Even when you spin prose into gold, like Paul Harding has done with his book, Tinkers, you still have to overcome the reticence of those publishing industry decision makers (agents, then editors) that your book will somehow catch the zeitgeist and find an audience.
Even when word of mouth is enthusiastic, a book has to compete with those tried-and-true commercial (operative word here) bestsellers who come out the same month and also have three very big things working in their favor: "co-op" (the marketing push that gets a book on the front table beside the door, where 70 percent of most books are sold); vast distribution (not just independent bookstores, but large purchases from the chains, Barnes & Noble and Borders Books, as well as, perhaps some big box store sales, from Wal-Mart, Costco or Target; and most important of all author name recognition (James Patterson: I'm lookin' at YOU...)
Needless to say, I'm always happy to read a success story about a book that might have been mired in oblivion if it didn't get that extra push from somewhere. In the case of Mr. Harding, he had an angel of an editor (yes, they do exist: I am proof of that — thank you Ms. M, of S&S!). He also had a sales person on his publishers team who became his advocate in the wilderness; and those at the front line of defense–the independent bookstores–recognized his genius, too. That is to be expected: they love books with a passion, and and always the first to recognize a great one and put the wind beneath its sales (pun intended, thank you).
The New York Times has done a marvelous job of telling Mr. Harding's journey from first book oblivion to Pulitzer prize winner. It is also quick to give a mea culpa for missing out in reviewing the book for its readers.
It's not in 3-D, and there is no three-act arc, but that's okay. I can't wait to read it.
(And maybe that's why),
Simon & Schuster/Downtown Press
In bookstores June 1, 2010. Order it
"Hollywood's got nothing on the cast of characters living in
bedroom community of Paradise Heights, who have the secrets, sex, money
and scandal of an OK! Magazine cover story. Josie Brown is a skilled
observer whose clever dialogue and feisty style make for truly
Collins, bestselling author of Hollywood Wives and Poor Little Bitch Girl
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.
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