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Literary New England Radio Show features Ron Irwin - 2014, July

This episode of the Literary New England Radio Show features authors:

  • Beatriz Williams on The Secret Life of Violet Grant

  • Jeanne Mackin on The Beautiful American

  • Ron Irwin on Flat Water Tuesday

  • CJ Hauser on The From-Aways


Flat Water Tuesday author Ron Irwin interviewed in Glamour magazine - 2014, June

Glam Book Chat:

Ron Irwin

By Cayleigh Bright

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.

Love the sound of the novel? Stand a chance to win a copy here!

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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 are 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 Flat Water Tuesday is available in South Africa at selected bookstores.

Hamilton Wende

Good to have you here Ron.

Its a long way from our hometown of Buffalo NY.

‪Ron Irwin

Great to be here and yes, it is woderful that we each have this connection to Buffalo, NY, where I grew up and where you spent a good part of your childhood. Cape Town seems like a long way away in many ways. I try to get back twice a year or so.

‪Hamilton Wende

So I guess the thing is you wrote this novel while you were living in South Africa but its about the US and set in the US was that hard for you going back to your old life there?

Ron Irwin

I certainly believe that one gets more perspective on a place when they actually are away from it. My novel takes place in New York and at a boarding school in Connecticut. The main characeter works in South Africa. I have not really seen that part of Connecticut for decades, and the New York parts are based very loosely on places I have been. It is hard to write about what is ging on around one, at least in the context of fiction…long ago I decided to make up my own version of the boarding school I attended, and change reality as I saw fit. I still get email from alumni who say I captured it well. I always say to my students that “reality is a tyrant” need to bend it to the demands of fiction. I mean, hammer it. You, as a reporter and also a war novelsit, must struggle with the same things…your novels take place in Central Africa and Afghanistan. You must find yourself changing reality to suit the narrative….

‪Hamilton Wende

Yes that’s true. I often use incidents that happened, but then have to change the sequence of events to suit the narrative demands – and then I have to make up things completely, so there is a combination of memory and imagination twirling around one another to create the DNA of the story. But I also find there are deep feelings of identity that illuminate the characters’ lives and for me, although i haven’t lived in Buffalo for years, it is still a part of me and my character Claire in The House of War is from Buffalo, so your book resonated with me on that level – the shared personal and fictional identities – I mean my uncle’s house where I stayed when I used to go to Buffalo more often is just a couple doors down from your parents on the same street! And now we share a South African identity too which informs our writing.

‪Ron Irwin

South Africa is in a great place from a writer’s POV. Fifteen years ago there was no real contemporary fiction coming out of here. I would give creative writing classes and feel terrible for the students, who really would have very little outlet for their work. NOW, my god, it’s like Paris in the 20s!!! Publishers are LOOKING for writers. I was at the Franschhoek Lit Festival last week and I was tripping over good writers. It has to do with the fact that local readers are open to reading about their country, changes in technology…and the fact that the modern SA writer doesn’t feel compelled to always address the injustices of the past. Some very important books have been written by some great writers about the dim history of SA, but, let’s face it, this blog is run by a woman who has shown the world that SA porn can sell big. And I mean that in a good way.

‪Hamilton Wende

Yes South African fiction is really exploding with possibilities and it is a very exciting time to be working here. The grand narratives of apartheid and the struggle are receding into the past and more and more South Africans are finding ways to express their inner lives that are no longer constrained by the terrible injustice of the past. Your book is exactly one of those narratives – a story set in both the US and SA with the dual identity of both cultures underlying the narrative.

‪Ron Irwin

True. It is based partly on reality. It is, at heart, a love story. It’s really about how the tragic events that happen around a rowing race while the main character is in boarding school affect him…and his relationship…as an adult. I was at Hilton College a few weeks ago, and have found that many students have asked to make the novel a set work. I gave a talk to the teachers asking them to think about what kind of men we are creating when we put these young warriors on the rugby fields…and on the water. We always say that sports build character, and that’s true. But what KIND of character? Is having an unstoppable will to win and to endure pain a really great thing in a personal relationship? Does it help you build empathy? The main character’s personality is tested when his lover decides to dump him.

‪ I’m not sure we will ever get to the bottom of the relationships between men and women. Thank god. This is really where the novelists lives, because we all want a special person in our lives, we are all struggling to find our place, to find acceptance. I think that the best parts of my novel really were about how we try to find each other. So the next novel will explore that in greater depth.

‪Hamilton Wende

Tell us about how your own experiences at school and specifically rowing at school influenced your writing of Flat Water Tuesday?

To continue reading the rest of this interview, join The Good Book Appreciation Society, by friending Bea Reader on Facebook. The Good Book Appreciation Society is a book club with almost 2000 members, it’s situated in a secret corner of Facebook. Hamilton Wende is an author and journalist, his latest novel is Only the Dead.

The Reading Frenzy reposts their original review of Flat Water Tuesday and gives away a free copy of the new paperback edition - 2014, May


I'm re-posting my original interview with Ron about the novel and I'm offering one lucky entrant US ONLY a paperback copy for their very own.


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.

Hear the Boat Sing: Interview with Ron Irwin, Author of Flat Water Tuesday - 2014, May

Interview with Ron Irwin, Author Of Flat Water Tuesday:

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:

hear the boat.jpg

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.

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.

Alert! The longlist for the 2014 Sunday Times Fiction Prize has been announced.

With an ever-increasing number of books being entered for the Sunday Times Literary Awards, formal longlists have been constituted for the first time, curated by the award chairs in consultation with conveners Ben Williams and Michele Magwood. The shortlists will be announced on Saturday 17 May at the Franschhoek Literary Festival.

This is the fourteenth edition of the Sunday Times Fiction Prize, first awarded in 2001 to Zakes Mda for his novel The Heart of Redness (Oxford University Press). The prize criteria stipulate that the winner should be “a novel of rare imagination and style, evocative, textured and a tale so compelling as to become an enduring landmark of contemporary fiction.” The prize is open to works in English, including those that have been translated.

Speculative fiction joins crime as an influence on this year’s longlist, which is however dominated by moving stories of South Africans learning to cope with loss.

There are 23 books on the longlist, to be deliberated on by this year’s judging panel comprising Annari van der Merwe (Chair), Sindiwe Magona and Ivan Vladislavić.

Chairperson Annari van der Merwe’s remarks on the longlist:

The picture of our society that emerges from this year’s submissions for the Sunday Times Fiction Prize is not a cheerful one. Together the novels on the long list explore practically every pressing social ill – corruption, greed, violence, drug addiction, alcoholism, the rape and abuse of women and children, the plight of minorities. A few perversions are thrown in as well, from an addiction to online pornography to torture and serial killing. It is clear that the freedom of expression the country enjoys has liberated writers to be critical and exploratory in a way that was inconceivable prior to 1994.

It is striking that most of the novels feature first-person narrators who present a limited, subjective perspective on events. This seems to suggest that in a time as fractured and fraught as ours, an all-knowing, all-seeing narrator who is able to chronicle events in an impartial way has become a rarity.

By and large, the novels were well-designed and attractively produced. We were also struck by the generally high quality of the technical editing. Unfortunately, the structural and stylistic editing was not of the same standard. In a good number of cases we felt that a book had not been developed to its full potential, or had been overwritten, and that a stronger editorial hand would have made a decisive difference.

As could be expected, the literary merits of the novels vary greatly. However, we feel that there are some exceptional books in the running for this year’s prize. - Annari van der Merwe (Chair)

The Longlist:

  • The Shining Girls by Lauren Beukes (Umuzi)

  • False River by Dominique Botha (Umuzi)

  • My Children Have Faces by Carol Campbell (Umuzi)

  • Lion Heart by Justin Cartwright (Bloomsbury)

  • The Blacks of Cape Town by CA Davids (Modjaji Books)

  • The New Girl by SL Grey (Corvus/Atlantic Books)

  • Flat Water Tuesday by Ron Irwin (Pan Macmillan/Thomas Dunne)

  • Penumbra by Songeziwe Mahlangu (Kwela)

  • The Sculptors of Mapungubwe by Zakes Mda (Kwela)

  • Way Back Home by Niq Mhlongo (Kwela)

  • Untitled by Kgebetli Moele (Kwela)

  • Small Things by Nthikeng Mohlele (UKZN Press)

  • A Hill of Fools by Mtutuzeli Nyoka (Picador Africa)

  • Water Music by Margie Orford (Jonathan Ball)

  • The Imagined Child by Jo-Anne Richards (Picador Africa)

  • The Spiral House by Claire Robertson (Umuzi)

  • Call It Dog by Marli Roode (Penguin/Atlantic Books)

  • Rumours by Mongane Wally Serote (Jacana Media)

  • Stepping Out by Steven Boykey Sidley (Picador Africa)

  • Zebra Crossing by Meg Van Der Merwe (Umuzi)

  • Wolf, Wolf by Eben Venter (Tafelberg)

  • Walk by James Whyle (Jacana Media)

  • Sister-Sister by Rachel Zadok (Kwela)


Ron Irwin asked to sign 5000 copies for Target customers

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