When Ron Irwin and Tiffany Baker realized that they had rowing in common as well as novel writing, it made sense to them that they’d ask each other a few questions about both topics. Baker is best known, perhaps, as the author of The Little Giant of Aberdeen County, but she has a new novel, Mercy Snow, on the way in early 2014. Ron Irwin’s debut novel, just published, is Flat Water Tuesday.
Tiffany Baker: Rowers are notoriously competitive and obsessive. The sport pushes you to your limits, and forces you to confront all your fears and faults. You do such a good job of showing that psychological aspect of the sport in Flat Water Tuesday. I know what a profound impact rowing has had on my work and my life in general, and I’m curious what kinds of parallels you would draw between the art of writing and the sport of rowing? If you were going to say rowing was a metaphor for anything in life, what would it be? And do you still row now?
Ron Irwin: I row occasionally but felt that I was finished with the sport after the final race of the season in college. I had rowed for eight years, progressed as far as I knew I was going to go, and the sport had brought me many friends and many adventures. I had rowed in many of the major U.S. cities and had won plenty of medals. I was ready to ask myself what was next. That said, I was just back at my former boarding school, Kent, and rowed with some old friends, and felt the old thrill.
Rowing is a double edged sword to a writer. On the one hand, it teaches you discipline and directness of purpose. It teaches you to ignore failure and to focus. These things are crucial for a writer. Legendary Harvard coach Harry Parker, who died recently, once pointed out that there is very little flair in rowing; it is just essentially “hard work” and I feel that writing is much the same. Persistence really pays in this business. I would say that one of my best qualities as a writer is my ability to doggedly follow an idea to the end.
That said, rowing is also a very literal sport. It is really all about winning and being the best. There is little tolerance for second best. Rowers are the ultimate type-A people, and this can be a problem in the world of fiction, where you also need to coax out inspiration and write when there is no defined goal. I would hate to think that every novel is a supreme effort of will. To me, it is more of an exploration. Characters come to me unbidden and hang around, asking me to tell their stories.
I love the sport of fly-fishing because it is so much more akin to writing. I don’t stand in a stream berating myself for not catching a fish if the trout just aren’t nibbling. I go to where the fish are—sometimes in very remote areas—and do my best to catch them. And if I fail, I don’t bang my head against the wall. I have faith that the next day the waters will be in my favor. Rowers are the type of people who want to not only catch fish, they want to catch the biggest fish and if they don’t they get furious. This is antithetical to the entire ethos of fly-fishing. And of writing. I know where to find inspiration. I stand in a stream of creativity and just make myself available.
My novel is sort of an amplification of real events that happened to me when I was in boarding school. It is about rowing, of course, but at its heart it is a love story about a man holding on for dear life to the woman he loves. She, in turn, wants to leave him due to a careless but tragic error on his part. So, in a sense, the novel is about forgiveness. Errors were also made in the main character’s past, and they have not really been resolved. While he is in the middle of this tumultuous breakup, he is called back to his boarding school and, while it is under tragic circumstances, he is in the position of being able to fix his past. It wasn’t really until the end of the novel that I realized that the novel was about forgiveness. I thought I was writing a novel about love and deep passion between a man and a woman. Has this ever happened to you? Did you ever realize what you were writing about only when you had finished writing?
Tiffany Baker: This happens to me all the time, with every novel that I write. I tend to write in drafts, so the first draft is very much just for getting the story down on paper in some sort of coherent fashion (easier said than done, trust me). Then, I spend a few rounds cleaning up plot points, refining characters, and getting deeper into the story. It’s not really until the last draft, however, that I start to understand not just what I’ve written, but what the narrative means.
For instance, my upcoming novel, Mercy Snow, which is set in a dying paper mill town on the Androscoggin River, started out as a contemporary retelling of the Antigone myth. I started out being very interested in the power pull between a collective will and an individual one, but in the end I think I went beyond that original question and actually wrote a book about the possibilities of redemption and the hidden costs of it. I don’t actually mind that I don’t know what a novel is really about until the very end. In fact, I think it’s a good thing. I feel like I learn something with every book I write, and that I take a journey. If I don’t come to some sort of revelation in that whole process, the reader won’t, either. I write and read to be surprised and startled.
Flat Water Tuesday is, in part, a coming-of-age novel. The main character, Rob Carrey, finds himself in a life crisis which is then doubled by receiving news of a death of an old school friend. I would argue that Rob comes of age twice in this novel. Rob’s life bears some similarities to yours. Obviously, you have drawn on personal experience, but produced a fictional story. I wonder if you could talk about where you think the boundaries between autobiography and fiction are. Rob, for instance, does not always make likeable or admirable choices, and is quite honest about those failings. How difficult was it to weave the past and the present together in this novel?
Ron Irwin: Great question. One of the things I had to learn as a writer was to accept that people are deeply flawed. Flawed characters like Rob drive novels, and often not for very noble reasons. A year or so ago, I decided to really let the bad parts of Rob—his cynicism, his jealousy, his anger—become part of the story. Rob is, in fact, not a very nice kid. Connor Payne, his nemesis, is a better rower and a more polite individual, and far more reasonable in many ways. I think readers like to be exposed to our dark sides, our frailties.
I would also offer to you that all fiction is autobiographical. My new novel features a woman in love with a much younger man. She is a selfish person and he is a reckless person. Both of these characters are me. They are different parts of things I am currently concerned about. In Flat Water Tuesday, Rob wants to hold on to the love of his life. He wants to right the past, and in doing so comes to peace with his deep history. I have been the adult Rob, struggling to find a way to hold on to love.
But I also have a conflicted relationship with my past as a rower. Was I good enough? Was I a good enough friend to my teammates? At a recent launch in Buffalo, I was given a real rowing jacket with the Fenton School crest and colors on it. The jacket is real, the school is fictional. But wearing it made me feel like I was an alumnus of something just as real as the boarding school I actually attended.
In the end, I believe that the past is a tyrant of one’s own creation. Did it really happen the way we imagine it did? I went back to my boarding school for my 25th reunion a couple of weeks ago and met lots of people who I felt were far more adjusted to life at Kent than I was while I was there, only to learn that we all felt alienated and alone, and we all managed to hide it. I was surprised to learn that people I felt were very popular felt as if they simply were not. The past is, in the end, what we create of it. Just as the present is and I guess the future.
Since Flat Water Tuesday has been published, I have been in the fortunate position of having a major screenwriter, Todd Komarnicki, begin work on a screenplay for it. The two of us spent an entire weekend at the boarding school that inspired the novel. I showed him the places where we rowed and the places where the key events happen. We even slept in the dorms! But of course, his take on the real places that inspired the novel is different than mine. He found the school to be smaller, more claustrophobic than I recall. Of course, things had changed in the years since I graduated, but many things had stayed the same. I tell my students to use the past but not be governed by it, for the past is a tyrant. Has this happened to you? Have you found that the real places that inspire your work seem to be far different than what goes down on the page?
Tiffany Baker: First of all, congratulations on the film adaptation of Flat Water Tuesday. It’s so atmospheric that I can just see it on the screen.
This is an interesting question. Up until now, I haven’t based my novels on “real” places. All the towns and characters are invented, albeit with lots of factual research behind them. They are “what if” locations. What if there was a functioning salt farm on Cape Cod? What if there was a town in rural New York with a giantess in it? But the book I’m working on now is historical fiction, based on a well-known person. In this case, I feel that I have a responsibility to be governed by the past, even while I’m writing a fictional story. But it’s difficult to recreate a past from a present, mainly because you must discard all the extra hindsight.
That being said, I think the explicit point of fiction is to honor and acknowledge the schism between the actual and the represented. I feel like the point of fiction is to force the reader to ask, “What if a situation happened in this way, with these people?” How would we judge them and why? In the end, everything boils down to being a story, anyway. Our job as novelists is to pay attention to how it gets told, why it gets told, and for what reasons it gets told.
8 July 2013 | author2author |