April 19, 2010
Mr. Cinderella: From Rejection Notes to the Pulitzer
IOWA CITY — Six years ago Paul Harding was just another graduate of the Iowa Writers' Workshop with a quiet little 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 roll in.
"They would lecture me about the pace of life today," Mr. Harding said last week over lunch at a diner in this college town, where he is now teaching at the workshop. "It was, 'Where are the car chases?' " he said, recalling the gist of the letters. " 'Nobody wants to read a slow, contemplative, meditative, quiet book.' "
His manuscript languished in a desk drawer for nearly three years. But in perhaps the most dramatic literary Cinderella story of recent memory, Mr. 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 last week. Within an hour of the Pulitzer announcement, Random House sent out a news release boasting of the two-book deal it had signed with Mr. Harding late in 2009. A few days later the Guggenheim Foundation announced he had received one of its prestigious fellowships.
The early rejection "was funny at the time," Mr. Harding said. "And even funnier now." Mr. Harding, a onetime drummer for a rock band, is far too discreet to name any of the agents or editors who wouldn't touch his work a few years ago.
But he is quick to praise those who helped "Tinkers" become a darling of the independent bookstore circuit, including Erika Goldman, the editorial director of Bellevue, whom Mr. Harding described as a "deeply empathetic reader"; Lise Solomon, a sales representative in Northern California for Consortium, the book's distributor, who passionately advocated for the novel with booksellers; and the booksellers and critics who embraced the book early on.
Although "Tinkers" sunk under the radar in some quarters (including The New York Times, which did not review it), it made several year-end best lists, including NPR's best debut fiction and The New Yorker magazine's list of reviewers' favorites. According to Nielsen Bookscan, which tracks about 70 percent of retail sales, "Tinkers" sold 7,000 copies before the Pulitzer announcement.
Now many independent booksellers are claiming Mr. Harding's victory as their own. "This shows how indie bookstores truly are the ones that can be movers and shakers when it comes to a book," said Michele Filgate, the events manager at RiverRun Bookstore in Portsmouth, N.H., who raved about the book on Bookslut, a literary blog. As it turns out, it was Ms. Filgate who first told Rebecca Pepper Sinkler, a former editor of The New York Times Book Review and chairwoman of this year's Pulitzer fiction jury, about "Tinkers" at a book-reviewing workshop Ms. Sinkler led in Manchester, N.H., last April.
In classes at Iowa Mr. Harding has become an instant celebrity, of course, but also, a reassurance. Marilynne Robinson, the Pulitzer Prize-winning author of "Gilead," Mr. Harding's former teacher and now a friend, said last week in her workshop office that she had already repeated Mr. Harding's story several times.
"One of the problems I have is making my students believe that they can write something that satisfies their definition of good, and they don't have to calculate the market," Ms. Robinson said. "Now that I have the Paul anecdote, they will believe me more."
Mr. Harding is an avid reader of 19th-century novels, theological works (Karl Barth is his current favorite) and physics, making it hard to believe his claims that he was a poor student at the University of Massachusetts, Amherst, where he majored in English. The university does confirm that he took six years to complete his degree.
Wearing wire-framed glasses and a white button-down shirt tucked into Levi's, he talked effusively, the antithesis of the taciturn father and son portrayed in "Tinkers," a novel with sparse dialogue and large portions set inside the characters' heads.
Framed partly as a deathbed vigil for George Washington Crosby, a clock repairer, the book wanders through time and consciousness, describing in fine-grain detail its rural Maine setting and the epileptic fits of George's father, Howard, an old-time tinker who traveled the countryside by wagon.
The story's genesis came from Mr. Harding's own grandfather, who grew up in rural Maine and whose epileptic father abandoned the family when he learned that his wife, Mr. Harding's great-grandmother, planned to send him to an asylum.
Mr. Harding spent his childhood in Wenham, Mass., a town not far from where he lives with his wife and two sons, and he went fly-fishing in northern Maine during the summers. He apprenticed with his grandfather in clock repair, and after graduating from college he recorded two albums and toured Europe with Cold Water Flat, the band he helped form at UMass.
The band fell apart (the usual: creative differences), and Mr. Harding decided to scratch another itch. He enrolled in a summer writing course at Skidmore College, where he took classes with Ms. Robinson.
With his application for the Iowa Writers' Workshop, he submitted two stories, one of which was his first stab at "Tinkers."
But for most of his time in Iowa Mr. Harding worked on a novel about a 12-year-old girl who disguised herself as a boy in order to work in a Mexican silver mine during the 16th century. As he graduated, he realized the novel didn't work.
Once again the story of his grandfather beckoned. Turning back to it, he said, "was just such a sense of relief to not have to go looking in history books."
After his first son was born and he was teaching expository writing to undergraduates at Harvard and creative writing to night-school students, the novel became an extracurricular project. "It got so it was guerilla writing," Mr. Harding said. "I could flip open the laptop and start writing anywhere." He wrote on bookmarks and the backs of receipts, transcribing the scraps into the computer later.
Finally, one Saturday night, he printed out his mishmashed computer file and laid it out on the living-room floor. Nursing a few fingers of whiskey, he cut up the document, stapling and taping sections into the structure that ultimately made it to publication.
Shortly after Ms. Goldman finally agreed to buy the book — paying a $1,000 advance — things began to go right. Ms. Robinson, who rarely gives blurbs, gave "Tinkers" a stellar one, calling it "truly remarkable." Independent booksellers started to push it.
Meanwhile Ms. Sinkler began to champion "Tinkers" among her fellow Pulitzer jury members, Charles Johnson, the author of the National Book Award-winning "Middle Passage," and Laura Miller, a senior writer at Salon.com. "I think that sentence for sentence, it was the most beautifully written and most gorgeous use of language of any of the books we looked at," Ms. Sinkler said in a telephone interview.
Mr. Harding is working on his next novel, set in Enon, the fictional town where George dies, focusing on one of George's grandsons, Charlie, and Charlie's daughter, Kate.
The Pulitzer may change some worldly things, he said, but not how he works.
"I sort of feel like I know how I got here, every step of the way," Mr. Harding said. "Something like this can befall me, and it won't be catastrophic success."