Tuesday, June 11, 2013

Interview with debut author Ron Irwin who's talking about his novel Flat Water Tuesday; find out why he said––" I came to South Africa in 1992 fresh out of college hoping to save the world."

  • ISBN-13: 9781250030030
  • Publisher: St. Martin's Press

 Rob Carrey, the son of a working-class cabinet maker, arrives at the Fenton School with a scholarship to row and a chip on his shoulder.  Generations of austere Fenton men have led the rowing team, known as the God Four, to countless victories—but none are as important or renowned as the annual Tuesday-afternoon race against their rival, Warwick.

Library JournalWorking-class Rob receives a rowing scholarship to the Fenton School, where the team captain's brutal urge to win leads to tragedy. A hot debut.
Kirkus ReviewsIrwin debuts with movingly rendered literary fiction about love and loss, youth and maturity, ambition and its cost.
"All you ever wanted to know about the world of competitive rowing is contained in the pages of Ron Irwin's new novel, whose hero is not only a prodigious oarsman but the lover of two memorably realized women."J.M. Coetzee"

Flat Water Tuesday
 is the best debut novel I've read this year, a compulsively readable dark drama that weaves multiple storylines toward one marvelous denouement. Michael Koryta, New York Times bestselling author of The Prophet

Ron Hi, welcome to my blog
Thanks very much!

Tell us about your novel Flat Water Tuesday
 Flat Water Tuesday is a story about a man named Rob Carrey who is a documentary filmmaker for National Geographic. He comes back to New York from a shoot in South Africa to try to salvage his relationship with his girlfriend, Carolyn. In the middle of this very tense time he is called back to his old boarding school upon the suicide of one of his former rowing teammates. This forces him to confront his past while dealing with an extremely stressful present. This is a passionate love story set against the ultracompetitive world of rowing.

It sounds like too much of a coincidence that your new novel sounds a bit like your bio.
Tell us what led you to write the novel.
I always say that 90% of this novel really did happen and the other 10% could have happened. They say that most first novels come out of the author’s personal experience, and I have been lucky enough to live a fairly exciting life. I have worked as a documentary filmmaker, a teacher, lecturer, a writer, and of course I rowed for many years in boarding school and in college. So the events that I described in the novel are fairly close to my own reality. I think that, to begin with, the intensity of rowing in boarding school was something I always knew I would return to.  Rowers hold a special place in many American boarding schools. It is an elite sport and an expensive one and those kids who can move the boat quickly on a race course get a great deal of attention from their peers and from the school itself. I grew up rowing in Buffalo New York, and came to boarding school unaware that it was such an extremely respected pastime. In Buffalo, at least when I was younger, rowing was kind of a sport that few people really knew about although those that participated in it were very good. In boarding school, the rowers were gods. I wanted to explore that tribal environment from the point of view of an adult.

 I also think that many people have been in love affairs where their own carelessness has threatened to ruin everything. The heart of this novel is actually a love story, and it is probably the oldest love story there is. A man has made a fatal mistake and he needs to get back in the good graces of the woman he loves. He has realized, possibly too late, that he found the love of his life. I think that I do believe there is that one special person out there for us all, and when you find her you need to hold on. In the novel, Carolyn wants to get rid of Rob once and for all, but she can’t bring herself to do it. Essentially, Rob has to be able to apologize to her, and she has to be able to accept the apology. This is probably the story of men and women since the beginning of time!

It’s a pretty far leap from New England where you grew up to South Africa where you now live part of the year and lecture on film and media for the University of Cape Town.
What led you there?
 I came to South Africa in 1992 fresh out of college hoping to save the world. I  taught at a school outside of Soweto,  which is a famous township near Johannesburg. Here I was exposed to incredible talent, but incredible poverty. During that time I traveled around the country and realized it was a place that was in the middle of the momentous transition. Democracy was on the way, and I wanted to be part of that. I thought I would stay a few more years and study under the noted author JM Coetzee at The University of Cape Town, and then go back to the United States. Twenty years later, of course, I am still here and now I am the one teaching at the University of Cape Town! I travel back and forth between South Africa and the United States quite often. In fact I’m headed back in less than two weeks to help promote the novel. I think I have taken that long haul flight to New York about fifty times.  But Cape Town is a perfect place for a writer. It has wonderful natural attractions, great restaurants, and of course the university is easily the best in the southern hemisphere. So I think it is a bucolic life, although I do get homesick from time to time.

You are a documentary filmmaker. How different was writing a novel to making a documentary? How was it similar?
 I worked full-time as a documentary filmmaker for about three years. I think that writing a script for a short documentary is certainly a different task than the long  project of writing a novel. However, the one thing I did learn about was the amount of time it takes to get just a few seconds of screen time right. There is a tremendous amount of editing and reediting that documentary filmmakers have to go through to get the story right. And of course, you need to look at an interesting subject and make an interesting narrative out of it. I remember filming Himalayan mountain goats called “tahrs” out of a helicopter. These used to inhabit the slopes of Table Mountain here in Cape Town, but they’ve since been culled by the National Parks Board. It was up to me to tell both sides of the story, and also to make people care about  a big hairy goat. I had to get right to the emotional core of the story, and to provide all the other information as kind of an aside. This was the challenge I had with Flat Water Tuesday. I knew a lot about rowing, but I had to make the reader care as well. My goal was to make somebody would never ever seen a rowing shell love the sport as much as the narrator does.

The film rights for the novel have already been sold.
Does this mean that there will definitely be a movie?
Big or small screen?
Will you have a major role in the production?
 The film rights have been sold to Winther Brothers entertainment in Los Angeles. Lars Winther is a personal friend of mine and in fact he is also a rower. My agent, Tris Coburn,  is also a rower. To make matters more interesting, we all went to the same boarding school and graduated in the same class! But Lars is really in charge of the production of the film, although he does consult me from time to time. We are in very early stages now in terms of film production, but of course we do hope to see it hit the big screens. Once things start rolling in earnest, of course, I would like to be involved.

Since you’re bi-continental your “writing cave” must be mobile too.
Do you have a certain place/time to write?
 I think I write better in the morning, although when I was younger I liked to burn the midnight oil. I think that the earlier you get to your manuscript without the distractions of the day, the better. I prefer to write in my office at the university, because it seems when I’m at home there are a million things to attend to that seem more fun than writing.  The University of Cape Town has been very good about giving me creative space and my office is extremely comfortable and quiet. But I have written in hotel rooms, mobile offices, warehouses, in bed, and in sleeping bags. I do a great deal of traveling and I always try to find a quiet place where I can spread out and write.
I really do wish I had a proper “writing cave”.  Ideally it would  have an ocean view… but  knowing me I would probably wind up sleeping on the beach rather than writing. I think it was Proust who wrote in a cork lined room, so he could avoid all distractions and put plot notes up. Frankly, that would work best for somebody like me. Essentially, I need to be in a place that is low on distractions, but has easy access to coffee.
I suppose my very first “writing cave” was in Johannesburg.  It was a spare room that was about 10’ x 6’ in my first flat in the artistic section of town. I put a door on top of two trestles in that room and I worked there quite happily for a year or so. The room had a small window that looked out into the garden, but the garden was fairly small.  I think I remember that little room most fondly. I was certainly extremely productive there. Also, for one year I rented a small office on top of a box factory in Cape Town. That was also a very good place to work, but it was extremely lonely as I was the only renter on the entire floor. The wi-fi worked great, though!

Did you like novel writing enough for another one?
 Oh, of course. I am already working on a new novel and it is a wonderful pleasure to have an editor waiting for it in New York. I could not imagine another life. I am really doing what I’ve always wanted to do. When we were kids, my brother and I used to joke that he would be the businessman and I would be the artist who slept on his couch. Well, he now works as an international investment banker  and I have to say he has an extremely comfortable couch…

Ron as a new novelist what one piece of advice would you give to aspiring authors?
 I think that the best piece of advice I could give a new novelist, given that I have  taught creative writing for fifteen years, is to believe in yourself enough to continually improve. I think many novelists get told that they simply should not “give up”. That, in my opinion, may be bad advice. Let me explain. When I was in college I was lucky enough to meet Pulitzer Prize winning author William Kennedy. It was at his magnificent house outside of Albany that I decided I would I would like to be a novelist one day. I met him just as he had published his Very Old Bones, a novel that remains one of my favorites. Back then there was no e-mail, but we were all waiting for the fax to come through from the New York Times, and when it did it was a hot review. Kennedy went through years of rejection before breaking through and now of course he is a legend.
When I first wrote Flat Water Tuesday  in the little room in Johannesburg, I sent it through to an American agent whose name I had looked up in the Johannesburg Public Library. She picked it up, and send it out to twenty-five different publishers, all of whom rejected us. Most of the publishers did not know why a novel about high school rowing would appeal to adults. But I was dogged, and I rewrote the novel and made it yet more edgy, and we resubmitted. Unfortunately, we were once again roundly rejected.  I think I had to learn how to improve my writing and also find a way to make the novel relevant to adults. In other words, I had to take criticism in stride, and use it to improve. When I went to work on what is now the third version of  Flat Water Tuesday, I actually deleted about 80% of what I had. I started from scratch and I knew that the love story had to be an important part of the novel. I had to let go of the idea that people would read about rowing for rowing’s sake. When I submitted this version, it was immediately accepted by the first editor who saw it.

Will there be any signings or events where fans could meet you in person?
 I have a big event coming up in Cape Town, South Africa on June 5 at the  Book Lounge, but  by the time this is published that event will be over. I will have another lunch in Buffalo, New York at Talking Leaves Bookshop on Main Street on June  22  at 5:30 PM. This will be very important to me, because of course Buffalo is my hometown and part of the novel takes place in a fictionalized version of the city.

You can find out more about Flat Water Tuesday at www.ronirwin.com

Ron Thank you for taking the time to chat with us and let us learn a little about what it’s like walking in your talented shoes. Good Luck with this novel and all your future Best Sellers too!!

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  1. Great interview Deb and wow such an exciting life Ron has lived. The novel sounds interesting. I don't know much about rowing but have seen teams practicing on the river in Pennsylvania.

  2. Hi Kim, thanks for the visit. I've only ever seen rowing on the tv or movie screen I bet it's amazing to see in person.