Why Small Presses Matter: Paul Harding on the Rocky Road to the Pulitzer
The bits you learn about Paul Harding when you attend a reading:
1) To avoid writing about anything resembling family history, he started off writing “a lot of crap like the 12thcentury on Mars.”
2) He wrote much of Tinkers in his car in parking lots at night, after driving around to ease an earachey child to sleep.
3) He put the manuscript in a drawer for years.
4) He found out that he’d won the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction by seeing it online (no one, you know, called).
When Tinkers won the Pulitzer earlier this year, literature geeks everywhere jumped up and down with giddy disbelief. Then they settled their glasses back into place and said a blasé, Of course.
In a small way, they felt a pride of ownership. The lyrical little novel—about a dying man experiencing flashbacks of his father—had been propelled by the power of word of mouth: bloggers and booksellers talking it up, selling it by hand, recommending it for awards. Part of Tinkers’ allure was that it had been widely rejected by traditional houses, bought in the end by the small medical publisher Bellevue Literary Press, an offshoot of New York University’s School of Medicine. Tinkers was Bellevue’s first foray into publishing fiction; the epilepsy angle was its justification. The print run was a mere 3,500 copies. Harding’s advance, $1,000. He had been living on unemployment checks and his wife’s salary as a middle-school teacher and driving the battered Oldsmobile wagon he’d used as a drummer for a rock band 15 years before. Now, he had a two-book deal with Random House.
Harding’s win had an underdog quality, a triumph for debut authors feeling sidelined as the publishing industry struggles. It’s like the U.S. hockey team beating the Russians, if the U.S. team had been made up of 42-year-old players who practiced on ponds while their kids napped off earaches in warming huts. In Tinkers, a debut author had jumped out of the drawer in the biggest way. By the force of good writing and tenacity, he’d soared above the slush.
Harding’s prose is poetic, and in person he sounds every bit the Harvard writing teacher that he is. Yet he still comes across as approachable. So while he was signing my book, I was emboldened to ask if he might give an interview to our literary blog. He smiled and wrote his email address beneath his signature, and I felt like I’d won the lit-geek lottery.
Interview by Nichole Bernier
Your road to success seems marked by both extremes writers face: perseverance (Tinkers) and letting go (your first novel, about Mexican silver mines). What made you willing to let go of your first manuscript and pursue the family history that became Tinkers, then stick with it through the rejections?
Well, letting go of the first novel wasn’t really a matter of will. The thing just up and died on the table and that was that. The family history material just had more immediacy to it. I could render the light and the land and the voices, could shape them and refract them as circumstances called for, without having to spend every afternoon in the library doing research.
The rejections come with the territory. I had to reckon with the possibility that I might be a writer who did not publish. That was freeing at the time, because it had the consequence of me writing exactly what I wanted to, what I thought was best, without thinking about editors or critics or anyone else. I’d write whether I published or not. Don’t get me wrong; it’s a lot nicer being published. But writing is not a means. It is the thing itself.
Do you see yourself ever rehabilitating that Mexican silver mine story?
I occasionally think it might be fun to go back and try it again someday. There are some images and scenes that occasionally rise up and haunt me still. There’s a creepy sequence of a mother and daughter trying to make their way across a desert with a goat whose throat they keep nicking in order to drink its blood so they don’t die of thirst. Sounds nasty, and it kind of is, but it’s also compelling to me in a strange, authentically mysterious way.
During the submission process, did you receive personal feedback from agents and editors that was either useful or consistent?
No. None of it was useful in my case. Or, it was useful in understanding that the express lane to mediocre writing is to incorporate the suggestions of commercial publishers. Many of them are concerned with selling books, not with good art. I’m incredibly lucky, though, that the editors and agent with whom I’ve ended up do in fact care deeply about art, and believe that good art can be viable in the market. The market will come to good art, that is, rather than taming and domesticating and dumbing down art in an effort to bring it to market.
Did Bellevue Literary Press do much editing, or was it more a matter of their falling in love with the text as it was?
I think that Erika Goldman loved the book and then later had incredible suggestions for editing. We did do a lot of work on it, and she has an incredible eye and ear for language. She was so generous. She’d mention a passage or a section and just say something like, “Hmmm, that might be a bit off” and then let me go back to my corner and work it out on my own.
Have your writing habits and routines changed since writing Tinkers, aside from probably not having to write in parking lots at night?
Not really. I go for long periods of apparent dormancy, when it looks for all the world like I’m just lying on the couch napping, with an open book placed picturesquely on my chest. But, in fact, things are simmering away. Eventually, I sit up and flip the laptop open and start typing. Then, I write every day for several weeks, mostly in the mornings, after I drop the kids off at school, and then again sometimes late at night after they go to bed. It’s fits and starts.
What was Marilynne Robinson like as an instructor (both at Skidmore and Iowa), and in what way would you say she influenced your development or style?
Marilynne Robinson was and continues to be a magnificent instructor. I just adore her. She’s funny and strong and mind-bogglingly smart and I can just sit and talk with her for hours on end. She’s soulful and serious and large-spirited and just a joy.
Your next book centers around George’s grandchildren. Would you characterize it as a sequel?
No. The action is subsequent to that in Tinkers, but not really connected.
At your reading, you said you were surprised to find a a lot of dialogue coming through in this next novel where there hadn’t been in Tinkers, and that it’s important for writers not to pigeonhole themselves as a writers who do X or don’t do Y. To what do you attribute the dialogue change? Will you be using quotation marks this time?
The dialog is prominent because of the two protagonist’s relationship. It’s a father and his teenaged daughter, and they hang out together a lot and enjoy one another’s company and talk a lot. I hadn’t been using quotation marks, just because I don’t when I’m writing – I like to discipline the tone and balance of sentences so that the distinction between dialog and narrative is infused into the prose itself. But I’ve started going back and adding them. I don’t want to be doctrinaire or principled about something just for the sake of being doctrinaire and principled. I’d have to be dead and buried before I let anyone insert quotes into Tinkers, because they just plain don’t belong in that book. But I think maybe they might belong in the new one, so, so be it.
To what extent do you think blogs and online interviews have contributed to your word-of-mouth success? Are you involved in social media yourself—Twitter, Facebook, blogs?
All that online stuff has contributed hugely to the word of mouth success of the book, and especially Michele Filgate’s stuff, (and Sheryl Cotleur’s stuff out of Book Passage in San Francisco, and Dave Weich’s stuff, formerly out of Powell’s in Portland, and also Pat Holt’s blog, which just knocked me out when she first wrote about it).
I have a Facebook page, on which I post dates and locations of events. I have a Twitter account that I never use. I can’t ever imagine having a blog.
You’ve said memoir writing was something you had no interest in initially. What made you decide to mine your grandparents’ history for what would become Tinkers?
I don’t really write family history per se. I use bits and pieces of it as occasions for subsequent imaginative exploration. It’s much more aesthetic and fortuitous than it is documentary. I just used to have a knee jerk aversion to anything like personal confession. Now, I’m amenable to confession in the sense of like, say, St. Augustine.
Can you give us the two sentence Publisher’s Weekly description of that Mars story?
There never really was a Mars story; that’s just a kind of illustrative theoretical example of how far flung and fetched I felt my stories had to be in order to avoid autobiographical melodrama.
Nichole Bernier is the author of the novel The Unfinished Work of Elizabeth D (Crown/Random House, 2012). She lives west of Boston with her husband and five children, and can be found on Twitter at @nicholebernier.