My Side of the Ocean is an extraordinary exploration of the authentic self of a woman. A terrifying meeting with an apex predator triggers the dissolution of all the ways Stella has betrayed herself, dragging her through the depths of her discontent to strike rock. But despite Stella’s fierce need to strip bare, this novel is not about separateness. Rather it traces and celebrates the unconscious connections between all people, even enemies. It sinks beneath the roles of wife, husband, lover to the benign force that binds prey and predatory together in a powerful potential for violence or gentleness. Irwin has found words for a deeper, surprising intuition, a rebel movement that seems to come from a woman’s womb. I trusted and loved the process of this writer’s channeling.
- Tracey Farren,
Author of Tess and The Book of Malachi
Highlights from social media
March 11, 2023
You Magazine: Thought-Provoking Reads - Gerry Waldem
“American artist Stella Wright lives in a beautiful beach house in Cape Town, right next to the sea that she loves to paint.
One windy afternoon while swimming she hears a surfer shouting at her to get ashore as there's a shark nearby. The great white comes so close to her she can see into its unblinking eye and is convinced she’s about to die.
After their narrow escape, she and the young surfer, Ben, try to help each other through the trauma and find a way to regain the courage to get back into the ocean that plays such a key role in both their lives.
There's an almost instant attraction between them - but things are complicated by the fact that Stella is due to leave South Africa to return to America with her wealthy husband.
In the wake of her harrowing experience, Stella begins to reassess everything in her life and is forced to confront her choices.
This book grew on me the further I went into it. I found it fascinating that as a male author, Irwin writes so convincingly from Stella's perspective - theres not a single misstep or fact that doesn't ring true in this intriguing tale of love, loss, decisions and consequences.”
Wednesday, 1 February, 2023
Interview | Joan Hambidge with Ron Irwin | 2023
Congratulations on the publication of your second novel My side of the Ocean. I started reading the manuscript last year after 1 in the morning and completed this compelling book at 4.30 in the morrow. 1. Flat Water Tuesday was your debut in 2013, a novel reflecting on male culture and rowing. Is this novel semi-autobiographical? “Yes, very much so. Most of my work has some basis in my own life, but Flat Water Tuesday is really a novelisation of my experience as a rower at an elite American boarding school...and navigating life a decade or so after graduation. It took me quite a long time to write because I found it difficult to return to some of the events of that time. The people who are making the film of Flat Water Tuesday have found a way to recreate the kinetic experience of rowing in a fast boat using new technology, which is very exciting. I also think that modern readers and audiences are ready for realistic movies about the complexities of teenage life and how the challenges of our formative years shape us as adults. My Side of the Ocean is less autobiographical but it does address issues that have been on my mind for some time. The main premise of the novel--a woman who comes face to face with a shark close to shore while she is swimming--is based upon a story I was told by a South African paddle boarder. I think the most important part of the novel is exploring how people react to the sudden but sure realisation that life is finite. I wanted to explore what happens when this ceases to be just an academic question and really gets brought home to a character. All of us have this moment in life, when it becomes crystal clear we are not on earth forever and we need to react to this knowledge. All of us understand the concept of death, but there is a time when we have to accept the reality of death, and that’s a whole 'nother ball of wax, as they say.” 2. You grew up in Buffalo, New York and are currently a senior lecturer in Film and Media Studies. You also worked as a freelance documentary filmmaker and journalist. You also completed two MAs: one in Creative Writing; the other in Literary Theory. A PhD in Media Studies. Different hats, so to speak. How do you navigate your different roles a teacher in branding, mentor for many students and your work as novelist? “I like to say that there is no greater preparation for creating popular fiction than branding, which requires a kind of dramatic flair (to say the least!). And teaching is almost a kind of liberation from the rigours of writing and rewriting... I suppose I could teach almost anything and feel a kind of relief from the exhausting demands of producing a novel. I also think that the modern novelist has to be a student of media: video, social media, advertising, personal brand building, blogging, podcasting, radio, you name it. The days of being a reclusive author living in a bunker like JD Salinger or in a cabin like Cormac McCarthy are over. Even Cormac is now giving interviews to major outlets about his recent fiction. And he has to do this. Bret Easton Ellis's new smash novel The Shards is based upon a popular podcast he started during Covid and critics say it represents his best work since American Psycho, which was published in 1990. Today, unlike when I started, we have young writers building their own followings online and writing for them, producing novel-length work in just a month and self-publishing for thousands of eager followers. We have new voices demanding attention and of course every single novel competes for eyeballs (horrible use of the word) against the seductive pleasures of the phone and unlimited options on the living room flat screen. Social media is now where most people learn about new novels. And now we have AI in the form of ChatGPT and variations of it, which could be a massive transformative moment. So an awareness of how media works is really part of every creative person's life now. The same goes for artists of every kind, as well as musicians, salespeople and any kind of craftsman or designer. We are all in the same boat. If we want our work to be seen and bought, the use of different media platforms is the way to do it. Even graffiti artists are in on it.” 3. J.M. Coetzee was a mentor. What implicit advice did this Master of Writing gave you? “Prof. Coetzee was the most meticulous and disciplined writer I have ever encountered. When I first met him, I expected a much more expansive type of person, but he really was a dedicated and tireless worker. He had a kind of iron discipline that I do not think I possess, very few people possess it. His capacity to revise and revise again was unbelievable. He demanded a kind of meticulous attention to the craft and all of its sometimes mundane details that every writer needs to develop in one way or another. It was the daily rigour of working with him that I remember most.” 4. Your new novel could be read as an episodic novel using the eye of a shark to tell the story: “The main character and narrator of the novel is a displaced American artist named Stella Wright. Each chapter begins with an artistic representation of a different kind of shark endemic to the waters of South Africa that is a recreation of Stella's work. There is also a short description of the shark (or an anatomical part of the shark). The shark images and the descriptions of them illustrate Stella's evolving relationship with sharks, from one of fear to one of fascination and acceptance. Each shark rendition and description tells the reader a little more about the main character's relationship not just with sharks, but with the possibility of death itself, and by that same token, the possibility of life. There are about 440 species of sharks in the world and South Africa is home to about a quarter of them, representing all major families. These waters are without a doubt one of the great havens for the animal. And humans have a very tenuous relationship with sharks. To many, a shark represents a kind of mindless death. There is something very primal about our fear of being torn apart in the water...maybe even pre-primal. Yet, from another perspective, sharks are an important and crucial part of life on earth. They have been here hundreds of millions of years before us and will probably see humankind off to extinction relatively soon. From their point of view, our experiences and struggles are exceedingly temporary.” 5. I versus eye. How do you see the implications of the so-called multi-focal novel? “Stella sees the world in a certain way at the start of the novel, and sees it in a far different way at the end. As an artist she can imagine herself, and representations of herself, which is interesting. But she also has to imagine a new reality for herself after a traumatic experience in the water with a massive shark that leads her into an affair. Part of having a secret affair is the desire to see one's self in a different light, to briefly step into a new reality or experience a reality you might have had if you didn't make certain choices in life. Stella is an artist who enjoys the unlimited support of an adoring husband, but realises this is not enough, that she needs to return to a more authentic existence. This awareness comes to her after the abrupt realisation that her life could be cut short at any time, and she would have left an important part of it unlived.” 6. Melville’s Moby Dick is an implicit intertext. I recall you listening to Harold Bloom’s lecture on YouTube whilst writing the novel. Comment. “Moby Dick is of course a far more ambitious novel than mine, yet we still see the idea of returning to the sea, of deadly animals there being a focus of concern, attention, and ultimately obsession. Ahab wants to literally destroy the white whale; Stella wants to get over the fear a great white shark has instilled in her by painting and drawing it. I think also the affair she enters into with another person who loves the water--Ben, a surfer--is illustrative of how two people use whatever is at hand to conquer their fears. Melville was playing with an idea that essay-like examinations of men at work on the sea would yield a greater understanding of the nature of being human, and the nature of obsession. Tolstoy has similar asides in War and Peace about combat and family. Stella's asides in the novel about painting and teaching offer us insight into her own state of mind. To use rather awkward contemporary language, Ahab is the ultimate trauma survivor, just as Stella is. Ahab's obsession with Moby Dick is an obsession to right the injustice of the past, to enquire into the damage done to him, to smooth out a massive shift in his own reality when the hunter briefly became the hunted. The Pequod sinks under Ahab's obsession, as does Stella's marriage and her home, which faces the wrath of a Cape storm. Both novels end with the final destruction of the previous reality, and the possibility of survival into a new existence. The last page of Moby Dick (before the Epilogue), I feel, is one of the greatest endings in western literature.” 7. The perspective of a female narrator/focalisator is quite daring for a male writer. But you convinced me that you understand the psyche of a woman. Coetzee also accomplished this with Elizabeth Costello. How did you enter the mind of a woman? “I find that in fiction the actual voice that comes to you from the character genders itself. Writing from a heterosexual woman's view is difficult at one level: men tend to internalise their thoughts and feelings and especially their fears, whereas more than one woman reader has told me this character would probably share her experiences and her trauma with other women. But she engages in a secret affair with a younger man, which is forbidden on two levels due to his age and her being married. So Stella is stuck with her decisions and cannot confide in many friends about her experience. She is also based upon a driven, rather prickly artist that I know in real life, who eschews most rational forms of female friendship but is quite demanding and tactical in her romantic adventures. One editor suggested that perhaps this artistic woman would not want to leave a wealthy older (but not much older) husband who adores her and buys her whatever she wants, including a gorgeous studio in New York. My experience is that quite a few people would seriously consider leaving comfortable relationships for dangerous and exciting but doomed relationships. I think this is an all-too-human impulse.” 8. Your novel deals with the complexities of the modern campus. Rhodes Must Fall, Fees Must Fall, etcetera. Could we read this as a modern campus novel? For instance, Vladímír by Julia May Jonas criticising the woke culture on campuses. “I am not sure I criticise "woke" culture on campus, but there are amusing academic peccadillos that I shine a light upon. I have been involved with UCT for almost my entire adult life. I have worked in the English, Commerce and Media Studies departments. And there are more political currents I discover on campus that I find amusing and funny than really disturbing or worthy of fictional representation. But the fact is that instructors are under a great deal of pressure to conform to a fairly rigid set of rules that do seem arbitrary and ever- changing from one perspective. Stella teaches studio art, and supervising creative work is much different than supervising an academic project. I have supervised a few dozen creative MA degrees for the UCT Centre for Creative Writing and there is almost always a point where the relationship becomes slightly personal, where one is put in the position where students might need to talk about uncomfortable subjects that are routine in fiction: divorce, addiction, infidelity, violence, lust and many other things that one cannot avoid if one is going to write about reality that adults face. All of these are potentially tricky territories for an instructor and there has to be a level of comfort and mutual trust between the student and the instructor when one is talking about them. The current campus climate makes this rather difficult, perhaps rightly so in some cases. On the other hand, these subjects cannot be avoided if the student is going to get their money's worth from the project.” 9. Or a modern love story with a woman experiencing liminalities: Ben in Perth, Jack in New York. What is the story-line for you? Why the names Stella and Mandla? “This novel looks at the somewhat precarious life that thousands of expatriates like me live here in Cape Town. We can fly in and out at will, and a good many of us are here for the sun, the wine and the beaches. Whole swathes of the Cape shores are dominated by bungalows and vacation homes owned by people in the UK, America, Germany and so forth. Their attachment to the country is minimal, and when one is enjoying life on that side of the city it is easy to feel one has entered into a comfortably precarious zone where people can be unconcerned by the tribulations of life here in the Cape. Stella starts out like this, but the realities of water shortage, crime (suffered by her gardener, Mandla), and the gritty beauty of the place make her want to know more. Her husband, a New York financier, has no such interest. To him, Cape Town is a place of dwindling financial possibility and gorgeous views. But for Stella, and for many others, Cape Town is much more than that. The country itself offers her a chance of self-renewal. And yes, Africa has always been seen as a place where people from overseas can come and reinvent themselves, often at the expense of the locals. I remember reading an essay that explored the idea that white Europeans are often presented in films and novels as arriving in Africa on an airplane, and the ability to fly away from what happens "on the ground" is a key feature of the outsider experience. Think of Out of Africa or West With the Night: the image of the colonial white person behind the stick of an airplane flitting over the endless vastness of Africa is powerful and troubling, although now they are simply sitting in the front of an Airbus, I suppose. But many people choose to reinvent themselves here as more concerned about their fellow human beings, more in touch with nature and the sea, and indeed their own art and self-expression. The names were chosen because my wife worked for a very successful South African artist named Stella Shawzin years ago, and I once employed a multi-skilled builder called Mandla, which means "strength" in Zulu.” 10. In Julia May Jonas’s novel a fire destructs a house and the only copy of the narrator’s novel. Here a storm lurks: We lost another door at around 3 a.m. The framework simply tore out of the walls and then fell down with a splash into the flooded lounge, exposing the living room and the kitchen to the storm and the pitiless ocean. A single sheet of water lay over the pool, the terrace, the living room. The outside furniture was submerged. Water ran furiously down the stairs. The house was rocking back and forth. While Mandla continued bringing paintings and tools into the relative safety of the garage, Jack and I climbed up to the bedroom. He had brought up plastic bags. “Put in whatever is valuable.” (164) Why this paranoia or angoisse in modern novels? Does it represent the Zeitgeist? “I think many modern novels are concerned with themes of uprooting and transience, as well as the impressions of foreigners in strange lands. I am not sure if it really is a "paranoia" but instead a focus on what lies behind the kind of massive change that is sometimes part of growth. Annie Proulx's novel The Shipping News is about a man who goes up to Newfoundland and "finds" himself, and embedded in this narrative is a house that is literally anchored to the rocks it has been built upon. At the end of the novel it becomes "unanchored" and literally blows apart, which represent a kind of coda to a tragic family history of abuse. I had that in mind, as well as the destruction of the Pequod, when I wrote the end of My Side of the Ocean...not least because so many houses on the coasts of Cape Town do indeed suffer enormous storm damage. While I was writing the novel, in fact, a massive storm hit the Camps Bay area and practically wrote the scene for me. Stella's house is actually based upon a real house that was owned by friends of mine in the publishing world. I did change some things about it to fit the narrative, but the problems of living right next to the sea were the problems my friends faced: everything rusts, the wood gets sodden, the foundations of the house seem tenuous, and the wind and the waves are a constant noise--sometimes reassuring, sometimes frightening. The “problems” of immense privilege, I concede. The main character also, after the major storm, has to come to grips with what happens to her gardener, Mandla, whose much simpler home is also destroyed. Without revealing too much about this, I can say that this scene was taken from reality...we were at one point trying to help people were living in sea caves outside of town. This experience has haunted me. We in South Africa have the biggest divide of wealth in the world. Our fashionable beach houses and mansions are built near shacks and temporary dwellings. It is very hard to reconcile this, but fiction offers a means to begin to do so.” 11. Reflect on the meaning of art in this novel. And how do you see the future of the modern novel? “In this novel, art is certainly a tool the main character uses to address her own trauma, but also a means of measuring her authenticity. Much of what the novel is about is the artist's attempt to recapture a sense of her former, more authentic, grittier self. Art is a means through which she also traces her feelings about sharks, and the many different sharks we have here ranging from smaller pyjama sharks all the way to whale sharks, which were first named here in Cape Town. This evolving relationship is of course her relationship with herself, her life, and the possibility (and inevitability) of death. I think the modern novel is going to be greatly affected by technology, in terms of how we read it, how we write it, certainly how we promote it, and how readers find out about it and purchase it. Many of my readers will download My Side of the Ocean into their phones or "mobile devices" (surely a Swiss army knife is also a "mobile device"? But I digress). Many readers will learn about my novel on Instagram or Facebook. None of this stuff existed when I first started writing, and now they are as much a part of book publishing as paper and ink. I also think that voices that have often been backgrounded will find bigger audiences. It is now possible for writers and publishers with very limited means to reach a very wide audience, and for the first time possibly ever there is a mainstream desire for novels from the former periphery. It is interesting to see that JM Coetzee has decided to release his new novel in Spanish first, with a focus on non-English speaking regions, and only later in English. My Side of the Ocean is being published in South Africa first, unlike Flat Water Tuesday, which came out in the United States months before it was distributed here. In the last twenty years I have seen South African voices eagerly accepted overseas and, most importantly, in their own country. It is incredibly exciting.”
Eye: Sharks have an almost 360-degree field of vision and see ten times better than humans. Contrary to popular belief, the eye of a great white shark is not black. It is a very dark blue. Colored Pencil Drawing (one of many), from Stella Wright’s Private Collection, Cape Town (13)