Friday, April 29, 2016

From Drums to a Pulitzer Prize: Interview with Paul Harding

******** Endicott College student Nicole Cadro interviews acclaimed novelist Paul Harding


Endicott College had the pleasure of hosting 2010 Pulitzer Prize- winning novelist Paul Harding on April 7, 2016. He was a speaker in the Endicott College/Ibbetson Street Press Visiting Author Series. His prize-winning novel Tinkers deals with a dying father and a son who returns to tend to him.  Laura Miller, who was on the selection committee for the Prize wrote, " I think sentence for sentence, it was the most beautifully written and  had the most gorgeous use of language of any books that we looked at."  At the event Harding captured the audience’s attention as soon as he uttered the first word. His poetic prose, had a rhythm that kept listeners buckled into the roller coaster of  words that came together to create this lyrical literary piece. It was a distinct pleasure  to have been able to have a conversation with an individual as engaging as Paul Harding. 

Nicole Cadro: I read that Carlos Fuentes’ Terra Nostra was the work that you read that flipped the switch and helped you decide you wanted to become a writer. I was hoping you could elaborate on that, what specifically about that work made up your mind?

 Paul Harding: When I read that book it was a time in my life that I was an avid reader, but my own reading was not self-directed very well. I had not found the kind of books that I wanted to read. So I was reading other books, the ones I read in college. But I knew somewhere there was the headwaters or the writing that I could really dig in and relate to. So actually, the most intuitive thing that I would do is just go into the fiction section of the local bookstore, in Amherst or wherever (I went to UMass Amherst), and I would look for the thickest books I could find that weren’t just “pop” novels. I would just pull them off the shelf and look at them; that’s how I ended up reading Thomas Mann and Tolstoy. I just found Terra Nostra because Terra Nostra is just like a brick, it’s like a doorstop.  And I was like, “I want me some of that.” That is what I want to do. First of all, it’s like I want to be in conversation with works of art that are that large in scale. I write actually quite small books but I think of them as being really dense; they are one hundred and fifty pages long but hopefully they are seven hundred and fifty pages sort of dense. Just that vision and just the fact the license he had--I didn’t know you could do that. You get to write about all of this wild stuff and his vocabulary was just really exotic and really, really esoteric. It’s funny because I don’t write like him at all, or not so much anymore. In subsequent years I am almost afraid to go back and read that again because I don’t think I’d like it as much. It just set me off on that trajectory. It was one of those funny things. The old version of that book had an afterword by the novelist Milan Kundera and he wrote The Unbearable Lightness of Being and I read that, and then I read some of Fuentes’ essays and he talked about how much he loved Thomas Mann. So then, kind of from that one book and just that one author I just started finding all of these other authors until now it’s hopeless. But I take comfort in that: that I’ll never be able to read all of the books I want to read, it will never run out.

Cadro: To stem off of that question, once you started to delve into your literary career and your schooling, specifically college, I know that I look for things to take away from every class. I think, “Okay this might help me later on in life.” What was a big thing in your schooling that you feel really affected your career and your path?

Harding: Well, undergraduate was a little bit of this and that. I was an English major so I kind of cut my teeth and worked up my chops by reading a lot of Shakespeare and all similar works. I spend all of my time doing now too. But sort of circumstantially all the while I was in college I played drums in rock bands and that’s what I ended up doing ten years after that. So I was thinking about music a lot but also thinking of it as art. A lot of it was musical and I just so happened that UMass Amherst had a really good AfroAm (African American) department and studies program. And at the time I was there they had really amazing Jazz musicians. So I was able to listen to lectures about art and about music by people like Max Roach, a very famous Jazz drummer. I was able to take a yearlong course called Revolutionary Concepts in African American Music with a Jazz sax player named Archie Shepp who was just a really extraordinary guy. So anyways, I found that all of the guys I hung out with were these pretty radical music dudes from New York City. I grew up in Wenham, and so I had these informative experiences about art but also social justice and race in America, and art forms that arose out of that in the black community. It really furnished a context for thinking about art for the rest of my life that has never changed, I still feel that initial thing and that is what is still evolving.

Cadro: Our English 101 class just had a guest speaker, Robin Stratton, and she talked a lot more about the writing process itself versus the actual works. When you were writing Tinkers was there page ripping, fingernails flying frustration? Then, if there was this frustration how did you know you had “it”?

Harding: That’s a good question because with me it’s very intuitive. I don’t write things in a linear way. I sort of collage. I have all sorts of weird, mixed metaphors that I use so I sort of think of it as a big painting. I add layer after layer then scrape layers off and adding more layers, and just sort of collage and move things all around, very improvisational and musical. So all I can report that there was one day that I finished writing whatever the passage was that I was working on, and I sat back and I realized, “I’ve got the whole thing, the whole thing’s here. I’ve told the story.” But then I had to go back and put it all in order because I had written it in such a crazy way, sort of a mess.

Cadro: So it was kind of like putting all of the pieces into the timeline?

Harding: Yeah, basically, more or less it was doing it chronologically. But  in Tinkers the point of view is a guy who is in his final illness and his consciousness is starting to dissipate. So it [Tinkers] it’s just the way his memory sort of works and doesn’t work, and the way the ideas sort of surface and then sink back down and then recrudesce in a sort of weird refracted ways. So I had to fool around with that and get it so it was almost prismatic. I had to make it so it was a cohesive whole. But chronologically what I did,--I printed it up and I cut the whole manuscript up into all the different scenes and pieces. I put them all out onto the floor and I spent a weekend rearranging them into the prism. The published novel is forty-thousand words and the original manuscript was probably about seventy-thousand words, so I cut about a third of it. There is not a sentence in that book, anyways, that I didn’t rewrite thirty times.

Cadro: How long did it take you?

Harding: It took me probably four years to write it, to really get to the point where I felt I could show it and try to get it published. But then nobody would publish it; so I had it on my hands for another five years. During which, once in a while I would take it out on a Sunday or Saturday night and just fiddle around with it and just keep trying to get the language as precise and lucid as I could make it.

Cadro: I bet those publishers are kicking themselves now.

Harding: Chuckles. There are a few who wrote me nasty rejection letters, who when it won the Prize, I  thought, “Told you.”

Cadro: So my last question for you is a two-part question. Tinkers, I know is mainly focused on a man dying and going through all of those ideas and memories. He’s kind of facing reflecting on his life and also facing death; you must have had to ponder a lot of that on your own. So with that, what do you strive to take out of each day?

Harding: It’s funny, that’s a good question because I don’t approach each day with the idea that there has to be a “take away” from it. It’s to be observant. It’s just that idea of being as fully engaged and conscious and aware as possible. It’s inextricable. Because I’m always thinking in the context of writing. I think of my writing as having no lessons to be had from my writing. My writing is experiential, it’s descriptive, so what I mean to do is make my prose. Whatever I’m working on I have something of the density of lived experience so when other people read it there will be just recognition.

Cadro: So every day is an experience, adding on to what could come out of your literature?

Harding: Yeah, yeah. Then I mean there’s always is, because I’m preoccupied with theology and I read tons of philosophy-- so I’m always thinking about morality and ethics and just  “loving your neighbor” and all of that sort of stuff. So often the “take away” is that I’ll try to do better tomorrow. It’s sort of like falling short of your own ideal, just being mindful in that way and just trying to be honest. As a writer, one of the principle things is that everything you write needs to be true.

Cadro: The second part of that question was that you also deeply explored the possibility of death, Did this made you more comfortable with it?

Harding: I don’t know, you know it’s funny, I don’t think of it as death I think of the subject as mortality. Because that’s philosophy and religion and all of that sort of stuff. Artistically and aesthetically too, it’s kind of the ultimate counterpoint. It’s the ultimate juxtaposition, it sets in relief being, the whole idea of non-being or the whole idea of why is there something instead of nothing, metaphysics. Because just by disposition I spend all my time thinking about metaphysics and consciousness and the nature of consciousness, and out of what does consciousness precipitate? Some substratum? Or is it a function of complexity, like biological, something that gets complicated enough so it’s an emergent property. It’s a great mystery. A lot of times too I just get cranky because popular writers-- like celebrity science writers or celebrity philosophers give people a portrait of the human mind and of the human life that is so impossibly simplistic and simple minded that it just makes me crazy. They explain everything a way, and really what it is rhetorical, just slight of hand with grammar, language games. Partly, I just think of it as my, (and again this is an idea), but just that if that art stands for anything it stands for a corrective against simplifying human experience. Taking away the dignity of each person’s human experience by presuming to tell people of what it is that their lives consist of because it’s been empirically demonstrated by some positive-esque “jerk off”. Just that idea that what your art does is that it bears true witness to the experience of life, and that’s the key because if there is  that authenticity and you can get that authenticity on the page that’s the deepest connection you can make with the reader, which is that the reader will recognize herself in your art. Very humanistic, very old school humanism.

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