Michael pitched me his debut novel The Rogue Shop as “a coming-of-age romantic comedy that … is a little off the beaten path for LDS genre fiction.” I liked the sound of that so I invited Michael to tell us more. The official release date for his novel is Dec. 10, but you can preorder it on Amazon or Cedar Fort’s website now. For more on Michael, see his author’s website.
On your website you say that The Rogue Shop was 20 years in the making. Could you take us through that process?
As a newly married University of Utah student 1988-1990,I discovered Hawthorne and Shakespeare while earning a few dollars at a South Temple formalwear store. Pressing coats on ancient steam presses, assembling tuxedos and cleaning out the shop’s ancient basement, full of old mannequins and cobwebbed formal fashions dating from the 1950s. The place had such an atmosphere of mysterious history about it that I couldn’t resist it as a setting for a novel. Unfortunately, I was just too young and inexperienced to write the story the place deserved at that time, and my uninspired drafts stalled out before five chapters. Also, I needed to get some distance from the co-workers and associations I had there. Although all the characters in The Rogue Shop are purely fictional, I would hate to think that someone would read the book and think that a characterization was based on him or her. Finally in 2009, I felt the time was right and I completed a viable draft during National Novel Writing Month in November. It became my first ever novel submission in January 2010, and received six rejections within four months. Cedar Fort replied with more detailed feedback, which I interpreted as a request for revision and resubmission. I had it back in the mail to them within three weeks. On May 14 I received their acceptance for publication.
What differentiates The Rogue Shop from other romance novels in the LDS fiction market?
Certainly romance is an element of the story, as non-LDS boy meets LDS girl, boy eventually falls for LDS girl, and boy discovers just how much of his attraction to her is related to her faith. But this is also a coming-of-age story. My protagonist/narrator, Chris Kerry, is an orphan who was raised by his staunch Baptist aunt in a decidedly anti-Mormon environment. Living in Texas, he accepts a scholarship to the University of Utah, which prompts his aunt to extract an oath from him, on the Bible, that he’ll steer clear of Mormons. Obviously, that oath is going to be tested. Chris himself is going to be tested, as he loses his entire life savings on his first day in Salt Lake City and has to take quick, brave action to avoid homelessness and get started in school. Taking the job at the tux shop is a desperate move, and he soon discovers a depth of animosity and sadness in the place that is offset by his growing friendships with the owner’s grandson, a self-educated young man with physical handicaps who has made himself a “walking verbal superpower”, and the little German seamstress in the basement with a glorious and tragic past. His “˜falling in love’ with a Mormon girl happens in a very specific and emotional moment that is connected to these relationships. Chris finds himself a catalyst in the spiritual rescue of certain people and in the resolution of several decades-old issues, including a confrontation with his aunt’s anti-Mormonism. So while an LDS romance from a male, first-person perspective may be a rarity in itself, my hope is that readers will resonate with multiple themes and find an emotional depth and a sense of humor not often found in the genre.
Tell us a bit about your writing habits/processes. Any suggestions you have for aspiring authors?
Like any writer with a day job, I struggle to find quality writing time. I can’t just write for 15 minutes here and there. My best work usually emerges 2-4 hours into a session, and 4 hour sessions are hard to come by. It takes me as much as an hour just to get warmed up to the point where I can finish that first page. In order to finish a novel, I had to reset some expectations with myself and my family to create the time blocks to get it done.
In terms of process, I like to have the whole thing plotted out with chapter summaries before I even begin drafting a novel, but much of my original legwork becomes useless as I go along. Doing the actual drafting reveals character traits and interactions that change the course of the narrative. If there’s one thing I learned from writing The Rogue Shop, it is that I could have saved myself a lot of time and labor if I had determined my audience before starting. Instead, I launched into that first draft thinking I was writing more of a mainstream literary story with LDS characters, which only later became a book clearly targeted to the LDS market. Also, it pays off in a big way to have a very clear picture of your ending before writing that first chapter. “Exploratory” writing can be a great way to discover new ideas, but you’ve got to write with directed purpose if you hope to get something published.
What’s with the whole Wombat HQ thing? Or in other words, tell us a little about how you are marketing the book:
As a first-time author in a tiny niche market, my book is coming out amid a storm of releases from entrenched, name-brand authors during the peak holiday shopping season. I’m confident that my story will evoke tears and laughter from readers, but how do I reach those readers? During the past year, I’ve discovered a tight-knit online community of LDS writers who frequent and comment on one another’s blog posts and generate writing motivation and synergy. My association with the Authors Incognito branch of the LDS Storymakers group (sponsors of the Whitney Awards) has helped me realize that we writers are our own best customers, or at least our most effective customers, in terms of getting the word out about our work. We read and review each other’s books, interview each other, and host contests that drive traffic around the web ring of LDS writers. It might seem like a bit of a tempest in a teapot, but if the buzz gets a few people reading a good book, word gets around and copies are sold. My plan will allow participants to earn points with online reviews, blog posts, social networking updates, email blasts, and so on. None of this costs anything, but I have committed to rewarding the top ten point earners in my word-of-mouth, buy-and-tell (WOMBAT) program with Amazon.com gift cards to stoke enthusiasm.
Have you read much Mormon fiction or fiction by LDS authors? What are some of your favorites? What about non-LDS artists?
Most of the fiction being published by LDS-niche publishers recently seems to be either historical romance or suspense/thriller. I’ve found some of those books to be well-executed, others formulaic and repetitive. I enjoyed Anita Stansfield’s Jayson Wolfe series, Heather Moore’s Book of Mormon fiction and Stephanie Black’s thrillers. On the national scene, I haven’t missed a word written by Orson Scott Card and although I haven’t read all of his works, David Farland (Wolverton) is a wonderful writing mentor whose advice I read regularly. The work ethic of the outrageously prolific Brandons (Sanderson and Mull) has been inspiring to me. I also admire the powerful novels of Christian writer Athol Dickson and Brad Whittington’s laugh-out-loud stories of Fred, Texas.
Obviously you’ll be spending much of your time over the next several months on the launch of The Rogue Shop. What comes after that? Are there any other Mormon culture-related projects you have in mind or in active planning that you can share?
I’m headed back to one of my true loves: Epic fantasy. Ever since digesting The Lord of the Rings for the first time as a twelve-year-old, I’ve known that I would need to create my own world someday. I have mountains of yellowed notebooks from my teenage years filled with aborted attempts at world-building that are juvenile and derivative when I look at them today. I’ve discarded most of this and have refined a workable plot and milieu that I believe will result in something fresh in the genre. Mormon culture? This planned trilogy will pit revelatory monotheism against wild magic and demon-worship in a world on the edge of total war. My youthful protagonist will find himself in a position with much in common with a young Joseph Smith, feeling called of God yet left alone to find his role in the redemption of his world through agency and atonement. Of course, there will also be plenty of the magic and mayhem that keep fantasy readers happy. Then after that, a return to LDS fiction with a novel based on my experience as a teenager with a pineapple harvesting crew on Maui in the early 1980s.