Interview with Ron Irwin, Author of Flat Water Tuesday

Ron Irwin

After yesterday’s review, HTBS caught up with Ron Irwin, author of the well-received novel Flat Water Tuesday, which was published in June last year. Today, on 6 May, the book will come out in paperback in the U.S., so HTBS decided to ask Ron some questions:

HTBS: First, congratulations, Ron, on a marvellous first novel.

Thank you very much! It is a real pleasure to do this interview for your excellent website.

HTBS: You went to Kent School in Connecticut, known for its rowing programme, and you rowed there, after having started your rowing career in high school in Buffalo, New York. After Kent, you went on to Trinity College (Hartford, Connecticut), where you also rowed. Is your novel’s fictional Fenton School, also in Connecticut, based on Kent School? Would some of your old school mates/rowers or teachers/coaches recognise themselves and some events that took place during your time at Kent and/or Trinity?

The novel is very much based upon my experience at Kent. In fact, my literary agent was also my roommate and a fellow rower! The film rights to the novel are held by another rower from Kent named Lars Winther. When the novel was first released in hardcover format in June of 2013, I did a book signing at the school. I happened to be back because it marked my twenty-fifth reunion. It was a wonderful time for me and a means of reconnecting with people I had not seen in a very long time. Much of the dramatic material in the novel, however, came from my experience as a rower at Trinity College. All in all, I rowed for about eight years of my life and it was an extremely rewarding experience.

HTBS: Any particular parts of the novel that you have experienced yourself in real life? Friends committing suicide? Struggling love affairs? Fighting at hotels? etc.

I always answer that question by saying that 90% of what happened in Flat Water Tuesday actually did happen, and the other 10% could have happened! As a writer, I found myself rearranging and dramatizing many of the real-life episodes that I describe in the novel. There are, of course, a few stand out elements that hang over the dramatic structure of Flat Water Tuesday. Firstly, a rowing friend of mine did indeed commit suicide, but he did not go to boarding school with me; he was a rower on the Trinity team. I actually did not know him very well, but he seemed to be one of those kids who had it all: he was good-looking, he was popular, and he was an excellent athlete. His death hit us all. I got the call about a year or two after I graduated that he had quite unexpectedly killed himself and he had not left a note or spoken to anyone about any issues that were plaguing him. A lot of the guys I used to row with got in touch with each other just to say we were there for one another and to remind ourselves that we were part of a larger, supportive community.

The love affair between Carolyn and Rob is also very real to me, as is the loft where it all happens. Their loft in New York is a very real place, I remember visiting it years ago when two of my friends stayed there and thinking it would make a wonderful setting for a novel. The guy who stayed there, Enrico Brosio, was another rower from Trinity who was a very good friend of mine and who now lives in London. He and I not only rowed together, we skied all around the world together.

Carolyn is also a very real person. There are women in this world who make a profound impression on the people they meet and she is one of them. Rob and Carolyn’s story is sadly very universal: how do two people love each other hold on after one of them makes a tragic mistake? How do you put down the defenses and say to somebody that they are the one? Rowing is all about toughness and discipline and pushing through pain. This is sometimes not the best approach to a romantic relationship where at times one must be vulnerable and, more importantly, protect another person’s vulnerability. Carolyn is certainly a person who exists in real life. She is a difficult person, but a passionate person and a beautiful person and someone whom the main character is deeply in love with. Flat Water Tuesday is partly about just how far you go to hold onto that love, even when you know it might end tragically.

HTBS: When you had made up your mind to write your début novel were you clear from the start that rowing would be an important element in the book?

Oh yes, certainly. In fact, the first draft of the novel was just about rowing. It did not have the adult love story at all. Even when I was rowing in high school I knew I would write about it one day. Rowing is just an incredibly dramatic sport, and it is an incredibly beautiful sport. The tensions and the excitement around putting together a top boat seem, at least to me, perfect for novel. I’ve always been passionate about rowing, ever since I first stepped into a shell. Twenty years ago, I was amazed that there were so few books about the sport. It is just so exciting, and so very poetic. Unfortunately, the first draft of my novel was turned down because the dramatic structure really wasn’t going to work over three hundred pages. I also had to live a little bit more outside of the boat before I could write the novel that is now in the bookstores.

I realized one day that what I really wanted to look at was how all this rowing affected the characters later in life. Did they grow up to be better people? Did it really help them succeed? I found that rowing certainly helped me handle difficult times in my life and to focus on long-term projects that were sometimes fraught with failure, but on the other hand rowing teaches you to be incredibly distant in regard to the suffering of other people. Rob Carey is a character who finds empathizing with others to be extremely difficult, partly because he pushes himself so hard. This has tragic consequences for him.

HTBS: You are also a documentary filmmaker just like the grown-up Rob Carrey, the main character in your book. As a fiction debutante, did you feel more safe to write about two subjects that you knew well, rowing and filmmaking?

I am not sure if it was a matter of “feeling safe” so much as feeling as if these experiences had wonderful potential for a novel. I enjoyed my experience making documentary films and it was certainly an exciting life. It seemed as if those experiences would work well in the context of a longer narrative. The interesting thing about making documentary films is that you suddenly are exposed to all of these other stories. You get intimately involved in other people’s lives.

But on the other hand it is a business after all and there are certain technical things you have to learn. I found that the people I met in the documentary film world were incredibly hard-nosed and yet at the same time incredibly optimistic about life and the human condition. Making documentary films is also an immensely physical job. You are traveling around the world and carrying lots of equipment to pretty inaccessible places. So I always thought while I was doing it that I would only be able to handle it for so long and then I would put it into the pages of the novel. Mission accomplished!

HTBS: Did you do a lot of research for the rowing parts of the novel? Did you ever run into problems writing about the technical parts in rowing? The coaching? The land and the winter training? Or did you write these parts from memory from rowing at Kent and Trinity?

I would say that about 80% of the novel was written directly from memory. But the real problem was educating a reader who knows nothing about rowing about the intricacies of the sport. I had to slowly define the basic parts of the boat, where people sat, what the stroke was, the various complexities of competition, and the importance of training while at the same time moving the narrative forward. I showed the book to many people who had no experience of rowing at all to make sure they understood what was going on. This is not an uncommon problem for novelists. Anyone who has written a techno-thriller – where the lay reader has to understand how a submarine works for example – understands this problem. I kept thinking back to the seafaring novels of Patrick O’Brian. He introduces lots of seafaring terminology into his work that the reader has to quickly absorb. So, I kind of thought of the members of The God Four as people out at sea. I made sure to simply drop in the various terminology that every single rower knows about, and make it part of the action so people would organically understand what was going on. Rowing is complex, but it is not as complex as writing about what it must be like to be an astronaut or a brain surgeon or a spy.

HTBS: As other coming-of-age novels, your book has been compared to John Knowles’s A Separate Peace, and personally, I found some resemblance between the novels. If you agree, was it a deliberate choice you made or did it just happen?

Many people have compared the novel to A Separate Peace, but the reality is that I never have read that novel! I remember reading Catcher in the Rye and enjoying the first-person narration immensely. The challenge that lies in writing about a teenage hero is that teenagers are so incredibly self-absorbed. They really do not have the best sense of irony. There’s not a lot of self-deprecation going on at that age. And, moreover, I was reaching back into that time what I wrote Flat Water  Tuesday. I decided to have two different voices. The adult voice, which is essentially my voice, and the teenage voice. The teenage voice is a voice I have lost touch with. It was good to get to know that person again, but I doubt I will have anything to do with him for the rest of my life.

HTBS: If I understand it right, it took you a long time to write Flat Water Tuesday. Was it because you got rejected by different publishers, or was it because you were not pleased with the result/s? Did you have to do a lot of re-writing before you felt the manuscript was ready to be sent off to your literary agent?

I wrote the first draft of Flat Water Tuesday back in 1995. The book was picked up by a literary agent and shown to about two dozen New York publishers. The problem with the novel was that it was simply about a young man trying to make a very competitive rowing team. There was no suicide, there was no romance, there was no adult story. So editors back then wondered how they could sell a story there was essentially about teenagers to adults. I had a wonderful agent who was very supportive and thought that the novel was indeed universal. Many novels had come out about teenagers at prep school that garnered an adult audience but mine was not so much about “coming-of-age” so much as about survival. So the kind of feel-good aspect was not there: it really was a technical story about making a rowing team as an eighteen-year-old. I rewrote the novel and resubmitted it in 1997, but still the adult section was not there. It was again rejected by about two dozen publishers, including, amusingly, St. Martin’s Press, who ultimately took on the manuscript. I gave the story a rest and took the time to get married and build a house and have children and do a great deal of nonfiction writing.

But Flat Water Tuesday was always with me, and I decided after the death of a very respected colleague here at the University of Cape Town, where I work, that I would get it published. I opened up the now very old manuscript in 2010 and began the process of rewriting it because what I had was incredibly dated and, truth be told, a bit immature. I wound up rewriting about 90% of the original manuscript. I also added in the love story. Basically, I had experienced a great deal in my life since I put Flat Water Tuesday aside. I poured those experiences into the novel.

And then, fate seemed to lend a hand. My former rowing coach, Hart Perry – a legend in the world of rowing – died in 2011. My former teammates called me from Connecticut, where a memorial had been held for him. They had heard that I was writing a novel about our experiences on the water and urged me to finish the manuscript I had already begun working on. This seemed like some kind of cosmic command. I redoubled my efforts and got back into contact with Tris Coburn, a fine rower and my former roommate. He was now working as a literary agent and he assured me that if I were to finish the manuscript he would show it around New York. My original agent had retired by this time. So I redoubled my efforts. Then, out of the blue, I was contacted by one of the fiction editors from St. Martin’s Press. She was visiting Cape Town, where I live, and wanted to have lunch with me. By the time that lunch was over, I had told her about the novel and she asked me to send it to her via e-mail. The rest is, as they say, history. 

HTBS: Is there a specific ‘scene’ that you are especially fond of in your novel? Any person you feel close to? If so, why? Is there a ‘scene’ that you feel sorry that you cut out that is not in the novel?

To me, the heart of the novel is what I call the “crooked room” scene. This is the scene where Carolyn brings Rob up to her loft in New York and tells him that she calls it the “crooked room”. That is a scene I wrote many times and to me it encapsulates the passion of the novel. I’ve said it many times: Flat Water Tuesday is not really a rowing novel. It is a love story. The novel was written for Carolyn.

HTBS: Yes, your novel is a love story, but maybe not only between the grown-up Rob and Carolyn, but is there not also a latent love, or at least a fling, between the young Rob and The God Four coxswain, Ruth. Would you also say that the young rowers in your novel have “a love affair” with rowing?

I think that is very accurate. At that age, you are so desperate to be part of a group. Rowing offers a kind of instant elitism. There is no question that the closeness that I felt on the water with many of my teammates was impossible to replicate later in life. I am now taking up the sport again and while I enjoy it, I could not imagine spending so much time with the men I row with. But, as we all know, rowing is a sport that is easy to fall in love with. I am glad I went through that very intense experience when I was a kid and when I was in college. Rowing has made me many friends whom I am still in touch with.

The biggest discovery I have made about rowing is how serious people are about it as adults! I row with guys in their sixties who are very committed to the sport and can really make a boat go. I just had lunch with a yoga instructor who told me that many men in their fifties are only fractionally weaker than what they were as teenagers. I would agree. I am amazed how hard I am rowing now, and how much more I enjoy just being out on the water than I did back then, when I was always obsessed with winning. That said, I would hate for anyone to read the novel and think I was saying anything negative about the sport or indeed about Kent. Yes, tragic things happen to the main characters, but the main characters are very intense people and I put them in an incredibly intense situation. I remember well just how much I wanted to win certain races, and the novel takes this to a logical but catastrophic conclusion. Nonetheless, I am a major supporter of the sport of rowing and indeed The Kent School. I would definitely do it all over again, and start even earlier as an oarsman.

HTBS: The large chain store Target in the USA has picked Flat Water Tuesday paperback as a Book Club Pick for the month of May. Target has ordered 30,000 copies. Of those books you have signed 5,000 – how long did it take you to sign them all, and how did your hand feel afterwards? How many copies of the paperback are being printed in the first run?

It took me a week to sign all of the Target copies! My former mentor at UCT, Prof. J.M. Coetzee, who is no stranger to book signings as he has won the Nobel Prize, wrote from Australia to tell me I was lucky I had such a short name. It would have been even rougher if I was named Cherry Chevapravatdumrong, for example! Copies of the paperback are now in bookstores as well as in Target. I am not sure what the total print run is, I assume it is pretty substantial.

Ron Irwin busy signing 5,000 copies of the paperback edition of Flat Water Tuesday for Target.

HTBS: When you were writing the novel, did you ever imagine that it would be this successful?

I always tell my students that being a “successful” writer means, really, getting good reviews and the respect of your peers while at the same time not actually losing money for your publisher. It is very difficult to predict what will be a bestselling novel. Flat Water Tuesday has had its share of success, but I am just pleased that the novel has been received so well and that so many people have taken the time to write me emails saying that I have captured what it is like to row in a very fast boat. Even more important, I enjoy getting notes from people who have been through the kind of loss that Carolyn and Rob face.

HTBS: Rather early on, when your hardcover edition had come out, a film company bought the rights to make a movie based on your book. Please tell us more about it. Have you seen a script? Any idea which actors are going to play the members of The God Four or Coach Channing, for example?

I have indeed seen the script. It was written by Todd Komarnicki, the person who, among other things, produced the movie Elf starring Will Farrell. He has of course done a great deal of other adaptation work. He and I spent the weekend together at Kent shortly after the publication of Flat Water Tuesday. He met many of the people who I used to row with, and took the time to actually learn how to row before he began work. The film rights are held by Lars and Peter Winther, and Lars knows the sport extremely well, having rowed on the team that is the inspiration for The God Four. We have some ideas about who should act in the film but it is still early days yet. I can say that the script is excellent.

HTBS: do you see a trend in that three of the most written and talked about rowing books during the last years – I am here thinking about Dan Boyne’s Kelly: A Father, a Son, an American Quest (2008; pb 2011), Daniel James Brown’ s The Boys in the Boat (2013; pb 2014) and your Flat Water Tuesday (2013; pb 2014) – all have had film companies buying the rights to make movies based of these books? Is rowing on its way to become a new favorite Hollywood sport?

I think that rowing is certainly going to find its place in Hollywood. There have been some pretty good movies in the past. Think about the popularity of Oxford Blues, for instance, which stars Rob Lowe. There is also an old Nick Cage movie called The Boy in Blue and a recent BBC film called Bert and Dickie about two men in the 1948 Olympics, which is based on a true story. Two years ago the movie Backwards came out, about a girls’ rowing team.  

But you may find it amusing to learn that my editor at St. Martin’s told me that their interest in the novel came partly from the movie The Social Network! This film features two very famous Harvard rowers – Tyler and Cameron Winklevoss – who become the enemies of Mark Zuckerberg. Apparently the rowing sequences in The Social Network led to a great deal of interest in the sport on the part of the folks at St. Martin’s and in turn in my novel. Maybe in a weird way I owe Mark Zuckerberg something for getting on the bad side of such fearsome rowers!

Until recent years, rowing has always been very difficult to film. It is hard to film a boat from another boat and still keep a level camera. Recent Steadicam technology as well as other digital advances have meant that you can get right into the boat with the rowers without sacrificing film quality. Right now, for instance, you can go to YouTube and see some really cool GoPro footage of rowing put together by total amateurs. It used to be really hard to get that kind of footage. The trick is, in my opinion, to show how difficult the sport is while at the same time showing how beautiful it is. I remember when I was in high school in Buffalo how the kids who played hockey felt rowing was a “sissy sport” because, to them, it looked so easy. I would imagine that it’s sort of like filming ballet. Ballet looks beautiful and graceful, but the body of every single ballet dancer I know has taken a severe physical beating because dance is just so rigorous. When you film ballet or rowing, you want to show the blood and sweat as well as the beauty. The technology is now there to make this happen.

HTBS: Which is your favorite rowing movie/film?

I would have to say that my favorite film is the 1970s documentary Symphony of Motion, probably because I know some of the people who were filmed in it and there are simply so many classic faces it. I also really enjoyed the film True Blue about the Oxford Boat Race “mutiny”, based on the book by Dan Topolski. I think this is an excellent introduction to the sport and looks at some of the nuances that would be very difficult to explain to outsiders.

HTBS: Which is your favorite rowing book?

The best book ever written about the sport of rowing is easily David Halberstam’s The Amateurs. This is a nonfiction book about four young men trying to make the 1984 Olympics. I am sure that most of your readers know about it.

HTBS: Which novels have had the most impact on you as a writer? Is there a particular book that made you want to write?

I think that the work of Cormac McCarthy, as well as the work of Richard Ford and Michael Cunningham has had a major effect on me. I also greatly enjoyed the novels by my mentor at UCT J.M. Coetzee. Studying under Prof. Coetzee was on incredible experience not least because here was a person who not only was a kind of living legend, but also who literally risked his life as a novelist. He wrote novels like The Life and Times of Michael K and Waiting for the Barbarians during a time when he could have been thrown in jail for the things he implied about the apartheid government. I like to think I am a committed writer. But I am not sure I would risk jail time under the old South African regime for my art. I would certainly not be willing to risk the lives of my family members to publish a novel. Prof. Coetzee did that. He taught me that writing was a serious business. Literally a matter of life and death.

HTBS: You must be thrilled to learn that Flat Water Tuesday has been put on the long list for the Sunday Times Fiction Prize in South Africa just the other day. What does this mean for the novel?

It is indeed great news. The Sunday Times Fiction Prize is the most important literary prize in South Africa. Flat Water Tuesday is published here by Pan Macmillan SA and they have been tireless in their support of it. I have met many people who have happened to read the book, and it seems to be doing the rounds at the local private schools where rowing is popular. The short list gets announced at a party during the Franschhoek Literary Festival on 17 May, and a few weeks after that they will announce the winner. Some major names in South African fiction have won the prize: Andre Brink, Zakes Mda, Justin Cartwright among them. Some of the other winners are personal friends and colleagues. I have no idea if I will make the short list, but I am certainly looking forward to going to the Franschhoek Literary Festival, FLF, and having a drink with the other ‘longlisters’ and cheering on whoever gets tapped. The FLF is hugely popular down here and is really the landmark literary event on the South African calendar. Franschhoek is a beautiful town: imagine Edgartown in Martha’s Vineyard transplanted into a beautiful wine region and you get the idea. Wine and books are a fine and time honored pairing, in my opinion.

HTBS: We will certainly keep our fingers crossed that Flat Water Tuesday is picked for the short list.

Thanks, Göran.

HTBS: With the great success of Flat Water Tuesday, are you now working on your second novel? And if so, what will it be about?

I think the next novel will take place in Cape Town. I have come across a female character who doesn’t seem to want to go away, so I think I will follow her and see where she takes me.

HTBS: Thank you, Ron, and good luck with Flat Water Tuesday and with your second novel.

Thank you.

You can find out more about the novel Flat Water Tuesday by visiting www.flatwatertuesday.com. Please feel free to “like” its Facebook page at www.facebook.com/fwtnovel
Flat Water Tuesday can be bought at your local book shop, Target and the online bookstores. 

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