For an author who contemplates intense concepts such as time and death and writes in a transcendentalist style that evokes literary luminaries such as Henry David Thoreau, Paul Harding is an incredibly jovial character. On Wednesday, Nov. 12, Harding addressed a packed house as part of the Russell House Prose and Poetry Series. Fresh off a plane from The University of Iowa, where he teaches at the famed Writers’ Workshop, Harding, wearing a baseball cap and sweater, read from passages of his Pulitzer Prize-winning novel “Tinkers” and his follow-up, 2013’s “Enon.”
In an interview with The Argus about his writing, Harding noted how his literary aspirations manifested themselves at young age as he strived to quench a thirst for reading.
“Even from when I was very young, I was perfectly comfortable reading books I couldn’t really understand,” Harding said. “I would just look for the thickest books I could find. I felt like it was a worthy aspiration to be a good reader of great books.”
As a result of his drive to read complicated pieces of literature, he discovered novels that influenced his evolution from expert reader to writer.
“That’s how I ended up reading some of my favorite books like ‘War and Peace’ and ‘The Magic Mountain’ and ‘Terra Nostra,’” Harding said. “A lot of writers start their lives out as readers and then you just feel the itch to answer your favorite books back in your own writing. A lot of my writing began as a dialogue with my favorite authors and books.”
However, writing and reading were not Harding’s only childhood passions. As a student at UMass Amherst, Harding played drums in a band called Cold Water Flat, who signed to MCA Records and endeavored to live out their rock star dreams.
“I am a guy who has never really run with a plan,” Harding said, laughing. “The band was happening when I graduated college. We put out a couple of albums and toured around North America and Europe. When the band broke up, as all bands do, I just decided it was time to write a couple of stories and see if I could make a go of that.”
Harding was soon accepted into the Iowa Writers’ Workshop, where, under the guidance of renowned creative writing professor Marilynne Robinson, he honed his craft. As a post-grad, Harding struggled, like many young authors do, to be published immediately, but he found a pretty decent side gig as a Professor of English at Harvard College.
When Harding reflects upon his life as a near-rock god (perhaps a slight exaggeration), he considers how it has influenced his professional career as an author.
“In a way, I never thought that anything that happened in the band would bear me in any kind of good stead as a writer,” Harding said. “It actually turned out that just being on the road with the band and doing shows every single night in a different town just got me habituated to this kind of professionalism. When you’re writing the book, you’re an artist. When you’re publicizing the book, it’s more like show business.”
Harding is also grateful for the opportunities he has had to connect with audiences, both as a musician and as an author.
“I learned how to be able to do the day-to-day publicity stuff professionally and in good faith,” he said. “There’s all sorts of ‘authors behaving badly’ stories on the circuit. You just have to feel lucky that you get to go to different cities and give readings at different colleges and talk to newspapers. That beats any other job I’ve ever had.”
While Harding’s musical pedigree has prepared him for the road life, having children has altered the way Harding approaches the writing process.
“Before I had kids, I thought, ‘Oh my gosh, I never have anytime to write or get my work done,’” Harding said. “Then you have a kid and you really realize how much time you had and how much time you now really don’t have anymore. One of the good things about that is it kind of burned away several layers of laziness… about doing the work.”
Harding explained just how much discipline these new time constraints required.
“If there was even 15 minutes of time in between taking care of kids and teaching at Harvard, I learned how to be able to sit down wherever I was and just write,” Harding said. “The consequence of that was writing with my kids crawling over me or while taking them for a checkup at the doctor. Being a parent, you have to be selfless in a way you never expected, so it sort of opens up different dimensions of the writing as well.”
Harding’s breakthrough was his 2009 debut novel “Tinkers,” a story about an elderly clock repairman named George Washington Crosby, who, lying on his deathbed, reflects upon the threads that have connected the love, loss, and heartbreak in his life. While “Tinkers” has been described as “spellbinding” and was eventually met with critical praise, it rose from humble origins.
“There was no publicity,” Harding said. “Bellevue Press [publisher of ‘Tinkers’] is housed at the infamous Bellevue Hospital, which is a part of the NYU School for Medicine. It’s this tiny not-for-profit boutique press that publishes very high quality books that often, and in my case certainly, would have been overlooked by the commercial publishing houses.”
Rather than being boosted by a major publishing house, “Tinkers” was a slow burner that thrived through word of mouth.
“We were just incredibly fortunate to have many independent booksellers pick up on it,” Harding said. “The people who liked it were sort of evangelical about it and there was lots of sorts of grassroots word-of-mouth sale to it that went through these independent bookstore networks. Certainly the Internet has a lot to do with it. These independent booksellers who were publicizing it were all using Twitter and Facebook to do so.”
As Harding engaged in a Q-and-A session following his readings, he seemed at ease with the almost underdog-like success of “Tinkers” and his ability to make an impact on the literary community. Harding thoughtfully contemplated questions ranging from where his favorite writing space is to ideas for his next novel (he’s still looking for the right idea or “the one”). While Harding’s characters often are strained by the struggles of their existence, Harding is an author cool under pressure, whether he’s juggling life as a dad, teacher, and author, or plotting his next literary masterpiece.