Read of the Month: “The Girl from the Red Rose Motel” by Susan Beckham Zurenda

In this review/interview hybrid, Associate Editor Dawn Major discusses with author Susan Beckham Zurenda her second novel, The Girl From The Red Rose Motel (Mercer University Press 2023).

 DM: Susan, I thoroughly enjoyed your first book, Bells for Eli, and absolutely identified with Hazel’s character in The Girl from the Red Rose Motel even more. I had to laugh about the love connection in in-school suspension, and I will share a little comedy from my teenaged years, because this novel made me nostalgic. My poor parents! There was a guy in my high school who lived in ISS, and I was mortally in love with him, but since he was always in trouble, I didn’t get to see him in class. I fixed that small hurdle by skipping class or coming in super late so I also would get ISS and could be with him. The second item I wanted to mention is how much I related to the character, Hazel. I was never homeless, but when I was a youth, my family experienced financial difficulties, and I carried the same sense of shame with me that Hazel bore, never wanting anyone to see where we lived. And my God! The memory that came up for me when she looked out her motel window and was happy the snow covered up all the junk and trash.

I could have benefitted from a book like this when I was growing up and I am positive The Girl From The Red Rose Motel will help many young souls who read it not feel so alone, so thank you, Susan, for this.

 You instantly capture the attention of her readers by putting two dynamic worlds— the “haves” and the “have nots” and students and teachers—on a collision course. When Sterling Lovell, a Ramsey High School senior from a privileged background, pushes his new AP English teacher Angela Wilmore to her limits, he lands a spot in ISS with Hazel Smalls, a bright yet impoverished sophomore. Sterling richly deserves his spot, but Hazel, who is ashamed to admit that her mother couldn’t afford to dry-clean her JROTC uniform, meekly accepts the punishment her sergeant dishes out when she wears a soiled uniform. For Hazel, a stained jacket is the smallest of her problems. Shame follows Hazel like a merciless stalker:

Hazel’s shame of living cramped up in a motel room for more than two years with her parents and her sister Chloe kept her secretive. She didn’t seek out friends.

Shame makes her timid, unable to enjoy her youth. She has real life problems and responsibilities—an unemployed, abusive, alcoholic father and overworked underpaid mother, topped with a younger sister she has to take care of, and working to help pay the rent. She lives in a run-down motel amongst drug addicts and prostitutes. Life hasn’t dealt her a fair hand until Sterling appears on the scene and she becomes caught up in his world.

You do an excellent job with characterization. Sure, Sterling is a bit of a Richie Rich, but he comes with his own set of problems that needle at him. However, those issues also helped shape his personality. In his seventh grade Sunday school class, for example, he was bullied at the Halloween carnival:

he saw himself in middle school againSterling, a fat boy with an underbite and elephant earsby the next Halloween, though, things were different. Braces, surgery during the Christmas holidays break to pin back his ears, and fat camp in Melbourne, FL, during the summer everything changed.

His problems may appear superficial, the problems wealthy parents can “fix,” but they’re very real. And though Sterling’s parents may have corrected what they viewed as imperfect about their son, underneath his fit body and between his once “Dumbo” ears, is the same boy with the same insecurities. Likewise, you don’t make Hazel’s character overly sympathetic. Too many sorrows would have been unbearable, although she certainly has more than her share. Hazel out of all of the three main characters comes full circle. The girl who sort of cowers and retreats into herself in the beginning is no shrinking violet at the end. And that has much to do with Angela, her good and compassionate teacher who steps in.

You deftly capture the rollercoaster ride called high school. All the angst, the cliques, the hormones, the insecurities, and the near-obsessive experiences with first loves. All of it is here, all of it so richly articulated. While it may seem like a lot of drama—it is high school after all—there are some truly funny moments, too. Sterling’s assessment of ISS is as apt as it is humorous:

The room [ISS] held a subtle but definitely foul odor. He concluded it came partly from unwashed hair and flesh along with the stale cigarette smoke sealed in clothing. His view grazed across this bleak bunch…in spite of the cold weather outside, many of the girls wore tops barely reaching the required coverage.

It’s not exactly gallows humor but it teeters on it, especially when the reader discovers where Sterling’s eyes stop short. And it probably isn’t the first time true love was found in ISS, but it sure makes for an amusing setting. Most teenaged or adult readers will either identify or have a flashback to their own experiences of high school. This is why the novel would make for an excellent choice for book clubs, students, and teachers (even as a gift for a teacher.) In your diction is dead-on. A simple word choice such as the word “grazed” fully depicts the setting as well as Sterling’s personality—self-entitled and snobby—as well as his motivation: he’s a total horndog. Sterling isn’t a flat character, however. He is multidimensional. Some of his positive traits— intelligent, empathetic, and extremely loyal— don’t appear until after he meets Hazel and matures a little.

 I noticed you dedicated The Girl from the Red Rose Motel to all your students. After reading your book, I wanted to add “and teachers” after your dedication. I love how you thread in current issues teachers face like not being in control of their own curriculum and this insanity of banning books. What would happen to education if per se the books you taught were banned? I realize this is a work of fiction, but have you ever had the similar experience to Angela’s in the novel?

Susan Beckham Zurenda

SBZ: Two events in the novel are based on my real life in the classroom. One is the scene early in the book when Sterling and his classmates usurp their teacher Angela Wilmore’s fifth period AP English Class, causing her to send these brilliant but rebellious boys to in-school suspension. The other event is loosely based on a horrific meeting I endured with a student’s parents who objected to a short story I taught in my AP classroom, “Happy Endings” by Margaret Atwood.  I created the character of the self-righteous Donovan Powell and his mousy wife to emphasize the challenges of censorship and to champion an administration that supported me.

DM: In your last book, Bells For Eli, you did something similar which I really loved that I wanted to highlight for our readers. In both novels you wrote about young characters in crisis situations. Unfortunately, homelessness is not uncommon for young kids in the U.S. who find themselves living in couch-surfing, a car, motels, or on the streets. Was there a specific event that inspired Hazel’s character and this setting?

 SBZ: At Spartanburg High School, I taught four classes of AP students (most from educated and successful families) and one class of Reading Strategies (students far behind grade level and many impoverished).  I know of only one young man for certain who lived in a motel because I broke the rules and drove him home one afternoon, but I’m sure there were others each semester. Their shame kept them secretive about being among the sheltered homeless. I mainly learned about families living in motels from a guidance counselor who became aware of the abysmal circumstances and started a nonprofit in my city, CAST (Care, Accept, Share, Teach), to support these families. I have volunteered with CAST.

 DM: What does your writing process look like? Your chapters felt episodic which really helped move the plot forward. Do you write scenes first?

 SBZ: In the beginning of my process for writing The Girl From the Red Rose Motel, I considered using the omniscient point of view, but quickly realized I couldn’t get close enough to my three main characters. I decided that for the reader to have an intimate connection with each of the characters as I desired, I needed to write from each one’s POV and alternate fairly equally among the three. Never having written in multiple POVs, I initially found it challenging to keep the overall story moving forward and still intertwine the individual story arcs. Ultimately though, I began to feel a rhythm among the characters and their chapters, and the process worked well.  As I lived inside each character’s heart and mind, the scenes connecting their lives presented themselves organically. My process of revision resolved a few overlaps that happened from time to time when I was drafting.

Dawn Major

DM: You, like your character Angela, also taught English in colleges and in the public school system. There are numerous titles and quotes from literature adding little nuggets for the deep reader to investigate. This is why the book would make a wonderful teaching tool for creative writers and students who are interested in creating a richer experience through allusions.

It tickles me pink when a writer alludes to an author, title, or “tosses” in a favorite quote especially when I am familiar with the allusion. I had to snicker to myself when I saw all the “shout-outs.” It’s a great way to get your readers interested in literature. Is that the teacher in you?

 SBZ: Having taught literature for 33 plus years and believing that literature is the best teacher of the human condition, my yen for connecting life to literature is always with me. Once a teacher, always a teacher, I suppose.

 DM: Since reading your first novel, The Bells of Eli, and now having read The
Girl From The Red Rose Motel
, I can sense you write not just for the pleasure for the message. Both novels leave the reader pondering unique but realistic situations and your endings aren’t cookie cutter either, which I always appreciate. What do you want your readers to gain from reading The Girl from the Red Rose Motel?

 SBZ: I hope readers will respond to multiple aspects of the novel. Perhaps most importantly, I want readers to experience the vast capacity of love in overcoming obstacles that seem insurmountable. I want readers to live alongside Hazel and ponder how influences and circumstances (both miserable and happy) and a lot of courage can motivate an insecure, shamed person toward remarkable growth and self-assurance, toward believing that she matters. I hope to raise awareness about the abysmal circumstance of families who live in rundown motels and to show how sometimes very different people coming together on multiple levels can help those like my character Hazel escape. Also, teaching is in crisis in our country as many leave the profession amid burnout and low salaries, among other things. The novel brings awareness of the challenges of teaching in public school, but it also acclaims the joys of teaching.

 DM: On behalf of Southern Literary Review, we appreciate your time and wish you the best of luck and success with The Girl from the Red Rose Motel.



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