Shelf Unbound: What first planted the seed of Tinkers in your head?
Paul Harding: My maternal grandfather’s stories about growing up in Maine. Like George Washington Crosby, his father had epilepsy and abandoned the family when my grandfather was 12, after discovering his wife’s plans to have him committed to an asylum. Whether out of generational tact or something like simple grief, my grandfather would not elaborate on these facts, which made them all the more irresistibly fascinating to me, concerned as they were with my begats, so to speak.
Shelf: The Pulitzer Prize for Fiction is awarded “for distinguished fiction by an American author, preferably dealing with American life.” What about this story most reflects or reveals American life?
Harding:I can’t say. I did not write it with “America” or “American life” in mind. It might be that that is what allowed whatever people find quintessentially American in it to permeate the material, though. Certainly, a book that has a protagonist whose first two names are George Washington is going to set some associations in motion, but I just picked the name George as an obvious fictional replacement for Paul, which was my grandfather’s actual name. He was Paul Washington Crosby. I think that the book is steeped in pretty thoroughly American literature and thought as well, given its proclivities with transcendentalist thinking.
Shelf: The novel begins with George Washington Crosby, a clock repairman, imagining the house that he built by hand caving in on his failing body. It’s fantastic imagery of the literal dismantling of his carefully constructed life. Where did the idea for this scene come from?
Harding:Well, I put the poor soul on his deathbed, alone, and had the idea that he was hallucinating about cracks in the house he’d built himself and spent his life meticulously maintaining. It seemed a kind of obvious emotional reaction, a fear he’d have as he felt things and himself slipping away from one another. Then, I just sort of applied a principle I most admire in Moby Dick, which is to extend metaphors to their logical ends, until they collapse, give way. The metaphor in this case was a bit more literal than usual, I think, though. Once the scene is framed in the context of a hallucination, I just wrote out the house collapsing, stage by stage, as if it were literally true. Then, I just left it alone. I didn’t want to over-determine the image; just describe the thing as precisely and as vividly as possible, as palpably as possible, and hand it over to the reader and her own imagination.
Shelf: You’ve become the poster guy for small presses and independent bookstores. What did Bellevue Literary Press see in Tinkers that the larger publishing establishment did not?
Harding:Certainly, larger publishers and more commercially oriented agents look at every manuscript with the very real concern about whether they can sell 10,000 copies of the thing in hardcover. There’s a real bottom line with which everyone struggles. I don’t begrudge people the parameters of their jobs and economic reality. I think that someone who reads a zillion manuscripts a year might find Tinkers in the middle of the pile and think, What the hell is this? The real misfortune is that quieter, more meditative books are tougher to evaluate, or even to become implicated in, in such a profit-oriented environment. Anyway, it was my still unbelievable good fortune to somehow have Erika Goldman at Bellevue come across the manuscript. From there, it was a classic case of the right book finding the right editor. Since Bellevue is non-profit, I imagine that Erika had the good fortune to be able to read the book without certain, er, financial necessities tugging at her brain as she did. She just plain liked it, I think, and was able to publish it on that basis alone. Lovely!
Shelf: You’ve described yourself as a “self-taught modern New England Transcendentalist.” How does this personal framework inform your writing?
Harding: It’s just a habit of seeing. I mean, I find the New England transcendentalist thinkers—among whom I include, in addition to Emerson and Thoreau, Hawthorne, Melville, Dickinson, Whitman, Wallace Stevens, and even John Cheever, to an extent—experience their own perceptions and relationships to the world and to other human beings in a way that deeply resonates with me, impresses me, challenges me, gives me joy, and so forth. This kind of thinking arose directly out of the thinking of the Protestant Reformation, of course, and I find the relevant cosmologies, morality, and so forth to simply be the most beautiful impulses and ideas across which I’ve come.
Shelf: Which came first for you in writing Tinkers, the use of the clock as a metaphor or the idea of exploring the fluid nature of time?
Harding: It’s funny, the clock metaphor arrived as a non-negotiable dramatic premise of the book, because my own grandfather repaired and traded clocks and I apprenticed with him for several years. So, I didn’t think of it theme or symbol first. It was a literal, concrete fact, out of and through which I subsequently evolved some of the novel’s themes about time. Of course, I’m obsessed with being in time, with our experience of it, how it foreshortens and elongates and doubles back on or ahead of itself, and so forth, and I think of all that experientially, which as a fiction writer means in terms of character and also in terms of narrative. So it all harmonized in a beautiful and pleasing way; I was able to swim around in all sorts of temporal realms and luxuriate in all sorts of non-linear, associative states of mind. It’s all about mind and consciousness, and those are all about the essence of being human.
Shelf: You studied with Marilynne Robinson, who won the 2005 Pulitzer Prize for Fiction for Gilead. Where do you see evidence of her teaching or influence in your writing?
Harding: In all of the above. She is a kindred spirit. Within 10 minutes of meeting her, I recognized her as a dear friend whom I’d not previously met. I can just sit with her for hours and hours on end and talk about art and music and philosophy and theology. In terms of writing, from my point of view, I feel as if we’re members of the same family. I experience her influence as a joy and as great good fortune.
Shelf: Near the end of his life, George dictates his memories into an old tape recorder. You write, “He imagined that his memoirs might now sound like those of an admirable stranger, a person he did not know but whom he immediately recognized and loved dearly. Instead, the voice he heard sounded nasally and pinched and, worse, not very well educated, as if he were a bumpkin … .” What does the dissonance between his imagined voice and his actual voice say about his sense of identity?
Harding:I guess it says something about the discrepancy between how we perceive or want to perceive ourselves and how we actually are. My immediate impulse while writing that passage was just derived from how much I hate to hear my own recorded voice. It makes me cringe. I feel the same way about seeing photographs or film of myself. I always think, Terrible; that’s not how I’d like to think of myself at all. So, it’s a pretty usual bit of human mortification. There’s some Emerson in there, along the lines of each person thinking he is misunderstood, is better than he acts or is perceived as being.
Shelf: You were a drummer in the rock band Cold Water Flat. I hear all kinds of rhythms in Tinkers. Are you conscious of the pattern or meter of your language as you write?
Harding:Absolutely. I am wholly committed to writing lyric prose, which is the term I use for writing that falls just the other side of prose poetry. I think of my writing in terms of things like tempo and time signature and rhythm, the musicality of language, its incantatory properties. These things are also, of course, other ways of thinking about the ebb and flow, catch and release of time held by or inside narrative.