Paul Harding'a debut novel, Tinkers, won the 2010 Pulitzer Prize. We catch up with America’s hottest literary property
The focus of Tinkers is a countdown to the death of the protagonist. What came first, the structure or the character? I guess my depth of field is not so much what happens as to whom it happens. I initially thought of [the structure] as a way of disciplining myself to avoid false drama; lay all the cards on the table, then spend the reader’s time exploring the significance of what happens. That impulse proved viable, and other subsequent, pleasing properties emerged from it.
The novel was widely rejected before being published. Did you lose hope that Tinkers would see the light of day? I did. I reconciled myself – grudgingly, admittedly – to the possibility. But that also helped me to keep my motives sound. I learned to write what’s really on my mind, without the clutter of second-guessing any kind of audience. In the end, I think that’s what makes readers happiest, anyway. I think I’d be irritated if I thought that William Faulkner was trying to impress me or pander to me as he was writing Absalom, Absalom!.
Does Tinkers’ massive success feel like a vindication of literature over the increasingly commercial emphasis of publishing? Sometimes, maybe a little. But then, I think that art always manages to persist and that readers are always out there. Commercial pressure certainly 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’m just grateful that so many people find something recognisable and appealing in it. I really meant it to be a friendly gesture, an invitation to common recognition.
You named the protagonist George Washington Crosby. Did you create him as an 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 process rather than deliberate will.
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. The spirit is that of dialogue, of good conversation, and in particular conversation among friends. 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.
Tinkers feels as though it’s supposed to be read slowly and savoured. How quickly was it 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.
Have you started writing your next novel 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 is published by William Heinemann