Wednesday, October 27, 2010

An Afternoon in the Alumni Lounge

It just sat in his drawer for over three years, rejected but not forgotten.  More than a dozen publishers dismissed Paul Harding’s “Tinkers.”  Then, after years of solitude in that drawer, his novel was given a chance by a tiny publisher, whose office was described by Harding as a “glorified janitor’s closet.”  That book that so many refused to publish became the 2010 Pulitzer Prize winner, and on Thursday, October 14th, Harding gave a reading at UMass Boston’s Alumni Lounge.
The lecture was scheduled to begin at 2:30 p.m. eastern standard time, or 2:45 p.m. UMass Boston time.  After some minor technical difficulties, the audience was greeted by Judy Goleman, UMB’s English department chair, and then by Steve Sutherland, assistant professor at UMB.  Both paid tribute to Shaun O’Connell, longtime UMB professor and founder of the annual lecture, but most of the brief introductions were directed at the main attraction, Mr. Harding, and his award-winning “Tinkers.”  “It’s a short book,” said Sutherland, “but a long novel.”  And with that, the man who everyone in the packed room was waiting for stood up and approached the podium.
Under his blazer Harding wore a dress shirt without a tie, complemented by a casual pair of blue jeans.  The top of his hair appeared to be dyed a shiny, golden color, but left grey on the sides.  On a day he would be reading twenty-five minutes from his now-famous publication, Harding broke out his thickly framed spectacles.
Harding wasted little time with exposition and delved right into his excerpt.  In contrast to his short and soft-spoken introduction, his reading was loud and forceful.  This passage was about the protagonist of his novel, Howard Crosby.  A crafty man, Howard has a boastful list of accomplishments: he cuts hair, has saved a baby in a freezing river, and has even pulled the tooth of a hermit.  The excerpt explains Howard’s unusual yet endearing relationship with the hermit, who Howard supplies with tobacco every year.
Though the story of Howard Crosby was compelling, it was Harding’s ability to write powerful and poetic descriptions that was most captivating.  He explained the process of writing such descriptions during a question and answer session after the reading.  “I think more is more,” said Harding, “then I strip out the extraneous parts.”  His sentences originate from truths in his life, and he then elaborates with his imagination.
Harding revealed that his musical background had a strong influence on those elegant sentences of his.  He intentionally makes his writing musical, incorporating time signatures, harmonies, and overtones into his writing.  Talented as he was, how did this unknown author become the 2010 Pulitzer Prize winner?
Just 3,500 paperback copies were originally printed.  Independent bookstores from San Francisco were the only ones to sell it at first, but it just kept selling.  It found such a strong following that it was the surprise winner of the 2010 Pulitzer.  Harding is now taking a break from his teaching position at Harvard; he recently signed a two-book deal with Random House.
Usually, listening to someone read out loud is not an enthralling experience.  Harding, though, made an exception.  Not only was his material top-notch, but his humor and charming personality made the lecture especially engaging.  Harding attributes his success to a simple phenomenon he learned as “Tinkers” grew in popularity.  “Books,” Harding stated convincingly, “will find their readers.”

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