Paul Harding is the author of two novels about multiple generations of a New England family: the Pulitzer Prize-winning Tinkers and Enon. Harding has also received a Guggenheim Fellowship and was a fiction fellow at the Fine Arts Center in Provincetown. A graduate of the University of Massachusetts, he was a drummer for the band Cold Water Flat before earning his MFA from the Iowa Writers' Workshop. He now lives in Massachusetts with his wife and two sons.
This interview was conducted via email by Interview Editor Niki Johnson. Of the process, she said, “It was an honor to interview Paul Harding—really, a dream come true. I became enamored with his writing shortly after his first novel, Tinkers was published. I admire his rich language and sincerely value his insight here.” In this interview, Paul discusses the role of consciousness in his novels, the influence of teaching, and his theoretical literary relatives.
Superstition Review: Charlie’s downward spiral appears understandable at first, but becomes shameful even to him. This was such a fascinating way to explore the guilty conscience. How did you decide to use the extreme alcoholism and drug use as an outlet for Charlie’s grief?
Paul Harding: The drugs and alcohol were within arm’s reach. I didn’t mean to explore substance abuse. They just seemed an obvious and likely means for him to try to alleviate his grief, to numb himself in order to try to get himself out of the undertow of sorrow. From there, it just spirals out of control, which is something he is aware of the entire time he’s taking the pills and drinking the booze. He knows better than he is able to act – a pretty universal human predicament.
SR: The level of loss Charlie experiences is heartbreaking. How does being a parent yourself translate into the mourning Charlie feels for his daughter? What was your process in articulating such difficult emotions?
PH: Well, to paraphrase Flaubert speaking of Madame Bovary, Charlie c’est moi. When I first became a parent, when I first met my first child, I felt for the first time in my life the sense that if anything ever happened to him I might well not be able to survive it. I know several people – friends, acquaintances- who have lost children, though, and who have not only not perished but remained gracious and hopeful and strong. When the idea of the book arrived in my brain, I thought it would be an artistically substantive project, following Charlie and composing his account of his loss as if it had happened to me. I knew that the book would not be without hope, but had no idea where or how it would come back into his life. So, I just listened to him, moment by moment, sentence by sentence, trying to be equal to the tragedy that has befallen him.
SR: I am so interested in the fact that Enon focuses on a father-daughter relationship—something I feel is underrepresented in literature. What made you decide to center the novel on the fatherly aspect of parenthood?
PH: I’m a father myself, and I have sons. It was too difficult having Charlie lose a son, because I could imagine my own children – or I did imagine him as having lost one of them, and that made things too close for me to be able to keep an authorial grip on the fiction. So, I was able to imagine Kate and imagine being her dad and imagine what it would be like to have a daughter, which, sad as the book is, was a great pleasure.
SR: In the reading you gave at Politics and Prose, you explain, “Charlie uses the town to negotiate the memory of his daughter.” Enon, exists as a caretaker and even a stable anchor in his life is an extraordinary concept. Can you explain this idea further?
PH: I think of the village as a character. I think of it as this almost communal sentience that is quietly taking care of Charlie as he wanders around within its boundaries, trying to come to terms with what has happened. Just as Charlie imagines many different versions of Kate living among all the former citizens of the village, throughout its history from colonial times to the present, and those different versions of her might almost be visualized as ranging around within the topography of his mind, his actual brain, so I think of his wanderings as occurring within the collective mind of the town. The landscape of the town is its mind and Charlie is one of its very own thoughts, to which it is loyal and attentive, if in a very, as I think of it, tactful, abiding manner.
SR: Here, you also divulge your fascination with metaphysics, which is so apparent in your writing. I am interested in the internal perspective of character as well, but have often been advised to “get out of the character’s head.” Can you talk about your methods of creating characterization through the internal and abstract?
PH: Well, I don’t think of the internal, that is, of consciousness, of thought as abstract! I think of thought as being very concrete, very material in its own ways. This is a kind of aesthetic treatment of the matter, connected with what I was saying about the town and the landscape it occupies serving as a kind of model for mind. That way, what might otherwise be abstracted or told thoughts can be things like granite boulders and lake water, open meadows and skunk cabbage and things like that. I would never advise you to stay out of your characters’ heads. Get in them and stay in them! There’s nothing more complicated in the universe than the human brain. I take that as suggesting very strongly that there is therefore nothing more interesting than the human brain. You know, I’m not much interested in plot. I’m interested in character, the hallmark of which is consciousness. I’m interested in the experience of being a conscious self, of experiencing my given humanity as a self. Also, because I extend my character’s consciousness out into the landscape, I externalize it; the interior and exterior of experience are coextensive, you might say.
SR: I am captivated by the way time works in both Tinkers and Enon. There is something so genuine and fulfilling about experiencing the interconnected worlds of the past and present. What attracts you to structuring your novels this way?
PH: It’s all of a piece with my interest in consciousness and character. The past and the present are both present and comingled within our minds. Our thoughts are almost quantum in nature – supraluminal. They can go from here to there, now to then, and back in an instant. How they move back and forth, considered in terms of narrative prose, becomes a means of exploring character itself. Both Tinkers and Enon move according to how their characters’ thoughts move throughout their own and others’ lives. In both cases, I sort of open their minds up so that in Enon you get Charlie’s mind projected out into the landscape, and in Tinkers you get the same thing, too, but also this familial consciousness, where the generations of fathers’ and sons’ minds have a certain osmosis going on, which allowed me to think and write about various aspects of being an individual but also part of a larger legacy of family, and of culture, etc. So, really, I guess what I’m always trying to do is reproduce aesthetically what it actually feels like being conscious, in the hope that the reader will connect with the book because she recognizes that feeling from her own experience of her own brain.
SR: I found Charlie’s drug-induced hallucination so haunting: when he sees Kate and first imagines it as a “restoration after a satisfactory yearlong trial as a member of the deceased.” This scene attests to your descriptive talent—an ability that breathes life into the pages. Could you explain what inspired these details for this scene?
PH: I pushed on the writing to become increasingly phantasmagoric and macabre the more Charlie’s mind is warped by sorrow and the chemicals. Emotionally, I thought of it as being like one of those old myths, like of Orpheus, or Persephone, where someone is so unable to accept the loss of a beloved child, say, that he goes down into the underworld in order to fetch the child back. Charlie’s sinking into these gruesome, weird depths called for wilder and wilder visions. They were very engrossing to write, because I could really let my imagination off the leash and invent all kinds of ghostly, infernal, but hopefully also kind of thrilling and spooky images and visions. I found I also liked the idea of all the guests, as it were, in the Enon cemetery as making Kate earn her stripes as a deceased, but once she has, of then being fiercely protective of her. Of course, all of those ideas are Charlie’s, what I gave to him to think about his daughter, the village, the living and the dead.
SR: Your first novel, Tinkers, artfully shifts focus onto multiple characters, yet Enon’s story is told solely through the eyes of Charlie. It seemed to me, though, that in Enon you varied the narrative focus through the descriptions of Charlie’s delusions and memories of the past. What made you decide to narrate Enon this way?
PH: From the very outset, Enon was essentially going to be a monologue, a single voice speaking directly, in real time, so to speak, to the reader, without any other layers of narrative between, trying to make an account in good faith of what befell him and how he tried to survive it, as often as he fell short of his own ideals. But you’re right; I had to find ways to shift the narrative around so that the first person narrative would not get too claustrophobic or too myopic. That’s one of the reasons why, for example, I had Charlie think about himself, the town, and Kate in dramatic terms, as if events were occurring on a stage. He imagines his house as being the set for a play. He imagines the cemetery and the golf courses on either side of it as a sort of opera house. He imagines seeing himself onstage; he objectifies himself, or versions of himself, in order to try to get perspective on things. I wanted, though, that essential intimacy of monologue, first person, because I also think of the book as being a confession, like St. Augustine’s.
SR: I love Mrs. Hale’s dialogue when she catches Charlie in her house. The return reminded me of an earlier passage: “The incurable pull inside me that Mrs. Hale’s house and the clock and the orrery exerted was impossible…” How did Charlie’s return to that setting affect his recovery?
PH: I’m not quite sure. I felt that “incurable pull” myself in the composition, in the realm created by the fiction, so I allowed it to draw me in, to draw Charlie in. It’s important in these stories to have there be mysteries that remain mysterious, not because I deliberately mystify them but because they really are unexplainable, intuitive, true to the story and character if not entirely understood. I think that if you’re writing about the most important human subjects, you’re regularly going to be up against the outer margins of meaning and understanding, where anything resembling explanation will seem fraudulent to the reader. Hopefully, some of the depth and durability of the stories is achieved by keeping open ended subjects – mysteries – that are ours to ponder and describe but never to solve.
SR: In an interview with Book Page, you mention influences like Hawthorne, Melville, Faulkner. I totally get that. For me, this is why I am so drawn to your work—there is an elegant classic quality to your writing. Obviously, your writing is your own, but what qualities about these authors do you try to preserve? Who are some contemporary influences on your work?
PH: I love the elegance, eloquence, the metaphysical density and beauty of writers like Faulkner, Emerson, Dickinson, Melvile – all my great aunties and uncles, as I think of them. I want my writing to be as rich and nutritious and beautiful and true and electrified as theirs. Tall order. I’ve never been satisfied that I’ve been able to come close to their art, but it’s the intention that counts in this case, I think; it’s a means of quality control. Dispositionally, I love the overall project of the Transcendentalists (and I kind of throw Faulkner in with them, although that might not strictly be fair). I do believe that beauty, in all it’s subjectivity, mutability, is nevertheless a sufficient achievement for a work of art. Beauty in that Keatsian sense of being a synonym for Truth with a capital “T” (and Truth for St. Augustine being a synonym for God, so beauty being understood in terms that are sacred, moral, holy, and so forth – everything at stake).
SR: In the same interview you said, “The expectations Tinkers created for Enon were worldly, external. The process of writing Enon—of writing any novel—is private, interior, a matter of the imagination and of aesthetics.” What a beautiful frame of mind. What is some advice you give to new and aspiring writers?
PH: Write what you truly believe to be true. Make every sentence you write true. Not necessarily factual. If you’re writing fiction, you’re writing about imaginative truth, about truths of the heart. Teachers can help you learn how to see, how to look, but they cannot tell you what to see or what to make of what you see. Our brains are all probably, like, 99% the same. That’s what makes works of art accessible to all sorts of different people around the world, across time and circumstances. But that other 1% is what makes your art yours, your vision yours and no one else’s and that’s what we cherish about our favorite writers. You know, you’re not ever going to mistake a page of Faulkner for anyone else’s writing, because no one else saw the world the way he did. He’d have never been able to come up with a vision like, say, The Sound and the Fury if he’d been wondering what an agent or editor or The New Yorker was looking for. Call it like you see it. Like you see it. And write as clearly as you can about the truly mysterious aspects of being a person, not obscurely about received opinion or trivia.
SR: How has your teaching experience influenced your writing style (and vice versa)? How does it feel to teach poems, genres, or aesthetics that are different from your own writing?
PH: I love teaching. It informs my writing. And, absolutely, my writing informs my teaching. It’s like the two realms are connected in a circuit and are continually feeding their signals back to one another in a loop. I love using all kinds of different genres in my books, so it’s always a pleasure to teach the widest possible array of successful works of art. Genre is a label attached to a work of art, after it has been created, by someone who did not create it (generally). Thinking about genre ahead of or during the creation of a piece of art, of writing, can sometimes hinder the writer. Instead of listening to the material itself, the reader listens to other, outside voices, raising objections to this or that element because it’s “really” not prose or it’s “really” poetry, or whatever. Just make the thing and who cares if they call it a hot fudge sundae afterward?
SR: This probably comes up quite a bit but in a former life, you were a drummer. You obviously developed an internal tick for timing and rhythm. Could you talk about how that practice affects your writing in both process and product?
PH: In my experience, the impulse to create art, music, literature comes from one source, someplace out there in the cosmos. Or it’s like a radio signal from space. Something like that, and I’m just the transmitter. So, it’s the same signal that gets translated into the world through the drums if that’s where I’m sitting, where I’m taking dictation, as it were, or translated into language, prose, if I’m sitting at the laptop. And, definitely, drums share with writing, especially narrative writing, the management and perception of time. The drummer is the time keeper. Writing a narrative is largely about keeping time, too, as it refracts through your character’s perceptions of it. You can keep it straight, slow it, accelerate it, halve it, double it, and so forth. When I write, it feels very much like jazz improvisation. It’s very intuitive and I write by ear; I often know the time signature, the number of beats, the tempo, and that sort of thing of a sentence before I know it’s concrete meaning. It feels like channeling, the imagination, that incredible, uniquely human possession.
SR: What does your writing space look like?
Ironically, I don’t write in the study I have set up for writing. I write on the couch, lying on the bed, lying on the other couch, sitting at the gate in the airport, on the airplane, in the hotel room. Once I had kids and a full time job, I got so I could sit down wherever I was, flip open the laptop, and climb right down into the fictional world and work on whatever sentence was at hand.