We talk on, late into the day. About how at one time, Times Square was truly dangerous, how New York comprised its circuits of creativity and compromises these still. About how, certain landmarks act as hubs on such circuits, and how these hubs begin to act as attractors. Stay in one of these places long enough, and you’re sure to encounter the current generation of high-profile creatives, and even the next. It’s not dusk yet, but it feels like it ought to be. It’s been languid, and laconic, Ron Irwin has begun to unwind. He’s one of the great storytellers. He has filled the time, simply filled it. And now, that my time with him is drawing to a close, it feels like the day should be as well.
We’ve spent the daylight talking about Irwin’s debut novel, which in many senses isn’t a single novel at all. “It’s a love story,” he says to me, “I can’t even imagine a younger me who’d ever want to write a love story.” His voice trails off at “story” even as it emphasizes the connecting cadence in “want to.” It’s not hard to guess that he’s lost in the emotionality of that arc of his debut novel Flat Water Tuesday. The emotion of writing it, the emotion of recalling it now.
A few months from now, at the Franschoek Literary Festival, Irwin will speak passionately about exactly that high-frequency emotional connection as the driving force for the novel. He’ll say that that’s why the novel will always be with us—because it offers emotionally driven interactions that ordinary life delivers sometimes, and sometimes not so much. He’ll be passionate in that warm church hall in the Cape Winelands in a town and a countryside that could easily be mistaken for Swiss. Not passionate like a fire-and-brimstone preacher, but passionate like Meryl Streep in that jaw-droppingly magnificent performance she gave in the Manchurian Candidate, the one where she speaks about re-energizing the base of the party, and why her on-screen son should be the current Presidential Candidate’s running mate.
Whatever emotion Irwin reaches for those many months before Franschoek, is his own. Despite the volumes we’ve spoken, despite the frankness, despite Irwin’s capacity for emotional courage, there are places he hasn’t led me. Places he hasn’t… not failed to be honest about, but failed to be open about. More than anything it’s these darker recesses that spark my imagination. I can only guess at them. But they seem wholly at odds with the first few moments of the interview when Irwin lays it all on the table. He was inspired directly by William Kennedy, at whose dinner-table he sat. There was a moment, a precise moment when the transmutation occurred. He struggled through 52 rejections of his manuscript, only to get a preemptive purchase on the 53rd. He’s director of the same MFA program in Creative Writing once taught by the critically-acclaimed poet Stephen Watson, and Nobel Laureate J.M. Coetzee.
Things swirl from earlier in the conversation, and honestly, in that moment, I cling to what I can. “I can’t even imagine a younger me who’d ever want to write a love story,” he’s just said. And I believe him. But of course, that’s barely accurate. Flat Water Tuesday is beyond a love story. It is, maybe if you can find that same emotional honesty that Irwin found in our interview, a sincere attempt to apprehend the psychology of greatness, and an equally sincere attempt to measure its often savage price when installed during youth.
For all his exuberance, Irwin is still self-effacing when it comes to his debut novel. This is as much a gift of his own unique personality, as of the long journey he’s made with Flat Water Tuesday. Decades long now. There is just the tiniest sense of Shakespeare hanging in the air as we wind down, “Herald I know not if this day be ours or no…” It’s that sense of achievement, of fulfillment that resonates not only with the publication of the novel, but through our conversation as well. It feels like it ought to be dusk. It feels like nature itself should conspire to being our backup singer here. But of course it isn’t dusk. For Ron Irwin, as much for the readership he’s beginning to build, this is a dawn. Bright as anything.
“In fact it was 1992. I started writing the book in Johannesburg. I flew in to teach at a school outside of Soweto,” Irwin talks about how he situates the genesis of his novel in a personal skirmish with the crumbling edifice of Twentieth Century geopolitics. It’s the end of Apartheid, and in the history of our species, the only assertion of Democracy that comes without revolution or civil war. But there’s still the chance of uprising on the part of the oppressed masses, there’s still the danger of backlash from the white supremacist elements who ensured the smooth running of Apartheid. Irwin’s thinking? To fly into a South Africa that hasn’t been born yet, but one he possibly hopes will be.
We don’t get into exactly why the choice of Soweto, why work in abject poverty and in a place where the possibility of physical danger is genuine and continuous. But the question seems germane now. Why fly into South Africa after the release of Mandela? Intuitively, it seems a choice made about building the kind of infrastructure and social capital needed to ensure the survival and success of a fledgling democracy. We don’t get into the question in excruciating detail because, for all his emotional honesty, for all his emotional fearlessness, Irwin seems wholly incapable of apprehending his role and impact on the world. There’s a modesty to Irwin that borders on piety.
“I was in a little, tiny room, and I had a little, beat-up, old computer. And I’d only graduated from high school four years before. I just left varsity, university, and now I was teaching and seeing the world. The story of making a top rowing team was something I always wanted to write. I knew even when I was in high school and rowing, I would write about it one day. It’s almost too…” There’s a stumble, but almost immediately Irwin picks it up again. There are memories, deep wells of emotion here, clearly. But like every deep well the persons who know them best are often skilled enough to trigger diver’s reflex and explore the bottom. It’s a journey that Irwin doesn’t take me on, perhaps can’t take me on. But there’s a smile, and he continues.
“What happened at boarding school was often so intense, and so fabulous in many ways, and so unbelievable in many ways, and so ridiculously dramatic. I wrote for seven years, four years in high school and three years in university, and nothing compared to the intensity of what I experienced in boarding school, so I wanted to write a book about it. And I finished the book, it was just strictly about making this rowing team and going to boarding school, and sent it to publishers in ‘94. I found an agent in the United States, she was very enthusiastic about it but, 25 publishers in the United States turned it down. They all said, ‘Good writing, but what adult wants to read about going to high school?’
“So I thought I would rewrite it, and try to find some way to make it more appealing to adults. Maybe make it a more edgy book. And in ‘97 we resubmitted it to publishers and it was turned down again. With the same complaint. ‘Nice book, but adults don’t want read about going to high school.’ Now never mind that since then, how many hundreds of millions adults have read about exactly that…Harry Potter was 11!”
I prod him. Irwin was just far enough ahead of the curve with an adult novel about a protagonist needing to navigate late childhood, for the decision not to make sense to his 25 prospective publishers. Was there frustration.
“Well at the time I wasn’t frustrated, at the time I was teaching at UCT (the University of Cape Town), and at one level I agreed with the publishers. I hadn’t cracked the code. I hadn’t made it immediately relevant to adults. It was relevant to me, and deep down, I felt that the story hadn’t been told properly. But I didn’t know how to tell it. It’s like there was a missing link. And I put the book aside and worked on teaching. I worked on getting two graduate degrees. I worked on an immense amount of nonfiction. And nonfiction as you know, satisfies that urge to be published, and it does that very quickly. You finish something and you see it online in a few days. And that’s very satisfying. So in many ways, the commitment to being a novelist is a long process. You write the book, and you don’t see it for years. So, I was pretty much…‘I can’t figure out this book, but I’ll get back to it someday.’ And then I get married, and then the kids show up, and then more teaching, and then I left teaching and became and editor and made documentary films, and then I go back to teaching, and then one day…
“Then one day what really changed everything was the death of one of my dear friends at UCT, Stephen Watson. Stephen…he died in 2011, April. It was an unexpected death, he caught cancer at the ripe old age of 57, and it killed him. I went to his funeral, and discover he’d said to Hugh Corder, one of the deans at UCT, he had said before he died, ‘At least I’ve left a paper trail, and that gives me comfort.’ His paper trail was his poetry, and his essays. He’d accomplished his publication goal. And I… I had not accomplished my publication goal. I had simply published a lot. And there’s a difference. A working writer, you can write a whole lot, and not write the one thing you want to write. And the thing I wanted to write was this novel. And the funniest thing about this novel, and I certainly think it’s the most interesting part of Flat Water Tuesday. The going back and finding it.
“I took this thing out of deep storage in my hard-drive. Hadn’t looked at it in 13 years, maybe. And read it all the way through and thought, ‘Right.’ The 13 years that I’ve had it on ice have not been a waste because in that time I’ve learned a lot about the novel up at UCT, I’ve read a lot, I’ve experienced a lot. And, I would say that 20% of this novel is salvageable and the rest has to be deleted. Which I did. I deleted, and deleted and deleted. And I brought it down to the basic elements. And then I asked myself a simple question. ‘What is it about high school, that makes it important to adults?’ And the answer is, what happens to you as a teenager sticks with, for the rest of your life. There is no more intense time that happens to you, than the four years you’ve had in high school. You may have had the worst time ever, you may have had a boring experience, you may have had a great experience—it sticks with you. And I thought to myself, what it is, is an adult looking back on high school. On this intense period, where there was a death, and the experience there has hung over his life.
“And I had that epiphany, when I was driving to school, to UCT to give a lecture. I actually pulled off into the shoulder of the road, and I thought, more than that, I wanted to write a story, and I thought it’d be a separate book, about a guy desperately trying to hold on to a woman who wants to dump him. Because he’s made a mistake. And the mistake in this case was, an emotional mistake, neglect. And someone had said to me at UCT, whatever you’re thinking about, put it into your current novel. And it was like an answer came to me. And I started writing. And I didn’t tell anybody, I didn’t tell anybody! I didn’t tell my wife! Because I thought my wife had heard enough about this novel. She’d heard enough about rowing about boarding school. She’d heard enough, my friends had heard enough, it would seem like this crazy dream I’d had when I was younger, but then real life had happened. So I started working on it without telling a soul, and the next thing I know, the stars started to align for me. The more I commit to it, y’know… So the next thing, I get a call from my old roommate in boarding school who’s now a literary agent.”
There are cadences in Irwin’s retelling of events that are impossible to capture, and that make this narrative all the more compelling. Already at this time, just at the turn, it’s beginning to feel impossible, magical. The story behind Flat Water Tuesday is a story of grit, of forbearance from the past, of the things that cannot be shaken loose, cannot be truly buried. A story of the things we don’t lose over time, and the secrets we must keep to be able to hold on to those things.
Our time rolls on. In just a few moments, Irwin’s about to talk about meeting William Kennedy at his dinner-table, and about his time spent with Nobel Laureate for Literature, J.M. Coetzee. And yet more before I’m involved in the drama of this novel and its secret almost sacred geometry, that I’m yearning for a dusk.
It’s then that I realize, as much for Ron Irwin, this has been about meeting the novelist. Meeting the novelist forces us to recognize the novelist, not in our stars, but in ourselves. It’s the battle for optimism. A perhaps vain belief, not at all grounded in any kind of reality, with enough hope, and enough grit and enough diligence, capacity might yet follow. And that that, more than anything, might explain why a kid fresh out of college, would roll the dice a country that, although having just won a great moral victory, hadn’t properly been invented yet.