In the weeks after Paul Harding's first novel, "Tinkers", won the Pulitzer in April, you could not find it in Manhattan. The book's publisher was the Bellevue Literary Press, a tiny house affiliated with a mental institution that operates out of the sixth floor of a New York University hospital building.
Only the second piece of fiction published by a small press to win the prize, "Tinkers" quickly sold out of its stock. Harding, a 42-year old former rock drummer, describes Bellevue Literary Press as the kind of place where phone calls are answered by your editor—the only editor. "Tinkers" had made the rounds with most big publishing houses. After years of rejections, it reached the desk of Bellevue's editorial director Erika Goldman, on the recommendation of an editor from a larger house who had passed on it. Neither publisher nor author had the nerve to imagine worldly success for so quiet and meditative a book.
"Tinkers" patiently traces the meandering memory of a dying clockmaker as he recalls his boyhood, his painstaking craft and his mother's placement of his epileptic father in a mental hospital. Harding moves through time with Proustian grace. No detail is too small for him to stop the narrative clock and stare. During a scene in which a man shaves his grandfather not only do we take in the “rust on the bottom” of his can of shaving cream, but also we learn how “the dispenser sputtered and sneezed a gob of white drool.” Meticulous description does not propel a plot (as anyone who reads Virginia Woolf well understands), but the heart of Harding's book lies in this consistently lovely deluge of detail. We hear “the ring” of wood split in the freezing cold and see “the insides of the very tips of the waves” in an oil painting “illuminated by a sourceless light.” Harding's dogged specificity never flags, and in the end it is this passionate attention to detail that makes "Tinkers" a riveting and perhaps enduring read.
More Intelligent Life: You started writing fiction after a career in music. Did you immediately experience it as a vocation or did it begin as a kind of hobby?
Paul Harding: I was pretty serious about it right out of the gate. I took a shot at writing a story, and went and did a summer class at Skidmore College. When I did that class, my teacher, by the luck of the draw, was Marilynne Robinson. She sort of sealed the deal for me that it would be a pretty cool life to be a writer. And I'd been an avid reader all of my life even though I was a musician. I was already very loyal to fiction writing as an art. So I took that class with Marilynne Robinson, determined I was going to get a master of fine arts. Wrote a couple more stories. The second and third stories I wrote I submitted to Iowa and luckily I got in. To this day, I'm grateful to Frank Conroy, who was then the director, for seeing something in the writing when it was still certainly very green.
MIL: How has your style evolved from those early stories?
PH: I would say rhythm and atmosphere have certainly persisted through the years. My first efforts were not so much what I'd come to think of as fiction and story writing as little pieces of propaganda. When you start off you have these dehydrated little morals or points you want to get across to your reader, so you write these little morality tales or essays or that kind of thing. I don't try to make points anymore.
MIL: Do you still play music?
PH: I don't. But I have two sons, [aged] nine and five, and the younger one particularly has been banging away at the drums. I bought him a miniature, junior drum set, and he and I have little drum battles. But I haven't played professionally or with adult musicians in years and years.
MIL: You said that your experience manipulating time as a drummer helped you write this novel. What were the major literary influences in your approach to depicting the passage of time? Were modernists such as Thomas Mann or Proust influences?
PH: Absolutely. Certainly Thomas Mann. I've read all of his major novels half a dozen times a piece if I've read them once. Proust does that beautiful thing where he explodes time. The way that he parses out all of what can be sort of apprehended in the mind in a moment, the way it almost suspends time and then explodes it. And I guess the other obvious guy would be Faulkner. Especially with what he does with memory, the books where you'll go for a hundred pages not knowing what he's talking about, and then the next two-hundred pages is all just retroactivating the meaning of those first obscure one-hundred pages.
MIL: Do you have any contemporary influences?
The contemporary writer who I was most smitten with is W.G. Sebald, who does those uninterrupted blocks of hundreds of pages of uninterrupted prose. I love going for maximum density of meaning in the prose.
MIL: How has the reading of theology and physics influenced your work? Maybe that's two separate questions.
PH: The more I read of both the more similar to one another they are. Both to me are centrally concerned with time, and our being in time. In theology you have the creation narratives. Theology to me is all about cosmology and all about narrative. And narrative is all about existing in time. And so you start from the beginning with fiat lux of Genesis, and it unfolds from there. I was talking about this with Marilynne Robinson the other day, how it's a misnomer to have these classes that are called “The Bible as Literature,” because the bible is literature. It is meant to be understood in terms of narrative. And the worst thing that could have ever been done to the biblical text was to number every sentence. It's like this weird buffet of aphorisms you could take out of context and justify all sorts of misadventure. With physics its the same thing. Its all about time, and narrative.
MIL: Do you consider yourself a religious writer?
PH: I don't know. I have to say I think I aspire to be a large-spirited writer. I guess if you put it in religious terms I'm as ecumenical as you could possibly be. I'm either a very terrible atheist or a very terrible protestant. I sort of exist flickering back and forth—part of it is, and I think this gets lost in those dehydrated crappy little versions of the debate between science and religion, what do you mean when you say "believe in God"? Usually it's the old man with the beard in the throne kind of thing, and I certainly don't believe in that. But if you think of it in terms of physics, and ask out of what substratum is our reality being generated, and would you call that God? Sure.
MIL: Is teaching a way of meeting ends meet for you or is it a labour of love?
PH: It's both. When you get an MFA that's sort of the terminal degree for teaching and writing. When I got my MFA from Iowa in 2000, I went and taught freshman comp at Harvard for seven or eight years. It was a perfectly pleasant way to get a paycheck. With teaching fiction, I just sort of find that the old cliché is true: If you want to learn about something teach it. I find that when I teach fiction to students it keeps very important parts of my brain sharp, which I need for writing fiction.
MIL: Can a student gain more than encouragement from a workshop?
PH: Yeah, and its funny, there's this ongoing debate about whether or not writing can be taught in the classroom, which I find interesting because people never question whether or not other art forms should be taught in school. No one questions the fact that you're a painter you go to school for painting. No one questions the fact that if you're a dancer, you go to school for dancing. I think this comes from a romantic idea about writing that you might be able to trace to the Jack Kerouac school. Which is get a bottle of whiskey, steal a motorcycle, go raging out into the night and then write about it after. This romantic, primitive, savage [idea is that] you just go out and do it, and book-learning and schooling are a liability because it will ruin your natural mind. To me, all of these things are false positions, and just a romanticisation of writing. I do think that no one can give you your vision, no one can give you your aesthetics, no one can give you your imagination. But writing is an incredibly difficult thing to learn to do, and there are all sorts of technical skills with which you have to be familiar, and I think all of those things can be taught.
MIL: One of your novel's primary preoccupations is careful, manual craft. How does your experience writing fiction compare to that kind of concrete work?
PH: The dramatic premises of the novel presented themselves to me in these non-negotiable terms. The clock stuff came up because the protagonist is very roughly based on my maternal grandfather, with whom I apprenticed, who repaired and traded clocks. So I know something about clocks. I suppose with anything, whether you're a painter, a musician, a writer or a cabinet-maker, that precision is the best skill to learn. Precision and accuracy are the best styles. When you're working with language, that has to do with not using received language, with not using acculturated thinking, with not using off-the-rack phraseology. You have to tend very closely to exactly what it is you think you see, hear, smell and think and feel, and the way you do that is by learning how to work with a jeweller's precision, with just the concrete nouns and verbs. That is the aspect of the art that is most linked with craft. And those are the things I think you can teach at school for sure.
MIL: When you say precision you mean specificity of detail?
PH: Specificity derived from disciplining yourself to sustain for the longest possible periods the closest possible observation.
MIL: Did you find any advantages to publishing with a small press?
PH: What I found wonderful was that Bellevue is so small that when I call Bellevue I get the editor, the publisher, the head of the whole thing. I was always able to work very closely with her on every aspect of the book. From copy-editing, line-editing, book-design to when we were gonna do readings. It was just a direct one-to-one relationship. There weren't any people in between us, which was wonderful. I guess everything was hand-crafted, as it were, from the beginning. There's a kind of directness and intimacy about all of it that made it very pleasing.
And also, since they're not-for-profit, we had the pleasure of being able to make the book the best we could in purely artistic and aesthetic terms. In the beginning there was no question of bottom line. We certainly hoped it would prosper and have a nice worldly career, but the level on which they published things it could have sold two hundred copies and everyone would have been perfectly happy. There wasn't that profit motive nagging at you while you were attending to the more important things.
MIL: How has winning the Pulitzer changed your writing life?
PH: So far it hasn't changed it at all because I haven't been doing any writing. I've been out in Iowa teaching all semester, and devoting all my time to that. I've already set aside time for when I get home. Settle back down into family life and start writing then. The good thing is that I'm half way done with the first draft of the second novel. I can't imagine trying to come up with a project in the middle of this tornado of activity that the Pulitzer generates.
The other thing is that I've habituated myself to being a penniless musician and then a penniless writer. I've been doing this for so long without any hope of remuneration. To publish this book on my own terms and have it win the Pulitzer; I can't think of any better behavioural reinforcement to just keep doing exactly what I've been doing all along. And I'm 42, I've been doing this as long as I haven't, even though nobody else has ever heard of me, and its my first book so it looks like I've just sprang fully formed out of nowhere. I've actually been plugging away at this for a long time. It would be different if I was 24-years-old, and this was my first book out of graduate school. I could see how somebody would get knocked right off their perch. But I've just been plugging along, doggedly doing my thing for so long, I'm an old enough dog where it won't really knock me off my game.
~ ALEXANDER BENAIM
Picture credit: Gary Ottley