an attorney to do that is expensive, often more than someone who is struggling with stigma can afford. And even then, the 20 year old who was convicted of statutory rape for having consentual sex with his younger girlfriend will remain on the list, even if he & said girlfriend end up getting married. What with plea bargains, etc, all the people on the registry are not monsters.

Shari Randall said...

What a wonderful interview - it's fun to see what's going on in that devious mind of yours. You are a terrific short story writer, conference organizer, and editor (I know, Barb edited my story for This Job Is Murder). I learned so much from you about the short story form. Future students, you are in for a treat if you take a class from Barb!

Barb Goffman said...

Hi, Kaye. Thanks for stopping by. And yes, when I said Malice was a huge time suck, I meant it. I don't nearly as much writing done as I'd like to.

Elaine, thank you. I've been very fortunate with my writing success. It was great meeting you in person at Malice, too.

Paula, the Northern Va. Writers Club class is a one-day class. Like an hour or two. I've never taught a full course (which I assume means multiple sessions). I'd have to give that some thought. Tempting, but I've got that just-say-no promise I made to myself ...

Polly, thanks for ordering the book! I hope you like it.

And KM, thanks for the comments regarding Chesapeake Crimes. Donna, Marcia, and I put a lot of work into the books. (Speaking of that, I should ...) Regarding the sex-offender database, you may be right (I have no first-hand knowledge), but I would have thought that while someone is on the list (rightly or wrongly) they would be barred from living right across the street from a playground. That was what surprised me. Anyway, thanks for stopping by today.

Barb Goffman said...

Shari, you're way too sweet. Thank you. And if anyone hasn't read Shari's story "Keep It Simple" in Chesapeake Crimes: This Job Is Murder, you're missing out. It's smart and funny.

Publius said...

What a great interview, Barb. I'm so impressed by people who possess the gift of the short story. Managing to get a beginning, middle, and end into such a tight space ... amazing! And you do it so very well.

Anonymous said...

hiNice interview, Barb! I'm excited to hear there's a new Chesapeake Crimes anthology in the pipeline!

Barb Goffman said...

Thanks, Wendy! You know, short-story writing might be easier than you think. Like most things, you just need to practice.

And Anonymous (Teresa), thanks again for being such a big supporter of me and the Chesapeake Crimes series.

Anonymous said...

Great interview. I do usually hear your voice at some point in your stories. I'll have to pay attention and try to figure out when that happens. I agree with others that the comments at the end of each story in your book were really interesting. But, I did find myself reading them before each story (is that wrong?).

Barb Goffman said...

Barbara, you read the comments before you read each story? No no nooooooooo! The comments gave some things away. But you typically read the end of books way before you get there, too, don't you?

Anonymous said...

Yes, I often do read the ends of mysteries once I've decided I like the book. I want to stop thinking about "who did it" and focus on how we get to the "who did it." I know it's unorthodox, but it works for me. I have been trying to break the habit, but sometimes I just have to know so I can enjoy the book.

Barb Goffman said...

To each her own, I guess.

Susan said...

It's amazing how much Barb writes in addition to working on conferences like Malice Domestic - and just the thought should give the rest of us a kick - there are no excuses! I love Barb's stories for their concise way at tackling bigger truths with a touch of humor. Nice interview ... her personality comes out.

Unknown said...

I loved the interview. I wished I lived closer so I could attend a short story class by you Barb.

Barb Goffman said...

Susan and Christina, thank you! I'm so glad you stopped by. And that class in September ... I better start prepping. :)