When you’re reading a book like Flat Water Tuesday, it’s easy to get caught up with so many questions. The grueling rowing experiences and heartbreaking love story leaves you feeling like you’re part of the story; a story that feels so authentic that you beg to know, how much of this story is real, how much of it is based on the author’s own experiences? I had had an opportunity to ask the author Ron Irwin, exactly that and more in my interview with him:
What was your writing process for this novel pertaining to organization and method?
I began the novel in 1992, and wrote a first draft within a year or so working daily in a back room of a flat in Johannesburg. I wrote on an old door I had put up on two wooden trestles. I wrote every morning and evening on an ancient, battered computer I had brought over from the United States. I sent the novel out to publishers via my first agent in 1995 and it was rejected across the board. Most publishers did not want a story about a boarding school crew…they asked why an adult would want to read it. Because the novel deals with things like suicide, drugs, drinking and obsession, it was deemed unfit for the YA market. I rewrote the novel in Cape Town, where I was studying under noted author JM Coetzee. I handed in a much better version, but there was still no adult connection, and the novel was once again rejected by over twenty-five New York publishers. This was fairly disheartening. I focused on other writing projects, as well as building a house in Cape Town and starting a family. Two years ago, I realized what I needed to do in order to make the novel relevant to adults. I made the centerpiece of the novel a love story between two people who has faced heartbreaking tragedy, and set it against the world of rowing. I rewrote the book at nights and in the morning, and did not tell anyone I was doing it. I worked pretty much flat out every day, but once the manuscript was finished I showed it to my editor wife, who loved it. We then tore the book apart, and created a series of 75 index cards, each with the outline of a scene from the novel. We tacked these to a massive bulletin board in our living room and worked on making sure each scene pushed the plot forward. Scenes that we thought were extraneous were thrown away or changed. This was a six-month process, and it was exhausting. But it proved to be the best way to do it as the first acquisitions editor who saw it, Kathleen Gilligan at St. Martin’s Press, bought it.
Were there any characters that you were truly inspired to create based on real people you know?
There were certainly very gifted athletes whom I knew in boarding school who inspired me. I did not want to create characters that were “bad,” but of course there is an antagonistic relationship between Connor Payne and the narrator. Then again, Connor winds up being the hero of the novel. A tragic, doomed hero, but a hero nonetheless. Many people have asked if Ruth, the team coxswain is real, but I made her up. Well, OK, she is loosely based on a number of very tough women I have known over the years, I suppose, but she is a unique person. Carolyn, the main love interest in the novel, has more to do with real life than Ruth.
What led to your birthing of this idea of a love-struck rower?
An interesting question. I had been working on the rowing element of the novel for some time when I started thinking about writing a story about two people struggling with a relationship that is slowly falling apart thanks to the thoughtless actions of the narrator. One day as I was driving to work, I found myself parked in the shoulder of the road, writing in a notebook the outline of what would be the final version of Flat Water Tuesday. The love story I had been thinking about was the key to the new version of the novel. The focus of Flat Water Tuesday would be this passionate love story, this examination of a man desperate to hold on to a woman who wants to let him go but can’t bring herself to do it. Rowing would form the story’s backdrop, I decided. By the time I got to work, I had the outline of the novel finished.
Have you encountered a relationship like the one between Carolyn and Rob?
Of course, as have we all. At the heart of it is a man who loves a woman, but their relationship has been fractured by his careless actions, and he needs to apologize, and she needs to forgive him. This seems to me to be a problem men and women have faced since the beginning of time. But yes, I have been in a relationship where I have wrecked everything due to my own idiocy, and I have gone to drastic lengths to repair the damage. This is what you do when you know you have found the love of your life. You don’t give up. And of course Carolyn never actually can bring herself to kick him out, to really tell him it is over. She wants to, but she knows how much he loves her, and deep down she probably still loves him back. The two of them have that special, indescribable bond that seems to conquer distance, time, age, tragedy…even death itself.
Is there a certain style of writing that influenced Flat Water Tuesday?
I have to say that Normal Mailer’s The Fight, about the Ali-Foreman fight in Zaire in 1974, really influenced the action sequences. I actually had the privilege of running into Norman Mailer at the Lotus Club in New York years back, and I thanked him for that book. I would learn later that Mailer felt the book was deeply flawed, but I still think it is one of the best pieces of sports writing ever. Richard Ford has also been a major inspiration, especially in terms of the relationship between Carolyn and Rob. His novel Independence Day looms large as a personal influence. Other writers that certainly have had an influence on me are Kurt Vonnegut, JD Salinger and of course JM Coetzee, who was my mentor at the University of Cape Town.
As a rower, was the trial of practice and racing in real life as tough as the Warwick race?
Indeed it was. The practice sessions are torn right out of real life. If anything, what we went through at boarding school was even tougher. For about seven years of my life, all I really did was think about rowing. The blister breaking scene at the start of the novel is absolutely accurate, for instance, although some readers don’t believe it. All the writing about ergometer (rowing machine) testing is very close to reality. I did not want a fellow rower to pick up the novel and think I had no idea what I was talking about. Frankly, back then it did not seem as if we were doing anything that grueling. We were simply doing what we needed to win races. I can remember running up and down the school’s halls at night when it was snowing outside to make sure I got enough cardio training in. We were fanatics, really.
Is there anything you would add to the characters or plot if you could go back and rewrite this novel?
I deleted a number of classroom scenes that I really enjoyed writing. The boarding school I went to, Kent, had marvelous teachers. The coach in the novel, Charles Channing, is based on an excellent English teacher I had named Tim Scott, who was in fact an ex-lawyer and came from a genteel background. I came to Kent from a good school in Buffalo where I was failing almost all of my courses. I knew I wanted to row, but it was Mr. Scott who made writing seem like a good thing to pursue. He was the first teacher who made writing relevant to me. He forced us all to read the New York Times, for instance. He made sure we were all aware of what was happening in the New York literary scene. He was incredibly funny, but he could be very harsh. One day he literally threw all of our in class essays at us, asking us why we “decided” to fail them. If you made a mistake on a quiz he’d call you a “fool” in front of the other kids. He was probably the most un-PC teacher I have ever heard of, and of course he was my favorite. There was one scene in particular that I had in the novel where the kids are reading the poem “To a Waterfowl” by William Cullen Bryant, which speaks of the hand of God guiding a flock of geese across the sky (“There is a Power whose care Teaches thy way along that pathless coast “). This class was taken right out of reality. Tim asked us back then what would happen when a jumbo jet flew through the flock and sucked a few of those geese through the engines….he even graphically mimicked the sound of a goose being shredded, a truly disgusting sound. We all thought he was crazy, but it made you wonder about the position of naturalist poetry. And of course, twenty-five years later, I remember the poem and the class.
Have you gone through any tragedies similar to those of Connor and Perry that led to you incorporating those scenarios?
I did have a rowing friend jump off a bridge shortly after we graduated from college and it was quite a shock. He was a great oar, and a very nice guy, just one of those kids who seems to have it made. I learned about it when a former teammate called me at home. I knew the experience of hearing about it would find its way into the novel, and so it did. But back then we were so reckless. The scene where the two main characters run across the frozen Housatonic and fall through easily could have happened. A friend of mine and I actually did run across the ice at night on a mutual dare, but luckily we lived. Another friend of mine was arrested for attempted suicide after jumping off a bridge after a race…he was just hacking around but the police saw things differently. And I have also received the apology letter that AA makes members send out from old friends who needed to stop drinking. This is how Flat Water Tuesday starts out: a once invincible oarsman has lost it all because he can’t stop drinking, and he started drinking at boarding school. So the idea of a kid jumping into rocky water and killing himself either by accident or design is very much within the bounds of reality. I wanted to make doubly sure that it was clear that the rowers bring their own reckless intensity to the sport and that the school didn’t condone what they were doing. We were really sort of barbaric back then.
Are there pieces of you put into the characters, or even one in particular?
I am a gentler version of Rob Carrey, the main character of the novel. But Rob comes from a very poor background and I do not. I knew many kids growing up who did not have much and I worked at a factory in Buffalo for two summers, so I met lots of people living fairly precarious existences. And I do remember being an outsider in boarding school…coming from Buffalo made me kind of a curiosity to these kids from Greenwich and Manhattan. Like any kid, I wanted to fit in. Then again, I probably imagined being an outsider more than I actually was. I would learn later in life that pretty much everyone in boarding school feels like an outcast. At the time I thought I was the only one. Rob as an adult is very much in love with one woman and goes through a very painful time with her, and those feelings are very real.
Find out more about the novel Flat Water Tuesday at www.ronirwin.com