Interview with Paul Harding

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Paul Harding is an American author of the newly published novel Enon as well as his Pulitzer Prize winning novel, Tinkers. His first novel also was awarded the PEN/Robert W. Bingham Prize in 2010. Harding has taught writing at Harvard University and the University of Iowa and currently lives in Boston with his wife and two sons.

Howl: How was growing up in Wenham, Massachusetts influential to your writing?

Harding: Well, I had most of my formative experiences there, so I associate the milestones in my life with the landscape and the weather and the seasons and the people and culture there. It’s a very small town. One set of traffic lights by the post office and police/fire station when I was growing up. A little library. A candy and soda store. That’s about it. Something of the small, intimate scale of living in a village permeates my writing, I think.

Howl: I read in an article that you grew up next to some woods. Do you ever use those moments in your past to help you write?

Harding: Absolutely. Like growing up in Wenham, I went through all of the ups and downs of being a little kid, then a teenager, then an adult walking around the woods – mostly Audubon wildlife sanctuaries – so I associate my most powerful feelings with the trees and the ponds and the meadows and the light or clouds and rain and snow and all that.

Howl: What inspired you to become an author over being a musician?

Harding: I’m a better writer than I was a musician! Well, I was a “musician,” in quotes, because I just played the drums. I was just good enough at the drums to know what it took to be great and to know I’d never be great. The band I was in broke up and I had always wanted to try writing, so I did. I found that besides being quieter and solitary, writing scratched the same creative itch that drumming did, so I just kept at it.

Howl: How did music influence your writing?

Harding: I think that all art comes from the same place and it’s just a matter of what medium you use to express it. So, when I played drums, I tried to articulate what creative signals came over the wire in rhythm. Now, I do the same thing but use words. But I do write by ear. Much of the time, I know the “beat” of a sentence or paragraph before I know it’s literal meaning. I think of writing as being musical, incantatory.

Howl: How would you say the two careers (music and writing) have any similarities?

Harding: Like I said above, I experience the creative impulse as being like a radio wave or something that’s being broadcast through space, and I just pick it up, like a radio antenna or something, and then broadcast it back to earth, either through a drum set or through writing on a page. I imagine it’d be the same if I were a painter or an actor or any other kind of artist. It’s cool to me to think about how in some ways it makes all the difference in the world if you’re translating the signal through drums or English, but in another way those drums or that language, if you’re translating things as well as possible, almost disappear for the people listening or reading, and turn into pure experience of the art itself. I want to write so clearly that the reader forgets she’s reading words on a page.

Howl: Do your two sons ever help you with your writing?

Harding: They help me by keeping things in perspective. They call my novel, Tinkers, “Stinkers.” Stuff like that. They’re interested in the fact that I write books, but they’re still a little young to read them.

Howl: Was the publication process of Tinkers a long one?

Harding: It sure was. I took about five years to write it, and then I couldn’t get it published for another five years after that. When I did get it published, it was with a tiny little press that was run by the New York University School of Medicine, of all places. A very strange and unlikely story, but it all turned out well in the end.

Howl: What is some advice for young authors?

Harding: Write about what you think is true – no what you want to be true or what you think other people will think is cool or whatever, but what you actually think is true when you concentrate on the world and try to see things for yourself. It’s very hard, especially once you become aware of how much of what you think you see is really just what’s called acculturated thinking, that is, seeing things filtered through popular culture’s prefabricated ideas.

Read as much as you can, and read as much as you can of the best books you can get your hands on. And read well.

Pay attention to words, to language, and write about what’s most important to you, what you find truly mysterious or moving or baffling about life. Challenge yourself!

Howl: Do you still play music?

Harding: I haven’t had my drums set up for awhile, but I plan to clean up the basement and get back to playing to songs on my iPod. It’s a good way to refresh my perspective when my writing gets stuck.

Howl: How was the feeling of winning the Pulitzer Prize?

Harding: Pretty amazing. I never in a million years expected to win it. It’s a wonderful, humbling vote of confidence by other writers, a way that they sort of tell you that you should keep going with your work, that there’s something authentic and worthwhile in it.

Howl: Are you in the process of writing anything new?

Harding: I’ve just finished about 12 weeks of book touring for my new novel, so I’m kind of fried. But I am doing a ton of reading and lying on the couch and letting what I read and some half-formed ideas sort of simmer in my head and hopefully accumulate into something good. I write a little bit every day, in one of three or four kind of potential ideas for books, with at this point, as Isak Dinesen once said, neither hope nor despair. It helps to be patient when you’re a writer. You can’t rush things, as much as you’d like to.

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