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Michael Rose talks about his debut, THE SORTING ROOM, about delaying creativity, how business informed his writing life, why he loves historical fiction, modernity, & so much more


By Leslie Lindsay

An epic family saga, THE SORTING ROOM is a captivating tale of several women’s struggles, perseverance, and more set in Prohibition/Depression-era NYC.

~WRITERS INTERVIEWING WRITERS~

ALWAYS WITH A BOOK

Leslie Lindsay & Michael Rose in conversation

After serving in executive positions in global companies, Michael Rose retired from the corporate world. The Sorting Room is his debut fiction. He grew up on a diary farm and now resides in San Francisco.

COMING SEPTEMBER 2021

ABOUT THE SORTING ROOM:

It’s the beginning of The Great Depression and Eunice Ritter is a living in squalor. She and her brother, Ulrich–Uli–are not exactly close– she’s alone, living on the edges of his world of marbles and friendship. He throws a rock at her, but Eunice may actually be more industrious and skilled than Uli, and even their parents.

She’s just ten years old when she gets a job at a local sweat shop–an industrial laundry–a job no one wants. In fact, Eunice was sort of ‘dared’ into the job by adult men who suggested she would become ill within the first hour of sorting disgusting laundry from diapers and the hospital. Yet, she persevered.

It’s while at the laundry that she meets Gussie, “the first Negro who’d ever touched her.” Gussie takes Eunice under her wings and teaches her the ins and outs of industrial laundry. I was amazed and awed at the horrific–labor-intensive work involvedand that a 10-year-old was able to stomach it. And I loved Gussie.

The narrative shifts from the laundry to Eunice’s home life–which largely surrounds her drunk and disorderly parents, her father spending the majority of his time at saloons, her mother drinking at home. A devastating event occurs at the bar with one of her father’s so-called ‘friends’ and Eunice finds herself pregnant.

The marriage is a sham and Eunice is unhappy, poor, and struggling to care for her child. Her husband is of no help and then another child comes along. Eunice has settled herself into a lonely life of drudgery she sees as her own doing. Decades span and more truths surface as individuals grow and change.

THE SORTING ROOM is an engaging historical fiction debut about the struggle of white and Black women in the Great Depression, but also about hope perseverance, reconciliation, and even redemption.

Please join me in welcoming the talented Michael Rose to the author interview series:

Leslie Lindsay:

Michael, welcome! I was impressed with the rich, textured detail of THE SORTING ROOM, the care and insight of this time period, particularly the laundry scenes. I found them very haunting, which I think is an apt word. What was haunting you as you set out to write?

Michael Rose:

Leslie, “haunting” is indeed an apt word. I drew much from my own experiences on the family farm, and then subsequently from my part-time job working at an industrial laundry during my high school days. I didn’t pattern any of the full characters from real-life people, but I was inspired by the life story of a 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. Both of his parents were reputed 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. His story offered 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.

I feel incredibly fortunate to have been exposed to such situations in my personal life while escaping the fates of those trapped in their ruts. I don’t feel my life was deserved or earned. I’m a lucky person. I hope I’ll always remember my luck and not just how hard I worked to fulfill the opportunities presented by fate. Realizing my good fortune “haunted” me as I wrote. Few get near their dream. I now live it at the keyboard and never want to forget that I’m now doing what I’ve wanted for years.

Photo by Jesse Zheng on Pexels.com

Leslie Lindsay:

Part of my interest in THE SORTING ROOM is that I am currently working on a series of interlinked stories about my ancestors. How lives intersect and resurface when we least expect it. In fact, some of the family lore is centered on laundry. My grandmother took in laundry during the Depression to make ends meet after her husband died. Another generation later, there was a family-owned laundromat. I think this speaks to intergenerational…trauma, maybe? Can you expand on that, please?

Michael Rose:

Leslie, you point me to why I’m drawn to historical fiction, family sagas, and, also, to strong female characters. 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 favorite authors who do just that and, with a light touch and few words, the expert writer teases out the necessary essence of the back stories. Within a family saga, a writer can cover a lot of time and still 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. And to your point, family histories highlight how we are linked by much more than DNA to our ancestors.

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.

Leslie Lindsay:

Your background isn’t exactly in writing—but in technology and investments. That’s a big shift. Can you talk about your journey to publication? What was your timeline like?

Michael Rose:

Leslie, I love this question! My background was anything but technology and investments when I first thought I might write novels one day. I admire those artists who took a different path, the usual path. As you say, I made a big shift later in life. It was one that I’d intended for decades.

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. We’ve all read stories about writers who sacrificed all for their art. 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. So, my timeline was 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 put food on the table. 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

Leslie Lindsay:

THE SORTING ROOM is about generations, social and cultural standards, a friendship between a white woman and a Black woman, and overcoming obstacles. Would you say this was your hope with the book? Was it something else I might be missing? What do you hope others take away?

Michael Rose:

Leslie, I embrace your summary and wish to expand on the extended family. Eunice was not given many options when it came to her family. Her marriage was foisted on her and she had to raise a baby that resulted from her being raped. That trauma kept on giving throughout her life. I had hoped to stimulate resonance with Eunice’s story among readers who might remember ancestors, or the stories of others, who suffered similar fates. I believe the connection between Eunice and Gussie went far beyond the simple friendship of two women caught in circumstance. Gussie helped Eunice wrestle with her own identity and appreciate the additional burden placed on Gussie as a Black woman and the descendant of slaves. When Eunice confided in Gussie about being trapped legally in a loveless marriage, Gussie:

“Told her how her own great-grandmother had been sold away from Gussie’ grandfather when he was a little sprout. ‘It different for sure, girl. But ya ain’t free, neither,’ Gussie said.”    

                               

Photo by Suzy Hazelwood on Pexels.com

Leslie Lindsay:

As we sort of ‘wrap up’ the most acute phases of this pandemic, I am reminded of how we as a whole have survived. What do you suppose folks in the future might say about this time? And do you see parallels between THE SORTING ROOM and what we’ve just been through?

Michael Rose:

In the second half of 2021, we in the USA are ahead of much of the world, which might still be facing their worst phases of the pandemic. So, the first thing I suspect will be noted by future historians is that while we were all in danger, we retreated to modern tribalism in many ways. To bring it back to the novel, I think one parallel is how alone Eunice was in a world that whorled around her. Gussie became her bulwark. During the pandemic, I think many people in America and other first-world countries realized who was there for them and, unfortunately, some people realized that many of their personal relationships were simply social and not very deep. As with many times in life, we realized who we can count on or who counted on us to provide support for them. Modernity has attenuated the physical communities we need as humans. The pandemic was a shared experience across all levels of society, but not equally shared. I suppose folks in the future will note that while we all suffered a shared threat, many suffered alone. It was a horror for families who couldn’t touch and comfort their loved ones dying in the ICU. It must have been even worse for those patients who knew no one was crying for them on the other side of the glass.

“Rose has composed an affecting and unpredictable story, unsentimental and unflinching.”
Kirkus Reviews

Photo by Angela Roma on Pexels.com

Leslie Lindsay:

Michael, this has been so illuminating. Thank you. Is there anything I should have asked about and may have forgotten? Or, maybe there’s something you’d like to ask me?

Michael Rose:

I’m always curious how the interviewer would answer her own thoughtful questions. In addition, are you satisfied with what you personally receive from the contributions you post on your website?

Leslie Lindsay:

Such great thoughts and questions, Michael, and I am honored to shed a little light on my method, motivation, and process. I am quite satisfied and buoyed by the contributions on my author interview series. Humans have so many different ways of looking at the world, at the same story even, and I find this unique lens wholly captivating. So many bright minds working today and collaborating on art, which really inspires.

Do the authors energize you?

Leslie Lindsay: Of course! There’s sometimes a fear that creativity will ‘dry up,’ but in fact, the more you surround yourself with creative people and pursuits, the more you ooze creativity. It’s really kind of amazing.

As a result of your efforts, do you discover inspiration from and find community with the writers you interview?

Leslie Lindsay: Yes, oh my gosh. All the time. Something an author says will often trigger an idea for me, or call me to look into something–a place, a time period, a book, a person, in greater detail. Occasionally, I can be so floored by an interview that I am overwhelmed by the breadth and depth of the thoughts.

How do the contributions you post on your website add to your own sustenance, i.e., the diet that fuels your writing life?

Leslie Lindsay: With The Sorting Room, for example, I was inspired and intrigued with my family’s laundry business. I started asking questions, looking at research. I discovered that in my husband’s extended family, a woman died when a house fire broke out because she was mixing Fels Naptha with another product; she managed to save the bird before she died, in the house. But this happens in other interviews, too. Sometimes, I am drawn to follow a passion or interest from an author, which might lead me to another book or author. Again, it’s that creative well.  

Artistic image of book cover designed and photographed by L.Lindsay. Follow on Instagram for more like this @leslielindsay1 #alwayswithabook #bookstagram

For more information, to connect with Michael Rose, or to purchase a copy of THE SORTING ROOM, please visit:

ORDER LINKS:

  • Support your local in-person bookstore or order through Bookshop.org
  • This title may also be available through other online sellers. 

YOU MAY LIKE:

I was reminded, in part, of the MAGDALEN GIRLS by V.S. Alexander. You may also find some similarities and interest in ZORRIE by Laird Hunt.

Browse all books featured on Always with a Book since 2018 on Bookshop.org

Next week:

Caroline Beecham talks about her historical fiction, WHEN WE MEET AGAIN, featuring a love for books, a woman forced to give her baby up for adoption, set against the backdrop of WWII.

If you loved this interview, please consider sharing it on social media. Reviewing books and talking about them with others on-line and in-person is one small way to engage with & support the literary community.

Photo by Valerio Errani on Pexels.com

ABOUT THE AUTHOR:

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.

ABOUT YOUR HOST:

Leslie Lindsay is the creator and host of the award-winning author interview series,“Always with a Book.” Since 2013, Leslie, named “one of the most influential book reviewers” by Jane Friedman, ranks in the top 1% of all GoodReads reviewers and has conducted over 700 warm, inquisitive conversations with authors as wide-ranging as Robert Kolker and Shari Lapena to Helen Phillips and Mary Beth Keane, making her website a go-to for book lovers world-wide. Her writing & photography have appeared in various print journals and online. She is the award-winning author of SPEAKING OF APRAXIA: A Parents’ Guide to Childhood Apraxia of Speech, an audiobook narrated by Leslie from Penguin Random House. A former psychiatric R.N. at the Mayo Clinic, Leslie’s memoir, MODEL HOME: Motherhood, Madness, & Memory, is currently on submission with Catalyst Literary Management. Leslie resides in the Chicago area with her family.

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