Tuesday, November 1, 2011

Paul Harding: Selfless Man, Thinker, Tinker

It’s snowing in October and the trees and power lines are conspiring to imprison me in my house which can mean only one thing: it’s the lightning round! I recently received a late night email from Mr. Paul Harding, who was kind enough to answer a few questions, handing over his answers in a email poked with air holes, marked fragile: handle with care, for, as the man himself says - “Answers live…and I call them as I see them, right here, right now.” He is currently traveling after the whirlwind of success finally released him from its funnel cloud, shiny Pulitzer in hand, for Tinkers his “truly remarkable” (Marilynne Robinson) debut novel. And it is truly remarkable, to say the least. For those of you who haven’t yet, “do the read!” as Mike would say. But, “Beware!” as Lorca would counter, for this here book will read you as much as you read it. It’ll read you sideways. You’re sure to find yourself, like that small black dot of a figure on the cover, adrift, lost in a sea of white, body blind and snow blind, unable to see the hands in front of your face. They might be your hands or they might be your father’s hands. They might be your grandfather’s hands or the hands of a grandfather clock, spinning backwards, forwards, spinning every which way but loose. Loose as in a DNA ribbon, unfurling, unwinding, flapping in the wind, giving away its secrets. Jacob’s ladder deconstructed. So don’t lose yourself, or do, if you dare. Here’s a sort of, part 1, Schrödinger’s cat style:

How or where did the story idea begin for you?

PH: The story is based on anecdotes my maternal grandfather told me about his childhood growing up in Maine.

How much did it change and evolve over time?

I’m idealistic. The story did not change at all. My understanding and perception of it evolved over the course of nearly ten years of writing, rewriting, pondering, etc.

Is it autobiographical in any way?

Some of it is autobiographical. For instance, I apprenticed with my grandfather repairing antique clocks. The deathbed vigil is very much like the one my family had for my grandfather. But it would be difficult for me to be less interested in autobiography, per se. I am not much interested in myself. I am interested in the fact that I am a self, that my experience is as a “self” in this life.

The bold, opening line really lays it all bare. Did you have any reservations about the setting the story up in this fashion?

No reservations at all. I have an almost phobic distaste for plot shenanigans. So the way I solved – or prevented myself, really, from any kind of temptation toward sleight of hand manipulation of the material (e.g. “his mother was really a horse!”), was to lay out the entire plot in the first sentence. That forced me to adhere to the ideal that the story is all in the telling.

Some of my favorite scenes are descriptions of clocks and their inner workings, such as “…the escape wheel (every part perfectly named – escape: the end of the machine, the place where the energy leaks out, breaks free, beats time)…” It all just seems so perfect – the clock, time, the dying man immersed in his memories. Do you find it easier to find the sublime in simple description and direct, clear language? I mean, there is an ethereal, mystical, almost magical feel to whole thing (especially the forest, the epileptic fits, the hallucinations at the start), and yet, you seem to want to stick to the direct, the concrete, and elevate that through the language alone.

Yes, yes, and yes. Symbolism and Meaning with a capital “M” are not qualities that the author thinks up, intellectually, theoretically, beforehand and then super-adds to the material. If the subjects are sound, they are their own best witnesses, and so the author’s job is to merely (merely!) describe them as accurately, as precisely as possible. Then, the meaning and symbolism that is inherent in the subjects will emerge onto the page naturally. The process is properly exegetical rather than eisogetical. Profundity, I’ve found, is achieved by immanence rather than what is traditionally (I think) thought of as transcendence. I attempt full immersion rather than floating off into the ether.

There is a sense of both great distance (between the father’s and sons emotionally, geographically within identity and time itself) and closeness (the sharp interrogation you employ in exploring just about every object, sensation, sentence) in the novel. Did you set about to explore life on such a broad scale, or did it just work out that way?

Juxtaposition of the infinite with the infinitesimal is possibly the artist’s greatest means. In music it is counterpoint, painting contrast. The principle holds across mediums, though.

What are some of the toughest choices you had to make, about characters, or setting, etc?

I had to make the mother – Kathleen – nicer, kinder, more loving than the woman upon whom she was loosely based.

The Reasonable Horologist
– where did the idea for those sections come from?

The early writing I did was all about the deathbed vigil and Howard leaving his family. It thought, My goodness, this is a dire book; I need some variation, another key, some different textures. So, I started fiddling around with some tongue in cheek Enlightenment philosophy – “Welcome, dear fellows, to reason!” – and so forth. The idea, was, again, to put some contrast into the work, so that it would not keep striking the same note, the same tone (i.e., “mono”tone). Eventually, the material had to pull its own dramatic weight, which I hope I did in that the idea of a logical, rational, reparable universe would be a very deeply appealing idea to a man whose own youth had been so hapless and vulnerable.

Todd Orchulek

1 comment:

Francesco Sinibaldi said...

Gentle delight....

Often, in
your memory,
the sound of
a swallow
appears near
a white cloud
recalling the

Francesco Sinibaldi