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The Scarlet & Black

Paul Harding discusses writing and winning

Paul Harding is a writer from the Boston, MA area, who recently won the 2010 Pulitzer Prize in Fiction for his first novel “Tinkers.” He is a graduate and visiting professor at the Iowa Writers’ Workshop, and has also taught at Harvard University. This past semester he has been a visiting professor teaching a short course in fiction here at Grinnell College. Last Thursday he gave a reading and answered questions in Faulconer Gallery as part of the Writers at Grinnell series. The following day, Paul was kind enough to sit down for an interview with the Scarlet & Black, even though he has given over one hundred other interviews in the past month.

For those that are interested in writing, they are often discouraged. People will tell them to follow another path, so that they will at least have something to fall back on. How would you respond to a younger writer who feels burdened by that sentiment?

If you’re going to think about it in practical terms, I mean, I just never had any problem with becoming a teacher. I had never taught before but when I went to the Writers’ Workshop part of my fellowship was I taught Freshman Comp—Rhetoric it’s called at the University of Iowa. So I just learned how to be a teacher and I thought this is as respectable a way to get a paycheck as any other. As I became a better teacher I was able to integrate my teaching life and my writing life together in my brain so that now when I’m in the class teaching I’m still thinking about writing, my own writing, that’s just sort of how I do it. A certain amount of pessimism is warranted in practical terms, of being a writer, just because … you can’t plan to make money at writing, you can’t do it just because of the way that the publishing industry is, and just the way the booksellers don’t sell, or whatever. You just have to be practical about it. When I talk to young writers, I don’t really give them advice but I sort of say, “Look, the writing is on the wall, you’re probably not going to make a lot of money doing this so you have to figure out just another job to do, and it would be great to be a teacher, it would probably be bad to be an editor, it’s tough to read that much and do your own writing.” But, I don’t know, I wouldn’t discourage anybody from being a writer. I think people sort of overstate these things, they sort of exaggerate, and partly there are traces of this kind of romantic idea of, in order to be an artist you have to so suffer kind of [laughs], you kind of do, it’s tough, it’s a tough life. But you know, somehow or another I managed to write this first novel teaching full time during the day to Harvard undergraduates, also teaching at night every semester and every summer in their night school at Harvard, raising two young sons, and mowing the lawn, and so you can do it, you can write under almost any circumstances.

This is an excerpt from Tinkers, “When he realized that the silence by which he had been confused was that of all of his clocks having been allowed to wind down, he understood that the was going to die in the bed where he lay.” This excerpt struck me as a defining idea of the novel. Can you speak a little about the meaning of clocks in Tinkers and why they are so central?

Well, this is one of those funny things, because the reason that clocks are central to me, which might be distinct from why they are central to a reader, as it were, is simply because one of the dramatic premises, one of the givens that I could not change because of the way the novel came to me was just that this guy repaired clocks [Harding’s grandfather]. So I didn’t think, oh you know what I’ll do is I’ll write a novel about clocks and it’ll be what I think about time. Its just sort of no, this guys does clocks and so the complex of analogies and metaphors and all that sort of stuff sort of arose more organically out of the exploration of just what it means and I didn’t want to over-determine it. From that quote, part of it is that one of the central metaphors, all that being said, one of the central metaphors of the story is just his vigilance in keeping…first of all he finds very attractive the idea that the universe might be able to be conceived of as a machine, which if you just keep it in good repair and keep it wound it will keep running. I always understand that in terms of the character George Crosby, its wishful thinking, its what he hopes for the universe, but precisely because his life experience is not predictable, doesn’t run according to the clockwork universe. He wishes the universe is like that precisely because its not like that, so its very important to him to keep all of the clocks up and running. So that when he realizes that everybody else has let the clocks run down, there’s something kind of fatal about the fact there’s no reason for anybody to wind the clocks back up, this is terminal.

Do you have metaphors that you live your life by?

I don’t know, partly what I do—I’m fascinated with metaphor, because I think that’s how people think. I think that metaphors have great generative power in terms of reality. I mean, I think that if a culture has collective metaphors by which it lives, it actually can condition … reality will accommodate itself to metaphors and in these really kind of strange quantum ways that are very powerful so they’re very dangerous and they’re very substantive and consequential. So by recognizing that, being a fiction writer, a big part of my job is just exploring the power of metaphor. Which is funny because readers look at it and they say well he chose clocks because they’re a metaphor for time, its just sort of like, no really if you think about it a little bit more deeply, any writer who is good can take anything and turn it into a metaphor for the cosmos. The classic prime example of that is Moby Dick, you know where Melville just basically takes the whaling ship, cuts it down the middle, shows you the cross section and just basically goes from job to job, from activity to activity, and almost every chapter becomes an essay in which he takes whatever the very mundane literal task at hand is and inflates and extends a metaphor so that it’s like a metaphor for the creation of the universe and then he says, “Oh stop all this foolishness, you’re gonna fall out of the crow’s nest.” Because every metaphor fails eventually, and yet while its being elaborated you believe in it, it has very real ontological powers even as you anticipate that power and integrity eroding.

You mentioned last night at your reading the unique collage method that you had for putting together “Tinkers.” Can you briefly explain that method?

Well, that’s one of those things. The football analogy is you take what the defense gives you. When fiction comes to me it doesn’t come to me in a chronologically linear fashion, so that’s all it is. So what I end up with are just piles and piles of episodes. I think of it visually, and I think if you look at “Tinkers” this will be confirmed, “Tinkers” runs roughly chronologically but it almost is experienced like a series of set pieces or tableaus or it’s like a bunch of paintings, looking at paintings in galleries or photographs. And that’s just how I write; when fiction comes to me I just kind of get a visual. “Oh, there he is lying in the bed and his family is around him, what does this mean.” And so I just start parsing out these moments but then they don’t come to me in chronological order, so then I have to subsequently go back and collage them and rearrange them so that when you read them they actually—they’re progressive and they’re cumulative and they’re not just like totally incoherent fractured kind of writing.

You mentioned that you actually physically did this, you got on the floor with all these pages, with all these episodes and you arranged them.

Yeah, and in that case that was because I really didn’t know what the book was fully about. I mean it really just arrived on the page as I wrote it. I knew how it was gonna end, right, the guy’s gonna die, but just how we were gonna get there I had no idea, so it was just years of wandering around and writing stuff. … But I did, I actually printed up the whole manuscript, I cut it up, I used scissors and tape and staples and all that ridiculous stuff. And part of it too is, I mean, in that sense I also think of it in terms of like almost like music, which is if you have, for example, three sections, three sections about three different scenes or three different characters or whatever and you label them 1, 2, 3, the reader will have a certain cumulative experience of all of those sections depending on whether you order them 1, 2, 3 or 2, 1, 3 or 3, 1, 2 or that sort of thing. I think of them as chords almost, like groups of notes that get orchestrated together. Roughly everything goes chronologically within that greater chronological kind of spine, I do a lot of micro kind of collaging to sort of get groups of little scenes and images so that they harmonize with one another in precisely the way that I want them to, so they create keys, you know.

That’s really interesting. It’s a bit of a romantic way of putting together writing.

Absolutely, I am unabashedly romantic in that sense

Once the dust settles here, do you have a sense of how it’s changed your life?

I don’t. The strange thing is that, I have a wife and two sons and they’re not with me. It’s weird because it’s all happened, and I have no infrastructure, I haven’t had my family and my own house even to sort of go back to at the end of the day. So I kind of live in this very modest little grad student apartment in Iowa City. So the immediate effects are, it’s just surreal, I just spend all day long doing interviews. And suddenly you’re making pronouncements [laughs]. And, so you have to get used to that and you can’t be coy about it, it’s a big deal, it’s just a big deal, you cant pretend it’s not. But then just in terms of what it means, that’s the kind of thing that you only know in the fullness of time. One thing I can say is before having won it, the big difference from understanding intellectually from afar cause you’ve seen it from the outside, but from the inside what’s just really striking is just the magnitude of it. It’s big, you know what I mean? It’s sort of big in a way that like almost any other sort of award is [not] … And I think part of it is just because they’re given out in different categories, there’s journalism, I think with a lot of other awards, it’s sort of like you get outside the literary world and people sort of don’t know so much but, kind of everybody knows what the Pulitzer is in a way. What’s just astonishing about it is just the scale of it, I don’t think it disappears, you know?

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