It was just a few years ago that Paul Harding author of the 2009 Pulitzer Prize winning book Tinkers sat crying in his beer, bemoaning the slew of rejections that he and his book faced from publishers. After sending his manuscript to several publishers, who all said “no,” Paul put his work in a drawer and it stayed there for nearly four years. Paul wasn’t quite ready to give up though.
On October 14, 2010, Paul’s passion and perseverance as a novelist came alive for his audience as he read an excerpt from Tinkers and took “constructive criticism” about his book at the 6th Annual Shaun O’Connell Lecture at the University of Massachusetts, Boston (UMB). Students and faculty, primarily from the English department crowded in the Alumni Room for Paul’s reading and lecture. After some technical difficulties that delayed the start of the lecture, Professor Judy Goleman, Chair of UMB’s English Department took the microphone and led an introduction to the event. “There seems to be a buzz” she said “anyone working on that buzz?” Prof. Goleman wasn’t referring to the buzzing crowd who sat patiently waiting for Harding to take the podium; rather she alluded to the incessant audio humming generating from the room’s sound system. After Prof. Goleman’s brief introduction, which praised both 46 year UMB professor of English, Shaun O’Connell and the five previous annual lectures given under his name, Prof. Goleman passed the podium to Prof. Stephen Sutherland. Sutherland, co-chair of the event (along with Prof. Thomas O’Grady) complimented his colleague’s introduction and added that Shaun O’Connell “made the department what it is today.” Before he introduced the event’s guest speaker, Prof. Sutherland introduced Tinkers by stating that it is a short book comprising only 200 pages “but it’s a long novel.” Prof. Sutherland then introduced his former Harvard University colleague Paul Harding and welcomed him to the podium.
As Paul took the microphone the audio humming seemed to disappear as his voice resonated throughout the room. He began his lecture around 2:55 pm and read a segment of his “long novel” aloud for about 25 minutes. His smooth, harmonious prose seemed to enchant the once loud and buzzing crowd into a calmed chorus of silence with periods of laughter. Paul later said of his writing style that his prose is not poetry but it is poetic. As a former drummer for the band Cold Water Flat, Paul says that he thinks rhythmically and the result is what he calls “un-lineated poetry,” “lyric prose,” or “cantatory prose.” Paul’s reading was as much an experience for his audience as it was for himself. As he read to the lulled audience, the author occasionally stopped himself to make footnotes or corrections. When he read over the phrase “ichthyic skin” he jokingly said that it “sounds too astute” and if he gets a chance at a 2nd edition he’ll want to change that.
The humble author explained that he worked on his book for several years by piling passages of prose on top of one another. When he was done writing he literally tinkered with his manuscript by cutting it up into pieces and arranging them on his floor into a collage or mosaic. Tinkers, Paul said does not work linear rather it is more like consciousness. As he wrote the book it led him on an “exploration” or rather “a process of searching and a process of revelation.” He said that he knew the parameters of how the story would begin and end but that the real story “is in the telling.” The dramatic premises for Tinkers are factual but in no way is his novel a memoir. He says that the facts of the story can probably “fit on a 3 x 5 index card” and that all of the “imagined material” of his novel was spun from this. Paul’s grandfather, who lived in Maine and suffered from epilepsy was a horologist that repaired and appraised antique clocks. The fictional Tinkers in conjunction with a few other pieces of factual information was birthed from these real-life premises.
John Freeman says in NPR’s Best Debut Fiction of 2009 that Tinkers is about “the story of a dying man drifting back in time to his hardscrabble New England childhood, growing up the son of his clock-making father.” Elizabeth McCracken author of Niagara Falls All Over Again says that "Paul Harding's Tinkers is not just a novel—though it is a brilliant novel. It's an instruction manual on how to look at nearly everything. Harding takes the back off to show you the miraculous ticking of the natural world, the world of clocks, generations of family, an epileptic brain, the human soul.”
Tinkers was published in 2009 after a friend directed Paul to a small publishing company in New York. In fact the publishing firm was so small that it was located in New York’s Bellevue Hospital. Bellevue Literary Press loved his book and printed an initial 3,500 copies much of which were sold via grassroots and independent bookstores. Paul said in his lecture at UMB that “books will find their readers” and what we see with his first novel is the cream that rose to the top. The book’s popularity first grew in San Francisco and through word-of-mouth its reputation eventually swept the rest of the literary world. Prior to winning the Pulitzer Tinkers gained such momentum that Paul signed a two book deal with Random House. The author noted the “two extremes” of rejection and fame in his lecture and seemed humbly thankful that his book has been so successful.
Paul is a graduate of University of Massachusetts, Amherst and earned a B.A. in 1992. He earned an MFA from the Iowa Writer’s Workshop and has taught writing at both Harvard University and the University of Iowa. He grew up in the New England town of Wenham, Massachussetts and currently resides in Georgetown with his wife and two young boys. In a 2009 NPR interview with Christopher Lydon, Paul said that he considers himself a “self-taught New England transcendentalist.” Prof. Judy Goleman, in her introduction to the 6th annual Shaun O’Connell Lecture alluded to the fact that some students have already been reading and studying Tinkers in the school’s English courses. If Paul’s second and third novels are anything like his first he might someday be studied alongside other New England transcendentalists such a Henry David Thoreau and Ralph Waldo Emerson. Until then we will wait patiently for Paul’s next book and hopefully a return visit to the University of Massachusetts, Boston.