Paul Harding didn't take the typical route to literary stardom, if there is a typical route. His novel, Tinkers, was turned down just about everywhere (he gracefully declined an opportunity to finger his rejecters). When it was finally picked up by Bellevue Literary Press—a nonprofit imprint of the NYU School of Medicine—he received a "token advance" of $1,000. But word of mouth and hand-selling kept the book afloat, and soon it started receiving its due: Powell's selected Tinkers for its Indiespensible series, and even the New Yorker briefly noted its merit.
"To me," Harding says, "as soon as there were 50 copies in print, everything else was just gravy." And gravy poured... first a Guggenheim, then the Pulitzer, and recently the PEN Robert Bingham Fellowship for Writers (which alone pays 35 times that token advance). Late to the game, I worried it would be one of those underdog-becomes-overhyped scenarios. But any hype, I swear, is justified.
Tinkers begins, "George Washington Crosby began to hallucinate eight days before he died." What follows is an elegiac meditation that weaves in and out of memory and consciousness, through three generations of the Crosby family.
MERCURY: I'm interested in the structure of Tinkers; it's hallucinatory and divorced from a traditional timeline. Was that something you imposed on the text from the beginning, or did it only become clear later on?
PAUL HARDING: Part of it just comes from how I write fiction. I collage things; I write in shorter episodic passages—set pieces. When I write fiction, it comes to me not quite in episodes but in instances. The instant when Howard realizes he's leaving his family. The instant when George realizes he's going to die. Then I spend a lot of time exploding those moments. When you look at an instruction manual and it has those exploded views—the nuts and bolts and little parts—that's basically what I do. I just explode those moments, parse them out, and look for character.
But also, to an extent, the subject lent itself to an associative rather than linear architecture. So much of the novel is interior. I thought of it as moving around associatively, like a mind does.
So my writing method and the subject matter, in that way, complemented one another.
You seem obsessed with minute details and your language veers toward poetry. Are you drawn more to language and description than plot?
As a reader, absolutely. But observation and description refracted through character—to me, plot is a predicate of character. So when I describe in great detail a landscape or an artifact or whatever, it's all telescoped through an individual. It's never just a landscape described in detail; it's the landscape as apprehended by a mind. And because Tinkers is so interior—this guy's basically lying in bed thinking—I felt a kind of consequential necessity to be all the more concrete with the language.
The first book you attempted took place in a 16th-century Mexican silver mine. Will your next book be such a radical departure from Tinkers or is this material you'll revisit?
I'm probably 75 percent done with the first draft of a novel about one of George's grandsons. The action is subsequent to that in Tinkers and set in the same location, but it's not a sequel per se. I have some idea of a third book connected with the same family, so I might be coming up with my own little New England Yoknapatawpha one of these days.