Imagine turning a real life into fiction. Imagine creating a fictional marriage out of a historical 19th-century couple as complex and resonant as one we might witness in our time. As author Cindy Rinaman Marsch explains: “Sometimes I think we get the idea that we’re more advanced than people were a generation or a century or millennium ago, but the best writers (and painters) of history amaze us when they capture US in their subjects. I wanted to do that.”
In her debut novel, Rosette: A Novel of Pioneer Michigan, the unabashed writer of literary fiction Marsh assumes the role of epistolary sleuth, re-creating as closely, and with as much dignity, as possible the historical persona whose marital struggles more than 100 years ago may nevertheless seem familiar in the present day. An advocate of beautiful, poetic writing, and of the power of human experience to resonate over the years, Marsch balances creative discovery with historical fact.
Readers are also treated to an additional insight by learning about the author’s publishing enterprise, Moraine’s Edge Books, which brings together her editing talents with her daughter’s artistry. If a fan of fiction, Marsch is also sufficiently a pragmatist to see the revenue-generating opportunities in helping other writers with their books.
1. What novel (or piece of writing) did you author that inspired you to fill out my survey? Include a link so readers can check it out.
Rosette: A Novel of Pioneer Michigan. I have always enjoyed reading deep, lyrical writing, and though my debut novel is historical, biographical fiction, it was the soundings beneath the facts that really drew my interest and gave life to my work.
The timing of this interview is very good, Jay. I am running an upcoming Kindle Countdown Deal in the United Kingdom for 99p from July 8 to 14.
2. Was the seed of your story an idea or an image? Are you a visual or a conceptual writer, in other words?
Rosette Cordelia Ramsdell started her fourteenth journal at age 26, in 1856, and after beautifully inking entries every day for months, she recorded with a full page the events of her wedding day, celebrating the worth of her groom. But sometime later she went back and edited that description in pencil. That page is the image at the core of the story (you can see a photo at www.rosettebook.com on the “journal” page), but that image created a cascade of ideas for me. When did she edit it? Why? What is the rest of the story? The journal, which my mother found in a thrift store and gave to me, saying, “You need to write this story,” ends after twenty months or so, and I have no others. History gives sketchy details about the rest of Rosette’s life, but I pieced them together to tack down the voluminous possibilities so that I could approximate her life.
3. Keeping with one survey question, you identified a great theme for your literary work. Did that theme exist at the beginning of the writing, or did it emerge only through the telling of your story?
I hope the theme I identified was the tag line, “Why did she edit her wedding-day journal?” Yes, the theme existed even before I began writing, before I began researching, when all I had was the journal itself. Those pages hint at some things marriage counselors could identify as troubling, that presaged difficulties for Rosette and Otis. And in our therapeutic culture, most of us can identify them. But it was only with research that I learned the true biographical details that help shape the answer to that question. As I began writing, I was not sure who would emerge the villain, or the hero/heroine. In the end, I have sympathy for everyone, and I think the ambiguities—so much like those of our own lives—leave us all a little unbalanced. Some readers are unsettled by that—those who want clean and tidy story lines. In fact, one romance blogger gave me a low rating because the novel isn’t a romance. I never said it was! And that unsettledness, that ambiguity, is part of what makes it “literary fiction” to me.
4. Did your perspective on this theme change as you wrote the story? Did you find yourself less in control of your narrative than you expected? Or did you find that you knew all along, based on your convictions, how the story would emerge? Were you, in other words, the “alpha” in the emerging narrative?
Rosette’s story was an outgrowth of her real life, and I felt a lot of my role was discovering things about her. I was late in my first full draft when I got definitive proof of what I’d suspected about the fate of her marriage, courtesy of a genealogist friend’s sleuthing. It was really satisfying to find that my hunch was confirmed. Even later, when the story was fully formed, I found two letters she’d written to a magazine in her 60s, and they added delightful breadth to my understanding of the woman (and allowed me to embroider a bit more detail into the manuscript). So Rosette was the alpha, and I an honest and attentive chronologist – on one level. On another level I’ve shaped the woman I think she was from the materials I have. It’s kind of like those reconstructions of what an Egyptian queen looked like, for example, once her mummy is fully studied, or the exhumation of Richard III, whose skeleton shows what he must have suffered.
5. There are as many definitions of “literary fiction” as there are self-identified literary writers. What is your definition of literary fiction?
I’ve always had a sense that that was what I was about myself, and literary fiction is the kind I most enjoy reading, but I had to read around (including in your interviews!) to be sure my idea matches what others are saying. To me literary fiction is “slow fiction,” poetic and – even with historical subjects – timeless. It revels in beautiful language, the kind of thing that makes me turn down the corner of the page. It has a depth and resonance, a feeling of high craftsmanship, that delights.
6. Within the scope of that definition, how did you hope to impress the reader? Did you hope to evoke emotion with a story about some element of life the reader would connect with? Or was your mission to challenge and thereby expand a reader’s perspective on a subject most others would feel is already “known”?
I don’t think Rosette is particularly winsome as a character. I think she was cool and self-absorbed. But her story as I imagined it riveted me, and I wanted to spin out my feelings about it in such a way as to capture the reader with the same sense, and I think it worked! It’s delightful when people pick out favorite sentences that are my favorites, too. I think most readers are surprised at the very modern pattern of a marriage that is suggested by her story. Most of all, I believe that in almost every breakup there’s a difficult sliding scale of blame, and I wanted the reader to know that could have been the case 150 years ago, too. Sometimes I think we get the idea that we’re more advanced than people were a generation or a century or millennium ago, but the best writers (and painters) of history amaze us when they capture US in their subjects. I wanted to do that.
7. Do you consider yourself a writer of literary fiction? Or a writer of other genre fiction that carries literary elements? Please provide an explanation for your answer.
I think I’m a writer of literary fiction who happens to have started out with a series of historical subjects on which to practice that craft. I’ve always thought of myself as a short-story writer of a contemporary sort, along the lines of a Mark Helprin or Alice Munro when I’m fantasizing about it. But Rosette’s real journal came into my hands with the opportunity to do the work and a commission from my mother, who died three years ago. Her estate provided a few thousand dollars that gave me the ability to set aside my usual work to pursue this project the past year, and thus Rosette is my debut novel, followed recently by a prequel short story and to be followed next by a companion novel Solomon, about her brother. Many of my readers say they like Solomon better, and I do, too! Once these projects are completed, I see myself settling into contemporary fiction as I’ve always envisioned it. Or maybe not!
8. How would you discuss your book in context of its genre? If you consider it literary, why? If your book falls more closely within another genre, what elements would you say make it literary?
Rosette is clearly a biographical, historical novel, but instead of focusing on minute detail for an accurate historical record, I use faithful historical detail (insofar as I have it) to provide the scaffolding for a literary exploration of her character and her relationships. I shouldn’t say her character, actually, but her self. I take it as a solemn responsibility to deal carefully with the real Rosette, to afford her all the dignity of her humanity, including her weaknesses that are sometimes only lightly revealed. It’s not a moralistic work, though the reader probably cannot help passing judgment, and perhaps reassessing that judgment, as the pages pass. To the extent that this experience follows the patterns of our acquaintance with real people in our own lives, I have succeeded.
9. Is the literary community a closed community? Or are there inroads for writers of literary fiction to reach readers other than those reading literary fiction now?
Well, I hope to find that it is open! Or perhaps I can be content to find my readers, whether they self-identify as “literary-bent” or not. To the extent that there’s a club of literary fiction writers with gatekeepers, I might or might not want to get past the gates. If those inside are writing great literature that I enjoy, let me in! If they’re mostly concerned with keeping their gates unbreached by those unworthy, maybe not. I am encouraged when lyrical, deep, literary-type fiction is succeeding. So I celebrate titles like All the Light We Cannot See, which ventures in that direction and yet is a commercial success as well. I was swept up in the lyrical celebration of Iowa farmland in Jane Smiley’s A Thousand Acres decades ago, and bitterly disappointed when the novel reduced to popular preachy predictability at about the halfway mark. Sometimes luck or savvy positioning can make something astounding a commercial success as well, and I am heartened when that happens. A writer of literary fiction who can keep from taking himself or herself too seriously has the best opportunity to pull this off. I keep my ear to the ground for the recommendations of those I trust. I think it’s important for us to encourage good writing by buying it.
10. Is it realistic that the Kindle Store will one day feature more independent writers of literary fiction? Or will that category always reflect traditionally published writers with traditional marketing budgets? (This question relates to #9, I suppose.)
First, more independent writers of every manner of thing – including trash – are filling the Kindle Store to its almost infinite mind-boggling capacity. Some of that material is beautiful literary fiction, and I hope better mechanisms develop for finding the gems for those who want them. To tell the truth, it will take the reading public being prepared to read the likes of literary fiction. Mortimer Adler had a vision like this with his Great Books campaign over a half century ago. The idea was to have ordinary Americans fill their shelves with the best writing of previous generations, to discover and take part in The Great Conversation. This kind of grass-roots cultivation of taste will help, and pockets of society are engaging in it now. We just have to find one another, and your effort is helping!
11. Please tell us about how and why you began your own publishing enterprise to self-publish your work.
I knew from the start that I’d have a hard time making a financial success of my writing alone, and since I’ve been teaching writing for almost 35 years, I was interested in moving into editing as a synergistic enterprise with writing. I did a lot of research about self-publishing and saw that, though it may not matter as much now, a year or two ago it seemed important that authors NOT be limited to Kindle with their work, or, in print, to a CreateSpace imprint that would be a no-go for libraries and bookstores with antipathy toward Amazon. By “going wide” (or being able to if need be) with their own ISBNs, authors establish independence and agility as the market changes. For me, it seemed wise to establish a legitimate publishing imprint even if it only ever publishes my own books.
But my daughter Betsy is an artist who did lovely work on my covers and illustrations for Rosette, and I saw potential for her to work on cover art, illustration, and design for others. With my editing services, we have a nice combination of services that I hope will appeal to writers, especially those starting out. In less than six months since my first publication I have already sold a few dozen books out of hand and to museums through Moraine’s Edge Books, and I function as a registered business, collecting sales tax, etc. That gives me more flexibility than if I went entirely through CreateSpace and/or Ingram Spark.
The unusual name, Moraine’s Edge Books, is an outgrowth of a name we came up with for my husband Glenn’s hobby wine labels. He grows the fruit for several varieties of wine he makes here in Western Pennsylvania where, just a half mile south of our farmland, it is very clear a large glacier stopped millennia ago. The land to the north is relatively flat, then it drops off to the south in wide, deep valleys and hills. I think it was worth starting the company just to give Betsy opportunity to design the awesome logo!
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Cindy Rinaman Marsch was born in Jacksonville, Florida at the end of the Baby Boom, the oldest of seven siblings in blended families. She and her husband Glenn, a professor of physics, have four grown children and keep a garden and hobby winery in Western Pennsylvania.