Perry Glasser interviews the 2010 Pulitzer Prize winner about his experience getting his novel published.
When Paul Harding’s Tinkers was first published, the novel was greeted with deafening silence. After years of rejections from almost every major publishing house, Tinkers, about a New England man’s recollections and memories of his father, finally found a home at Bellevue Literary Press.
Harding struggled to get Tinkers on the publishing establishment’s radar; he was an unknown writer, and Bellevue was a small press with little to no advertising budget. Worse, it was a novel about the male experience—and everyone knows men don’t read books. If nobody would so much as review it, how good could it be?
Turns out, it was good enough to win the 2010 Pulitzer Prize.
More women than men buy books. In the halls of publishing houses, conventional wisdom holds that men only read nonfiction or action novels in which paper-thin characters blow things up. Whether they are 15 or 40, the thinking goes, men’s literary taste never changes.
So, Paul Harding’s success set me to wondering: Are men not reading quality novels about the male experience because those books represent an insurmountable business risk? Or are quality novels about the male experience not finding their way into print because of an editorial bias?
Why should a novel that goes on to win the Pulitzer have had such a tough time?
I asked Paul Harding about his experience, his success, and his work.
Glassbrain: Tinkers is about generations of men, and begins with a dying man having thoughts of his long dead father. Can you share with us how and why this theme suggested itself to you?
Harding: The theme arose from the family stories that my maternal grandfather used to tell me about his life in Maine when he was a kid. His father, like Howard Crosby in the book, had epilepsy and left the family when my grandfather was 12, when he found out about his wife’s plans to have him committed to an asylum. Whether out of tact or grief (both, probably), my grandfather would not elaborate on these facts. When he died, I lost access to even the possibility of ever finding out more facts, so I began with those bare fragments and imagined fictional elaborations of them.
Glassbrain: In commercial publishing, we’ve heard that there is a standard marketing rule, that “men don’t read fiction”—unless it is action, escapist stuff, like Tom Clancy’s. Do you suppose that is the general understanding because few serious novels are published with masculine themes, or are few novels published with masculine themes because, in fact, men don’t read fiction?
Harding: Hmm, not an angle from which I usually think about such things, but maybe that’s just because I’m a man who very much reads fiction, so that seems the normative state of affairs from where I sit. The question raises all sorts of interesting subjects. For example, my experience of writing Tinkers never once included any thoughts about it being concerned with “masculine themes.” And yet, the book is, after all, concerned with fathers and sons.
That sort of thing is, in my experience, a matter of process. It’s a matter of primary, secondary, tertiary orders of a work of art’s worldly career. Primarily, the book was about individual souls. But afterwards, the book might well be accurately described as being concerned “with men.” But that is a subsequent, retroactive description of the result of the composition of the book. I guess it’s connected with aesthetics, too. I think that if I started with a theme and then tried to embody it by inducing it onto fictional characters, I’d end up with a crappy book—doctrine or propaganda or rhetoric, things to which I am mortally averse.
What was the question? Sorry. Anyway, there might be some hard numbers that show that, statistically, it’s women who read the most literary fiction, but, I guess I don’t write for men or for women; I write for human beings. It’s funny; a lot of women tell me that the book is unusually insightful about women, for a male author, and a lot of men tell me that they appreciate the book being manly and literary at the same time. I guess in the end I like the fact that art always confounds any given set of sociological or whatever templates, and exists at some lovely, other order of beauty and truth (yes, a la Keats). I think also that sometimes such things are set in false opposition; how is it that we come to think of them as exclusive of one another (not you, but us, as in human beings)?
Glassbrain: How long was Tinkers shopped around before it found a home at Bellevue, a small press associated with the New York hospital? What was that process like?
Harding: I shopped the book around to a bunch of editors and agents, not exhaustively, but maybe fifteen or so places. It was turned down at all of them. The rejections ranged from perfectly civil, boilerplate no thank you’s to pretty absurd lectures about the pace of life today and all of that business. Silly stuff written by people preoccupied (perfectly legitimately, but also in a universe parallel to and separate from my own) with the bottom line. At any rate, I tossed the manuscript in a drawer and it sat there for a couple or three years while I taught and raised my young sons with my wife and kept a home and wrote other things. Then, by happy accident, it ended up in the hands of Erika Goldman, the publisher and editor at Bellevue Literary Press (after the friend of a friend read it to see if it would be suitable for his own small, indie press, which it was not).
The actual process of working with Erika was fantastic—I could not have been more fortunate. She really held me accountable for the writing and the story, but also let me work things out on my own. We trusted each other from the word ‘go’ and I’ve never had an instant’s doubt about her intelligence and integrity and taste.
Glassbrain: Generally, The New York Times serves as the trade publication for publishing, yet Tinkers failed to receive notice from the Times until the novel was awarded the Pulitzer Prize. In addition to being personally validating, can you comment on the general state of the lit biz and its openness to men?
Harding: It seems to me that the matter has a lot to do in fact with all sorts of issues of genre and marketing that get obliterated when the lit biz is considered monolithically. I think that maybe second rank writing can be subdivided, often enough by gender, by the marketing department. Maybe a work of art’s availability (or vulnerability) to being subdivided like that is in fact a mark of it being second rank.
First rank art transcends such things, despite being subjected to all kinds of mistreatment at the hands of all sorts of factions. It might be the transcendentalist in me, but I endeavor to be a faction of one and I think that every successful work of art should be a genre unto itself. For my part, so long as the actual book I wrote and stand by gets printed, I want it to be read by men, women, Africans, Asians, black folks, white folks; I want everyone who reads what I write to recognize his or her humanity. As far as the Times being the steward of the state of the art and all that, I’ve been a paid subscriber for fifteen years, greatly delighted in loving and hating it every morning, feeling vindicated, marginalized, and everything in between. I think the Times is fine and I think the book did pretty well without its imprimatur.
Glassbrain: What advice would you give to men who want to write, publish, and be read? Would you give the same advice to women?
Harding: I’ve taught writing to a lot of people, men and women, and, yes, I give the same advice to everyone. I’ve been fortunate that the classes I teach are all just about writing. I don’t talk much about publishing or about readership, outside of the advice that you should never think about publishing while you’re writing (unless you’re doing a certain kind of genre that works by formula) or about demographics of readership. Those things will distract you from your real work. It’s all about the writing itself. Writing is not a means; it is the thing itself. If you write something true and solid, you’ll get published and you’ll get readers. That’s what the story behind Tinkers illustrates, if it illustrates anything.
I got $1000 and was published by the NYU School of Medicine, with pretty much zero marketing budget. But, even before the Pulitzer, the book sold 15,000 copies, almost wholly by word of mouth. I think that the average first novel sells fewer than 5,000 copies. That means there are readers out there who want literary novels, no mater how tough it is for the bean counters to market them. So, just write what you really think is true. And beautiful. Write what you think is true and beautiful. Really, the two are one and the same thing.
Glassbrain: What are you working on these days?
Harding: I’m working on a novel called Enon. It is about one of George Washington Crosby’s grandsons, Charlie, and Charlie’s daughter, Kate. So, maybe it’ll get called a book about fathers and daughters….That’d be fine. It’s not a sequel to Tinkers, but it occurs in the same world, in the same family. If all goes according to my best intentions, it will be out in 2012.
—Perry Glasser is also a contributor to The Good Men Project: Real Stories from the Front Lines of Modern Manhood.