The first part of the novel is told from the point of view of Izzy Santillo, a thirty-something journalist with a talent for poker and a distant crush on the reigning champion of Hold ‘Em, Nick Nolan. She ends up meeting Nick in person in a very memorable way on a trip to Vegas, and in the second part of the novel, we get inside his head as their rollercoaster romance speeds ahead. The third part switches back and forth between them, and by now, the reader fully appreciates how the dueling perspectives embody the dynamics of poker itself. The better you are at reading others and bluffing them yourself, the better chance you have of getting what you want out of the hand (which isn’t always to win).
This novel really does have it all: a witty female protagonist who comes into her own by pursuing her passions at the poker table and in the bedroom, a plot that never ceases to keep the pages turning, great humor between the lovers, and best of all, plenty of realistic—and sizzling—erotic scenes that fit seamlessly into the story. Not only did I get a refresher course on how to keep a story humming, I picked up a few poker tips, which translate quite effortlessly to everyday dealings with fellow players in the game of love and life. But here’s the real reason to admire Susan’s storytelling skills—I truly came to care about Izzy and Nick and what happened to them, and when I read the final scene, I actually had to wipe away some tears.
If I can do that in my next novel, I’ll consider it a job well done.
Besides, thanks to Susan’s novel, Herr Doktor and I have a new euphemism for doing our marital duty (always a necessity with kids)—“respecting our relationship.” As in “Honey, should we respect our relationship tonight?”
Who can turn down that offer?
But it gets even better! Susan has graciously consented to stop by to chat with us over pomegranate cocktails on the topics of writing, gambling, and sex. Afterwards, we'll finish up with some of Susan's famous tiramisu. Now that's an offer you can't refuse....
Is playing poker in real life as sexy as you make it seem in Shuffle Up and Deal?
I know it's sexy for some people because it's so popular, but it's not for me. Poker is stressful for me because I'm lousy at it. So I don't play at all anymore since I didn't enjoy it or have any talent for it and I hate routinely losing money. But I still enjoy drinking and watching others play sometimes. It really is a great skill game, but my skill lies with actual cards, where in poker you have to be skillful with people, and I'm apparently not.
So where will we find you in your favorite casino?
Blackjack, definitely. That's my card game of choice. Then once I start drinking I usually end up at a rowdy craps table. Then if I get smashed I've been known to try some hands of baccarat because you're likely to run into some characters at those tables and the dealers are extremely accommodating.
I have to say, though, that I learned a lot about the subtle power play of poker from the novel, so maybe your observer’s perspective serves you as well as the avid player’s. Are you sure you wouldn’t recommend this book as an insider’s guide for newbie poker players in terms of helpful strategies?
Oh, thank you so much, Donna. I would NOT recommend this book for newbie poker players, though, as I've already admitted my lack of expertise at the game. At the best, you might be able to pull one good move out of it, and at the worst, it could facilitate you going bankrupt. So pick up the book hopefully for some laughs and steamy romance, but not gaming advice.
Like your protagonist Izzy Santillo, you’re an Italian-American writer who knows her way around a casino. Are there any other autobiographical elements to the novel?
That's a good question. There are a few little anecdotal scenes that are pulled from my experiences. Those things always pepper my writing, but they end up pretty well fictionalized most of the time. For example, some of the more unbelievable mishaps that Izzy suffers are things that happened to me, such as falling on my face and ripping my skirt in a crowd, and in particular in front of a guy I had a thing for. What can I say, I lead a charmed life.
That ripped skirt scene did seem especially authentic, come to think of it! Now, the novel alternates between Izzy’s and Nick’s point of view. This works brilliantly with your poker-love connection in that each narrator has to “read” the other player’s motives. Did the dual point of view present any challenges as a writer? Any tricks for getting into a male character’s head so convincingly?
Again, thank you for the kind words; I'm glad it worked for you. The only real challenge was the occasional fretting about whether readers would roll their eyes when reading from Nick's POV. But I think writers think more about that than readers do. Most writers do write from the other gender's POV quite often and readers never even think about it, they just roll with it. I didn't have any tricks, other than to keep in mind a book from a friend of mine: Don Capone's Into the Sunset. He's a guy, and he wrote a really humorous story about a guy suffering mishaps in love and it helped me draw the line between being overly sentimental and too stoic from the male POV.
I’d like to share a snippet of one of my favorite sex scenes—one of many in a narrative where the eroticism fits seamlessly into the story.
Deep and hungry kisses right away, he makes me hum with it as our mouths meet and before long that buzzing that he started sparks and I’m flush and fevered for him. I long to touch his body all over. His stomach brushing against mine, all those sinewy muscles in his arms. But he keeps my hands locked down near my head while he does the work with his body and mouth. He’s teasing me, and himself. Pressing his chest into mine, he undulates, rising up while pressing his hips into mine. He’s rock hard, I’m wet. He won’t release my hands though, so I can’t get leverage. It’s like he’s possessing me and owning me, but doing it only to give me pleasure.
I spread my legs and wrap them around his waist, try to force him down and into me. I get him close, but not inside. Instead, he’s careful and controlled. Still holding my writs, he kisses me deeply and slides his erection between my lips, gliding across my hot spot. Repeatedly. Repeatedly….
I do enjoy that kind of repetition myself! Do you have a favorite scene in the novel?
Aw, again, thank you! My favorite scene is probably when Nick gets really frustrated with Izzy's tilt poker play. He's crazy about her, but she drives him crazy at that point and even though, as a poker pro, he should be able to contain himself and his emotions, he still just can't maintain and I thought that was kind of funny and endearing about him.
I know you recently came back from a trip to the Riviera (see the illustrated travelogue at Susan's blog). Did you have any adventures—gambling or otherwise—that you’d like to share?
Well. Oddly, the main thing I came back with was a renewed love for Las Vegas. My favorite things to do on vacation are swim, eat, drink, and gamble, and you just can't beat Vegas in those areas. I felt compelled to visit Monte-Carlo and see what the legend was about, and I'm glad I did. It's beautiful there, and there were some great eats. (Robuchon!) And maybe I'll enjoy the atmosphere there more once I'm embalmed, as it seems like everyone else already is. But because of the formal and rigid attitude that permeates the area, it makes adventures a little less likely to occur organically, so it was more of a laid back trip. I also got my clock cleaned at the tables, so that may be contributing to my sour perspective. In other words, there was nothing that happened that I'd write home about, nor just write about at all. Donna, thanks so much for having me here and for asking such interesting questions that were fun to answer! I really appreciate your insight and thoughtfulness and time!
Thank you, Susan, and my god, this chocolate tiramisu is a winner at any table!