This week on The Spotlight: Michael Rose, here to chat about The Sorting Room

Author Name: Michael Rose

Book Title: The Sorting Room

Book Genre: Literary Fiction/Family Saga

Release Date: September 21, 2021

Publisher: SparkPress

Welcome, Michael! How would you describe The Sorting Room? 

An epic family saga, The Sorting Room is the captivating tale of Eunice Ritter, a girl coming of age during America’s Great Depression, who was born to uncaring alcoholic parents and destined for a life of low-wage toil—a difficult, lonely existence of scant choices. The novel, which spans decades, shows how hard work and the memory of a single friendship gave the indomitable Eunice the perseverance to pursue redemption and forgiveness for the grievous mistakes she made early in her life.

What sparked the idea for this book?

I drew from my own experiences on the family farm and my part-time job working at an industrial laundry during my high school days. I was also inspired by the life story of an American man I knew who was born in the late 1920s. He resembled a Native American, although he had been born to an American woman of German ancestry, whose husband was of Swedish descent. They were both alcoholics and rumors about the child’s paternity cited an affair. As a baby, he was shipped off to live on his maternal grandfather’s farm. The story offered me inspiration for a fabricated tale with fictional characters.

Additionally, I had a work colleague who had lived on a reservation when he was a kid. His white father was a teacher at the elementary school. His mother was Latina, and he considered her and the members of the tribal community on the reservation to be of common ancestry. His family story was my introduction to the connective roots of indigenous people throughout our western hemisphere.

How long did it take for you to write it? Did you have to do any research?

Eunice was the first character I imagined after I retired and began my writing pursuit in earnest. I knew little about the craft. I read books on creative writing while writing away in semi-ignorant bliss. After a couple of years, I had produced an 1,100-page tome with a story line that spanned centuries. Needless to say, it was a labor of love akin to a child’s first clay sculpture. I progressed slowly as an autodidact and wrote three more novels with similar results. After finally seeking out much needed professional criticism, I moved on from years of solitary trial and error. With the help of a remote teacher/editor, I received remedial instruction and acquired basic skills. I then returned to my immense manuscript to harvest the character of Eunice and her story. From my earliest efforts to the final novel, I estimate that The Sorting Room consumed more than five years of my writing life.

I conducted modest research to bolster and validate the education that I got first-hand as a laborer (both on the farm and at the laundry), as well as what I had learned from the people whose lives and stories triggered my imagination. The most crucial research was to ensure that modernity hadn’t crept into my head and overridden the historical realities of the time periods in the book, which began in the 1920s and ended in the 1960s.  

What drew you to the historical fiction genre?

I love back stories. Who is that person you see with a walker? Is she simply a curled-over old woman with osteoporosis or the protagonist of a full life? Teachers often suggest to student writers to avoid detailed back stories and simply drop the protagonist (and other characters) into the time setting of the novel, which is often close to the current moment. I’ve many favorites that do just that and, with a light touch and few words, the expert writer teases out the necessary essence of the back stories. With a family saga, a writer can respect Sol Stein’s advice that “all fiction should seem to be happening now.” I love to show through events (i.e., scenes) how a character evolved over time, which suggests that each character’s “history” must be exposed somewhat.

My experiences in the business world helped inform my writing life. Here’s a trick someone suggested that helped me get along with all types of people: imagine that person as an eight-year-old. That imagining, itself, is an exercise in historical fiction. When I conceive characters, I ask myself what they were like as children. From such imagined children, I often discover what needs to be shown to depict the personalities which must remain true to their developmental roots if the full story is to achieve verisimilitude.

What’s your favorite part about writing/being an author? What do you find challenging?

My favorite experience while writing is the often-serendipitous revelation of how a paragraph, a scene, a chapter, or even the manuscript itself lands. Sometimes I know how I want to end something, but seldom when I sit to write do I have in hand the fully imagined event or action, much less the language. Often, I find the experience reminiscent of reading another writer’s engrossing passage or the end of a beloved novel. Many times my surprise is a simple turn of phrase or a natural close that I hadn’t premeditated. I might have known the “what” but did not possess the words until they flowed out from my fingers on the keyboard. We create characters who live the story and I’m often shocked by what happens to those characters, my characters. Many times, much to my delight, I stop typing, read the words, smile, and say aloud, “So, that’s how it happened!”

The most challenging part of writing for me is the self-editing process. I’ll read someone else’s work and spot issues on the first pass. I can go over my own words dozens of times and still miss something important. Confronting this phenomenon prompted me to refocus my pursuit of craft from conceptualization to critique and editing. It has also convinced me that, while writing is a solitary existence, publishing something worth the precious time of readers requires teamwork and compensatory skills. My respect for the professionals with whom I’ve worked has only grown over my years of trying to acquire basic craft.

If you were speaking to someone who hasn’t read your writing before, why should they want to read The Sorting Room?

After dodging the temptation to be self-deprecating, I’d likely say, “The story is compelling, and I believe that you’ll never forget Eunice Ritter.” Many of the generous friends and family members who read my poorly written early attempts have told me that now, many years later, they still remember many of my characters and the events they experienced. No one who commented has ever forgotten Eunice.

What about the writing/editing/publishing process has been the most surprising to you so far?

For a self-declared outsider, the business model seems counterintuitive. The supply side is flush with the output of writers who strive to be read. It’s odd that we hear of the need for new content in the face of a business model that, at first blush, implies a glut of talent and content. This phenomenon might instead suggest that quality problems run rampant within much of the content produced. One does not need a license, or proof of passing some proficiency exam, to write and publish a book. The barriers to entry are low as proven by the many available avenues to self-publication. Writers can put their work—good or bad—out in the world with a few clicks on a keyboard. However, the barriers to success are substantial and begin with acquiring basic craft. Once you’ve attained craft and produced worthy content, deflating lessons often ensue. Inertia in the business model require new authors to perform tasks that they had not anticipated and, for most, are nowhere close to tasks that they see as part of their craft of choice. We’ve all probably heard ourselves lament aloud, “I just want to write!” Much of the current advice reinforces the need to acquire additional craft beyond writing, including networking, blogging, and anything else that will lead to creating that elusive and time-consuming “platform.”

My hope is that more new writers will not publish prematurely, and instead ensure that what they publish has the benefit of critical feedback, editing, and guidance on their rewriting efforts before they put their work out to the world. Most of the advice in this arena centers on finding community; birds of a feather. Writers helping writers is better that slogging along alone and unaware of your own mediocrity. I do believe that a writers’ community can provide a wonderful support structure, yet I’m dubious that it alone can fill the craft gaps for any given writer. The focused professionals, whose skills complement those of the creative writer, act as a force multiplier for the writer. The pros provide help up the ladder for the author to attain a higher level of craft; one replete with the contributions borne by the pros’ compensatory skills. There seems a natural limit to what can be garnered from even the most talented flock of birds of a feather.  

What advice would you give your pre-published writer self?

The same thing I told myself when, nearing the end of my college days, I first thought that I’d try writing fiction someday: “Don’t consider becoming a novelist as a good way to put food on the table.” I grew up on a small dairy farm and watched that lifestyle slip away as a norm in our society. After high school, I went to a state university without much of a plan other than to get a degree in four years and find a job. I knew zilch about art and the life of an artist. However, I knew that I didn’t want to be a starving artist. I wanted to have a family and provide a secure life for us all. Many, if not most, hard-working writers must finance their lives with other jobs. I decided to delay gratification, which is not what anyone with an artistic bent wants to hear from others, much less from the little voice inside their head. I wouldn’t give my early advice to aspirants, but I would reiterate it to myself. I never lost the dream and worked hard to earn the opportunity to finally pursue it with dedicated focus. My timeline was, therefore, open-ended: I’d write someday once I had earned the opportunity to pursue Maslow’s highest rung, i.e., self-actualization.

Maybe I gave myself an early out whereby I could imagine becoming a writer someday without the pressure and effort inherent in attaining the craft while trying to pay the bills. I’ve known many people who had planned to pursue a passion someday, and then let that passion dull and slip away as life invaded. Being a bull-headed farm boy, I never lost the dream and worked hard to earn the chance to finally pursue it with dedicated focus. For years, I told myself that I would give it all my heart someday. That commitment never faded; the passion never slipped away. It was a risky strategy, yet one that I felt was right for me.

As a cautionary tale that speaks to the level of risk in my strategy, when I finally retired and threw myself into writing, I had scant appreciation for the long road ahead. It has taken me years to achieve a modest level of craft. I’m indeed stubborn and felt along the way that, if I worked hard and lived long enough, I’d someday write well. However, to nascent artists who simply want to test the waters as soon as they feel the urge to get wet, I offer the following quote which I have posted on my refrigerator. It kept me going once I finally took the plunge and found myself treading water and fighting for air:

“The most regretful people on earth are those who felt the call to creative work, who felt their own creative power restive and uprising, and gave to it neither power nor time.”     

Mary Oliver

What are your interests outside of writing and reading?

I’m active as an advisor for a friend who has startup business. I’ve otherwise retired from the business world, so I get a nice “business fix” from helping him. For most of my adult life, I ran and lifted weights. Both activities are now difficult for me due to injuries. I enjoyed being strong; a likely holdover from being a farm boy. The clear head and endorphins resulting from long runs along nature trails in the hills of the California coastal range brought me great joy. Nowadays, for physical activity, I walk the hills of San Francisco for about an hour most days for what I call my “urban hikes.” It’s a beautiful city for walking and the top of every hill rewards the hiker with gorgeous views of the bay area. I listen to music or a podcast, either of which enhances my daily exercise. During my personal down time, I like to watch sports as that provides not only escape but I often will be thinking of my latest writing project and jotting down notes as I watch the game. More often than not, I’ll pause the action to work on some writing angle.

But far and away, my five young grandchildren dominate my interest beyond writing and reading. I love to see the world through the eyes of “new humans.” When I play with them, I seldom instruct. Rather, I try to stimulate their imaginations, and then go along for the ride. There is no end to the organized activities for children fortunate to be healthy, economically secure, and living in safe, loving homes. There is also a lot of social pressure on kids that can attenuate the positive impacts of those very advantages. I thrive on encouraging them to be kids—curious kids. They know I’ll jump at the chance to read them books; a shared activity which they love. So, I’m hoping they’ll be among the readers (maybe even the writers) of the future who will keep the art form of the novel alive.

How are you adjusting to promoting your book during a pandemic?

The Sorting Room is my debut novel, so the whole process is new to me. I’m a bit of a hermit. And, as noted above, I’m stubborn. The pandemic gave me license to occupy my hermitage without distraction. I believe what the professionals suggest about how best to promote a book. I’m not refuting their advice, but there’s not much adjustment in store for a stubborn hermit who eschews the promotional basics. I suspect my “platform” will be limited to interviews like this (thank you, again, Saralyn!) and the novels I write. The Sorting Room in its final form delights me and I am grateful to the pros who helped me get it to the point where I can see it as an achievement. I hope that more than a few strangers will read it and feel satisfied with their commitment of precious reading time. Maybe some will recommend it to others who possess a similar aesthetic.

Are you working on a new project? Please tell us about it.

I have another completed novel which has been copyedited by the same amazing woman who copyedited The Sorting Room. I anticipate publishing that novel in about a year after this debut. The working title is: His Imagination About Her Past. It’s the story of an American woman, Coty Fine, a freelance photographer, who, as the book opens, is escaping Hanoi, Vietnam on the back of a truck during the French exit in 1954. In the opening scene, as she mounts the flatbed of the truck which is idling before a crowd gathered in front of a convent, Coty meets her traveling companion, a young French priest who is about her own age. As they depart, she takes a photograph of a beautiful Vietnamese nun whose eyes are locked on the priest’s. The story spans the remainder of Coty’s life and includes a mystery that dates from the moment she took the photograph of the nun.

Where can readers find you? 

https://michaelroseauthor.com/

Thank you, Michael! The Sorting Room is out NOW.

In Prohibition-era New York City, Eunice Ritter, an indomitable ten-year-old girl, finds work in a sweat shop—an industrial laundry—after impairing her older brother with a blow to the head in a sibling tussle. When the diminutive girl first enters the sorting room, she encounters a giant, the largest human being she has ever Gussie, a powerful, hard-working Black woman, soon becomes her mentor and sole friend. 

Eunice is entrapped in the laundry’s sorting room by the Great Depression, sentenced to bring her low wages home to her alcoholic parents as penance for her childhood mistake. Then, on her sixteenth birthday, Eunice becomes pregnant and her drunken father demands the culprit marry his daughter, trapping her anew—this time in a loveless marriage, along with a child she never wanted. Within a couple of years, Eunice makes a grave error and settles into a lonely life of drudgery that she views as her own doing. Decades pass in virtual solitude before her secret history is revealed to those from whom she has withheld her love. An epic family saga, The Sorting Room is a captivating tale of a woman’s struggle and perseverance in faint hopes of reconciliation, if not redemption.

BIO:

Michael Rose was raised on a small family dairy farm in Upstate New York. He retired after serving in executive positions for several global multinational enterprises. He has been a non-executive director for three public companies headquartered in the U.S. The Sorting Room is his debut novel. He lives and writes in San Francisco.