Harding discusses his work, process
Paul Harding won the 2010 Pulitzer Prize for fiction for his novel Tinkers. Tinkers follows the thought process of its narrator, George Washington Crosby, as he lays on his deathbed and reflects on the relationship with his father, Howard.
Prior to his writing career, Harding had served as the drummer for a rock band. After his band stopped touring, Harding took the opportunity to begin an M.F.A. program at the University of Iowa, and has since begun teaching writing at Harvard University and the University of Iowa.
DORER: What advantage do you think a student at RPI could gain from learning to write creatively?
HARDING: I think the division of science and art is often sort of artificial. Oftentimes, scientists think creatively and they need to be able to use their imagination to conceptualize thing— particularly when it comes to sort of theoretical things like physics and all that kind of stuff. I just think that all of us are using our brains, whether we’re engineers or artists, but we all use different idioms or genres of thinking. When I get confounded by thinking in terms of narrative prose, I’ll start reading back issues of science magazines; the precision and the concreteness actually refreshes my brain and makes it look at things in a different way. I think the reverse is true for people who do science and technology and math.
DORER: Where does the actual craft of a novel begin? How does that process begin?
HARDING: A novel is very different from a short story or a poem, partially because in longer narratives you have more space to build up meaning. The reader experiences something in almost lived time; if you’re reading something like War and Peace, it takes almost a month to read it. In terms of authoring a novel, I know I’m going to spend at least five or six years on it. For me, anyway, I don’t write really heavily plotted novels. I use my background as a drummer or a musician and I think of it as improvisation and then one day it all starts to cohere. You can’t really practice writing novels by writing short stories. You can only write one sentence at a time anyway, so in a novel you can take your time and climb into the world. You have to pace yourself.
DORER: Have you experimented with other forms of writing? Have you tried short story or poetry?
HARDING: I tried to write poetry, and this is sort of a mundane reason for why I stopped, but I didn’t know where to put the line breaks. I couldn’t figure out free verse, or anything that wasn’t garbage when I was using meter or rhyme scheme. I felt like I had an impulse to write lyric, pastoral writing, so when I started writing what turned out to be the novel Tinkers, I just kept writing what I thought was the lyric poetry that I interpreted as the form of the novel. I just stopped putting line breaks in and I wrote it as prose. I think Tinkers is sort of a strange hybrid of a book; they call it a novel but I think of it as a long, lyric poem. Every time I try to write a short story, it just feels like it has been surgically removed from a novel. I think I just naturally write things that are very lyric, and not plot-based, and very impressionistic. As an artist, it’s your job to create something that works, and I don’t really care if they call it a poem or a novella.
DORER: What books have been influential in your writing, and what are you reading?
HARDING: The general answer is that every book I read is influential. I guess the real big writers that I’m always being influenced by are certainly the New England transcendentalists: Thoreau and Emerson and Hawthorne and Emily Dickinson and absolutely Herman Melville. Moby Dick is sort of my North Star in some ways. Increasingly the Bible, because the more of those authors you read the more you realize they base their art on the Bible. It’s not even about religions or theosophy, it’s just that the Bible serves as the headwater of western literature. And right now I’m teaching a graduate seminar on Shakespeare, so right now I’m starting my reading of Hamlet.
DORER: Given that Tinkers came from a small press, what do you think made the novel catch on?
HARDING: It was interesting because the small press meant that they had no budget for marketing. It didn’t sell like crazy, but it started to sell and it just kept selling at a constant enough pace. What it illuminated in a way is the word of mouth phenomenon that still exists among readers. I think maybe people liked it because it was slightly different from what they were finding from larger publishers.
DORER: Tinkers is a narrative based on several generations of men, and the similarities between them. How did you get the idea for the narrative, and what do you think it speaks to?
HARDING: The kind of load-bearing dramatic fantasies of the book are almost all based on family stories that my maternal grandfather told my brother and me about his family and his life growing up in northern Maine. As in the book, his father had epilepsy and was going to be sent away to an institution. He left the family when my grandfather was 12. In a way, it was kind of my way of imagining my way back into my family’s book of genesis. So, I sort of just wrote down those basic facts and imagined a fictionalized version of that. It turned out to be patrilineal simply because it was my grandfather, and his father had left. I didn’t start with the intention of saying anything about fathers and sons, but I think it sort of ended up participating in that tradition. I didn’t deliberately speak to anything. It really can be death to a good work of art to be motivated by an explanatory impulse. The danger then is that you can start writing thinly disguised psychology or sociology.
DORER: How do you feel the element of horology plays into the over-arching story of Tinkers, and what symbolism does it play to George and Howard?
HARDING: It’s one of those funny challenges that artists throw down at their own feet. You’re reading a book about an old man lying in bed and he’s remembering his father. It’s all about time, and memory. What more clichéd profession could you give the guy than being a clockmaker? It’s so cliché that it’s just ridiculous. But my grandfather repaired antique clocks, and I apprenticed with him. One thing that I thought was non-negotiable in terms of the facts of the book, he had to be a clockmaker. I didn’t use clockmaking and horology as a subject on its own. I didn’t write about the symbolism of time and clocks and horology per se. It was never one of my subjects as the author.
DORER: The language of Tinkers is something that a lot of people focused on, given that the language tends to hone in on the minutia of George’s perception on his deathbed. What are you hoping to convey to the reader by focusing the language of the piece?
HARDING: I don’t know if I’m trying to convey anything; language is the tool of the medium. My goal is precision. It’s precision of use and precision of meaning, and by bringing the language into that high definition of resolution, I think it reproduces in the reading something like consciousness itself. The experience of reading the language is something like just experiencing the character’s thoughts and perceptions. And I do that through just detail and precision and just appealing to the reader’s senses.
The other thing is that as an artist you want to write a story, and whatever kind of story you want to write presents very predictable pitfalls or dangers. As I was writing the book it didn’t have a plot, and it was all about an old guy lying in bed, thinking. So I realized the immediate danger is that the book is going to turn into ether; it’s just going to vaporize, it’s going to be abstract in his mind. So just another challenge I set myself was that I wanted someone to be able to flip through the book, open to any page, plunk his finger down, and find a concrete noun or verb. I wanted to figure out how to write about these abstract things in palpable, concrete terms. According to those rules, I ended up getting all this strange-looking, very dense, and highly-resolved and detailed prose that was kind of a surprise to me.
DORER: Given that Tinkers plays largely on the narrator’s hallucinations and how one can mix up the timelines, how did you decide on the narrative structure, and how do you think it contributed to your vision of the piece?
HARDING: I realized that it was going to be very impressionistic and associative. It was going to mimic, in highly aestheticized ways, a consciousness that was starting to break apart and detach from sequential time. So one of the things I did was I rigged the whole novel to a very linear countdown. I realized as long as I kept bringing the reader back to that countdown, then the character’s consciousness could sort of loop out and back and forward and go through all these coul-de-sacs and the reader could follow them. The rest of the way I collaged and assembled together something associative. It just mimics the way this guy’s mind works.
DORER: What are you currently working on, and how would you relate it to the body of work you established with Tinkers?
HARDING: Right now, I’m working on a novel that’s roughly based on a set of historical facts and events that had to do with a settlement on a small island off the coast of Maine. From the late 18th century to the early 20th century, it was a racially-integrated settlement that was started by either an escaped or freed African slave, and his Irish wife. It was a small settlement, very impoverished, but it was there for 125 years. It was all inter-married black and white people, until the state of Maine evicted everybody from the island as a consequence of the intersection of the coastal tourism trade and eugenics. Almost to the week these people were evicted, the first international conference on eugenics was being held in London. Some of the islanders, rather than being summarily evicted were committed to a place called the Maine School for the Feeble Minded, and the character from Tinkers was supposed to be committed to the same place.