Interview with Michael Rose, Author of The Sorting Room

After a career as an executive at several global companies, Michael Rose began writing novels. Publishing fiction has been an ambition since childhood, but as he puts it “was something from the top tier of Maslow’s hierarchy of needs and so I put it on hold until I retired.”

His debut novel, The Sorting Room, features that same kind of pragmatic decision-making, especially from his main character Eunice Ritter. She works in the sorting room of an industrial laundry at the age of 10 facing stains, smells and caustic cleaning agents. The book shows us many more significant moments and difficult choices of Eunice’s life from the late 1920s through the mid-1960s as we meet her family of children and grandchildren. I spoke to Michael last month about his novel.

What first inspired you to write The Sorting Room?

It’s interesting how these things come together. I knew a man who was born in the late 20s who’s older brother had classic Scandinavian features, blond and tall, but he tanned easy and had different features than the rest of his family. He was stopped on the street and told “You’re Crow. You might not know it but you are Crow.” That led him to discover that, similar to my character Henry, his father was a Native American man he’d never met. So, some of the stories that I heard from him informed scenes with Henry and Joseph.

But a lot of my own experience is in the book as well. I grew up on a dairy farm with a pre-world war II tractor. I worked at an industrial laundry very similar to the sorting room where Eunice works— that was real. We got hospital sheets. You would get to see all the different of the residues of human life.

Sometimes we’d get deliveries marked “contaminated” and the high school kids were told not to touch them. A black adult colleague was the only one who would touch those deliveries, similar to how Gussie is assigned work in my novel.

Eunice is such a force in this story – we see her at various important points throughout her life and then later through the eyes of her daughter-in-law. What went into you creating her character?

I love backstory. Some career advice I got year ago was to imagine any difficult person at work as an 8-year-old. It softens your heart and you really get to see the person as they really are. That empathy is in some ways another form of historical fiction. What was fun about writing this novel and especially the character of Eunice was getting to show the reader an 8-year-old Eunice. Her personality is formed and then we see some things about her that are consistent and foundational throughout the rest of her life.
Something else I used to think about when I interviewed people during my career in tech was how well did they pass the mirror test? How well do people really know themselves. I also applied question to most of my characters – not every full back story made it into the final book.

Speaking of what made it into the final book, I have to ask about any ‘dead darlings’ that were lost along the way. What was the editing process like for you?

I started out with lots of dialogue. It was initially a 1,100 page tome, a monster. The opening scene, in terms of when and where it starts, has remained the same. But the original spanned 250 years and went into the future. I wrote on blissful ignorance and when I got professional feedback I realized I was missing a lot of craft lessons. Publishing really is a team sport and I’m so grateful for all the help I had. I’m especially grateful to Brooke Warner, publisher at SheWritesPress. With her help and the help of many others I was able to edit it down to create art that I am happy with.

Tell me about your approach to historical research for this novel.

A lot of it went back to my own life. But I did have to check some details. For example, in the 1960s when Lete is in the car accident, I went back to look at what getting arrested would look like then. When did Miranda Rights come into effect? Other things, like the scenes in upstate New York are based on my experience on the dairy farm. My dad drove horses as a child and all the residue of a pre-industrial farm was there where I grew up. It was a junkyard of farm living and a glimpse into the past.

Michael Rose lives and writes in San Francisco. The Sorting Room is his debut novel.