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Magazine

Meeting A Pulitzer Prize Winner: Paul Harding

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Article by Vanessa Fox O'Loughlin © 20 July 2011 Michelle Moloney King .
Posted in the Magazine ( · Literary Fiction · Special Guests ).

“Paul Harding’s appearance at Dublin Writers Festival is in association with Iowa City, UNESCO City of Literature and Dublin UNESCO City of Literature – click here for the free writers’ workshop.”  In my ignorance, the word ‘free’ was all I needed to know when I spotted the above. I’d just finished a post graduate course and was penny pinching. I had meant to do research on who exactly Paul Harding, the workshop facilitator, was, but intentions do not actions make.

The workshop was held in a venue called The Lab on Foley Street, Dublin 1.  I was ushered into an empty room and quickly nabbed a seat at the back.  Serious looking people in serious looking clothes trickled in after me. Proper grown-ups, I thought, suddenly conscious of the pink hoodie, skinny jeans and Ugg boots.

In desperation I turned and greeted the lady beside me who, as it turned out, haled from Limerick. She lived up to the place name and responded by saying, “I’ve read his little191-page big book and just had to come.”  I told her it was my first writers’ workshop to which she quickly responded: “Oh no, this is not just a workshop. No, no, no, no! It’s an afternoon with Paul Harding … Pulitzer Prize winning author of Tinkers Paul Harding.”

Cue jaw drop! I jumped up and ran off to grab a coffee to steady my nerves. One problem though. There was this little guy in my way. As I hovered, he quietly filled his cup and stood out of my way.  I walked back to my seat slowly, letting the smell of my rich coffee be the envy of everyone present. I stopped sniffing, however, when the guy from the coffee pot walked to the front of the room and introduced himself. “Hello and welcome. I am Paul Harding.”

Six years ago, American, Paul Harding, was just another graduate of the Iowa Writers’ Workshop with a quiet first novel he hoped to publish. He sent copies of the manuscript, in which he had intertwined the deathbed memories of a New England clock repairer with episodes about the dying man’s father, to a handful of agents and editors in New York. Soon after, the rejection letters started to pile up. He told the New York Times: ‘Nobody wants to read a slow, contemplative, meditative, quiet book.’

Indeed, The New York Times summed up his publishing experience in an article by Motoko Rich: “His manuscript languished in a desk drawer for nearly three years. But in perhaps the most dramatic literary Cinderella story of recent memory, Paul Harding, 42, not only eventually found a publisher — the tiny Bellevue Literary Press — for the novel, “Tinkers,” he also went on to win the Pulitzer Prize for fiction.”

Paul opened the workshop by asking what we wanted from the afternoon and then told us a little about his book Tinkers before going on to reveal that he had once been in a band but had given it up when he reached his thirties. The thought of getting a real job did not sit well with him so he went to grad school in Ohio where he studied literature and then decided to write … anything was better than an office job. I was all ears…

“No one sees the world like you. No one can give you your vision. Don’t mix up the world of writing with the world of publishing. If you are writing a genre book, then keep to that genre. Literature isexperiential. You guys need to check out Simon Faulkner, Virginia Woolf, and Samuel Beckett. Please don’t ever think that you can write anything without first reading! Think how you want to be affected as a reader, what revelations or insights you would want to read. But don’t tell the reader what to think – that’s just propaganda.”

The main thing I noticed about Paul is how humble and unaffected he is. Egoless and yet at the same time on fire. In the blink of an eye, he jumped from one topic to another. From plot development, to grammar, to characterisation, and back again. Bouncing. I’m a teacher and if I taught like that in a classroom my kids would be lost. Paul intrigued me. How could he hop so quickly between subjects without triggering confusion? Instead the opposite happened. We understood every signal word he had to say and so will you if you watch this:

Towards the end, Paul finally drew breath and asked if anyone had a question. We all looked at each other and then put our heads down. What could we mere mortals ask of this Pulitzer Prize winner? One brave soul eventually piped up and asked, “What was the best advice you were ever given?

He smiled, “Be grammatically correct. You have to know your craft. Do some courses in writing and above all READ!”

He really emphasised the “read” part, explaining how he is often shocked at some writers who say they don’t read fiction – they create fiction. He gave an emphatic eye roll and shrugged before going on to add, “If your book does well, you will be asked to defend it. People will dissect your book, your words, and your art. They don’t do this for the joy of the words but for the pleasure of the hunt. Hunting of me. But there is no killing in this hunt. I know my values and I know why, so you don’t need to tell me. I know my words. I went to one of the best creative writing programmes in the US: Iowa Writers’ Workshop, at the University of Iowa.”  The Limerick lady interrupted him at this point and asked, “Your book Tinker is full of observation. How can we do that?”

Paul took a quick sip of his coffee and as he was placing the cup down he was already responding. “I have faith in my subjects. It is my job to get them down on paper as beautifully as possible. When you’re down inside your writing energy comes from observing things very closely over long periods of time. Pay close attention as you will be able to write about what is really there and not what you think is there. You can’t make assumptions, you need to find out. For example – if you are going to write about water dripping, then go to water, look at the water, observe the water – then after close attention write about the water. People see the world in the way that they want it to be and not how it actually is. A writer can see the difference and write about it.”

There is an audible mass exhalation from the audience. A few even look worried. A tentative single hand is raised. “So, what can I write about?” asked a young girl wearing a rather low cut top. “Like, where do you get your ideas from and how do you know what genre to write for?” A rather stuffy looking journo sitting beside her ducked his head in a vain attempt to suppress a smirk. The girl saw this and blushed, which gave me the courage to back her up. “How do you know you are on the right track in relation to your story?”  “Ha!” Paul barked, throwing his head back. “I was once writing a book that I had to research to death and it was not a good idea. I had no real interest in the subject and it was boring.

‘You need to find something you’re interested in, preferably something you spend your time obsessing about, and then write about it. You don’t have to know everything about your topic. That’s what fact-checkers are for. Just get something down on a page – you can always revise it later.  ‘I often start with snapshots of inspiration, like an image, and then I just interrogate this image until I get what I want. I am interested in the characters’ heart. To write well you need to dilute your self-awareness. Be humble, lose your ego, subordinate yourself to the characters in your story – just render what is there onto the page.  ‘Write as clearly and as beautifully as possible. When writing have no other aim than to simply find out what it is you don’t know.”

Paul was then asked, “How do you build suspense?” Before answering, Paul reached again for his coffee cup and I noticed two things. Everyone in the audience was scribbling frantically into their notebooks and an hour had passed. A whole hour! I normally get bored well before an hour of listening to someone talk. Twenty minutes in I’m generally daydreaming. With Paul, it was different because he wasn’t talking at us, but rather talking with us. I looked at him admiringly, blushing at the memory of shoving into him at the coffee pot. He says a writer should  be ‘egoless’ in writing and he is egoless in talking, in sharing. I like it when people live up to their words. As he put down the coffee cup he glanced over in my direction and met my awed gaze full on. I dipped my eyes and started scribbling along with the rest of the audience.

“The tale,” he responded, “is in the telling of it not in the trap door. We don’t need to be surprised at the twists in a book. We just need to read about the ‘human heart in conflict’, not the black and white but the grey. Beside, things can be very dramatic if you know what is going to happen. My book Tinkers opens with me telling the reader what is going to happen. The inevitable death is clearly stated in the opening line: “George Washington Crosby began to hallucinate eight days before he died” and the book ends eight days later with George dying. The reader thinks, ‘Oh that’s sad’ but over the course of the book the reader is getting into the book and the character becomes their friend, their hero … so they get more involved. Inevitability is great for tension.”

Paul ended the workshop up by saying in relation to winning the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction,

“I am habituated to my own self-disbelief.”

Writing Tips from Paul Harding: 

  • “When you hear your own voice in the story; then you have gone too far, your job is to present the subject to the reader. It is the subject that tells the reader everything he needs to know as he discovers it himself. I am not above my reader, I just want to present to you the snapshots that I have seen, how they struck me, how beautiful there were.
  • Overwrite something.  You can always delete it later. You don’t need to have a plot, just have a rough idea of it, enough so you can ricochet around it. You need to know your characters in order to dissect the snapshot.
  • Writing is like painting, so paint layers and then look at the coverage. My writing is a flood and I don’t want to put it on a leash – I just want to let it all go.
  • Concentrate on the character. The character is the thing – just describe the snapshot and the feeling … let the story unfurl.
  • What you find beautiful is what you find true. Opposites …what gets negotiated in between … is beautiful.  If you say something like life is hard or tough or sad, then put something opposite right beside it and just leave it. Don’t explain the difference to the reader … the human heart in conflict … the negotiation in between … that right there in the middle is beautiful!
  • You are a fiction writer so what you write does not need to be true. Besides, that is what the fact checkers are for!
  • When it comes to publishing you need to be dogged, you need to keep at it until you find the right publisher, and you have to play a long game. I got so many rejection letters and then I just decided I will write what I want.
  • Writing is art for art’s sake. My only job is to write true sentences. The art is its own justification.
  • Be intimate with your reader. Third-person omniscient can be very intimate. You can write into a person’s heart and then pull back.
  • Use ironic distance – characters can’t see themselves in the world as clearly as the reader does.
  • You don’t have to plot.  Get your picture of inspiration and simply pull it apart using the characters involved.
  • If one character is dominating the others, get out of this by saying something like: “Joe was bored to death and getting fed up with Nancy’s behaviour – so he left.”
  • Don’t be afraid to use precision style writing sometimes. Subjects have their own inherent beauty – you merely write about it.
  • If you want to get into someone’s thoughts and then get out of them simply write: “I reckoned she was cold that day,” he thought, and then he jumped up off the couch.
  • If you are writing about a man from a different time, country, or lifestyle and are worried your readers won’t connect – well don’t.  Your character goes through life just like us. He has the same dreams and faces the same dilemmas and conflicts.