Conversation: Pulitzer Prize Winner in Fiction, Paul Harding

'Tinkers' by Paul Harding
This year’s Pulitzer Prize winner for fiction was not a bestseller or a blockbuster. Its author was not a big name, and its publisher, too — a small imprint called Bellevue Literary Press, run out of the NYU Medical School — was basically unknown. The New York Times called it “the one that got away,” meaning the paper had not reviewed it. But those who had, including the New Yorker and the Los Angeles Times, praised it.

Paul Harding is the author of “Tinkers,” a story about a man on his deathbed who remembers his New England upbringing, which won the Pulitzer Prize for fiction on Monday.
I talked with Harding by phone from Iowa City, where he teaches writing at the University of Iowa:
Paul Harding

A transcript is after the jump.

JEFFREY BROWN: This year’s Pulitzer Prize for fiction has gone to the novel “Tinkers,” and it is written by Paul Harding, who joins me from Iowa. Welcome to you, and congratulations.

PAUL HARDING: Oh, thank you, Jeffrey. It’s good to speak with you.

JEFFREY BROWN: Quite a story — a debut novel, a tiny press that few people, including me, by the way, have heard of and a Pulitzer Prize.

PAUL HARDING: Yes, I mean, it seems like the most unlikely of stories. It’s kind of a fairy tale. I mean, it feels like I’m in a fairy tale. I’m suddenly the protagonist of a fairy tale I never imagined being a part of.

JEFFREY BROWN: You were as shocked as everyone else, I guess, right?

PAUL HARDING: I mean, absolutely. It was just so unlikely, from the great before, on the other side of which I now stand. I mean, it’s very small press and sort of, no big marketing campaign.

JEFFREY BROWN: It sounded like it was real word-of-mouth?

PAUL HARDING: I mean, it really was and I think that’s what people are sort of glad about. This is, you know, attributable to hand-to-hand, copy-by-copy, selling by independent booksellers to people in independent bookstores. It was very grassroots, and so I think it’s very gratifying to — I mean not just me personally — but to, you know, a lot of people who sort of make this their lives and are passionate about the books and their reading.

JEFFREY BROWN: Tell us a little bit about Belleview Literary Press, because as I say, most of us had never heard of that before. I read that once they accepted it, they gave you a $1,000 advance and you were quite happy to get it.

PAUL HARDING: Oh, I certainly was. I mean, this was a book I never expected to publish. The book was — I had finished a draft of it probably in 2004 or 2005, and you know, sent it around to a few editors and agents and met with unanimous “no thank you’s.” It had been in a drawer for a couple or three years and I just happened to be having a conversation with a friend of mine a poet name Mark Woodworth at Skidmore College and he just said, “Look, why don’t you query a friend of mine, Jonathan Rabinowitz, who runs a small press called the Turtle Point Press. I sent it to him, he liked it but said he couldn’t do it with his press, but he just happened to be having dinner the next night with a woman named Erika Goldman, who was the editor and publisher of this newly founded imprint, Belleview Literary press, which is run out of and sort of administered by the NYU School of Medicine. And she read it and called me a week later and we agreed to do it sort of on the spot.

JEFFREY BROWN: Could you introduce yourself a bit. I mean, all I know is you grew up in Massachusetts, you were a drummer in a rock band, how did you become a writer? And how did you come to this particular story?

PAUL HARDING: I suppose since it’s my own life, it doesn’t seem all that unlikely. I grew up on the North Shore of Boston and went to UMass-Amherst on the six-year program — I was a less than stellar student. And was a musician — well, I use the term lightly. I used to get a lot of grief for this, but you know, I was a drummer in a rock band, all sorts of different rock bands, and then there was a band in the ’90s that I was in called Cold Water Flat that, you know, put out a couple of albums, one of them on MCA Records. And I sort of, you know, spent most of my — after I got out of UMass, I spent, you know, close to ten years, you know, I worked in book stores, temping and touring with the band, and recording and playing shows and all that sort of stuff. And, you know, the bands finally sort of, it ran through its course and during a kind of hiatus towards the end, I found myself with a little bit of open time and I decided I’d take a crack at writing a story. And that was just motivated, because even though I hadn’t really written anything, I was always an avid reader. And I think what is a very common experience for a lot of people who end up being writers is, you know, they start off their life as a reader and you become so enchanted by and engrossed in, you know, the world of literature and the world of books and what happens to your mind when you are reading your favorite novels and all this sort of stuff. And at a certain point, you feel like I have to start answers back. I want to be part of this conversation, you know, that all these writers, you know, across time and across space and all this sort stuff are, you know, sort of participating in writing chapters of the big novel or the big poem, or however, you know, with all of the capital letters. So I did and then I ended up taking my first writing class in the summer of 1996 and for the luck of the draw, my instructor was Marilynne Robinson and sort …

JEFFREY BROWN: Another Pulitzer Prize winning writer.

PAUL HARDING: Yes, she is. Very surreal to say a fellow Pulitzer Prize winner.

JEFFREY BROWN: I bet. But, you know, it’s interesting, because what a lot of the reviews have focused on and what I — I’m a 100 pages in because I just got the thing — but, you know, what I notice is it’s really, it’s language, it’s the beauty of words, it’s a real focus on precision and language and, of course, that is also true for Marilynne Robinson.

PAUL HARDING: Right. And I think that things that she, that’s the kind of mindfulness that she models for all of us who have been lucky enough to be her students. You know, it’s a certainly quality of mind and a quality of attention that she always teaches you to cultivate, you know, sort of like a muscle; it atrophies if you don’t use it. And so as a writer it’s soft of habituating yourself to these sorts of just states of being able to sustain close observation, you know, imaginatively on your characters and on your subjects and your theme. I mean, you hit the nail right on the head, which is precision. I mean something I tell my students all the time is precision is the best style, because the real beauty of your subjects comes out of, you know, describing things as accurately as possible. You know, the loveliest meaning things, you know, and beauty in things comes out of describing them and then the experience of them by your characters. You’ve got this sort of telescoping series of lenses to which you write, and you just start getting these, you know, sort of beautiful unexpected things. I mean, I don’t think that there was a sentence in “Tinkers” that I ever expected to write.

JEFFREY BROWN: Really. You can trace this back to Marilynne and my other teachers. The best kind of writing are the kind of writing, the kind of writing I like best, is what she always called interrogative writing, which is you don’t already know what you have to say; you discover it in the process of writing it, so it becomes a kind of discipline of, you know, pursuing revelation. So that when you find these things you know, it kind of precipitates these moments of recognition when you arrive at the true subject of the true image, all that sort of stuff. And then you just pass those moments of recognition and delight onto the reader, hopefully. I mean, that’s sort of the goal.

JEFFREY BROWN: Right. We don’t want to talk too much, give away what happens in this book, of course. Now we want people to go out and read it, right?

PAUL HARDING: Right, right. Although it’s not too, too plot driven.

JEFFREY BROWN: No, I realize that, but that’s why, based on what you just said about sort of working your way towards the true subject, what was the true subject here for you? I mean, for those who don’t know, it’s a story of a man in his dying days, weeks, he’s looking back at his life, right? He’s looking at the life of his father, his relationship with his father, but was the truth that you were aiming at or arriving at?

PAUL HARDING: Well, I don’t know, because there is nothing, there is nothing conclusive. You know, this is another sort of, it is something that emerges out of approaching the writing this way is that kind of at the end, what you’ve done is that you’ve opened up the door onto this world and its truth as opposed to sort you know encapsulated it or made conclusive statements. I mean, I think for me what I wanted to render on the page was something like the consciousness, the collective consciousness of a family and of this line of fathers and sons, and you know, part of, if people read this book, kind of what happens is that they sort of come and go freely amongst one another’s consciousness, in the form of memory and the form of recollection and all those sort of stuff, and just that kind of feeling that I think everybody has. You know, when you think about yourself and your place in your family and you think about the generations that have come before you that you never knew, and the generations to come who will never even know who you were, and it’s just this sort of astonishing kind of continuum that I just find, you know, just very beautiful, and it’s just very characteristic of being human. The standard sort of art stuff.

JEFFREY BROWN: But at a high level.

PAUL HARDING: Well, I mean certainly, yeah, you aspire to the highest level of that kind of thing, you know, obtaining that kind of thing as possible, yep.

JEFFREY BROWN: Well maybe with the Pulitzer now, will mean that you won’t have to go through quite the same thing with the next book?

PAUL HARDING: Yeah, the next book is actually going to come out on Random House.

JEFFREY BROWN: Well, there’s a change already?

PAUL HARDING: That was going to happen before the Pulitzer business, and you know, because any Belleview is still going to do what it does, and I’ve just went over to Random House, and I’m working on a second novel that’s concerned with the same town and the same family, subsequent generations of the same family that’s in “Tinkers.”

JEFFREY BROWN: Paul Harding is the Pulitzer Prize winner for fiction for “Tinkers.” It’s great to talk to you, and again, congratulations.

PAUL HARDING: Ok. Thanks so much, Jeffrey. I appreciate it.

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