Monday, April 25, 2011

Harding: Not just tinkering around

Originally printed April 21, 2011.

Paul Harding's year as the reigning Pulitzer Prize winner for fiction ended Tuesday when the Pulitzer committee announced novelist Jennifer Egan as the 2011 winner.

In a phone interview Wednesday, Harding said he had noticed a drop-off in the number of the domestic appearances related to his award-winning debut novel "Tinkers." But he also has seen a ramping up of international interest. With several translations of "Tinkers" in the works, Harding already has readings scheduled in such international cities as Paris, Capetown, Hamburg and Dublin -- one of Iowa City's fellow UNESCO Cities of Literature.

"But how do you translate 'Tinkers'?" I asked. "It's so language-driven rather than plot-driven."

"Its language-based aesthetics actually help the translation," Harding said. "The translators aren't limited by trying to find just one corresponding word in the other language."

I'm not sure how international audiences will react to the very stylized and regionalized rural Maine setting for Harding's tale of a dying watchmaker, George Washington Crosby, whose final thoughts flash between his hospice stupor, the memories of his father, Howard, and memories of his unnamed grandfather. (Each generation, it seems, passes further into an almost mythic past.)

But those international audiences probably will have the same reaction that American audiences have. Those who love the book will really love the book. (They'll also love the Cinderella publishing story that makes "Tinkers" the first Pulitzer Prize-winning novel in 30 years to have been printed on a small press -- let alone on a small press such as Bellevue Literary Press, which is run out of New York University's School of Medicine

But that "love" only comes with a struggle. "Tinkers" is still a "literary novel" that makes far more strenuous demands on its readers than your standard book-club fare. Anyone expecting to whip through the slim, 192-page book is in for a surprise. In addition to the shifts in time and voice, the novel also is filled with fictional excerpts from centuries-old manuals on clock-making and horticulture as well as prose-poetic passages that often make sense only after multiple readings.

For most of the translations, Harding sees only the finished product. But some of the translators do check in with him periodically to ask questions about particular American phrases or to ensure they understand a passage correctly.

"The Italian translator wanted to get all the Latin in the book right," Harding said. "Which is interesting because ... well ... I was always just making it up. All those references to 'borealis.' It's kind of an ersatz fairy-tale Latin. But he wanted to correct the declensions and the conjugations ... and was somewhat shocked when I said, 'Do whatever you want.'"

Harding hasn't moved on from the characters and setting of his debut novel. Following in the footsteps of Marilynne Robinson and William Faulkner -- novelists he considers among his "literary aunts and uncles" -- Harding already is working on several stories and a new novel set in Enon, the town where much of "Tinkers" takes place.

The 2000 Iowa Writers' Workshop graduate also said he's not at all concerned about the so-called "sophomore curse." Having signed a two-book deal with Random House even before last year's Pulitzer announcement, he's confident his next book will be a worthwhile follow-up to "Tinkers."

And now that the spotlight is shifting off him -- even slightly -- Harding just might have enough time to finish that next draft.

Press-Citizen Opinion editor Jeff Charis-Carlson can be contacted at

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