July 2009

Michele Filgate


An Interview with Paul Harding

Paul Harding published his first novel, Tinkers, this year with Bellevue Literary Press. The former drummer of Cold Water Flat, Harding now teaches writing at Harvard. This interview was recently conducted over coffee.

As someone who has been both, do you find any similarity between being a writer and being a musician?

Yeah, absolutely. They scratch the same itch. I've said this a bunch of times. The differences are superficial and obvious ones. Which is being a drummer in a rock band is loud and you're on stage and doing it in front of thousands of people. Being a writer is quiet and solitary. To me it's just circumstantial whether I pick up a pair of drumsticks or whether I open a laptop. I feel like I'm a transmitter or something like that. Whatever comes through I start tapping out on the drum set or tapping out on the keyboards. It's a beautiful paradox because its both utterly essential and totally circumstantial. I just set up my drums again because my sons like to play it so now I sneak down and play to the iPod. Which is interesting because I hadn't played drums for ten to twelve years. I love it. I have a great deep abiding love for playing drums.

Do you ever miss the life of a musician?

No, it's grueling. At least on the level that we did it, where we didn't have any money. Especially when you're touring in the United States. The distances between cities are much greater than in Europe. You don't eat well, you don't bathe well. After six or eight weeks on the road doing that you end up being exhausted. It can end up like Groundhog Day. And if you play a lousy set that night it's very dispiriting. I don't miss it. It's much easier to sit in my study and write.

Do you find that the writing life can be as grueling at times?

So far, no. With the book touring I have been doing, so far my experience of it is it gives you all the stuff about being on the road that you liked as a musician, and cuts out what you didn't like. There's more time. It's just more pleasant. It's less noisy! I'm clinically half deaf and I have tinnitus. My ears always ring. I always hear things, like static talk radio when things are quiet. My ears are totally blown out. I've been to a couple of shows lately, and afterwards I was dizzy for a week, because my ears are just fried. They were good shows though!

In Tinkers, you often quote from a book called The Reasonable Horologist. Is that an actual book?

No, that's totally made up. It's a collage or a synthesis of several different impulses that I was able to synthesize together in that. On the one hand, I wanted to be able to write in this rhetorical, kind of florid, kind of humorous Eighteenth Century style. I had to find a place to do that. Partly it was because so much of the book was kind of somber, and I wanted something that was slightly comical, but at the same time would give different perspectives on the thematic occupations of the book. If he's a clock repairman and you think of the age of reason, and this idea that literally enlightenment, the light sort of went on, and sort of this Western European kind of thought, suddenly this idea that the truth was accessible through reason... it made sense, because the guys in the book are looking for order; at least George is. Something attractive to him is that everything could work like a clock. Of course it doesn't. He found that an attractive idea. That was an interesting angle to be able to explore. So it was just fun to be able to write from that point of view. It worked thematically, it worked tonally, it gave it a certain set of textures to work with.

Tinkers often deals with memories, the passing of time, the changing of centuries. Is this why you made George a clock repairman?

With any novel or any work of fiction, sometimes you work with these sort of inevitable sets of dramatic premises. One of those in this book was that George is a clock repairman by necessity, because the original impulse was my maternal grandfather who repaired clocks. I apprenticed with him. That's another reason I know about the stuff that's in The Reasonable Horologist, because he'd just give me these broken clocks and say "figure out what's wrong with this." Once that's the given, then you start exploring the ideas of how does spending most of your waking life repairing clocks end up shaping your experience of the world? Towards the end of writing the book and the end of the book itself there's a very brief passage where he realizes it wasn't his father who was like a clock, it was him who was like a clock. His father's fits as being the main spring of a clock exploding and ruining the works, was the analogy that he used throughout his life to negotiate the emotional and psychological repercussions. So at the end he realizes "Who knows what my father though of himself?"

That mechanistic, the sort of exploding machine, was the sort of analogy he used to negotiate it.

The same kind of thing goes for Howard and his epilepsy. My grandfather, the clock repairman, his father had epilepsy and left the family when my grandfather was twelve because my grandfather's mother was going to have him committed to the asylum. That was another dramatic given, because if I would have had my choice, I never ,ever would have written about epilepsy. Because that's something I would have been wary of, hypersensitive to the ways that people romanticize the illness. Since it was a dramatic given, since it was a dramatic premise, I just had to figure out a way to write about it. I had no choice. I couldn't outrun it. It was too integral.

The novel sort of rose out the half-dozen, handful linchpin premises that are based in fact. And they're basically family stories. But my grandparents, I could never get them to talk about them. They were both form northern Maine. Very, very impoverished. A traumatic, difficult life there. His experience was "I made it out of the woods and what happened in the woods, stayed in the woods."

So I just took those one or two sentence premises and tried to imagine the sentence before and the sentence after until the fictional material hit its own critical mass, its own momentum, and took over. I imagined it all and just kept writing until they started to overlap together.

So in a way you wrote this to figure out your own family story?

To imagine a version of it. I turned it into a legend. I turned it into a myth. It's imaginative, but I don't think it's any less true than what the facts are. I tried to imagine my way into the spirit of the thing. So the spirit of the thing is more important than the letter.

It was good when the fictional aspects of the writing finally sort of achieved their own integrity. I never could be a memoirist, or write a family history. Without that kind of imaginative aspect I don't know how to weigh the family. Everything is at stake because it's my family. Once you get that imaginative distance, I was able to move the characters around.

Howard often suffers from epileptic seizures. Rather than painting the episodes as a moment of pure terror, there's awe in your description. "What is it like to be full of lightning? What is it like to be split open from the inside by lightning." Why is that?

Terror is a contingent ingredient in awe. I think terror can exist without awe, but I don't think awe can consist without an element of terror. I think awe necessarily includes an element of terror. The word itself has to do with being overwhelmed. Something is awesome. Something fills you with wonder and terror. It's literally overwhelming. That's one of the ways I dealt with the epilepsy too. I used the idea of being electrocuted. Supersaturation. Something's very cosmic about it. And that's terrifying, to be overwhelmed. People don't want to be overwhelmed in that sense.

There's a moment in the book where George tries to record his own story, but then is ashamed of his own voice and burns the tape. He feels like he's a "bumpkin" sharing his story with a "heavenly senate." For me, that scene represents George's embarrassment over his "hard-scrabbled" upbringing. Is George someone who is trying to revise his own story and "fix" memories, much like he fixes clocks/time?

That's an interesting question. I guess on the most sort of basic generic level, everyone cringes when they hear their own voice. The danger is that you always have an idea as yourself in the world, and usually when you objectively see yourself in a photograph or hear yourself, you understand there is a discrepancy in how you'd like to think you are perceived and how you actually are in the world. I think that's an experience where he is abashed by the experience. Not so much that he's tried to revise his place in the world, but he's tried to successfully negotiate it. I don't think George would ever think he was trying to revise, or trying to deny his own existence. I think he feels rooted in it, he's motivated by it.

It seems like two of the men in the book - Howard, and Howard's father- seem slightly removed/distant from their sons. Is this a genetic trait they pass on from one generation to the next, or is it indicative of their own personal difficulties?

I'd hope it was just their own personalities. I suppose, the novel is familial, and so because of our analogies and our science, the way we understand things now, it wouldn't be inaccurate to say there's some genetics to it. When I was writing the book, I never thought of it [in those terms.] To me it was a surprise when the book was first published and the first reader said "Oh, it's about three generations of fathers and sons." I never thought of it that way. In some ways I can't answer the question. The book takes on its own life independent of what I intended it for. I think also in some ways, the thing I would find appealing about the genetic aspect of it, is I'd be more inclined to think of it as what is it that you inherit has to do with that idea of distance and time also. Time being foreshortened because of genetics. That idea that you resemble someone who lived a hundred years ago. All of the sudden, distance or proximity is not measured by time. You may be a hundred years distant but you're totally proximate because of the genetic inheritance, and so there's this beautiful experience where you can bridge all the years. A hundred years can be totally packed in an instant.

In that way, reading your book it comes across as almost timeless. Was that intentional?

Something universal is ahistorical. I do think this is what the best writers do, is they write for durability. In one hundred years time, I want people to read Tinkers and recognize something that exists in humanity regardless of the historical particularities. At the same time I didn't intentionally try to dehistorize it. There's a series of these dramatic premises that lead to a tendency in the book to become kind of untethered from normal linear plot-lines. He's dying, time becomes more impressionistic. Memory doesn't work in a linear fashion. Memory has a very strange relationship to historicity. I think it's also just in terms of my own disposition. When I write fiction I don't think in terms of plot. I think in terms of these linchpin moments where I think "Okay, here's the moment where Howard leaves his family." What I try is to find the instant before he leaves his family. I take that instant and I explode it. I think that's just a generic disposition I have anyways, and you superimpose that with the subject matter of Tinkers, and you get these kinds of arrested moments. A lot of the novel, this idea of time becomes suspended. Any given instant takes on a kind of geometry to it. In terms of physics, it would be an outdated idea. You think of time as a room, or time having a volume. Any given instant you can wander around within suspended, or rested moments in time. As a writer, I think it's what my disposition is. It's what I'm attracted to.

Much of the language in the book drives the story. In fact, I'd say it's far more language driven than plot driven. Every sentence pops with images. How many revisions did you have to go through to be satisfied with the final draft?

I'm not satisfied. I don't consider the published book to be the final draft. Maybe if I live to be seventy I'll rewrite the whole book again! To me that's my favorite kind of writing, writing that is so precise, that you have to write with a jeweler's precision. I'm always interested in the boundaries between poetry and prose. I'm interested in the maximum density. I'm prone to lyrical writing. Dense prose. I was very, very aware of the fact that I don't write plot driven fiction, and that a novel based on a guy on his deathbed, and things as abstract as memory and time and all that sort of stuff, there's a real danger, if those are all your premises. The danger is that the book will always have a kind of tendency to lapse into abstraction if you're not very, very careful. The kind of criteria or ideal I set up as writing was that for anybody who fanned through the book and put their finger down on a single word, every word is concrete. Concrete nouns and verbs. No abstract language. Everything that was abstract in the novel had to be embodied concretely. That was the only way I would be able to write in to abstract subjects and not have the book turn into pseudo-philosophical essay expository prose. It's still a novel, it has to be dramatically presented. There had to be a tangibility to it.

Can you talk about some of your literary influences? While reading the novel, I couldn't help but think of New England transcendentalists, like Emerson and Thoreau. Yet there's also a definite poetry to your prose that makes me think some poets might have inspired you as well.

I don't read much poetry but I read a lot of Wallace Stevens. I consider him another New England transcendentalist. I consider him rising out of that same tradition. I think there's all sorts of writers I deeply admire who i don't think I write anything like. Thomas Mann. Cheever. Sarah Orne Jewett. Willa Cather. I adore Willa Cather. The writers that first got me into writing were kind of the more fantastic writers. I hate the term magical realism, but Carlos Fuentes. Carlos Fuentes' Terra Nostra was the first novel I read where in the middle of it I said "I'm going to be a writer." Cortazar, Borges, Calvino. Then all the writers they loved. Again this idea of critical mass or momentum. Your reading hits this critical mass. At a certain point I can't differentiate what I've read anymore.

Are you always reading?

Yep. I read a lot of nonfiction. I read tons of theology now.

Why is that?

Partially because of my friendship with Marilynne Robinson. Probably practically speaking that's why I started. The thing that sustains me is the quality of the theological writing that I read. I grew up kind of an off-handed atheist. A middle class white boy charging around with my copy of Good and Evil, and I never really thought about [religion] until I'd been Marilynne Robinson's student for some time. It occurred to me one day that this writer I admired was also one of the most profoundly religious people I've ever come across. I thought there can't be a complete disconnect. She's very much identified with Calvin, so I read a lot of Calvin, and then I started reading Karl Barth's Church Dogmatics. I've just been doggedly chewing on the Church Dogmatics for the past five years. It's gratifying on every single level that you could want as a writer of fiction, as a person who contemplates. It's just some of the most vigorous, consistently world class thinking and writing. It absolutely helps me with my own fiction writing.

Do you consider yourself religious?

One thing I keep thinking is either I'm a very bad Atheist or I'm a very bad Protestant. Moving back and forth between that is something I'm perfectly comfortable with.

I didn't even realize until I finished the book that there's not much dialogue. I think that's a testament to how good your writing is. Do you find that you don't often focus on dialogue when you're writing? Would you say description and inner thoughts drive your narrative more than conversation between the characters?

I think part of it has to do with... There are all sorts of reasons. One is a sort of a chicken and an egg thing. I'm naturally not that attracted to writing dialogue. I don't think I'm particularly good at it. I don't think I get at people by how they talk to each other. With this particular book, the people are kind of laconic, they don't talk that much. You have to figure out meaning through gesture. This second novel I'm working on now, there's way more dialogue. I still don't use quotation marks. I don't like the way quotation marks look on the page. I think not using quotations in Tinkers keeps this idea that it's very interior. The surface isn't breached. It works by involution rather than exposition. It's a combination of all sorts of things. I had a brief conversation with Michael Ondaatje once. He said "I hate quotation marks." I said "I do too!" Do you see yourself as a writer who is influenced by certain themes?

Do you see yourself always writing a certain type of novel?

I don't think of it as being influenced by certain themes. In some ways you're influenced by your own experience, but then I think all writers end up with the same handful of preoccupations to which they will always return. If I write a handful of novels, I could easily see them all taking place or having something to do with the town in Tinkers -- Enon. But to me it's more that if you keep returning to the same themes I hope that when you do so, every time you return to the same theme you show something new about it. But hopefully the themes are inexhaustible.I think you're pretty safe if your preoccupations are with time and memory, because those apply in any circumstance.