Apply Aesthetic Pressure to the Language: An Interview with Paul Harding

June 18, 2018 | 6 books mentioned 19 min read

This interview first appeared in Chinese at the Shanghai Review of Books on June 3, 2018.

I spent my first Iowan winter day at home reading Tinkers, the 2010 Pulitzer Fiction Prize winner. Outside, snow began to fall. I poured myself a cup of hot tea, sat next to my window, and opened the book to its stunning opening line:

“George Washington Crosby began to hallucinate eight days before he died.”

Perhaps it was the snow, but my world quieted. Slowly I lost myself in the labyrinth of George’s memory. When, finishing the last line, I looked up again—it was four hours later, the street lamps casting their long bluish shadows on a whole white land.

Ever since then I’ve wanted to talk to Paul Harding, to ask him for his writing recipe, his marvelous use of time and lyricism. As a foreigner who grew up exposed to Emerson, Melville, and Faulkner, I was astonished to hear that in America only high school students are still reading them. I want to ask him about the literary tradition in this country, about the relationship between the self, history, and the present, and how art can reach beyond its creator’s self-obsession and connect to a larger world.

So we had this conversation. Paul’s responses are illuminating and yet sometimes counterintuitive. Instead of encouraging young writers to find their own voices, he says he rids markers of his voice during revision and editing. In Paul’s view, writers and their writings are not a cause-and-effect relation; rather, it’s the subject that desires to be rendered in a specific way, and the writer who needs to listen to this hidden message. As far as literary tradition, the Bible to Paul is both the foundational literary text and a spring of democracy and humanism.

(Paul’s forthcoming novel, Island, is coming out with Random House in 2019 or 2020.)

The Millions: Before you switched your career to writing, you were a drummer for the band Cold Water Flat. What’s a musician’s life like? Does your past as a musician influence your writing?

Paul Harding: Well, mine was a sort of “half-time” musician’s life. When we were not touring or recording or playing shows around Boston and New York City, which was often, I temped in all sorts of lousy jobs. I also worked in bookstores, which was lousy work, too, because it was retail, but wonderful because I read all the new fiction that came out.

I loved working on songs with the other band members. We were not very good, but I was fascinated by arranging and finding different parts for different songs. I loved being in the studio, too, watching the engineers and producers use the studio itself, and the mixing boards almost as instruments in themselves.

Touring was a lot of fun at first, but it grew very tiring. Most days are spent driving for many, many hours from show to show, getting to the theater or club, doing a soundcheck, playing the show, breaking down, sleeping in one motel room with five or six people, getting up in the morning, and driving all day again. Very wearying! But not entirely awful, because it’s interesting to show up in towns and cities you might never otherwise see, and find people in the middle of what they consider “normal life,” which is, from the outside, always clearly highly localized and eccentric in one way or another.

Music absolutely influences my writing. I was a drummer—the “time keeper.” And I think of narrative prose as keeping time, too, of rendering characters’ experiences of time, of “being in time” in the philosophical but also, simply, immanent physical senses. I write by ear, by rhythm, intuitively. I can often tell what the tempo, time signature, accentuations are of a sentence or a passage before I discover its literal meaning. I think of Tinkers, especially, as lyrical, like incantation, song.

TM: When was the first time you introduced yourself to others as a writer? How did you feel about it?

PH: I suppose I went through some version of the self-conscious, pretty much coy mannerism of protesting that I was not a writer; I just wrote. Or something like that. I was never self-conscious about wanting to be a writer, or aspiring to be an excellent one, since neither is the same thing as claiming to be an excellent writer. But now, I accept the job title! From my point of view, I do in fact think of writing as a way or manner of being in the world, that in some deep senses, I do write, as a function of my being a person, of exploring, interrogating, describing the experience of personhood, of being an “I,” that utterly mysterious thing. I guess I also feel a bit like I’m not so much “a writer” but a writer of strange, oddly shaped stories and not much else.

TM: The original inspiration for your debut novel, Tinkers, was your maternal grandfather. Why did you want to tell his story? Do you find your writing experience has changed your understanding of him or your family story? In what ways?

PH: I did not feel compelled to tell my grandfather’s story in the general sense. I felt an urge to describe aspects of his life about which I remained curious after his death, which were mysterious to me, yet also formative, normative. It was also a way to remain in conversation with him, by means of aesthetics, of imagination. George, in Tinkers, though, ended up achieving his own kind of aesthetic critical mass, or momentum, and while he is my grandfather, my grandfather was not him, if that makes sense! It also pleases me to think of my own sons, and perhaps someday their children and grandchildren, reading the book and feeling as if it’s their own, highly local book of genesis: an anthology of family myths and legends.

TM: Were some chapters of Tinkers workshopped before its publication? If so, what feedback did you receive?

PH: Tinkers was originally a 15-page short story. It was one of two stories I submitted to apply to the MFA program at the Iowa Writers’ Workshop. I was not supposed to workshop it, but I did, because I ran out of material to submit. It was given a life-changing workshop by my teacher and now friend Elizabeth McCracken. Her reading of it was so subtle, attentive, solicitous. She not only taught me a great deal about the story but also how to teach. The feedback, as I remember, mostly had to do with the 15-page version being too elliptical, too obscure. So, when I had the chance, after graduating, to work on it some more, I expanded it from the “inside out,” so to speak. I had the entire plot, such of it as there was (which was and remains not much—plot does not interest me), so I just kept elaborating on the characters’ lives, building up layers of them, slowly, like a river piling up silt or something. In fact, it’s not too much of an exaggeration to say that if you took the five opening pages, the five closing pages, and the five pages right at the middle of the published book, you’d pretty much have the original story. So strange, art—so lovely.

coverTM: Almost all readers said they marveled at the unique use of time in Tinkers. Time both constricts and expands, which reminds me of Proust’s In Search of Lost Time, but Tinkers is also very different. How did you come up with this idea? Did you doubt it at any point during your writing process?

PH: I doubted it the entire process. Not what I wanted to do with time but whether I was in fact doing that, or whether I was just being clever, fancy, using pyrotechnics. But that was good motivation. Every twist, turn, redoubt, exploded or accelerated moment had to earn its way into the manuscript. Also, since most of the book takes the form of consciousness—and most of that the form of memory—I had built into the structure of the book that what I think of as a “quantum,” almost supraluminary nature of consciousness, where almost without apparent causality, you can be thinking of yourself as an infant next to a river watching your mother catch a fish and instantly next be thinking of yourself as a parent, feeding your son a bite of shrimp. Or whatever. That’s kind of a silly example, but I certainly had writers like Proust in mind, pushing on how prose that must be read diachronically—that is, in order, in lines of words, can be experienced by the reader as something like the synchronous apprehensions of full memories, and full memories shifting and moving and leading into and out of one another, and so forth. William Faulkner was a huge influence thinking about this. Also, the so-called “magical realists,” like Julio Cortazar, Carlos Fuentes. Emily Dickinson, too, whose poems look so small and compact and yet have the transcendental, metaphysical density of collapsed stars.

TM: Tinkers has an associative rather than linear architecture, as you put it. One tricky thing about this structure is that readers may get lost. Many writers embed perches for readers to rest and reorient. I read the countdown of George’s life as serving this purpose. Did you worry that your readers might lose their way? Did you provide guidance for them?

PH: You have perfectly answered your own questions! Yes, I worried. Yes, I absolutely “staged” the book as a countdown to the instant of George’s death—incidentally, the eight days it takes for a traditional American or European wall clock to wind down. I figured that as long as the prose eventually looped back to “8 days before he died; 7 days; 6,” the reader would have a predictable point to which she’d periodically return and be able to clearly, concretely take stock of what was happening. I think that the narrative takes some getting used to, but once the reader knows the, as it were, rules of the thing, those rules are consistent and wholly organic to the deepest meanings in the book. I feel more or less that it’s fine to ask the reader to do some work, to actively participate in the reading of the book, so long as that work is rewarded two, five, tenfold with art that surprises, delights, activates deep human recognition—all that good, artful stuff. Two things I always tell my writing students are: Don’t write your stories for poor readers, and don’t write your stories for people who won’t like them. If you pick up a copy of Tinkers and read the jacket copy and maybe the opening paragraph or two, you’ll continue reading because you like what you read. The book does what it does, consistently, right from the very first sentence.

coverTM: After Tinkers won the Pulitzer Prize, did you feel any pressure on your second novel? Did you worry whether Enon would replicate the success of Tinkers?

PH: I did feel pressure, and a lot of it. But I also recognized that I was a kind of minor, temporary protagonist in the larger Pulitzer Prize narrative or phenomenon. I certainly worried during my time as a private citizen—that is, for instance, when I lay awake at night, at four in the morning, say—wondering whether I could pull it off. But I either had to write a second book or disappear. Much better, I thought, to get on with it. I did not worry whether Enon would replicate Tinker’s success, although I certainly hoped it would. But being a lifelong avid reader, bookseller, and observer of all (or many) things literary, I knew the usual, very predictable risks. For example, I knew there’d be people who would not like Enon, no matter what, because it was just Tinkers II, and there would be people who would not like it because it was not Tinkers II. No matter. My job was to filter out all the noise best I could and be loyal and attentive to what was coming over the wire from inside the world of that book.

TM: Enon, at least in its first part, reads more like a conventional novel—a lucid point of view with a plot that everyone can relate to. What things were on your mind when you were making writing choices for Enon?

PH: It’s interesting, because you sort of learn things about writing on the fly. At first, because the opening felt more conventional, I tried to make it more, I don’t know what, experimental, or something like that. But that was me inducing meaning, coercing the material. What I found was that much of that book is precisely about this narrator, Charlie, having a more or less common, recognizable, conventional way of looking at and describing his life—a relatable, work-a-day kind of idiom for the love he has, for instance, for his daughter. When his daughter dies tragically and without warning, that idiom, the very language out of and with which his world and place in it has been constructed, is made instantly and totally alien, unrecognizable, insufficient for his experience of the tragedy. Much of the rest of the novel is simply a dramatic presentation of him desperately trying to improvise a new idiom for a universe in which his daughter has died. That improvisation intersects with his romantic, so to speak, imbibing of drugs and alcohol in an effort to give himself just a bit of distance from his own white-hot grief, almost as if the chemicals are like the mirror Perseus must use in order to look at the Medusa and not simply perish. And that combination becomes more and more phantasmagorical, of course, and populated by fairly specific New England ghosts and legends. I also realized that the story was a version of Orpheus and Eurydice, or Persephone and Diana, the narrative of losing someone so dear that you simply cannot accept it and try to go down into the underworld to fetch the lost loved one back. Tons of other stuff in there, too. Hopefully.

coverBut I did find myself with the technically confining structure of a first-person narrative, which I found the hard way is very, very difficult to sustain over a novel-length narrative. And I did find myself in the face of how our culture thinks about drug and alcohol addiction, which made for a very prominent foreground that many readers could not or would not subordinate to the character’s—the true subject of the book—human experience. Certainly, some of that was my shortcoming as an artist. Such is art! Fascinating to learn along the way. Interesting, too, when readers would come up to me and say, Oh, why doesn’t that Charlie guy just pull himself up by his big boy pants and get over it? Well, if he did, there would not have been a book! It’s like asking (on a much, much more sublime level, of course), Oh, why didn’t Hamlet just get on with his revenge? Well, because that’s the play. What would be left of Hamlet if he didn’t agonize? That’s what the whole play is about! If he didn’t agonize, he’d just murder Polonius, assert his right of succession, become a typically vengeful, murderous king, and the play would be two minutes long, and they’d have to bring out the jugglers and dancing bears!

Anyway, Enon was and remains a tough nut to crack. Wholly necessary for me to write (I had close friends who’d lost children, whose experiences were partly why I chose to try to write such a book, and two close friends lost their respective only children while I was writing the book). I am deeply loyal to it. It remains a mystery to me. An occluded vision of something deep and dark and, to me, fascinating.

TM: You teach students to write precisely. What do you mean by “being precise”? How to be both lyrical and precise? Can you give an example?

PH: I guess I have an idealistic, or Platonic, spirit in the use of language; my sense is of a perfect version of, say, Tinkers somewhere out there in or beyond the universe. What I got of it onto paper is the buckled, scorched, dented, imperfect version of it that I managed to fetch from my forays toward that perfect version and bring down through the atmosphere into the English. As it precipitates from that imaginary, perfect state into language, it distorts. But English is a pretty magnificent, flexible, rich, dense language. So I revised. And revised. And revised some more. There’s not a sentence in the book I did not go over 100 times, pushing on the precision of the language to see how close to perfect I could get. That pushing is, of course, aesthetic, too. It is applying aesthetic pressure to the language for precision, largely with the faith that every further degree of precision is a further degree of revelation, of beauty.

When I began to realize this, it took a huge leap of faith, exactly because I thought of myself as a lyrical writer. Even the word itself, “precision,” seemed to contradict the very spirit of lyricism. It seemed surgical or like something from engineering. But again, it is used in this kind of writing to achieve aesthetic sophistication.

The matter was one of learning to trust your subjects. If you sense beauty and lyric essence in your subjects, that means that beauty and lyricism inhere in them. That is, they are already beautiful and lyrical in themselves, before you even stumble by and notice. Which means that it’s not you, the writer, who induces those qualities, with “your” writing. You don’t happen along, sprinkle glitter and fairy dust on the subjects, and they become lyrical. That would be a form in itself of distortion, imprecision. It’s not a cause-and-effect phenomenon, where the writer “causes” subjects to be lyrical or whatever via her writing. The writer pays deep, sustained, considerate, selfless, solicitous attention to subjects she intuits are beautiful and lyrical, and if they indeed are, then the best—really, finally, the only—way to render those things is by precisely describing them as they are. That’s all the difference between poetry and writing that sounds poetic, between beauty and pretty writing.

It seemed counterintuitive to me at the time, so as I said, it was a huge leap of faith. I had to be very deliberate, conscious of writing that way. It took a lot of work to make myself write that way and to keep writing that way. But it was faith well rewarded. It’s a wonderful mystery, but it works every single time.

I should say that this way of thinking is undertaken in the context of writing about character, that is, about experience, so much of the beauty and lyricism also come from refracting, for instance, the description of a striking landscape through a character’s perception of it, experience of it, which in itself is something that, if precisely attended, strikes the reader as true, authentic, thus beautiful. I never write “objectively” about a stand of birch trees in the golden sun near a stream of cold clear water, but of a mind perceiving those things. So the mind and landscape become coextensive and so forth.

TM: Nineteenth-century spirituality is rare to see in contemporary American literature (with the exception of you and your teacher Marilynne Robinson). Based on your reading experience, what do you like most about contemporary American fiction? What don’t you like about it?

coverPH: The only contemporary American fiction I read is that written by my students! Not because I’m doctrinaire or anything, but because when I teach, I teach a novel-writing workshop in which we read and critique a full-length novel manuscript every week, no upper page limit. That’s a ton of reading, but the students are so good that I get to read a rough draft of a good or great novel every week. The rest of my reading time I devote to nonfiction—tons of theology, lately a lot of history, like John Foxe’s massive Actes and Monuments, which chronicles English history from the dawn of time, practically, through the reign of Queen Mary (I think).

Anyway, what I love about the books I see from my students is a willingness to try new ideas, to write unabashedly big, smart, beautiful books. Generally, I dislike books that complain so much about, say, crass, white, middle-class materialism that they themselves becomes artifacts of the very phenomenon they allegedly lament. That’s like shooting fish in a barrel, as they say. What could be easier that pinching the noses of burghers?

TM: One common critique is that contemporary American fiction is small. But our world is big and chaotic. We need a novel that is about the right size. What do you think of the “size” of contemporary American fiction?

coverPH: Oh, that’s a tough one! “Size” has to be dictated from inside the work outward. There are a lot of 600-page novels that have about 75 pages of substance to them and the rest is just self-indulgent riffing. “Size” is properly about the seriousness and depth of idea, of subject. There’s nothing I like better than a big book. You get to live with it longer. It becomes like a friend or lover. Moby Dick, by now, is less a book than a place for me, an actual sort of aesthetic ontological dimension I go back to and live in periodically. I can do that with Melville because the book is 600 pages, but more importantly, each page is 100 pages deep in a sense. It’s so rich, dense, gorgeous, big-spirited, generous, genius. Every page is a feast! So if you crank out several hundred pages of received popular opinion about whatever this season’s version of the American dream or nightmare is, you’ve still written a small, sad little book.

TM: Another contemporary writing trend is that, perhaps under the influence of postmodernism, writers are bold in trying experimental forms with their novels—very often by the use of visual art. But I find, quite often, those forms are a way to legitimize a weak plot or string together a collection of slightly related scenes. In your opinion, what’s the ideal relation between form and content? How to make experimental forms organic?

PH: Well, I think you’ve given a great answer to another of your questions! This is very, very much a matter of personal taste. At this point, we’ve crossed over into personal aesthetics, so this is all purely a matter of my own preferences.

But, for me, first, all good writing is experimental. You experiment with the material to see what works and doesn’t and how and why. I spend tons of time collaging passages, juxtaposing them in various ways, improvising and experimenting with them to see what tones, textures, nuances, harmonies, dissonances, revelations, etc., they generate on their own, almost independent of my own intelligence, as it were. But I do not ever induce form prior to writing or insist on form as I write. I mean, sometimes I do, but in the former case only to jump start the writing in a very early stage of a project, to invoke it, for example, but with the full understanding that the formal structure is a prompt or conceit that the material, if it’s good, will inevitably outgrow and shrug off, and in the latter case usually because I’ve unconsciously or stubbornly persisted in some formal conceit past its usefulness or necessity and have been disfiguring the material so that it accommodates the form. That’s an instance of the writing becoming the subject of the writing, if that makes sense. The writing is the predicate of the proper subject—for me, the characters, their experiences, the phenomenology of things. The writing is subordinate to the people whose lives it serves to portray (which goes back to what we were talking about in terms of precision). I often tell my students, never preserve a conceit at the expense of the story.

One way to revise and edit for this kind of thing, I’ve found, is to listen for your own voice. Whenever I can hear my own voice in my work, I know that I have somehow improperly become the subject of the writing. It’s no longer about my characters but about me being clever, showing off, getting revenge or whatever. So to my thinking, form is an organic function of the process in that it is what physicists might call an “emergent property.” I’m probably fudging the proper definition of the concept, but roughly, I understand emergent properties to be ones that arise from the interactions of a system that could not be predicted prior to that system being set into motion (or whatever—I think it must have something to do with thermodynamics). Form emerges from the inside out, then, rather than being something the writer thinks of abstractly, intellectually, rhetorically beforehand and then induces onto a plot or set of characters or whatever.

Of course, some authors can do this brilliantly. But as you suggest, a lot of writers try fancy formal stuff because there’s no necessity to the work. There’s the mortal danger of constructing something that is purely ornamental. Which is in no way to suggest writers should not use such experimentation as a way of getting to things they find true and essential. But there’s also the risk of a shallow level of appeal. Look! The whole novel is written backwards! How clever. Who cares, you know? It’s not strictly the same thing, but the spirit is similar when the American jazz critic Whitney Balliett described musicians who are technically brilliant but have no vision or soul as possessing “mere virtuosity.”

TM: “Tradition” is a word Americans don’t often mention. I was told by workshop friends that only high school students read Faulkner. In your opinion, what’s American literary tradition? What are the greatest things that young writers can learn from reading them?

PH: American literature by now is so vast it’s hard to describe it as a single tradition. Historically, the tradition probably began with people like Jonathan Edwards, the theologian, who was a magnificent writer. I think of the tradition, if somewhat narrowly, as arising from the New England Reformed Protestant tradition that led to Transcendentalism.

I see that vein as being disciplined by the idea of the primacy of personal experience. Not in a romantic sense but in the deepest intellectual, aesthetic, moral, spiritual sense of using your brain as much as possible to ponder experience itself—the experience of being human, of experiencing a self, the experience of being human as a self. That leads to all sorts of pretty lovely democratic, humanist implications, having to do with allowing every person the freedom to experience her own given humanity, free from coercion, having to do with the premise that every person’s experience has the same ultimate value, and so forth. It’s not the same thing as radical relativism, or simple license to do whatever you’d like.

Parts of the literary and philosophical traditions arise from the earlier theology of what was called the “I and thou” of things. A person activates, cultivates, deepens her own self to the extent that she cares for and dignifies other people’s selves, lives. Pondering one’s own experience makes one more sensitive to the experiences of others, or that’s the spirit of it. Empathy, pretty much. Not a naturally occurring impulse, always, perhaps, but through the discipline and the habit of deliberately thinking as deeply and constantly as possible about such things, one can, so the thinking goes, meaningfully participate in the true value and valuing of human beings. That’s a pretty radically abbreviated description of what I think of as humanism.

In America, but also wherever such thinking has any efficacy, I think it’s fair to say people’s lives are enriched materially and spiritually. In America, such thinking and art, broadly, helped to give rise to things like the abolitionist movement, then civil rights, labor rights, women’s suffrage, an overall lessening of discrimination against and disenfranchisement and of various groups of people. Emerson and Thoreau certainly wrote and thought in that tradition. Emily Dickinson. Herman Melville. Later, Faulkner, for sure. One of the problems of keeping the heart and soul of such a tradition intact is that all those writers, regardless of differences of denomination or faith or however you’d like to describe it, wrote from within the literary and cosmological traditions of the Bible.

Well, if only high schoolers read Faulkner these days, it’s not too much of an exaggeration to say that no one at all reads the Bible. The book has become so encrusted in ideological nacre that it’s almost impossible for Americans to approach the book and what’s in it as they would, say, Moby Dick, which is not necessarily to say secularly but as literature, which is not to demean religion but to elevate narrative, poetry, song, art to the level of the sacred. Anyway, not knowing the Bible is a certain state of illiteracy. It’s not a value judgement (in my judgement!) but a factual description having to do with the simple, unalterable fact that the Bible is the headwater of so-called “Western art.” You don’t have to like it, but it is the case. To the extent that people are ignorant of that tradition, they are separated from what I’m sketching as a kind of stipulated “American tradition.”

Basically, I love the combination of the most sublime, sacred, essential aspects of human experience with the impulse that those things are available to everyone, no matter how high or low they appear in life. Think, again, of Faulkner’s characters. Think of “unlettered Ishmael” in Moby Dick, all those sailors who sign their names “X,” and to whom Melville gives the language of kings and prophets and angels. I love William Tyndale, who made the first translation of the Bible into modern English, and who almost miraculously, single-handedly invented modern literary English by putting the kind of aesthetic pressure I’ve mentioned on it to raise it to a level where it was fine enough to render the sophistication of Biblical literature. His stated goal was to make a translation so lucid and clear that it could be read by the boy out plowing the field. There’s something essential and recognizable to me in that idea in the best parts of the American tradition of democracy, imperfect, severely compromised, often corrupt, battered and embattled thing it has always been.

TM: What is the thing you wish you knew when you were just beginning to write Tinkers?

PH: Easy: nothing! For me, writing is not engineering, in the sense that I do not care much about efficiency. For me, the inefficiency of writing—improvising, discovering, screwing up, searching, finding, not finding, interrogating, exploring, unveiling, revealing—is what yields art. You can’t think it up first, then type it. The putting of language on the page and seeing what meaning you’ve released into the world and shaping it, revising it, building it up, layering it, scraping it back down, and all that is what I love about making beautiful artifacts out of words. There were plenty of technical things it may have been nice to know ahead of time, but I don’t really think much about them, because once you know them, the problems you consider only get deeper. I mean this as a guarantee, a promise to all writers, when I say that one of the best things about writing fiction is that it only gets harder the more you know, in some ways, and that is, to me, a wonderful thing. Whatever I learned writing Tinkers, when I turned to Enon, it was not as if but in fact that I had to learn to write all over again. Fantastic! What good fortune!

was born and raised in Shanghai, China. She is the author of a story collection and the translator of two novels from English to Chinese. Currently, she is an MFA candidate in Iowa Writers' Workshop.

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