Massachusetts Daily Collegian

UMass alum speaks on shock of winning Pultizer Prize in South Hadley

By Tyler Manoukian

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Several years ago, Paul Harding was just another aspiring author with a novel to peddle. A recent graduate of the Iowa Writers’ Workshop, he sent copies of a manuscript to publishers and editors in New York City, only receiving rejection as feedback.

The stack of papers that would become his debut novel lay yellowing for three years. Eventually, a small publishing company called Bellevue Literary Press paid Harding a cash advance of $1,000 and stocked his debut novel, “Tinkers,” in small, independent bookstores. Then in a surprising turn of events, Harding’s little novel was awarded the Pulitzer Prize for fiction this April.

On Thursday, the Pulizer Prize-winner made an appearance at the Odyssey Bookshop in of South Hadley, – the latest stop on his book tour promoting “Tinkers.” During his time in South Hadley, Harding read from his piece o fiction and took questions from the audience.

Harding presented his book to a small crowd of people packed tightly together in the top floor of the small bookstore. The modest crowd featured a diverse group, ranging from young, interested college students seeking the literary achievements Harding has accomplished, to old friends the 42-year-old author made while attending the University of Massachusetts for his bachelor’s degree. He attended UMass for six years and majored in English.

Those of an older generation asked carefully-constructed questions hoping to catch Harding with his mouth full. The first question asked was one regarding the concept of time. “The book is so much about time, in which everything slows down; What do you think of time?” This became a starting point for a frenzy of questions.

A longtime friend of Harding shouted out to the author during the question-and-answer session,

“For 20 years I have been amazed by your humor, but your genius for writing surpasses your humor.”

In his debut novel, Harding does not feature his affinity for humor, but rather tells the sober stories of a New England clock repairer on his deathbed, a focus Harding said the New York Times publishers didn’t appreciate, “It was, ‘Where are the car chases?’”

The rejection letters were “funny at the time,” said Harding, “and even funnier now.”

 Never letting rejection get the better of him, Harding fulfilled his dream – a dream only a handful of writers ever experience.

Though he was rejected by many publishers, it only took one to believe in him. That one was Erika Goldman, the editorial director of Bellevue Literary Press who spoke to Harding for nearly two hours during the early stages of publishing to “make sure (she) read the book (he) meant to write,” said Harding at Odyssey.

The book is about an old clock repairer’s wondrous and sometimes painful, impoverished childhood. George Washington Crosby, the protagonist, is on his deathbed, drifting in and out of consciousness while recounting the stories of his father, an epileptic peddler, and his grandfather, a Methodist preacher beset by madness. Interconnecting the memories of his father and grandfather give the story life and direction.

Paul Harding is a very emotionally vivid writer; His words come to life at the expense of nothing. He likes playing with time because it can be elongated, shortened, or done in narrative.

Making a football allusion, Harding told aspiring writers, “You gotta take what the defense gives you.”

“Time is variable; the rate in which we experience time is variable.”

Harding said he applies this philosophy to his writing style, which is why his book is slow-paced, but packed with imagery.

The inspiration for “Tinkers” came from stories about his grandfather told to him by his maternal great-grandfather. During the research for the book, he revisited Maine, where his father grew up; all it took was a walk through the woods around Moosehead Lake to get his mind flowing and the creative sleight of his hand firing.

While a novel is read from the front cover to the final pages, a novel is not always written in that order. While teaching at Harvard University, the manuscript became a side project, adding a chapter whenever he had a spare moment between family and university commitments. Harding told the NYT, “It got so that it was guerilla writing.”

The novel was finished one night with the help of several glasses of whisky. On that night, he printed all 250 pages of the manuscript, took scissors to the pages, and reorganized the sections with tape and staples, matching its content like a puzzle. In the morning, he had a completed manuscript which he sent to his publisher.

Harding marvels that the novel moves according to the mind; it is emotional and imaginative. However, the content regarding epilepsy was every bit as different as the rest of the story. Rather than be clinical or scientific in addressing epilepsy, simply because he knew nothing about it, he chose an untested creative direction.

“It was an experience I would not want to appropriate,” he said while discussing his work Thursday. He went with his gut feeling and stayed creative – something many are thankful for. Harding said people suffering from the brain disorder have reached out to him and said his take on epilepsy was an accurate description. This connection with his readers was his deepest satisfaction, explained Harding.

The book became an indie favorite of small, independent bookstores. The independent circuit became a huge outlet for him, selling over 7,000 copies before it was awarded the Pulitzer.

His initial book tour involved small venues, including book readings at peoples’ houses and local bookshops. Harding joked that many appearances included eating what he called “sketchy” casseroles.

The UMass alum realized he had won the Pulitzer Prize while scanning the website after the results were posted.

“I could not believe my eyes,” he said. “I literally didn’t believe it at first.”

He said it felt like he was going to explode like a cartoon character after eating something really hot or spicy.

After graduating from UMass in the mid 90s, Harding took a break from the academic life and recorded two albums with his band, Cold Water Flat, and toured through Europe. After the band he had formed with UMass friends fell apart, he headed to the Iowa Writer’s Workshop to earn his master’s degree in fine arts. He has taught writing at Harvard University and Iowa University. Now residing in the Boston-area with his wife and two kids, the Wenham, Mass. native likes to live life as slowly as he can.

Looking back, Harding recounts one of his closest writer friends telling him, “Don’t ever mix up writing with publishing.”

In 2009, Harding signed a two-book deal with the publishing company Random House. He is currently working on his next work, set in Enon, where the protagonist of “Tinkers,” George, dies, and plans to focus on the lives of George’s grandson, Charlie, and Charlie’s daughter, Kate.

Tyler Manoukian can be reached at [email protected] Michelle Williams can be reached at [email protected]

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