The New York Times dubbed Paul Harding "Mr. Cinderella" when his first novel, Tinkers, was awarded the 2010 Pulitzer Prize, but to this member of a disconcertingly small audience of about 40 who gathered on February 17 at Boswell's Books for a reading and Q&A, he looked just like any number of college students sitting in the chairs around me. However, his self-deprecating humor and willingness to take us through the intimate process of writing left no doubt we were in the company of a brilliant visionary and poet.
His story gives hope to discouraged, rejected writers everywhere: Tinkers, he told me, languished in the proverbial drawer for three years before Bellevue, a small literary press, picked it up in 2009. Before receiving the Pulitzer, it had sold a mere 7,000 copies.
Harding, 42, started late as a writer, and before attending the Iowa Writers Workshop was a drummer in a marginally successful grunge band, Cold Water Flat. Always an avid reader of classic literature, he left the music world and began writing on the premise that "If you can read a good book, you can write one." (Note to reader: It's not that simple for most of us.) About his process, he said he writes impressionistically, convinced that if he "already know(s) what's going to happen, it's not worth typing." And type he did. There is not a sentence in the novel he did not revise "at least twenty times."
Tinkers tells the story of Howard Crosby, a salesman who travels by horse and wagon, selling his wares to isolated farmers in early twentieth century Maine. It's based on the author's own ancestors, whom he describes as reticent folk who go by the maxim "what happens in the woods stays in the woods." After gathering what sparse information he could, he proceeded to "pry the fat out of it" in order to write the novel. So does that mean everything in it is true? "Yes," he answered. "Truth lies in the inner life, not in fact. I write about the inner life."
Talking about how his life has changed since he learned he had won the Pulitzer (which he discovered while making a cursory check of the winner on his laptop!), he replied with a sheepish grin that first he was going to do his laundry, then head off on a world tour including such cities as Paris, Rome, Milan, and Tokyo. "Now that you're getting so much attention," he was asked, "has the reality of having won the Pulitzer finally sunk in?"
"No," he answered. "All I can say is I've become more habituated to my disbelief."
The content of this article was gleaned from a half hour spent with the author before his reading and from his subsequent public appearance at Boswell's.
Excerpt from Tinkers:
Summer would anneal the chilled earth, but for now the water was so mineral and hard that it seemed to ring. Howard heard the water reverberating through the soil and around the roots. Water lay ankle-deep amid the grass. Puddles wobbled and the light cast on them through the clouds shimmered and they looked like tin cymbals. They looked as if they would ring if tapped with a stick. The puddles rang. The water rang…The filled rang and spun.
Copyright Bellevue Literary Press, 2009
About the Author: Wendy Henning is a writer, teacher, and dog walker who loves the arts. She lives in Shorewood.