Paul Harding – A Talk with a Pulitzer Prize Winning Author


Photo Courtesy of Dr. Paul Harding

Paul Harding – A Talk with a Pulitzer Prize Winning Author

“The greatest thing about art may be that it always speaks to people on the deepest level of their humanity, that they can recognize themselves in it.”

Paul Harding won the 2010 Pulitzer Prize for Fiction for his debut novel, Tinkers. Dancing Owl spoke to him about his interesting journey to winning the Pulitzer and his thoughts on the art of writing.

For you, what makes a piece of art great? How do you apply that to your writing?

It’s hard to define what makes art great. When I write fiction I try to make every sentence true. I’m talking about imaginative truth rather than factual truth. I'm not writing documentaries. But I want to write sentences in which readers will somehow recognize themselves. The greatest thing about art may be that it always speaks to people on the deepest level of their humanity, that they can recognize themselves in it.

The success of your first novel is really inspiring. Could you please tell us about the difficulties you faced in getting Tinkers published and what you felt when you won the Pulitzer?

At the time it was very frustrating on a personal level to face all that rejection. I had worked on the book for five years and so it was really very disappointing get all that rejection. I sent it out to a bunch of editors and a bunch of publishers and none of them wanted anything to do with it. So I was frustrated. But then when I was able to take a step back and think about it, I felt like I was going through my fair share of rejection. Just about any artist struggles to get his or her work out there. If you’re an actor it’s hard to get a good part. If you’re a painter its hard to find a gallery that will show your art. And if you’re a writer it can be difficult to get published. So I just put the book away in a drawer for four years and continued to teach and write. Then it ended up being published almost by accident by a very small literary press out of New York City. It did pretty well on its own and it had some nice word of mouth kind of grass roots support. Then it won the Pulitzer out of nowhere. So my reaction to winning the Pulitzer was just total speechless shock. I also felt like it was a vote of confidence from my peers. So it encouraged me to keep on doing exactly what I had been doing from the beginning.

Well, your novel Tinkers is amazing. So thank you.

Oh, thank you. I appreciate that.

To what extent do you think personal experience is required to create powerful writing?

Personal experience is essential to creating powerful writing - which isn't necessarily the same thing though as writing about personal experience. If you look at the main dramatic premises of Tinkers you could actually call them autobiographical. They come from my family history. But I'm not at all interested in writing an autobiography. You have to use the deepest part of your own personal experience to inform and to power your writing. But that does not mean that you have to write about yourself directly in an autobiographical way. You could be writing a science fiction novel that was set on some other planet and some of the coolest things about that book would still be informed by your personal experience.

In your novel Tinkers, it’s as if through the character George and his experiences, you pursue truth and discovery of human universals. Do you think that starting with a complex and fascinating character like Howard or George is essential for powerful interrogative writing?

Absolutely. Yes. That's the short answer. Every writer has his or her own natural interests and dispositions and strengths and weaknesses. It just so happens that when I write fiction I am absolutely, from first to last, interested in character. I don't really care about plot that much. When I am writing, I’m pushing every single sentence to do as much as it can. And in terms of rendering something like the actual complexity of the character I'm trying to get somebody with a sort of brain and an inner life that approaches the complexity of a real person. You can confirm this through your own experience. It's complicated being a human being. So when I'm thinking of that theoretical reader on the other side of the world reading my stuff I think, well geez, she probably has a big brain. So I want to give her a character that's complicated enough to engage as much of her big brain as I possibly can. Instead of trying to make flat characters I try to make complicated characters. So yes, absolutely, character for me is the number one subject.

To me, the passage about Old Sabbitis’ disappearance and Red taking over his duties is a coming of age anecdote within Tinkers. I was wondering why does Red take over this new role and is his obligation in taking over that role fair to him? What do you think?

I haven't thought about those two characters in a long time. I don't know if I mean for it to be a kind of coming of age story. I think in terms of the community and the culture, it would be more like his inheritance and it was handed down to him in the context of that particular culture and particular history. All of that leads to really deep questions about whether or not it’s fair to him. I think in ways it’s not fair to him. One of the things that I faced when I was writing about those characters is that it brings up all sorts of issues about the exploitation of, and genocide of, a lot of Native American culture. But the guys I had in mind when I was writing were the guys around Northern Maine when my grandfather and great grandfather were up there. So it was tricky because I wanted to include them because that was part of the reality up there, but at the same time I couldn't solve the complexity of the problems of European colonization and all that sort of stuff. It was just something I included to render the complexity of that culture being intermingled with the dominant culture, without trying to pretend to solve it. So I just wanted to put those guys in there as part of a complication in the story.

You're a brilliant writer of dense prose. When you describe objects, their essence really comes alive to readers. Why do you choose to embody abstract ideas in concrete experiences in Tinkers?

All of these answers are anecdotal - none of this is supposed to be gospel - but in my experience when I was writing Tinkers it occurred to me pretty early on that what happens in this book is almost nothing in a way. It is about an old guy in bed, thinking. So one of the predictable dangers that I felt I had to guard against was, you know, if you have somebody just sitting there thinking the book could quickly get very abstract. - thinking about abstract ideas like losing your father and these kinds of emotional and physiologically abstract states of being. So the challenge I set for myself was that I was going to write about all of those things that could easily be extracted in totally concrete terms as if they were completely literal actual things that were happening. Because fiction works by appealing to the readers’ senses - tastes, touch, smell, all that kind of stuff. So I still wanted to immerse the reader in what felt like a completely concrete physical experience. So I wrote about abstract things concretely. And then that’s where I ended up with a lot of that kind of weird, dense, almost fantastic type of writing. The section of the book that I always think of when people talk about this is the section where Howard thinks about losing his father. And kind of like clinically, he loses his dad to mental illness. Instead of writing about that abstractly, like he was mentally ill and he seemed vague, I just wrote about it as if he actually disappeared. He is knocking the apples over in the barrel and he leaves the shoe in the doorway and all that. By writing concretely about abstract things I ended up with these kind of surprising, fantastic sorts of passages. It was cool - sort of a pleasant surprise.

You said that you started with the scene where Howard left his family? Can you explain your process of collage and juxtaposition and how the book came together?

A lot of the dramatic premises of the book are based on fact. My great grandfather did have epilepsy. His wife was going to have him committed to an asylum and he was a kind of door to door salesman. He was what was called a fuller brush salesman. He found out about her plans and he left the family. And that was when my grandfather was 12 years old. So these are almost like old family myths and legends. I thought about them a lot because I was very close to my grandfather and was interested in his life. When I first started thinking about writing the book, the main image that just kept coming into my head was that moment when he must have realized that the best option he had for his life was to leave his wife and his children. It seems terrible to me. It seems like this impossible decision. So I started thinking about that scene where he is on his brush cart with his mule and I imagined him already having driven past his driveway. I imagined him just at the moment when he realizes, “I've driven past my driveway and that means I've left my family” and that kind of double consciousness - which is sort of like you know but you pretend you don't so you can do what you'd otherwise be unable to do if you let yourself think about it. Then from there I tried to write my way out from that. So I got to the end of thinking about that scene where he just keeps on going down the road. I thought, well then, what would be the next obvious consequence of that? And I thought there is the whole family waiting for him to come home. So I just went back and wrote that scene about them all sitting at the dinner table. And so by the time I was done writing any given scene, the terms for the next scene were generated. Because by the time you are done with the scene with the dinner you think, so what happened before when he'd shown up late for dinner? He had a seizure. Yes, he did. And then, did he ever have a seizure at dinner? Yes, he must have. And so it’s almost like origami, not quite origami but it’s almost like unfolding the story a leaf at a time and you write it as it unfolds itself.

For you, how is being an author similar to being a drummer?

They’re very similar. Being an author is much quieter. When I as a drummer I ruined my hearing. I’m actually clinically half deaf. But to me, it’s the same thing. Art comes from the same place the way that I think of it. It just sort of comes from the cosmos … that comes from the stars … wherever it comes from. It sounds sort of mystical but I don't know where it comes from. My experience is that I transmit it. I often say that I feel like I'm what’s called an amanuensis, which is just somebody who takes dictation from somebody else. I feel like I'm a radio and there are these radio waves out there and I can just tune into them and I just start broadcasting them. I'm just the instrument. I play whatever comes on the airwaves. When the transmissions come over the wire, if I'm sitting at the drum set then I just start playing those transmissions on the drums. I start articulating them in terms of rhythm and music. If I'm sitting at my laptop then I just take those transmissions and I turn them into sentences, into language. Those are just the two mediums that I happen to work in. But I think that if you talk to other artists and if you've done any kind or art yourself, then you know that you'd feel the same way if you were painting or if you were dancing. It's almost like at a certain point it doesn't really matter whether you're painting or playing guitar or writing poetry. It feels like it’s all the same stuff that just comes into the world in those different forms.

What advice would you give teens who hope to become authors?

It’s always important to write. Just keep writing. It’s also important to read. Writing is the most important thing but the longer I teach and the longer I write the more I'm convinced that your writing can only be as good as the best books you've read. So if you really want to be a writer and it doesn't matter what kind of a writer - it could be a science fiction writer, a non-fiction writer, a journalist, a poet, whatever - the best thing you can do when you’re starting out is to go and find the very best books of the kind of writing that you like and study those books. See what it is that all these people that have come before you have been able to do with the kind of writing that you feel you'd like to try. Because then when you go and you try it, you'll know more precisely what's at stake and what the art form can do.

Are mentors important in developing their craft?

In terms of mentoring, it's tricky. Because as a student you have to be careful that you don't find a teacher you love and then decide that the only way you can make art and the only way you can write is the way that your mentor writes. The danger of being a teacher is to teach writing to your students as if the way that you write is the only way that they can write. So you have to be very careful because ultimately what's going to make your writing good is your own individuality. So you can't subordinate that. You can't sacrifice your individuality in the name of sounding like your mentor. You inevitably sound like your favorite writers for a while and maybe forever. Every time I write a sentence I have to do the William Faulkner test to it and make sure it doesn't sound too much like William Faulkner. I fail most of the time and still sound like William Faulkner. My mentor was a novelist named Marilynne Robinson and I just love her writing so much that I constantly had to consciously avoid writing like her. But at the same time using her as a role model in terms of how intellectually and artistically sophisticated she was, that’s what I really wanted to do. I didn't want to write another version of Housekeeping or Gilead, or one of her other books. I just wanted to make writing that was serious and as awesome as hers. So you also have to fight off influences, in terms of just imitating the people that you like. I don't mind if when you read Tinkers you can hear Herman Melville or Nathaniel Hawthorne or Emily Dickinson. That kind of influence is good. It’s that you have to make sure that you're not just copying your mentors.

One last question. What are you working on now?

I'm working on a novel called Enon. It's set in the same fictional world that Tinkers is. Enon is the original colonial name for the little town that I grew up in, in Massachusetts. The town I grew up in is called Wenham. The novel is about one of George Crosby's grandsons, Charlie, and about Charlie's daughter, Kate. It’s not a sequel. If you read Tinkers you'll recognize the characters and you'll recognize events being referred to in Enon as having happened in Tinkers. But it is its own free standing novel. I was still interested in that kind of landscape, that community, that family, all that sort of stuff. I've submitted a full draft of it and I'm working on revisions with my editor right now at Random House. It’s roughly scheduled to be out around this time next year.

Thank you Mr. Harding. We look forward to reading your next novel!

This transcript has been abridged and edited slightly to improve readability.