The Iowa Writers’ Workshop alumnus aimed to create a book that would reward multiple readings—and was rewarded with the 2010 Pulitzer Prize for fiction.
"George Washington Crosby began to hallucinate eight days before he died." So begins the death vigil of a cancer-ridden clock repairman in Paul Harding's Tinkers, winner of the 2010 Pulitzer Prize for fiction.
Soon we learn, "George Crosby remembered many things as he died, but in an order that he could not control." And in this unconventional book they are not controlled. They tumble out, like disconnected watch parts, in a fragmented narrative glued by the countdown to death—a story not about dying, really, but about life, and kinship, and personal meaning, and the vagaries of memory. As with hallucinations, memories may be true or false, pristine or distorted, or some combination, and who can know the difference?
TEN YEARS BEFORE Paul Harding won the Pulitzer Prize for fiction, he was completing a Master of Fine Arts degree from the University of Iowa Writers' Workshop. He had gained admission to the highly selective graduate program partly on the strength of a short story about a dying clock repairman's memories of his epileptic father. The story was based on Harding's own family history in New England, and his experience apprenticing as a repairer of clocks.
At the Writers' Workshop, Harding studied with Pulitzer winner Marilynne Robinson, Workshop alumna Elizabeth McCracken, and prominent English novelist Barry Unsworth. "Every single one of them always said the writing comes first," he explains. "Don't think about the market. Don't think about the editor. Discipline those states of mind where you can just make everything else go away but the story at hand. And if you do that it gives you the chance to write your best stuff and maintain the integrity of your art."
Following that advice, Harding began to expand and embellish his short story—which already had the beginning, middle, and end to the sequence of events—into a novel, Tinkers. He describes the growth as something akin to a jazz improvisation, and he set his sights high: "I'm interested in writing a book that makes people want to go back and read it again, and will reward more than one reading. There's an idea that a book exists in order to be finished, preferably quickly, and you read it once. But nobody looks at their favorite painting once. Nobody listens to their favorite music once. Nobody watches their favorite movie once. What brings a person back to a book to read it over and over, and what makes it store meaning and release meaning? It's not something you can blast through, or if you do you are going to miss it."
FIFTEEN MONTHS BEFORE Paul Harding won the Pulitzer Prize for fiction, he was exhilarated by the sheer fact of being a published novelist. Nine years and numerous publisher and agent rejections after he graduated from the Writers' Workshop, Tinkers was finally on the market, after sitting in his desk drawer for several years. The publisher, due to a serendipitous series of events, was the Bellevue Literary Press, a tiny new publisher housed at the New York University medical school, without marketing and distribution clout, and the initial run was a modest 3,500 paperbacks. But at least his meditative, richly detailed work was available to readers.
"I had begun to think, well, maybe I will just be a writer who is not published, or not published now," he says. "So you just go on to the next thing and if the next thing is published you can tell the person who published it, 'Hey, I've got this other novel…'"
Once it had been published, the prospects for Tinkers to "go viral" seemed slim, but the book came into the hands of readers and independent booksellers who made the novel their personal cause. Particularly, a distributor and several enthusiasts in the San Francisco Bay area promoted the book through independent bookstores and leveraged Tinkers onto the local bestseller list.
"From the beginning it had this really cool grassroots, independent-bookstore group of advocates, and worked its way to the East Coast,” Harding says. “It had an audience from the beginning. It felt real, as opposed to a big marketing campaign."
And although the New York Times Book Review missed the novel entirely—requiring penance after the Pulitzer announcement, including dubbing him "Mr. Cinderella"—Tinkers received some strong critical accolades in Publisher's Weekly and Booklist.
TWO MONTHS BEFORE Harding won the Pulitzer Prize, coincidentally back in Iowa City as a visiting faculty member in the Writers' Workshop, he gave a reading on a cold February night at Prairie Lights Books that was streamed live on the University's Writing University web site, where it is now archived.
By that time, Tinkers was poised to be an international sensation, because it was, through that grassroots campaign, brought to the attention of a member of the Pulitzer jury, which unexpectedly invited Bellevue Literary Press to submit the book, even waiving the entry fee because the publisher was a nonprofit. A book from a nonprofit publisher had not won a fiction Pulitzer for nearly 30 years, and total sales at that point were only 7,000, so Harding was honored by the invitation, but he had no expectations.
In fact, when April 12 came around, and the winners were posted on the Pulitzer Prize web site midafternoon, Harding navigated to the site to see if he knew any of the winners. He did know one.
"You talk about weird cognitive, strange mental states—I refreshed the page and I kept thinking, 'This is the wrong document. I'm looking for the Pulitzers,'” Harding says. “And it kept saying Tinkers. No sooner did that event sort of blow my mind than the Associated Press was on the phone 30 seconds later asking me for quotes, and I could barely even put words together."
Voice mail messages and e-mail messages immediately started to pile up, as everyone wanted to hear his Cinderella story, but Harding had an important engagement to fulfill: Only a couple of hours after the announcement he was due to teach his students in the Workshop. "There was a carnival atmosphere,” Harding says. “I didn't teach much that day."
And, by the way, three days after Paul Harding won the Pulitzer Prize for fiction, he was awarded a Guggenheim Fellowship. All in all, not a bad week.
story by Winston Barclay; photo courtesy of Bellevue Literary Press
May 13, 2010