Paul Harding, the recent recipient of the Pulitzer Prize for fiction, is a man of short stature, spiked graying hair, keen insight and erudite wit; all of which was on display as he read from his prize winning novel "Tinkers". His reading was in response to an invitation for him to attend the Shaun O’Connell Lecture Series from the University of Massachusetts. In the Alumni Lounge on the second floor of the Campus Center at the UMass Boston campus Harding read for about 25 minutes with an easy grace and charm, clearly reflected in his work. The readings he selected set an interesting back drop for the Q+A that followed.
The novel began with the plot neatly narrowed down: the protagonist had eight days left to live. No spoilers here, this immediately prepared the audience for what kind of bittersweet exploration of the final days of this man would be like. He noted in the Q+A: “The book is very funeral, and somber and I needed a counterpoint.” This counterpoint was provided in the reading through an ironic sequence about new soap being old soap, but better and more expensive. The quick banter between the characters proved a stark difference from a haunting segment of a woman trying to chop her way through a frozen river to drown herself—beautifully captured in elaborate prose: the dark, the cold, the desperate desire for death in the inky blackness of the underflow. Harding’s reading showed a wide range of humor, irony, despair, and beauty.
It’s interesting to note that his story began with an approximation of truth. Loosely based on his grandfather, who lived in rural Maine in 1927, Harding then imagined out from that. He described this process as “imagining truth consequent to the fact, imagining it spiraling out until that imagined truth reaches critical mass” and can carry itself. He also attended to his “unlineated poetry” by throwing prose at the book for years. His belief that “more is more” was definitely helped by his confession that he is an “obsessive revisionist.” By constantly adding and stripping away what didn’t fit after he had discovered the purpose of the scene, he found himself with an elaborate prose piece that when assembled, surprisingly looked like “a lyric novel”. His happiness was quickly muted by the dozen politely worded rejection letters he received in response to his book.
The Q+A revealed Harding’s difficult path to publishing: his novel had been rejected so quickly and universally he shelved it, throwing it into his desk drawer for 3-4 years while he focused on his children. Eventually, Harding joked, he figured he’d bind it himself and put it between his own music CD’s telling his kids “yeah, Daddy wrote a book too.”
At some point in the Q+A Harding quoted “The probings of philosophers are deliberate, and the probings of poets are fortuitous.” An ironic quote, as it turns in a completely unrelated sequence that Harding’s path to publication came from drowning his sorrows over a beer with the poet that introduced him to the publisher that would introduce Harding to his eventual publisher—a chain of events that sum up the meaning of fortuitous, lending his own story some of that ironic charm found in Tinkers. Soon after, Bellevue Literary Press printed 3,500 copies which would be released on the west coast, San Francisco area, to independent book stores. Harding claimed his success only happened because “there are still readers out there.” Word of mouth, positive reviews, and ultimately the Pulitzer Prize leave Paul Harding now with a 2 book contract with Random House. His personal story of just sticking with it, of writing the kind of book in the way he wanted to adds an inspirational aspect to the whole affair. “It’s a tough gig” Harding had said—the pride and confidence he displayed as he read from his work before the assembled teachers, students, poets, and authors revealed the reward for persevering through that rejection and difficulty.