Flat Water Tuesday is available in South Africa at all bookstores and releases worldwide on June 4. Joan Hambidge, a buddy and colleague of author Ron Irwin, asked him a few questions over a glass of whisky.
Congratulations on your wonderful debut, Flat water Tuesday, a riveting novel. The sport is not just about brute power. Or endurance. Or the ability to suffer. Rowing in a team forces you to respond to what other men do in the boat. To adhere to a strategy. To follow commands. To put your petty gripes and prejudices and fears aside” (65). Rowing is a metaphor for endurance. Are you personally interested in this sport?
I learned how to row at the West Side Rowing Club in Buffalo, New York when I was 15 and went on to boarding school in Connecticut, where I rowed for three years. I also rowed at university in two varsity teams. I have rowed as a sculler, in a four-man shell and in an eight-man shell. It is safe to say that there was a considerable time in my life when all that mattered was rowing. I was lucky enough to have had magnificent coaching and to have rowed with some truly talented oarsmen. It really wasn't until my last year in university when it occurred to me that there might be more to life than rowing, and I quit the sport so I could have free time to have fun, party … do normal college student things. But I also knew that I was not going to get much better as a rower. I had reached my personal best during the final races of my third year at university. Overall, I was a good rower, but not as good as the main character in my novel. I had friends at boarding school who were truly gifted athletes, and my knowledge of what they experienced informed the novel. My brother was the captain of his university team, and he was probably a stronger oar than I was. He was lucky enough to row in the English Henley in an eight named after my father, who supported our efforts wholeheartedly.
Rowing is a metaphor for endurance and commitment to a team. There is no sport I know of that asks so much of its participants. Rowers train year round. My university team forbade drinking during the racing season. Rowers pride themselves on going out on the water in truly atrocious weather. There were numerous times when I would come off the water with icicles hanging off my oar. It is a sport that rewards obsession. You don't need to be very coordinated to row and it doesn't take a long time to really excel at the sport if you start out in good shape – unlike, say, golf or tennis, which require years of work before you have any proficiency. But there is nothing like the feeling of a truly fast boat. I still have dreams about it. It feels like flying.
The book reflects on death and the impact of a suicide on friends (buddies) at an American school (Fenton). “Blue blood” and Ivy League references analyse class differences in America. Comment.
The important thing to remember about boarding school is that it is an intense experience where coming from wealth really doesn't matter, because everyone is wealthy. Kids at that age are far more concerned about sporting prowess and a certain kind of savoir-faire than class. But if you come into that environment from sheer poverty, like my main character does, it is intimidating. On the other hand, if you are good at rowing, you immediately join the most elite club in an already elite environment. A good oarsman is treated like a god at a top rowing school. There is nothing like it. Some other sports have a certain status in American boarding schools – like football or hockey – but most of my rowing friends looked down on those. The importance of rowing, which is an Olympic sport, can simply not be overestimated. The major race of the year is held in England (Henley), and the expense of sending a team overseas to row an $80 000 boat down a race course once or twice is astronomical. There is a reason why the top Ivy League Schools – Harvard, Yale, Princeton – recruit top teams. Harvard has a waiting list of alumni who want to donate boats. The other schools probably have the same thing. It is an intensely clubby experience. In fact, the top rowing team at the boarding school in the novel (and at my real-life boarding school) is actually called the "club", not the "varsity". There was no other sports team on campus that had its own club. And all you needed to do to get in was to be willing to take a great deal of physical punishment. Family connections meant nothing. How much money you had, what you wore, how nice you were, who your friends were, these were are all irrelevant. I remember feeling really sorry for the son of some famous millionaire banker because we could all beat him on the ergometer (rowing machine). I think the kid owned a Porsche, but to my mind he was a truly sorry figure.
I always say that the sport is "tribal". And that tribal experience is what informs the parts in the novel about rowing.
Rob Carrey, the main storyteller, a filmmaker for National Geographic, travels to different countries. The backdrop of Africa (for instance Zambia) has an enormous impact on his experience of New York. The novel could be read as the insider returning as the outsider. You are an American living in South Africa and frequently returning to the States. Did your current position as an ex-American – albeit full-blooded Yank – influence this device?
Certainly. I have been lucky enough to do a great deal of travelling, and of course I have lived in South Africa for over 20 years. But I still think of the USA – and more specifically, Buffalo, New York – as home and travel back often. Over the years I have come to realise just how different my experience was, rowing in high school and at university. Especially since I teach at a university! The sport was intense, but why was I so obsessed with it? I think that if I were to be 18 again, I probably would have a lot more fun in college than I did back then. When I went to university my first order of business was to try out for the rowing team. I enjoyed my classes, but rowing was really just as important. Possibly more important. I had two or three girlfriends dump me because they got tired of the fact that I was getting up at the crack of dawn every day to row and couldn't go to the various parties with them because I needed to be in bed sleeping. And my weekends were given over to racing or training. And all my friends were rowers. It was crazy. What was I thinking? I really should have partied more. Seriously.
But I also should say that I write from personal experience. In my fiction I am trying to grapple with problems that remain unresolved. Rowing was a pursuit that was very important to me, but of course I never was quite as good as I wanted to be, and I discovered as I got older that many of my friends who were excellent rowers had a very hard time adjusting to adult life outside of the boat. In fact, one of my rowing friends from university days did jump off a bridge. I got the call from a former teammate while I was at home in Buffalo after having been in South Africa for two or three years. It was quite a shock. He was a super-successful guy, a great oar … one of those people that seems to have it all. So I put that into the novel. Every year I go back to the United States I am more and more a tourist. In one sense, I am also a tourist to my own history. But aren't we all?
The impact of youth traumas – for instance the death of the main character’s sister and the family’s response to the tragedy – is carefully analysed. The book is a reflection on youth. Did Rob Carrey have to return to his youth (as Alice Miller would suggest) to understand his current position and difficult relationship with his partner?
I think that what happens to you in your teen youth stays with you. Rowing is a wonderful pursuit, but it does create a person who can be extremely callous to the suffering of other people. It also creates somebody who is rather intense. My university coach used to say that he never knew a top rower who wasn't a prick. It's a sad thing to say, but it takes a certain kind of arrogance to be a really good oarsmen. You need to really believe that you are better not only than everybody else in the boat, but also than another boat full of guys who were just as big and committed. You need to be under the impression that you deserve to win all the time. You need to look down on people who give in to weakness. You need to be extremely harsh on yourself as well. You need to force yourself to get up every single morning to train and force yourself to get better all the time. Most of the guys I knew who were really good did this partly because they couldn't stand the thought of somebody else beating them. It wasn't about the beauty of the sport, or teamwork. It was about being the best in making it look easy.
The main character has grown up, however. And while much of the novel is about rowing, its heart is about the love between Rob and Carolyn. Rob knows that he is losing her and he desperately wants to hold on to her. From the main character's perspective as an adult, rowing has lost its meaning. The most important thing in the world is holding on to this very special woman. And yet, due to his own thoughtlessness, their relationship has become fractured. Part of it is that he simply needs to say he's sorry. But that's difficult for many men. Rob is one of them. Part of understanding what happens in the novel between these two adults is understanding what happens to Rob and his past. You need to learn as you get older that being tough also means knowing when you are wrong in learning how to sympathise with somebody else's feelings, even when she's being impossible. But of course this is the story of men and women since the beginning of time. More than that, when you become an adult you realise there are things in life that are far worse than losing a race. Like saying goodbye to the love of your life.
The impact of alcohol and the effect on Rob’s judgment is also a leitmotif in the novel. The fight in the hotel in Zambia and Rob’s view of himself as a “wicked loser” (184), for instance.
You are right – the main character is quite a drinker. So is his girlfriend, Carolyn. I think I wanted to explore the fact that drinking creates an alternative reality that you might say parallels the alternative reality of sports. Drinking in Flat Water Tuesday is often a means of either numbing the pain or breaking down barriers. There is no question that Rob is somebody who struggles to express his feelings, and who struggles with tragedy. Drinking is a means of escaping from his feelings and indeed his worries. But people who drink to escape often find themselves in situations that are far worse than they started out with. Rob's situation in Zambia is a case in point. Upon getting bad news from Carolyn, he immediately goes to the bar and gets extremely drunk and then beaten up by the security guards in his hotel. I think many men have had similar episodes, where they begin drinking knowing that they are going to get absolutely blotto because sobriety is so shitty at the moment. When Rob goes back to Carolyn, one of his major mistakes is allowing himself to wallow in his pain, and to drink alone. It means that he makes a crucial error while he is taking care of her, and this has disastrous ramifications. But could it also be that we sometimes drink to manage love? I think for many people the incredible power of the feeling of being in love needs to be dulled. I think there is a reason why wine and love go together. For some people the feeling is so extreme, so intense, that alcohol is the best way to handle it. Drinking makes it all far more humorous. And it reminds us that we are, after all, animals driven by biology and chemicals and not always by the endless, tiring demands of our emotions. Does it sound bad to say that I've never loved a woman who didn't appreciate a good bottle of wine?
You are a former student of JM Coetzee, who praises the book on the dust cover. Any comments on the impact of creative writing courses and mentoring another writer? I think you wrote Flat Water Tuesday over a period of ten years ...?
Studying under JM Coetzee was, of course, a major privilege, and I think that he provided what is certainly the best thing a mentor can provide: a good example. He was (and probably still is) immensely hardworking and self-effacing. He took great pains with his writing and forced me to do the same; and more than that, he made it clear to me that being a writer was a very serious business. This was important for me to learn, because I think when I was younger I thought of being a writer as a kind of an outgrowth of travelling the world and basically having lots of fun. JM Coetzee showed me that it was just as difficult to be a good writer as it is to be a good lawyer or a good doctor and it takes just about the same amount of commitment to the career. He also was an immensely professional person: he never missed the meeting and ensured that my academic and creative work were up to par. When I began working in the University of Cape Town Creative Writing Department I tried to bring that same kind of seriousness to my own work. But of course, I don't have the kind of gravitas that JM Coetzee has. Instead, I try to approach student work like an editor would. I look for certain mistakes that seem to come from students again and again. I have overseen over a dozen MA degrees in creative writing and also helped over two dozen people find publication. In so doing I have picked up many errors that irritate acquisition editors and publishing houses. I also find that I am not as disciplined as I think I should be, and really hate editing, even though I force myself to do it.
The story of Flat Water Tuesday's creation is fairly interesting. I started the novel back in 1992 and found an American agent to represent it a couple of years later. But the original version was only about boarding school. It did not have the adult love story which is so crucial to what it is now. The writing was also pretty crude. It was rejected by every single publisher who saw it, and when I rewrote it in 1995 the revised version got the same treatment. I think I kept making the same kind of editorial errors, and I needed to learn more about the art of fiction before I returned to the novel. Teaching was certainly a wonderful means of learning how to edit myself. I was also ridiculously stubborn. It never occurred to me to write a novel about another subject. That would have seemed like giving up. And then two years ago my friend at the University of Cape Town, Stephen Watson, died quite unexpectedly and quite tragically. Near the end, he told a close friend of his that he was glad he had “left a paper trail”, meaning that he was very glad he had left so much good poetry behind and a collection of wonderful essays. It was at that point I realised that I owed myself one more crack at Flat Water Tuesday. I wanted a paper trail. So I literally became my own student. I opened up my old manuscript and read it as if it were a student’s work and discovered that most of it had to be deleted. I sat down over a few weeks and simply pared down the novel to a few chapters and then started from scratch. I didn't tell anyone I was doing this; I simply went to work. I knew, however, that I wanted the love story to be the central element of the novel. And I wanted to weave that story into the rowing narrative. This is what made the book completely different from what it had been. Rowing became a metaphor for the loss that these two characters, Rob and Carolyn, were facing together. When I finally did finish the novel I knew I had told the story that I had always wanted to tell. When I sent the manuscript to my editor in New York, Kathleen Gilligan at St Martin's Press, it was immediately accepted. I have told dozens of students to believe in their work and not take no for an answer, I think I had to tell myself that as well.