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Harding in the house: a Pulitzer-winning novelist on rhythm, revision, rejection and a hundred other things

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We promote narrative nonfiction here at Storyboard but occasionally look outside the genre for storytelling inspiration. Paul Harding, who won the 2010 Pulitzer Prize for fiction for his novel “Tinkers,” visited our Nieman Foundation headquarters the other day in collaboration with the Harvard Writers at Work lecture series. He spent an hour and a half talking creativity with a standing-room-only audience of Nieman fellows and Harvard undergraduates, graduate students and faculty.

Nieman fellow Anna Griffin moderated the discussion. In keeping with this week’s Pulitzer theme, here’s the conversation, along with an excerpted transcript, edited for clarity and brevity, followed by an interactive index for the entire event. Enjoy! 

Griffin: It is a distinct pleasure to moderate this conversation with Paul Harding. Paul is an author, a teacher, a rock star. He grew up on the North Shore, graduated from U-Mass, has an MFA from the Iowa Writers Workshop and, according to the Internet, which is never wrong, is a first cousin of figure skater Tonya Harding.

(laughter)

Griffin: Is that not – is that not –

(laughter)

Harding: No, that’s not true.

(laughter)

Griffin: He has redeemed the Harding name twice, first as a drummer with the 1990s (band) Cold Water Flat, which if you went to college in the ’90s, which a few of us in the room did, you probably heard play quite a bit on campus radio; and then as the author of a little Cinderella story of a book, “Tinkers,” which is kind of a tone poem, almost, about life in New England. It sat in a drawer for three years, was bought by a boutique publisher affiliated with NYU medical school, had a first run of 3,500 copies, and then won the Pulitzer Prize, which is the way it works for everybody.

(laughter)

Griffin: He is now finishing up on his second novel, (“Enon”), which, shockingly, did not spend time in a drawer for any length of time and will be published next spring by Random House. Paul’s gonna read a few things and then we’re gonna talk about writing, and then we’re gonna throw it open to the room for questions.

Harding: Thank you. It’s a great pleasure to be here. You know I’ve read from “Tinkers” about seven million thousand times by now, so I figured I’d read a little bit from “Tinkers” and then give you a little bit from the novel that’s gonna be coming out next spring, and then just a little two-page self-contained piece, so it’s gonna be a buffet today. And then I’ll be delighted to have a conversation.

So “Tinkers” is about a guy who was a sort of peddler; he’s the tinker of the title, and he abandons his family. “Tinkers” is set in northern Maine in the ’20s and the protagonist abandons his family when he finds out that his wife is gonna have him committed to an asylum because he has epilepsy. His epilepsy is so disruptive to the family that the best thing (his wife) can think of to do is to have him committed. So he leaves the family. So this is just a brief passage, a couple of days after he’s had a grand mal seizure.

(Harding reads.)

Harding's readings copy (see "marginalia," in index below). Photo courtesy Harding.

Griffin: “Tinkers” began as a family story and became a short story that was part of your grad school application –

Harding: Mm hmm, yeah.

Griffin: – and then was turned into the novel. Talk about the writing process, to take something that’s like family lore and turn it into a short story. What was the short story and how did you expand that into the novel?

Harding: First of all, the basic premises of “Tinkers” are all based on stories that my maternal grandfather told me and my cousins and my brother about his life growing up in northern Maine. But I wasn’t interested in family history. I wasn’t interested in autobiography. It would be difficult for me to be less interested in autobiography. I’m not interested in myself; I’m interested in the fact that I am a self. So I just started writing about these family legends. The original short story version of “Tinkers” was 15 or 16 pages long, and it had actually what, if you look at the novel, is the beginning, the middle and the end of the novel. The whole story was there. And if you’ve looked at “Tinkers” it’s pretty elliptical and nonlinear, so if you can imagine 15 pages – it was impossibly dense and impossibly elliptical and obscure.

So enough people gave me encouragement to expand it. After I left the Iowa Writers Workshop I was fortunate enough to get a fellowship at the Fine Arts Work Center in Provincetown, which is a seven-month fellowship, to work on the book. So I spent seven months toiling and worrying that I was making a perfectly decent short story into a terrible novel. And so it was just a matter of expanding.

Griffin: So the original short story, it was George, Howard – it was both –

Harding: Yeah, yeah, the whole thing was there.

Griffin: Was it tiny font? How’d you get that into 16 pages?

Harding: I don’t know. I write in such a haphazard manner. It’s totally intuitive and fortuitous. It’s improvisational. It is sort of circumstantial, in a way, but in a way I write the way I used to drum. If I’m playing drums I just start to do whatever comes over the wire. Same with writing, you know? And I just kind of bop around the story. In some ways, I’m impatient – I wanted to know what the end of the story was and to move around the boundaries of it.

Griffin: You don’t outline.

Harding: No, no.

Griffin: On the Internet are scenes of you with index cards and napkins –

Harding: Catastrophe. Just absolute panic the whole time.

Griffin: You’re kind of a crazy man aren’t you?

(laughter)

Griffin: And then you tape them together, staple them together.

Harding: Yeah with “Tinkers” I literally did that. It’s funny, because I just finished the first draft of “Enon” and booked a couple of weeks at the Fine Arts Work Center, so I went back down to Provincetown and damned if I didn’t end up on the floor again with the whole novel, thinking, “How’s this gonna work? How’s this gonna come together?” And I think it did, but who knows. It’s such a strange thing. Being a fiction writer is not efficiency. I have to go through these incredible difficulties in order to fully realize the book, at least these first two. I hope that I’ll get better at it. Though it doesn’t seem to be a matter of getting better at it. It just seems to be this integral part of the process.

Griffin: How do you guard against getting so far into the story and looking up and going, “Oh, I’m trying so many different things I’m losing my reader?”

Harding: I never ever think about a reader. Ever.

Griffin: The readers love that.

(laughter)

Harding: No, no, no, no! Because on the deepest level it’s the deepest way to be solicitous of the reader. You just trust yourself that you’re writing something that you’d like to read. The problem with – this is not true for journalism or for genre-based fiction, but the worst thing you can do is try to write a novel in anticipation of people, first of all, who won’t like it. Don’t ever write your fiction for people who won’t like it. Just give yourself wholeheartedly to it and trust that the reader will like what you like. Because otherwise you don’t pay attention to the story; you pay attention to these voices behind your shoulder saying, “Oh well she didn’t have blue eyes in the first chapter.” And it’s like, a copyeditor will get that. That sort of thing. So it’s improvisational. So you just give yourself over wholeheartedly to the story. With “Tinkers” it’s 192 pages, it’s like 40,000 words. I cut 25,000 words, cut like a quarter of it.

Griffin: What did you cut?

Harding: The mother of the family, who’s gonna have her husband sent away, there’s a whole section of the book that was just all about her life before she was married, and I just couldn’t get it to work.

Griffin: How do you feel now about that?

Harding: Sad. I feel very loyal to her.

Griffin: Because one of the things that strikes me is that she’s not an overwhelmingly sympathetic character.

Harding: Yeah you know it’s funny. It’s one of these things – this is another reason why you don’t think about the reader, as it were, because the reader that you imagine – you don’t know who’s gonna look at your book. You have to trust your subject; you have to trust your characters and let them elaborate themselves, who they really are. A lot of the stuff that I wrote for this woman, Kathleen, that ended up on the cutting room floor, was trying to make her a sympathetic character, quote unquote, but for one thing if you ever met the woman on whom she’s based you’d think she’s an angel. The woman she’s based on is much worse than (Kathleen) is. You know, I had this strange experience – I was in Cape Town for a book festival and talking to a South African writer, and Kathleen was their favorite character in the book because she was like a strong African mother raising children in the township. They thought she was wonderful. So it was this sort of: Be loyal to your characters, be loyal to the story, be loyal to the subject – it possesses its own integrity.

Griffin: One of the things we talk about in journalism is that when you’re writing about something complicated you want to get simple – simple language, simple sentences. I’ve seen in interviews you talk about how because a lot of “Tinkers” is fairly abstract and it’s very sort of modernist – a lot of things happening in George and Howard’s heads – you talk about writing in concrete nouns and verbs.

Harding: When you’re writing fiction, one of the main virtues of fiction is that it be imminent. It’s about imminent things, it’s about action, it’s about things happening in this world. And one of the practical problems with “Tinkers” is that most of the book is about a guy who’s just lying on a bed like this. I realized I was going to have to find a way to embody a lot of things just to keep the book anchored in the real world, just so it wouldn’t lapse into rhetorical or theoretical language. But that specificity and precision and concrete writing is – that’s different than complexity. I do want to write with maximum complexity. I want to write books that accommodate the complexity of the human mind. I want to light up people’s brains.

Griffin: Talk about how you use language when you’re doing that, and ensure that you don’t lose your readers.

Harding: Again, I’m not thinking about the poor reader. To me, again, it’s all mutually reinforcing. To me the greatest style is precision. The way you don’t lose the reader is, you use language as precisely as possible. I taught writing a lot, and it was one of these counterintuitive things where writers would make things shorter and they would make them more simple because, “Oh, I don’t want to take up too much of the reader’s mind,” but that’s your job as a writer. You’re supposed to take up the reader’s time. So you presume somebody who wants complicated, beautiful, intricate, thoughtful, precise writing. You presume that readers are reading your book.

Griffin: As we heard in some of those excerpts you have a marvelous brain for detail and you write these lyrical paragraphs that are jam-packed with precise details. I have a friend who loves “Tinkers” who says, “This guy has more ways to describe how wind moves through the trees than a botanist.”

Harding: That’s a nice compliment.

Griffin: Are you out there writing down details as you see them? Are you walking through the woods taking notes? Or is that all just imagination at play?

Harding: I guess I kind of am. Like the landscape, the New England landscape particularly, I’ve spent tons of time up on the North Shore, just wandering around the Audubon sanctuary. I actually just bought a house that’s smack dab near the Ipswitch River Sanctuary so that I could be closer to the birch bark and the creek water with the sunlight in it. You know. Part of being a good writer, too, is just developing the muscles that have to do with being able to pay attention, and to sustain attention. The quality of attention – the closest possible attention for the longest amount of time so that when you climb down into your world you just sort of sit there very quietly and you watch and you listen and you smell and you just take down all the details. It’s imagining things as elaborately as you possibly can.

In my case, I’m interested in the people, the experience of being conscious. So I don’t write about far-flung places usually; I don’t write about remote times. I write about things that are right at my fingertips because I think of it as sort of the medium through which and into which I can precipitate the characters. So whenever I write about landscape, and if I can write about wind in 15 million different ways, it’s not because I’m writing about wind per se, it’s always because I’m writing about how a character experiences the wind. Character is always being refracted through description. What was the question?

(laughter)

Griffin: No, it’s very much like “Tinkers.” We went this way and we got there. A lot of beginning fiction instruction, like a lot of long-form narrative instruction that we talk about here, is all about scene – scenes upon scenes upon scenes.

Harding: Yeah.

Griffin: What would you say to a student who says, “So I want to write this novel, and it’s sort of this family story and I’m gonna change point of view most of the time, and I’m gonna change tense multiple times, and I’m gonna play with chronology, and I’m not gonna outline, and I’m gonna take all these pieces of paper and staple them together” – what would you –

Harding: God help you.

(laughter)

Harding: There’s all sorts of different very, very germane issues to writing, but one of them is that when you’re teaching writing, particularly fiction writing, one of the great temptations that as a teacher you have to resist, and that as a student you have to resist the influence of, is to present your process as normative. So much of grad school is: You just learn to be like your professor. You feel like there’s no independent thinking; you just inherit this datum. For example, one of my mentors was Marilyn Robinson. She has to write her books from the very first sentence of the very first chapter, and she has to write the book from start to finish, and if she screws up anywhere along the way she throws out the whole novel and starts again. And if I had taken that as the way that you have to write a novel, I’d be a plumber right now. The best writing comes from you consulting your own experience, not consulting an outside authority.

A lot of what I tried to do, as a teacher, was to get students to cultivate their own intellectual and aesthetic autonomy so that nobody could tell them what they were doing was right or wrong. I mean within reason – you have to edit, you have to have logic; you have to get them to be consistent with themselves. It also has to do with reading as widely and deeply as possible. Your writing can only be as good as the best stuff you’ve read. The other temptations with teaching writing – writing is tough and it’s wild and it’s feral and it’s dangerous, all these dramatic things, and the temptation is always to tame it and domesticate it so that it will be easy to teach. So you chop it all up and you’re like, “Today we’re gonna talk about character,” and “Today we’re gonna talk about point of view,” and “Here’s the third person.” And really those are just tools, you know?

Griffin: And some of (it) is knowing the rules so that you can break the rules.

Harding: Absolutely. One of the best pieces of advice I ever got, it was as I was leaving the last conference I had with Marilyn Robinson after my two years at Iowa. You know, I felt like I had the tiara, the roses – like, “Ah, now I’ve graduated from the Iowa Writers Workshop.” I was leaving her office and she called out, she said, “Oh Paul, one more thing.” I said, “Yes, Marilyn.” She said, “You really should learn how to write grammatically correct English.”

(laughter)

Harding: I was like, “Grammar-schmammer.” But precisely. Because you need to know how to modulate and move around that way. Another reason that “Tinkers” does that is because it’s largely interior, you know. I’m not interested in plot. God bless plot, but I’m not interested in it. I’m interested in character, and plot emerges out of character. I’m just interested in consciousness. And so – I don’t know how far this metaphor works but you have these personal metaphors and analogies that you use to get you through your day – I think of plot as Newtonian physics. It’s mechanical. But I think of the mind, once you get into a character’s mind and it’s interior, I think of the mind as quantum. It’s supra-luminary. It just moves instantly. It’s instantaneous influence or whatever it’s called in quantum physics. Because that’s how consciousness works. So a book like “Tinkers” can be tougher to sort of catch the wave on, as it were, because it doesn’t work mechanically, it doesn’t work plot wise. But there’s a character-logical logic to it.

Griffin: I might argue – it’s your book so feel free to disagree – but the plot of “Tinkers” is pretty simple and straightforward. It’s everything else that informs the plot that’s important.

Harding: Yeah. Well, I just started with a very simple – what I find compelling are just those circumstances in which people find themselves that are actually impossible. Suddenly what you find is impossible is the case in your life. And so the very first thing I wrote in “Tinkers” – there’s a scene where Howard, the tinker, suddenly becomes conscious of the fact that instead of turning into his driveway or wherever his house is, he’s actually gone past his house. And he realizes that that means he is leaving his family. And I just remember the first day of writing it just thinking: “If he’d allowed himself to be conscious of it, (the act) would’ve been impossible, because it would just be too terrible to leave your family.” So I built that kind of double consciousness for him. And the reason I wrote about in the second book – it’s about a father losing his only child – is because that seems to me impossible. And I know people who have suffered losses like that, and I see them survive and stay beautiful, kind, generous, merciful, loving people, and I just do not know how they could do it. I don’t want to write about anything in which anything less than everything is at stake. Why bother making art?

Griffin: One more question and we’ll throw it to the crowd. Was the process on “Enon” any different from the process on “Tinkers?”

Harding: It was very fascinating because with all the stuff that happened with “Tinkers” – you know, I had this perfect record of non-publication and perfect obscurity with “Tinkers,” so I was able to work on it for 10 years. And so now I have written a novel that is a little bit more than twice as long as “Tinkers” in a little bit less than a third of the time it took to write “Tinkers.” So in that way it was interesting to see if I could compress all that work into three years. Turns out I can, but that’s why I’m ready to jump out of my socks right now, because it’s just been so intense.

And it’s been fascinating to see in retrospect what I did in “Tinkers” that was real process and what was sort of sheer ineptitude. One of the strangest things about writing the second (novel): Just because of the things that happened with “Tinkers,” the Pulitzer and stuff, I went from zero to 1,000 miles an hour in an instant, so I wrote most of “Enon” in hotel rooms and on airplanes. So that was really weird. I had to learn how to put the blinders on. Luckily, though, when “Tinkers” won the Pulitzer I had already sold “Enon” to Random House based on the first 50 pages of it. So I knew that Random House didn’t just love me for my Pulitzer. And it turns out the editor who bought “Enon” bought it without having read “Tinkers.” So that was just what I’d been holding onto: This book has its own integrity. Because “Tinkers,” first novel – everybody’s just like, “Oh, God, the second book by definition has to suck, right?” No pressure.

(laughter)

Griffin: But it doesn’t suck, right?

Harding: I hope not. Who knows. Fortunately what I’m learning, too, is that it’s not my job to like my own books. It’s my job to be like: You’ve gotta be better. But because of this worldly phenomenon that occurred with “Tinkers,” “Tinkers” exerts a huge gravitational pull, and so what I had to keep doing, whenever I was stuck with “Enon” I had to resist the temptation to drift over to “Tinkers” and use what worked and import it back into “Enon.” “Enon” had to have its own critical mass, its own center of gravity, its own integrity. Sometimes what came out on the page looked to me radically different than “Tinkers,” so I second-guessed myself. For example, people talk in “Enon.” There’s dialogue in “Enon.” And there’s quotation marks, you know? I thought, “I don’t have dialogue. I don’t use quotation marks.” But it was one of those things where you have to submit yourself to the work.

Griffin: Part of what’s unique about “Tinkers” is that so much of it feels experimental, almost like a jazz riff, and I can see that being a benefit of 10 years to work on something. Does the truncated time frame and the fact that you’re writing it for Random House change any of it? Does it put any additional pressure on you to not worry about readers?

Harding: No, the editor I’ve been working with at Random House has been absolutely wonderful. She bought the book two or three years ago – like I went and had lunch with her and we sort of convinced each other that we were right for each other, that sort of thing, sort of the editor coming a’ courtin’, and once we decided to do the book together I didn’t hear from her for three years. She just sort of left me alone. My agent would once in a while say, “How’s it going?” and I’d say, “Fine.” But she just laid off. And I presented her the book two or three weeks ago and she said, “Great. There’s maybe 10 or 15 pages of stuff I want to do.” “Enon” is written in first person, as opposed to “Tinkers,” which goes all over the place and there are just some inherent difficulties with first person, like the rest of the real world can go away when there’s just one character in mind, so it’s a little bit of – I just have to do some objective world stuff, 10 or 15 pages of that.

Griffin then opened the floor to questions. Discussed:

Associated Press, the, time stamp 01:23:29
Car chase, unlikelihood of, 00:50:29
Chamber music, pleasantness of, 01:01:15
Characters, whininess of, 00:53:51; writing from, 00:53:30
Colonial Mexico, 01:11:02
Coltrane, John, 01:01:23
Conroy, Frank, life-altering vision of, 01:09:10
Consciousness, fascination with, 00:58:05
Cutlass Ciera station wagon, 01:20:57
Delta Delta Delta sorority, 01:21:30
Drumming, as metaphor for controlling plot, 01:05:12
Duct tape, 01:20:57
Electron microscope, 1:00:10
Emerson, Ralph Waldo, influence of, 01:03:19
Flatness, handling of, 00:53:10;
Fuentes, Carlos, 01:07:25
Fundamental principle of composition, secret of, 00:54:24
Harvard Extension School, teaching background in, 00:55:53
History, grasp of, 00:58:05
Imagination, 1:00:10
Influences, 01:03:02
Iowa Writers Conference, 01:06:50
Irving, John, 01:02:52
James, Henry, influence of, 01:09:29
Jones, Elvin, sick drumming skills of, 01:05:10
Kant, 00:58:22
Kitteridge, Olive, 01:22:10
Language, blissful imperfection of, 01:20:06
Life, ideal description of, 00:57:00
Magical realism, influence of, 01:07:25
Mann, Thomas, influence of, 01:09:29
Marginalia, tendency to commit, 00:57:08
McCracken, Elizabeth, “mind-bogglingly wonderful” teaching skills of, 01:10:03
Mozart, 01:01:19
Muse, necessary rejection of, 00:56:10
Naps, dreams of, 00:57:19
Perception, writerly use of, 00:58:05
Philosophy, interest in, 00:58:17
Plot, disinterest in, 00:51:12
Potter, Harry, 01:18:32
Reading, importance of, 01:09:22
Regatta Bar, 01:05:17
Rejection, dealing with, 00:50:00; William Faulkner handling of, 00:51:27
Revision, dangers of, 01:19:18; endless application of, 01:15:20
Rituals, 00:55:31
Robinson, Marilyn, influence of, 01:07:48
“Sound and the Fury, The” stubborn creation of, 00:51:27
Stevens, Wallace, influence of, 01:03:24
Time, fluidity of, 00:58:29; obsession with, 01:04:43
Unemployment, pre-Pulitzer experience with, 01:20:48
Unsworth, Barry, influence of, 01:10:03
Wharton, Edith, influence of, 01:09:29
Woolf, Virginia, influence of, 01:09:29
Writing, difficulty of, 01:11:53; learnable nature of, 01:11:48

*The Nieman Foundation’s co-sponsor for this event, the Harvard Writers at Work lecture series, is supported by the Harvard College Writing Program, the Harvard Extension School’s master’s degree program in journalism, the Harvard Review and the Harvard College Program in General Education.




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