"All the analogies I can think of have to do with extreme weather," says Paul Harding of the experience of winning the 2010 Pulitzer Prize for fiction for his novel "Tinkers." Things like "a tidal wave, a tornado."
Harding's big win for his debut novel was anything but expected. Rejected by 20 publishers, "Tinkers" was finally picked up by the tiny Bellevue Literary Press, run out of a sixth-floor office ("a janitor closet," Harding once called it) in a New York hospital. Harding received an advance of "the princely sum of $1,000." But the small size of the check didn't matter, he says. "I was just delighted to be a legitimate, for-real published author."
In an interview we did for the Monitor's weekly books podcast, Harding told me that "Tinkers," which tracks the last eight days in the life of George Washington Crosby, a retired New England teacher and repairer of antique clocks, was in many ways inspired by his grandfather. Harding's grandfather was also a repairer of clocks and Harding apprenticed with him – which explains the in-depth knowledge of clocks woven into the story.
As Crosby lies dying, surrounded by family, he casts his thoughts back to his father, a New England tinker who suffered from epilepsy. Harding says that he based that story on what he knows of his grandfather's father – an epileptic whose wife considered committing him to an insane asylum because she did not understand the disease.
"My grandfather was always reluctant to elaborate" on that story, says Harding. But his reticence made the "legend" all the more "irresistible" to his grandson, Harding says. So as an author he took the few facts he had about his grandfather's father and "imagined out from those."
Harding did not begin to write until he was in his 30s. But when he did, he says, he found that it was the stories of his family that were "imprinted" on him "on a cellular level."
A lifelong New Englander, Harding says that the physical aspects of the region – the light and the woods – are imprinted on him as well. He also acknowledges a debt to the New England transcendentalists. The books he loves best, however, are 19th- and early 20th-century novels, particularly those of Thomas Mann, Henry James, and Edith Wharton.
Harding's next novel, he says, will again be set in the New England town of Enon, the fictional backdrop for "Tinkers." This time the protagonist will be George's grandson and the book will take place in the present.
My entire interview with Paul Harding can be heard here.
Marjorie Kehe is the Monitor's book editor.