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An Interview with Paul Harding
Paul Harding’s Tinkers is one of my favorite novels of the last couple years (I love it when the Pulitzer committee gets it right), so when the opportunity arose to interview him for the Portland Mercury a few months back, I jumped at it. I guess I haven’t mastered the precise-questions-for-concise-answers thing (or I just couldn’t help but sit back and listen to someone wax intelligently about Reformed-Protestant theology and quantum mechanics…and how they relate to fiction writing) because what was supposed to be a 550-word piece came in at about 5000. Needless to say, I had to do significant trimming. Thankfully, the Internet knows no column inches. Below is the director’s cut of that interview.
Tony Perez: From what I’ve heard, you received a lot of rejection letters before Bellevue agreed to publish Tinkers. Now that you’ve got a Pulitzer and a major PEN award, anyone in particular you’d like tell, “I told you so”?
Paul Harding: No. I’ve got people in my mind, and I figure they know who they are. Personally, it’s very frustrating to be rejected like that; you work your tail off on your novel or your stories or your poems, and then you’re met with that kind of apathy from the world of publishing. But that’s a fairly common lot for writers. I look back on it as my fair share of that sort of business. Short story writers in particular…they have to keep Excel charts of magazines and rejection letters. There are all these stories of people wallpapering their studies with rejection letters, so I think I just got my fair share of the writer’s lot.
TP: Tinkers didn’t take the typical route to success. It was published by a tiny press and, at least initially, flew under the radar of most big media outlets. It seems like the book really took off through word of mouth. Can you talk about the book’s momentum, and when you realized readers were connecting with it?
PH: Yes. So Bellevue Literary Press is in Bellevue hospital—the infamous Bellevue Hospital—and it’s actually a not-for-profit imprint that’s put out by the NYU school of medicine. So that’s my publisher: the NYU School of Medicine. As the editor there said, the advance was a token advance. They really didn’t have much of a marketing budget or anything. But luckily they did some advanced reader’s copies and there was, in particular, a sales rep named Lise Solomon out in San Francisco who read the book and really took it under her wing—became an advocate for it, really talking it up before it came out. She kind of got a buzz going out on the West Coast before anything happened here. But word of mouth started a little bit before it was published—Publisher’s Weekly gave it a good review. As soon as the advanced copies came out it made visible the fact that there is this real independent bookstore, hand-sold, word-of-mouth network of passionate readers. What’s so heartening to me about it is that there are still those networks out there. If you put out a book, even through a small publishing house, it can find it’s readers.
It was actually on the bestseller list in San Francisco right when it came out for a couple of weeks. I went out there and did some book touring, then came back to the East Coast and it was like the thing had never been published. But it just kept puttering along, which we thought was a good sign—it wasn’t just some big spike at the beginning because of a marketing campaign or anything like that. It just kind of kept selling. It got reviewed in a lot of major city newspapers, and the New Yorker did a review, but not the New York Times. It caught people’s attention as it worked its way around. So well before the Pulitzer we felt like it was a success. It was getting respectable reviews around the country and it was selling steadily—I thought that was fantastic and so much more than I ever imagined would happen. Three or four weeks before the Pulitzer was announced, I got word that I’d received a Guggenheim. I figured that was the jewel in the crown right there. Then the Pulitzer happened, and the Pen thing, and it just kind of snowballed. To me, again, as soon as there were fifty copies in print, it was all gravy from there. The fact that it had been so tough to publish, I had more-or-less reconciled myself to not getting it published, just doing art for art’s sake. So everything subsequent to that, really, was just gravy.
TP: As someone who works for a small press, I’m so encouraged to see something like this happen. Indies around the country were so happy to see the Pulitzer short list come out, with not just Tinkers, but Lydia Millet’s collection from Soft Skull as well [Love in Infant Monkeys].
PH: Absolutely, as I tour around, it’s such a surreal thing to be the protagonist in this can’t-get-published-to-the-Pulitzer kind of thing. But to me, the most important aspect of it, the realistic aspect of it, is just that idea there are places out there, indie presses, that can still get their books out to people who want to find them. And with stuff like the Pulitzer, the fix isn’t in. Small presses get their hats in the ring. Not everything is this big, giant corporate juggernaut. It seems, too, from my experience, that independent presses are where mid-list authors are these days. Which is cool. Maybe you have to supplement your income with teaching or whatever, but it’s still a viable choice to be an artist.
TP: I’m very interested in the structure of Tinkers. It’s hallucinatory, and as such, isn’t beholden to a strict timeline or event point of view. As George lies on his deathbed, we get scattered moments, not only from his life, but also from his father and grandfather’s lives. Was the structure something you imposed on the text from the beginning, or did it only become clear later on?
PH: It was a little bit of both. Part of it just comes from how I write fiction. I sort of collage things; I write in shorter episodic passages—set pieces. I find that when I write fiction it comes to me not quite in episodes but in instances. The instant when Howard realizes he’s leaving his family. The instant when George realizes he’s going to die. Then I spend a lot of time exploding those moments. You know when you buy a lawnmower, and you look at the instruction manual and it has those exploded views: the nuts and bolts and little parts of the wheels. That’s basically what I do. I just explode those moments, parse them out, and look for character.
But also, to an extent, the subject lent itself to an associative rather than linear architecture. Not only because of the hallucination and disillusion of his consciousness, but also because so much of the novel is interior—I thought of it as moving around associatively, like a mind does. When we look at the life that we live in our minds, it is not linear. We organize it into linear patterns because we all have to put on shoes, and get to work, but your mind moves around very associatively. So my writing method and the subject matter, in that way, complemented one another.
TP: I don’t always put a lot of stock in jacket blurbs, but Elizabeth McCracken wrote something that really resonated with me. She called the book an “instruction manual on how to look at nearly everything.” You seem obsessed with the minute detail—whether it’s landscape, or animals, or clocks, or a peddler’s merchandise—and your descriptions veer more toward poetic language than what we see in a lot of contemporary fiction. When you read fiction, are you more drawn to language and description than plot?
PH: As a reader, absolutely. But observation and description refracted through character—to me, plot is a predicate of character. So when I describe in great detail a landscape or an artifact or whatever, it’s all telescoped through an individual. It’s never just a landscape described in detail; it’s the landscape as apprehended by a mind. Particularly when it comes to the landscape stuff and some of the density of the language, one of the patron saints of the book, and my writing, is Wallace Stevens. The way he describes weather—the auroras of autumn and the transports of summer; the weather and the seasons as occasions for the mind communing with itself; the drama of consciousness. Because Tinkers is so interior, I felt a kind of consequential necessity to be all the more concrete with the language. Leaning too much on the abstract and conceptual, it’s easy to drift off into the ether. With Tinkers, this guy is basically lying in bed thinking, so all the scenes and things he thinks about had to have their correlating literal and concrete images, even just so it stayed imminent and physical and didn’t just dissolve into pure idea.
TP: One thing that really impressed me about Tinkers is that you managed to channel a tradition that harkens back to a lot of 19th century writers, but there’s nothing archaic about the style or language. Can you talk to me a little bit about your influences, and how you were able to make transcendentalist writing feel so contemporary?
PH: Yeah, maybe I think of it from a slightly different angle, but I dig the spirit of it. I adore the transcendentalists. Emerson is right at the top of my list. Thoreau is not too far behind. I also think of Hawthorne, Melville . . . even Wallace Stevens kind of comes out of that tradition. Emily Dickenson—Writers like that. Some people do think Tinkers has sort of an archaic feel, maybe just because it’s set 90 to 100 years ago, and goes even further back. Some of that has to do with the fact that I like the idea of stripping away some of the more prominent distractions of current material culture, which I think can set up sort of a veil of white noise—It’s difficult to see or hear somebody’s mind. Also, I was very conscious when I was writing of the danger, that because I was doing those things and had those affinities, I was self conscious that it could lapse into overly archaic-sounding prose, which would then come off as sounding mannered. I think there’s a kind of formality to the writing, which kind of makes it sound archaic, but I tried deliberately not to use archaic diction or syntax—except in very, very deliberate places, mostly in the quotes from The Reasonable Horologist [A fictional book from 1783 that is quoted throughout the novel]. I tried to use that contrast; the prose in the rest of Tinkers doesn’t seem all that archaic because it’s put next to stuff that deliberately is. Going back to an earlier question, when I write prose I think of myself as writing unlineated poetry. It’s lyric, it’s pastoral—I guess because of the transcendental milieu—but I’m unabashedly going for a kind of maximum density of language, and image, and meaning in every sentence, without it collapsing on itself and becoming turgid or impenetrable. I think maybe if you toss all those things together, and shoot for the ideal of precision and accuracy, that stops it from sounding archaic.
TP: There’s a quiet spirituality to your work that I think is lacking in a lot of contemporary fiction (your old teacher Marilynne Robinson being an obvious exception) and I’ve heard you’re a big reader of theology. I wonder if you could talk about how your work or your thinking is influenced by people like Karl Barth, or Martin Luther. Or even someone like William James?
PH: All the people you’ve just described I think you can sort of line up in parade formation, they all come out of the same tradition—reformed Protestant thinking. I grew up here in Boston kind of a neutral atheist. I read my Nietzsche and what not, but I wasn’t a dogmatic atheist—I wasn’t doctrinaire; I didn’t have anything against religion. And then after having studied with Marilynne Robinson for a number of years, it occurred to me that if I asked her where the source of her aesthetic, and intellectual, and soulful kind of integrity and sophistication came from, she would tell me that it was her religion. She would tell me that it came out of her reading in this tradition. Given that I respect her so much, I would be inclined to respect her answer, her own accounting of herself. So I just started to read these things and I found them to be incredibly beautiful— deeply concerned with narrative and cosmology. It was so much more than the popular sand kicking you hear in the press between Richard Dawkins and Creationists—the crummy little cartoon versions of these things. The more deeply I read into them, the more I realize that if you isolate yourself from these traditions of thinking, you’re isolating yourself from most of Western intellectual history, up until, almost post-World War II thinking. It almost feels like a type of censorship, like “religion’s bad for you, don’t bother looking at theology.” I read someone like Karl Barth and it’s just the most beautiful, aesthetically pleasing human thought I’ve encountered. In Tinkers, since it’s fiction, I’m not under the obligation to engage in apologetics or offer proof, but I can explore things. I can play around with them dramatically and aesthetically, and sort of see how these people account for themselves in terms of spiritual conceptions of who they are in the Universe.
If you look at Emerson, he was a Unitarian minister and he left the church. The common rap about that is, you know, he left the church for greener pastures. But if you look at the tradition out of which he came, there’s a strong argument to be made that he left the church to find God. That’s the Protestant tradition—at least the writing and thinking with which I’m familiar. There’s a built-in anti-authoritarianism, the presumption that the institutional church is a human construction; it’s always going to ossify, and it’s antithetical to truly pious thinking. For them, really what it comes down to, is you and scripture. The Unitarians broke away from the Calvinists; the Calvinists broke away from the Lutherans; the Lutherans broke away from the Catholics; the Catholics broke away from the Jews; the Jews broke away from the Babylonians. That’s a beautiful tradition, and seems hardwired into this understanding of what pursuing religion and that kind of thinking is. The best theologians, for example Karl Barth, view the Bible as a work of literature, and that does not demean its normative or holy authority. He’s a close reader of a text. It’s a much more sophisticated use of the imagination and the intellect, and just makes you think about what we talk about when we talk about God. When you go back to someone like Dawkins, he just perverts all that stuff by saying, “if you believe in God, you believe in an old man with a white beard sitting on a throne.” Of course that’s ridiculous. But then you realize that people like Dawkins have never read a word of theology, they rely on popular prejudice—or all this material positivism that they misheard in their, you know, Wittgenstein 101 class. If everything is made of matter, and there is no such thing as the spirit, then all that means is that we have no idea what the nature of matter is. I’m perfectly willing to grant that everything is made out of stuff, but that just means that we don’t really know what stuff is. To me, theology and poetry and art go hand-in-hand with physics. That version of materialism is totally antiquated, out-dated, Newtonian mechanics. They’re always complaining that it’s not testable, it’s not falsifiable, but the most sophisticated quantum mechanical experiments only make the nature of matter more ambiguous than it ever was before—it’s all observer dependent. If you’re a writer, there’s a very cool anti-realist strain in quantum mechanics. Supraluminal influence and observer dependent reality—all of that speaks to the experiential and participatory nature of human consciousness. When translated into fiction, it’s part of character. There’s a passage in Tinkers where Howard is walking through the woods, and when he turns around to look at his wagon, he’s certain that every time he turns his head, everything behind him disappears or changes. In a way, that’s just fooling around with quantum physics, just in a narrative sense.
TP: The New York Times mentioned that the first book you worked on took place in a 16th-century Mexican silver mine. Will the next book we see from you be such a radical departure from Tinkers? Or is this material you’re still interested in working with?
PH: I’m probably 75% done with the first draft of the next novel. The title of it is Enon, which is the town in Massachusetts in which George Crosby dies. In his mind, to where he escaped from his youth in Maine. It’s the original colonial name for Wenham, the town I grew up in, just a little bit north of Boston. So this next novel is about one of George’s grandsons. His name is Charlie Crosby, and he actually makes about a one-sentence cameo in Tinkers. So it’s about him and his daughter, Kate. The action is subsequent to that in Tinkers, and set in the same location, but it’s not a sequel per se. As Charlie makes his way through the plot or the circumstances of the novel, George will show up as part of Charlie’s sort of reservoir of memories and reference points, but it’s not a continuation of the action of Tinkers. I have some idea that I’ll go back and a third book will be connected with the same family, so I might be coming up with my own little New England Yoknapatawpha one of these days.