Turns out, the difference in being a drummer in a rock band, and writing a Pulitzer Prize winning novel are not that far apart. Paul Harding, 2010 winner of the Pulitzer Prize for fiction writing, and the guest speaker for the Lawrence Clayton Poets & Writers Series at Hardin-Simmons University did both; and says they are not that opposed.
Harding was on the HSU campus Monday, March 25, 2013, to discuss his award-winning novel Tinkers during the annual Poets & Writers Speaker Series, presented by The McIntyre-West Endowment of the HSU Academic Foundation. The three events were free and open to the community.
Prior to his book, Harding was best known as the drummer in the band Cold Water Flat, from 1990 to 1996. Born in 1967, Harding has a Bachelor of Arts degree in English from the University of Massachusetts in Amherst and a Master of Fine Arts degree from the Iowa Writers’ Workshop. He has taught writing at Harvard University and the University of Iowa.
Tinkers reaped many awards prior to its Pulitzer win. It was a finalist for the 2009 Los Angeles Times Art Seidenbaum First Fiction Award and won the ALA Notable Book for 2010. It was listed in the San Francisco Chronicle 100 best fiction and nonfiction books of 2009; received the NPR.org: Best Debut Fiction 2009; was listed as The New Yorker Reviewers’ Favorites for 2009; was a Library Journal Best Books 2009; and included in the 2009 Publishers Weekly editors’ choice for fiction, top 10.
Dr. Robert Fink, Bond Professor of English and W.D. and Hollis R. Bond Chair of English at HSU, introduced Harding by reading a favorite passage from Tinkers, pointing out the poetry of the language…
“So does man squirm and fret on the dusty skin of our earth, ignorant of the purpose of the world, indeed, the cosmos, beyond the fact that there is one, assigned by God and known only to Him, and that it is good and that it is terrifying and that it is ineffable and that only rational faith can soothe the desperate pains and woes of our magnificent and depraved world. It is that simple, dear reader, that logical and that elegant.”
The book’s first line sets the stage, “George Washington Crosby began to hallucinate eight days before he died.” As a repairer of clocks, a craft Crosby has learned from his grandfather and his father, Crosby revisits his childhood as his mind is released from the constraints of time. Harding reveals that the death of the character in Tinkers is based on a real life experience he had with the death of his own grandfather.
Harding described the book as not written in a linear fashion, saying he wrote it much as the mind works, with his main character’s mind moving from place to place and from time to time.
Harding said he loves the experience of being a reader. When he started writing his first book it was out of the inspiration he experienced reading the novels Magic Mountain and Terra Nostra. Magic Mountain, by Thomas Mann, was first published in 1924, and is widely considered to be one of the most influential works of 20th century German literature. Terra Nostra, a 1975 novel by the Mexican writer Carlos Fuentes, tells the story of Hispanic civilization.
Inspired to write because of his love of being a reader, Harding set out to write a book that he said ultimately failed. “I spent three years learning how not to write a book, although, in many ways, I consider that my white whale, that someday I am still going to write that book.”
Harding continued, “Technically, I couldn’t handle it; it was just too precious; there were too many things that needed research.” He says when he decided to write about something he knew about, the process of rendering characters became automatic.
Harding loosely based Tinkers on stories his grandfather told him when he was a child growing up in Maine, and later Massachusetts. “That didn’t need research. For instance, I know what the light looks like in northern Maine in the middle of November.” He said because he knew the subject matter, the result was that those stories were more fascinating.
Harding said of his writing process, “I write in order to discover what it is that I think. If I know what I want to write, then it’s probably not worth even typing. It’s an interrogative process, writing to discover what you feel. It’s very much improvisational, like my favorite jazz musician, John Coltrane. If you work up your technical chops, you can just receive the signal as it comes in over the wire from the universe, you translate it into language as it happens, like taking dictation. As a musician, if I’m setting at a drum set, I just start tapping it out. At a laptop or keyboard I can just start typing it out; it’s tapping out a rhythm in one case, and tapping out a language in another.”
Harding warned of the pitfall of confusing writing with publishing. “Writing is art, publishing is show business,” he said. In writing his second book, Enon, he said he tried to keep perspective so that the continual worldly pressure of publishing does not exceed the artistic pressure of writing. Also, he warned, in writing a second book, he disciplined himself to not write based in defensiveness of what he knows his critics will say.
“Oh sure, I do have a fear of being a one-hit-wonder,” he said, describing a term used when a band produces a number one hit and is never able to achieve the feat again. “But being a one-hit-wonder is better than being a no-hit-wonder,” he said. “…and fear of being a one-hit-wonder is a guarantee of being one.”
Harding said writing Enon has helped him to expand his writing skills. “You become a better writer when you have to deal with hard parts of a story.” Describing the storyline about the grief of a father who becomes unraveled over the death of his 13-year-old daughter, he said, “As a father myself, this is very hard.”
Like Tinkers, Harding said, “I hope Enon will prove to be affirmative of life.” Enon will be released in September of this year.