Glam Book Chat: Ron Irwin
Ron Irwin recently published Flat Water Tuesday, a novel that’s captured the hearts of a wide audience – rowers, romantics and anyone who’s ever struggled to prove their worth. We sat down to talk to the author about his memorable characters, his work in helping other authors to get published, and why writing and rowing alike requires an impressive level of stamina.
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GLAMOUR: While Rob is an outsider because he isn’t from as wealthy a background as his teammates, Ruth often faces special challenges as the only girl on the rowing team. What do you think it is that makes outsiders so appealing as characters in fiction – and that makes the stories featuring them so popular?
Ron: I truly believe that almost all of us think we were outsiders while we were adolescents. The standard stance towards life by a person under the age of 18 is that nobody understands them and they are so totally different from everybody around them that there is no way they could possibly fit in. I recently went back to the actual school where Flat Water Tuesday takes place and I was surprised to meet people whom I thought were extremely popular back in the day who told me that they felt incredibly alone while they were students there.
The need to be part of the group is so strong when one is a teenager that rejection is a kind of mini-death. Teenagers live a paradoxical lifestyle: they believe that most groups at high school are not worth joining but at the same time they desperately want to belong. We look back on this with some humor and irony when we are adults, but at the same time the memories linger.
So this is why stories about outsiders so popular. We all feel like outsiders in some point. We all secretly admire the person who doesn’t mind being an outsider or who upsets the status quo. These people are heroes, especially to teenagers. This is why rock stars, writers, and badly behaved kids always will be popular to kids.
What was the most challenging part of creating Flat Water Tuesday?
I think that the most challenging part of writing the novel was realising that, as I tell my students, “Reality is a tyrant”. Many of the people I wrote about actually exist in one way or another or are amalgamations of the few people I’ve known. The school where much of the novel takes place actually does exist: it’s the Kent School in Kent, Connecticut and they have been big supporters of the novel despite all the tragedy in it. I regularly get newspapers from Kent and of course alumni magazines. As I wrote the novel I began to realize what I was writing about was incredibly different from what I was seeing in the real communications from the school. This was worrying. I didn’t want people to think I had no idea what I was talking about.
But I decided to trust my own reality. I was writing fiction after all. And the best thing about it is that I’ve had many readers who went to Kent who tell me that I seem to have captured something real about boarding school existence. I guess the lesson here is that we all experience life differently. We have to trust that our own experiences will resonate with others.
I had a creative writing teacher when I was younger who came to a seminar dragging along a rusted out car muffler. She threw it in the middle of the room and asked us all to write about it. All of our descriptions were different. Some of us focused on the fact that it smelt of oil. Some of us focused on the fact that it was full of rust. Others wrote about the shape of the thing. The lesson? There is no hard and fast reality. And there is no real past, it’s all subject to our emotions and our extremely fallible human memories. When you look back at a huge experience like going to boarding school, you have thousands and thousands of people who all experienced it differently. The writer’s job is to speak to all of them via fiction, not journalism.
The story of Flat Water Tuesday’s publication is a lesson in perseverance. Could you tell us a little about that?
I wrote the first draft of the novel back in 1993 in a small flat in Johannesburg, shortly after I came to the country from Buffalo, New York. This was before the Internet became popular. This is before people had e-mail. I printed it out on a dot-matrix printer and mailed it to an agent in New York City in a shoebox. She was kind enough to take it on. She sent it to about 25 New York publishers and it was roundly rejected. They liked the writing, but they thought a story about rowing in boarding school was too remote from the experience of the average reader. The problem was that original manuscript did not have the adult love story that is the center of the novel in stores now.
So, soon after these rejections came in, I flew back to the United States and actually drove out to my agent’s house in Connecticut, which was an hour or so outside of New York City. She helped me edit the manuscript and gave me a great deal of advice about how to tighten the writing and make it more appealing to an adult audience. I went back to South Africa and rewrote the manuscript again, but still did not have the adult love story. It was just a better story about rowing. The agent sent it out to another twenty or twenty-five publishers and again we were rejected. By now it was 1997 and I had to focus on building a house in Cape Town and starting a family … the story of Flat Water Tuesday had to be put aside for a while. I did lots of other things, including make documentary films, and I wrote a tremendous amount of nonfiction.
In any event, a colleague here at UCT unexpectedly died very young age in 2011. His name was Prof. Stephen Watson and he was a good friend and a big supporter of my writing. I think that really motivated me to pull out the manuscript and try again. I felt that because I had not been more persistent about this novel I had somehow let him down. And I began earnestly editing the manuscript in my free time.
One day, as I was driving to the University, I suddenly wound up sitting in my car in the shoulder of the M3. Right there it occurred to me that the novel should really be about what happens when an adult man of 35 years old, in the middle of a traumatic breakup with his girlfriend, goes back to his old boarding school and faces the ghosts of the past. It should look at what happens when you grow up as an athlete and suddenly have to deal with the realities of adulthood. Does being good at a sport really help you in later life, like all the coaches say it will? Does being a good rower help you become more empathetic person? The novel really takes a good look at this. The story wound up being not so much about rowing so much as about how we hold on to the people we love. And maybe about how we let them go.
Flat Water Tuesday has been extremely well-received. What’s the most surprising thing that anyone has said to you about your first novel?
The reviews have been very good, but what is more rewarding to me are the many e-mails that I get from people who have been rowers or people who’ve gone through really rough breakups. These are the emails that I really value because it always amazes me when a reader goes so far as to find you online, figure out your e-mail addresses, and take the time to write you a couple paragraphs. That to me is the real reward of being a writer. It means that you have really affected somebody’s life. So I have been touched by this outpouring of affection for the novel.
I think the most surprising thing that happened in this regard was I was giving a talk at a retirement community in Florida when a man came up to me and handed me pictures of the boarding school where this all takes place. These pictures had been taken back in the 1940s. The man who gave them to me had been a rower there when he was a kid and had taken these pictures himself before he graduated. They really were just pictures of the river where we rowed, but they were haunting. He had held onto them for over 70 years. He gave them to me because he wanted me to know just how timeless the story was. So I had those pictures scanned and included one of them in the back of the trade paperback edition of the novel that came out in the United States recently and which will be available in South Africa in August. It just seems amazing that somebody would give me pictures they had held onto for so long just because they liked my book. I wanted to do the gesture justice.
You’ re a creative writing lecturer and a literary agent as well as a successful author. What’ s your best advice to aspiring authors who want to get their work published?
I would say to any aspiring author what I say to all of the students I’ve taught at UCT: work on the manuscript until it is absolutely perfect. Edit the manuscript relentlessly. Understand that 80% of your job will be chopping and changing and editing and improving. Do this until you have actually told the story you want to tell, until you know it is out of your system. Most students that I teach simply do not understand that fiction is mainly a matter of editing. It doesn’t matter how long you have been writing. 80% of your work will be editing. This means you will be getting rid of chapters, changing characters, changing the narrative, and improving the novel relentlessly. When I first started studying under Prof. JM Coetzee—who won the Booker prize twice and the Nobel Prize for Literature—I was amazed how much editing he did. I was amazed at just how workmanlike being a writer is.
And of course, you need to get rid of all the spelling, grammar and formatting mistakes in your manuscript before you send it in to publishers. You would be appalled at how many manuscripts I got back when I was an agent that were simply full of spelling and grammatical errors. Even students handing in work for their MA degree in creative writing try to get away with dozens of errors in the manuscripts. Why? Because, I think, there is this poisonous myth that has somehow endured that a publisher will remove these errors once they have recognized your genius. Publishers don’t do this. They reject manuscripts that look like they are too much work. The days of Thomas Wolfe sending in crates of drafts from Paris for the editor to sift through are long gone. Now, publishers will have you correct your own galleys (the version of the novel that is set up for print). Copyeditors are a dying breed. Trust me on this.
Where do you go to find new and interesting novels?
I read the book sections of the local newspapers and I also subscribe to the online version of The New York Times. The New York Times book review is really the most important gauge of what’s happening in fiction for most of the English-speaking world. I also subscribe to the New Yorker magazine, which has an excellent books section. The short stories published there are also usually a barometer of the kind of fiction that’s being well received in the USA at the moment. I also get the New York Review of Books and the Times Literary Supplement, which is published out of London. Prof. Stephen Watson used to suggest that every single UCT MA student read the interviews and news in the Paris Review online. This is excellent advice.
You can find out more about Flat Water Tuesday by visiting www.ronirwin.com. Flat Water Tuesday is available in South Africa at selected bookstores.