Paul Harding recently won the Pulitzer Prize for what might just be the most brilliant American novel ever written,
What was the first sentence you wrote of Tinkers? I really can’t remember; it’s lost under layers and layers of rewrites. I know that the first thing I wrote is located in the book in the instant when Howard Crosby, the tinker proper of the title, first realises that he has left his family. That was the first moment that I found myself engrossed.
The focus of the narrative is a countdown to the death of the protagonist. What came first, the structure or the character?
The spirit of it was there from the beginning, although it initially was just an expedient way to get the plot out of the way and get to the telling of the substance of the story. I initially thought of it as a way of disciplining myself to avoid false drama; lay all of the cards on the table first thing and then spend yours and the reader’s time exploring the significance of what happens. Over time, that impulse proved viable, and other, subsequent, pleasing, properties emerged out of it. I guess my depth of field is not so much what happens as to whom it happens.
You named the protagonist George Washington Crosby. Did you create him as a kind of American everyman?
No. Honestly, it was at first a kind of fill-in name, a place marker I thought I might change later. My grandfather’s name was Paul Washington Crosby, but I didn’t want to write a proper biography of him, only an imagined version of some of the hallmarks from his life that he’d told me in striking, familial anecdotes. I wanted to retain the three names, and the most obvious name to go in front of Washington was George. Again, over the course of the years of the book’s composition, that name became real, necessary, and rang with some appropriate over and undertones. So, I suppose there ended up being some everyman aspects to him, but they arose out of the process rather than deliberate will.
Marilynne Robinson was one of your mentors at the Iowa Writers Workshop. Tinkers is infused with Robinsonian swirls of narrative history. Did you find yourself battling her influence, or embracing it? When I first read Marilynne’s book, Housekeeping, and then took my first class with her during the summer of 1996, it was like meeting and recognising a kindred spirit. I experienced her writing, then, as a kind of confirmation that the kind of quiet, pastoral, lyric, non-linear images and episodes to which I’m always drawn were legitimate aesthetic impulses. I was deeply inspired by my other teachers there, like Barry Unsworth and Elizabeth McCracken, but my writing doesn’t sound in quite the same key as theirs, so the influences are not as immediately obvious. Also, I frankly aspire to write ‘literary’ fiction, the quality and spirit of which I take to be participation in a world and history-wide dialogue conducted between works of narrative.
What book influenced you most when writing Tinkers? There’s no single book. Possibly, probably even, everything I read influenced it in one way or another. Sometimes, when I’m giving readings, it will occur to me that, oh yeah, I wrote that sentence after reading and thinking about Stevens’ Auroras of Autumn or Emerson’s Circles. The spirit is that of dialogue, of good conversation and in particular, conversation among friends. Honestly, I think that the whole thing about influence consisting of little more than anxiety is trivial. It sounds like someone scratching for tenure instead of having an ongoing conversation with the other souls whom you most admire and in whom you most delight.
Walter Pater wrote, ‘All art constantly aspires to the condition of music’. As a former musician, how similar is writing fiction to making music? Or are the two poles apart? I’m not familiar with Pater, but that quote sounds good to me. It reminds me of something similar Faulkner once said. I find music and fiction very similar, but I deliberately write with rhythm and tone in mind, lyrically. I think music and fiction both seek to describe human experience, like all art does, no matter the form or medium.
Some authors, like Yann Martel, write a word at a time. Others, Alexander McCall Smith for instance, write in paragraphs. Tinkers is to be read slowly, savoured. How quickly was the book written? It was written slowly. Sometimes, I guess I try to sketch an image or idea quickly, in order to catch it on the wing, as I think Virginia Woolf once described it, but it’s always about just the right noun and just the right verb. I revise over and over, too.
The novel was widely rejected before being taken on by Bellevue Literary Press. Did you at any time lose hope that Tinkers would be published? I did. I reconciled myself (grudgingly, admittedly) to the possibility. But that also helped me keep my motives sound. I learned to write what’s really on my mind and how to apply the right kinds of pressure to the writing to discipline things like depth and clarity, without the clutter of second guessing any kind of an audience, any kind of expectations. In the end, I think that that is what makes your readers happiest, anyway. I think I’d be irritated if I thought that Faulkner was trying to impress me or pander to me as he was writing Absalom, Absalom. One of the things that’s so devastating about that book is the sense of an artist in pursuit of, and being possessed by, an artistically necessary vision. In my case, too, I had a good job, a great wife, fantastic kids, a good life, so the writing was good enough in itself, as it should be – the thing itself, not a means.
Does its massive success feel like a vindication of literature over the increasingly commercial emphasis of the publishing industry? Sometimes, maybe a little. But then, I think that art always manages to persist and that readers are always out there. Commercial pressure certainly regularly narrows the confines of what publishers are willing to take chances on, but I think that sound books eventually find their readers. With Tinkers, I am just grateful that so many people find something recognisable and appealing in it. I really meant the book to be a friendly gesture, an invitation to common recognition.
Any chance of a quick outline of your next novel? Have you started writing it yet? It’s called Enon, which is the name of the village in which it takes place. Enon is where George Washington Crosby lives (dies, actually) in Tinkers. The book is about one of his grandsons, Charlie, and Charlie’s daughter, Kate. I’m about halfway through a first draft. If all goes according to my best intentions, it should be out around the summer of 2012. Tinkers, published in the UK by William Heinemann, is available in all good bookshops.