The Literary Horologist: Paul Harding “Tinkers” With Time

“… I don’t write the book in any order, I just literally wake up and wonder about whatever immediately strikes me as interesting. Usually I have a question about something: ‘What does she think at that point?’ Or, ‘What does he do?’ Or, ‘What does the cemetery look like in the autumn?’ And I just start writing.”

Interview published: Dec 2009 / Jan 2010

Paul Harding’s prose is like the interior of an antique clock; the copper wires of rhythm bound to sentences like brass gears that control the movement of loss. These marvelous mechanics propel readers through the provinces of memory—the angle of winter light on ankle-deep snow, the clink of metal spoons in wooden drawers, the missing father and his mule-drawn wagon making their way away from the embracing warmth of home.

“God hear me weep as I fill out receipts for tin buckets, and slip hooch into coat pockets for cash, and tell people about my whip-smart sons and beautiful daughters. God know my shame as I push my mule to exhaustion, even after the moon and Venus have risen to preside over the owls and mice, because I am not going back to my family — my wife, my children — because my wife’s silence is not the forbearance of decent, stern people who fear You; it is the quiet of outrage, of bitterness. It is the quiet of biding time. God forgive me. I am leaving.” (Pg. 122)

The movements of departure — of a husband from his family, of time from its timepieces, of a wife from the alliance of marriage — are rendered in language grounded in the precision of words.

“The house was gone. Kathleen stopped walking and looked around. The clouds that had colored the dawn copper had advanced and were now fastened overhead like a lid of stone. Flurries of snow spun in the wind. Kathleen surely stood in the right place and the doctor’s house surely was vanished.” (Pg. 91)

Paul Harding creates an immersive experience in which the present recedes naturally into the past on a journey through the frozen backwoods of New England, where an act of kindness elicits the gift of an American treasure, and the silences that deepen over dinner are the residue of love lost to the void of poverty, to illness, to unanswered prayers. Paul Harding’s steady hand pulls us in and leads us on, turning back the layers of legend to brighten its shadows with the reviving light of beautiful prose.

— Carlin M. Wragg, Editor

Note: This transcript has been slightly modified to enhance readability.

Paul Harding: [Reads from Tinkers, pages 7 – 8.]

Carlin M. Wragg: The story begins inside the mind of George Washington Crosby, who’s the son of Howard Aaron Crosby, in his final days of life. Could you talk about the choice to begin the book inside the mind of a character in his final moments? What did that make possible for you as a writer?

PH: I don’t know… It’s funny because my mode of composition is so scattershot, I just collage things together, so the beginning of the book wasn’t one of the last things I wrote, it was probably something I wrote in the middle of the process. The book actually radiated out from when George’s father originally left the family in northern Maine years and years ago, that becomes the event which George is remembering as he dies. I just had this idea of “stock taking” when you’re dying—you’re at the end of your life and so what you do when you’re facing the end is you turn back and the main thing that he turned back toward was this catastrophic event in his own personal history and his family’s history which was being abandoned by his father. I just had this idea of George having a scrambled mind and slipping away from the world and trying to imagine his way back to his father in order to affect some kind of reunion.

CMW: Is that then how the structure came to be? Because the structure isn’t linear; there are circles within circles within circles of voices.

PH: Yes. I guess that’s a function of the way the canals of my own brain work; I think that way so the fiction comes to me in that way, and that worked organically with the fact that the story is so interior, that it’s in George’s brain. I had this idea that the present is what he’s running out of, he’s running out of time in the present, and so the whole narrative just keeps dropping deeper and deeper into the past.

CMW: Is that something you discovered as you were writing or had you set the plot out in advance?

PH: No—no plot set out whatsoever. In terms of process, it’s all what I would call “interrogative writing,” you write in order to find out what the case is in any given sentence. You just sort of discover what’s true.

[Newton's discoveries became the basis for a detailed and comprehensive study of mechanics. --Learning Space, The Open University]

The first thing I ever thought of for the novel, the first line or image that came to me, was the instant after the character Howard Crosby, the “tinker” of the title, has left his family and he’s realized it for the first time. I thought, “What would it be like to realize that you’ve just abandoned your own family?” Then I wrote the next sentence and the next sentence and the next sentence and eventually you think, “How does that radiate out over time? What are the consequences of that? What’s the wake that’s left behind?” And it naturally included his children and his legacy and all of that.

CMW: Were you interested very much in mortality, or did the theme of mortality come to you organically?

PH: It came organically. I’m not particularly morbid by nature but yes, it is mortality, and also the idea of time. I think that if a character doesn’t really have much time left in the present then, again, it all falls back into the past. I was also working with the idea that you can be in any number of times at once — it can be atemporal in some ways — so the book works toward this reunion that occurs in nothing but George’s imagination.

CMW: So the book is almost challenging the necessity of locating a story in the physical world or in physical action?

PH: Yes, and I think as a writer, particularly as a fiction writer, that poses all sorts of interesting technical and compositional challenges. I teach fiction writing and I’m always pounding the table saying, “You have to write in scene, you have to write in scene, things have to happen,” and then I write a novel that’s almost entirely interior. [Laughter.] But that’s one of the joys of being an artist; the material presents its terms “…that’s one of the joys of being an artist; the material presents its terms to you and you have to figure out a way, technically, to be equal to them.”to you and you have to figure out a way, technically, to be equal to them. In this case I realized that if the book was going to be interior it was in danger of being very abstract, in some ways the book is very abstract, so to me the natural counterbalance to that is to write incredibly concrete prose. To do that I just set this general rule of thumb that was literally as mundane as it sounds, that if you flip through the book and put your finger down anywhere you would put your finger down on a concrete noun or a verb.

CMW: Which is one of the things when I was reading Tinkers that I found so exciting—I was in this interior world and it was whirling around me, this story, but there were so many images and specific nouns and specific aspects of the scene or the scenario that kept me really rooted in place.

PH: I was always surprised at what ended up on the page in terms of these very abstract premises. I’d write about them as if they were literally, physically true and so I got this very, very strange twilight world. It was gratifying to see that happen.

CMW: You refer to a great work of art in a really charming way in your book, Tinkers. I wonder if you would read us that section?

["Hawthorne: A Life," by Brenda Wineapple (Random House Trade Paperbacks, 2004)]

PH: Oh sure, yes.

CMW: Before you do, could you tell us who Gilbert is? We know Howard; who is Gilbert?

PH: Howard is the tinker of the title and he travels around the backwoods of Maine selling mops and brushes and buckets and stuff like that to people. Gilbert is a hermit, he’s a semi-legendary figure in this area of Maine, who lives in the woods, nobody’s quite sure where he lives and how he survives and there are rumors about him having been a graduate of Bowdoin College and having been a classmate of Nathaniel Hawthorne’s but in the chronology of the book people realize that he would have to be something like 120 or 130 years old in order to have actually been one of Hawthorne’s classmates; Howard supplies Gilbert. Gilbert needs a little bit of tobacco and a little bit of coffee and that sort of thing, so once a year Howard and Gilbert meet up in the woods and Howard gives him his supplies. This section is about the last time they meet in the woods. I should also say that part of their relationship is that they never actually speak to one another, they just nod and smoke a pipe together, that’s it, so this little bit is about the last time they meet and about the fact that they do actually have to have some kind of verbal exchange.

PH: [Reads from Tinkers, pages 40 — 43.]

CMW: Where did this episode come from? It has a magic quality that is really unique to the book, I think.

PH: I think that this whole scene arose out of the need for variation. I felt like I needed an episodic scene that was slightly humorous but was consistent with the rest of the story.

This is funny because now I can’t remember what’s factual and what’s imagined but I seem to remember that up in northern Maine — my grandparents are from northern Maine and a lot of the book is set in the landscape that I’m familiar with from going up fishing with my grandfather since I was a kid — and it seemed to me that there had been rumors of a local hermit back in the Twenties living in the woods. It’s so far north that the summer’s maybe six weeks long “I think that a lot of things, whether something’s sad or happy, or light or dark, in a book, whatever its main qualities are are usually more effectively brought out by virtue of being set in relief against something else.”and then it’s winter again, and one day I was thinking about Howard and who he’d know and who he’d run into out in the woods and I remembered these little scraps about a hermit, wondered how in the world somebody could live out in those woods, and thought, “Well wait a minute, my character is a tinker who supplies household goods, and even a hermit might need a needle and a thread or some tobacco once in a while,” so I just decided that Howard supplied this guy. Then I thought, “If he supplies him how do they meet? What does he need? What are their interactions like?” and I came up with this episode.

CMW: Was there any significance to the choice of the book that was the gift?

PH: No, [laughter] — absolutely none! Other then that where I went up fishing with my grandfather is so remote that there are no towns, there are just grids that are numbered by the U.S. Geological Survey, and where we fish originally—I don’t know if Bowdoin College owns it but on the maps it says “Bowdoin Grant” so it might be land that has been granted to Bowdoin—Nathaniel Hawthorne famously went to Bowdoin—and so it’s an orchestration of these weird coincidental details: Nathaniel Hawthorne, Bowdoin College, this hermit.

CMW: Where did “The Reasonable Horologist” come from? Because that’s a different voice.

["The Age of Wonder: How the Romantic Generation Discovered the Beauty and Terror of Science," by Richard Holmes (Pantheon, 2009)]

PH: Within the book one of the characters trades and repairs antique clocks, and interspersed throughout his story are quotes from a book that does not exist, that I wholly made up, called The Reasonable Horologist, which is supposed to be an Eighteenth Century clock repair manual. But I also — because it was the Eighteenth Century and I thought about Enlightenment and the Age of Reason and the Clockwork Universe and Determinism — all the implications kept opening out into all these other neat themes and ideas that I could run with. So I got to play around with all those themes but then also, again, on the most mundane practical level, as I got deeper into the book I felt like the book was very funereal and twilit, it was very somber, and I felt like I needed something to alleviate that, literally to change the tone so the book wouldn’t be monotoned. You need different textures, just a different palate. I think that a lot of things, whether something’s sad or happy, or light or dark, in a book, whatever its main qualities are are usually more effectively brought out by virtue of being set in relief against something else. So it was fun to write it and it was also good to juxtapose those passages with the more serious-sounding passages.

CMW: Did you set up any particular writing challenge when you were working on those sections?

PH: No, not really. My grandfather in real life repaired and traded antique clocks and I apprenticed with him for several years so I spent a lot of time fooling around with clocks and trying to repair them. My grandfather had an incredible library of clock books, books about clocks, and books about repairing clocks, so I was familiar with this genre of books about time and about timekeeping. It’s an interesting blend of genres. A lot of it is just very practical mechanical prose and material, but then it also invariably slips into philosophical ideas about what it means to quantify time. I’m a junkie for time and narrative so I love that idea of taking time and marking it off with instruments when really those are just human products.

CMW: Why was it important to you that Howard was epileptic?

PH: It wasn’t. That’s one of those funny things where the dramatic premises of the novel were given to me, in that, as my grandfather was a clock repairman, his father was epileptic and left my grandfather’s family when my grandfather was twelve years old. So to that extent I think of them as dramatic lynchpins; they’re factual, but my grandfather and grandmother, my maternal grandparents, both grew up in northern Maine and had very difficult, very impoverished lives, and even though I always went back up there with my grandfather fly fishing and all this sort of stuff subsequently, they were just — I don’t know, was it generational, whatever combination of things it was they would not elaborate, they would not talk about their lives.

I was very, very close with both my grandparents, particularly my grandfather, and he told me: “Oh my father had epilepsy and he left the family when we were twelve because he got wind of his wife’s intentions of having him committed to an asylum,” which happens in the book, and I would ask my grandfather to elaborate and he just said, “Nope, those days are over. Those are the facts and I don’t like to think about them, I don’t like to talk about them.” Then my grandfather died and you realize that link to the past is not there anymore. So I took those little factual tidbits and started writing my way out from them. I just imagined it.

It was a process where I had to do enough writing so that the imagined truth hit its own critical mass, got its own integrity, took on its own momentum so that this could become the version that I imagined, I didn’t want to do any research or anything like that.

CMW: I want to move to a very simple question: Why did you set the book in New England?

["One Hundred Years of Solitude," by Gabriel García Márquez (Harper Perennial Modern Classics, 2006)]

PH: The short answer is because that’s where I’m from. The slightly longer answer has to do with, for some reason, before I started writing, I was very, very enchanted with the so-called magical realists. I loved García Márquez, I loved Cortázar, all those guys, and I remember that I was reading Carlos Fuentes’s novel Terra Nostra and in the middle of it I just said, “I want to do this.”

But those guys — their fiction is so far-flung and cosmologically spread out all over the universe and all over history, so just circumstantially, at first I had this idea that everything I was going to write was going to be set in very exotic times and places. So I worked on a novel for three years, before grad school and through grad school, that was about a twelve-year-old girl who disguises herself as a boy so that she can work in a silver mine in Mexico in the Sixteenth Century. At the time I was thinking it was a combination of my two favorite books, Fuentes’s Terra Nostra and Thomas Mann’s Magic Mountain.

The problem I had is that it got so that I couldn’t write a sentence without having to do research, and I couldn’t figure out how to write it without turning it into costume drama. You know, “What would the pre-Columbian miner say to the German mining engineer about the…?” And, “Would he be wearing a silver belt buckle?” I got lost in the props. One morning I woke up and looked at the novel and the whole thing collapsed — I looked at it from one degree different angle and the whole thing collapsed — then fewer than twelve hours later I started writing Tinkers.

So this is the very, very paraphrastic way of answering your original question, which was just that I decided that I was going to use a setting and milieu that I had immediately at my fingertips so that as characterological ideas, themes, and scenes came to me I wouldn’t have to stop for a second to wonder what the light would be like, what the landscape would look like, what the flora and fauna would be like, what the voices would sound like, because all that stuff, it’s a beautiful paradox — what is it? That there are no ninety degree angles in art — that beautiful paradox where all that stuff is of the upmost importance because it’s the stuff out of which the novel ends up being composed, but in another way it’s totally circumstantial.

CMW: It sounds like you had to go through the process of the failed novel to get to this one because you had to know that about yourself.

PH: Yes, because then I know what I know, and I know why I know it. It’s still constantly happening. I’m working on a second novel now and that’s interesting because you find out what was just a function of writing your first successful — as opposed to the novel that I just abandoned — writing the novel that I actually saw to completion, and what’s actually the way that you write that will be the same for all the different books.

CMW: What are you noticing? What’s different?

PH: That I totally collage things together. I don’t write the book in any order, I just literally wake up and wonder about whatever immediately strikes me as interesting. Usually I’m wondering, I have a question about something. “What does she think at that point?” Or, “What does he do?” Or, “What does the cemetery look like in the autumn?” And I just start writing. Eventually, I have to have faith in the process, it happened with Tinkers so I’m hoping it will happen again, eventually everything ends up overlapping.

When I wrote Tinkers, I don’t remember the last scene I wrote but I do remember the phenomenon of finishing one particular day’s writing and as I typed “I remember the phenomenon of finishing one particular day’s writing and as I typed the last period on the last sentence realizing, ‘Oh, I’m done. I’ve got the whole book here.’”the last period on the last sentence realizing, “Oh, I’m done. I’ve got the whole book here.” Then, because everything is so scattered on notebooks and computers and on the backs of receipts from bookstores and stuff like that, I printed everything up and literally took scissors and tape and staplers and cut it all up; it was like a puzzle. I spread it all out on my living room floor and I put the whole novel into order, and it turned out that there was a chronological order and it all worked.

CMW: One of the things I’ve been thinking about in learning the style of your sentences is that they have a great rhythm, so it makes sense to me that you were a drummer.

PH: Yes, absolutely. Having just, from as early as I can remember, always listened to music, so generally music but then more particularly drums because that’s what I played for many years, I think of sentences as having rhythms and I write by ear. Sometimes you get the rhythm before you get the meaning of the sentence, the rhythm leads you to the meaning of the sentence and it feels simultaneously subjective but also objective. You know when there’s a beat too long in that sentence somewhere, where is it? Then you drop it and get the rhythm right and suddenly the meaning is revealed.

In terms of when I switched over from being a musician to being a writer, to me there’s that wonderful paradox where it’s circumstantial — I mean, I feel like I’m just taking dictation, so to me it doesn’t matter whether I have a pair of drumsticks in my hands or whether, as it were, I have a pen in my hand; when the stuff starts coming through, if I have drumsticks I just start playing what comes through, and if I have a pen I just start writing it.

CMW: If you feel you’re taking dictation can you talk about your revision process? Because one would think that maybe it comes whole to you.

PH: No, it’s funny because it certainly doesn’t. This is another reason why I’m fascinated with time and being in time, because I feel that if the ideal novel exists “supra-temporally,” when I’m taking dictation I don’t always hear it right the first time. I like to think that if it’s always there I can go back to it subsequently and revise it and listen again, that the thing is still there for me to channel — it gets a little bit weird to talk in those terms — but just the idea that I’m taking observations down from something that exists outside of my perception of it so I can always go back and re-perceive it.

You’re constantly trying to orchestrate so many things in any given sentence. The sentence almost has strata to it and you might get two or three of the strata right the first shot, but then you have to go back “I feel like I’m just taking dictation, so to me it doesn’t matter whether I have a pair of drumsticks in my hands or whether, as it were, I have a pen in my hand; when the stuff starts coming through, if I have drumsticks I just start playing what comes through, and if I have a pen I just start writing it.”and find the layers inside. It’s this process of exploring and re-exploring, because I’m an obsessive rewriter—I just rewrite and rewrite and rewrite.

CMW: One of the things we talked about on the phone was your friendship with Marilynne Robinson, who’s been really influential on many writers, but you actually know her. One of the things you were talking to me about was her revision process and I wonder if you could describe that because it’s very interesting in relation to what you’ve just said.

PH: To the extent that I don’t want to betray any of Marilynne’s confidences, but I don’t think this is doing that because she talks about this in her own interviews and in class when she teaches, she doesn’t really revise. I think she spends time composing in her mind and then by the time she writes it down all the revision has been done mentally ahead of time. If she feels like she didn’t get it right she just starts it again; she just starts with a clean sheet of paper.

[Barry Unsworth Digs into the 'Land of Marvels']

To me that’s interesting for a number of reasons, partly because I admire it so much and could never do it. As a writer, so many times, particularly young writers, when you’re teaching writing or you’re learning writing you’re always looking for normative aspects of process that you can rely on, that you can cling to, so there are these vérités. The problem with that is you can take as normative things which are actually very subjective, that are highly subjective functions of say, for example, your own teacher’s process. So in the case of this process with Marilynne Robinson, you have to really pay attention to how you do it best. When I would look at Marilynne Robinson’s prose for example, that’s quality control — that’s what English prose can do. It’s the same with my other teachers, Elizabeth McCracken, Barry Unsworth, they’re such amazing writers. Then you have to think, “That’s the end that I want to get to, that level.” That’s what you want to aspire toward but the means for getting there is something nobody can hand to you; nobody can tell you how you get to your own best writing.

CMW: I like the idea of combining the openness, which we were just talking about, with what you were describing, which is the rigor, the practice, the craft. It sounds like it’s the responsibility of the writer, in being the recipient of what comes through this strange imaginative process, to really work out — you have to work out those skills and make them continue to be strong, those muscles have to be there.

PH: Absolutely. They atrophy if you don’t keep using them, so you do. I’m a habitual reader of the dictionary. Not to have exotic vocabulary, but to have correct vocabulary. To me, the experience I want a reader of anything I write to have is immediacy. I don’t want them to feel like there’s any distance between, or as little distance as “…what you want to aspire toward but the means for getting there is something nobody can hand to you; nobody can tell you how you get to your own best writing.”possible, between the reader and the experience itself. I want the language to be as precise as possible to get the reader as close to the actual experience as I can without relying on hearsay or received opinion or off-the-rack prefabricated writing.

I think a great work of art is an experience in itself. I think it happens with paintings, it happens with movies, it happens with music, where at a certain point you feel like you’re not reading words anymore, you’re actually having the experience — you’re listening to music and you’re just no longer aware of John Coltrane playing the saxophone, it’s just pure aesthetic experience. In some ways there’s that weird transcendence through imminence kind of thing — at a certain point it becomes incidental or circumstantial that John Coltrane is playing a saxophone.

[The Official John Coltrane website]

CMW: I want to ask one final question: I wonder if you’re done with these characters?

PH: Nope. The second novel is about one of George’s grandsons.

CMW: The link between fathers and sons, I know you’re a father yourself, is that a theme that’s fascinating to you?

PH: It is fascinating to me, but I didn’t deliberately choose it. It arose, again, as a consequence of those dramatic premises. It just happened to be father, son, father, son. In fact, when I first wrote Tinkers there was a seventy-five or eighty page section that’s about the mother, Kathleen. She’s fascinating to me and I just… in some ways I felt like she was the main character of the book because I just could never figure her out. I wanted to do her justice. Sometimes people say, “Why aren’t there any women in the book?” It wasn’t deliberate, I just knew about the emotional lives and the connections of these men and this woman remained inscrutable to me.

When I cut out this other section of the novel I tried to write a long short story or a novella that was just about her. The problem with her that I just couldn’t — coming up on my own limitations to imagine her — was that she is embittered and the problem with that, in terms of writing about somebody who is embittered, is that it is a very, in the most technical sense of the word, monotonous state of mind. There’s not much variation, there’s little humor, there’s not much levity; she’s really been cashed in by her experience, so I figured the kindest thing I could do for her was to let her be.

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