Paul Harding’s Tinkers was the dark horse winner of the 2010 Pulitzer Prize for Fiction. In his follow-up, Enon, Harding charts the dark course of a father’s grief. We asked him a few questions about his work.
Winning the Pulitzer Prize for Tinkers obviously raised expectations for Enon. How did the weight of those expectations affect you as you were writing this novel?
The expectations Tinkers created for Enon were worldly, external. The process of writing Enon—of writing any novel—is private, interior, a matter of the imagination and of aesthetics. The internal pressure I put on the process of writing Enon was the same as it would have been even if Tinkers hadn’t sold a single copy. That’s just a part of artistic quality control. I found that the worldly pressure created by Tinkers’ success was less than the internal creative pressure of writing Enon. That’s not to say that I didn’t freak out about all of it in my spare time now and then, just that when I was doing the actual writing, I didn’t let the outside world leak in. Whenever I found myself starting to worry over things like this, I just gave myself a good talking to—you know, “You should be so lucky that your problem is having to write the follow-up to your Pulitzer Prize-winning debut novel.”
The protagonist of Enon didn’t necessarily have to be connected to the Crosby family of Tinkers to make this a compelling story. What was it about the Crosbys that made you want to live with another generation of the family, and do you have any plans to continue their story?
The milieu is at my fingertips. I know the people, the landscape, the light, the history, the atmosphere, the whole cosmology. All of that makes it easier for me to concentrate on matters of character and truth and beauty and that fun stuff.
"It’s the writer’s job to render the story, not subject it to his conceits about style or whatever."
Charlie Crosby is a desperate character who does increasingly desperate things as this story unfolds. What concerns did you have about making such a troubled protagonist’s consciousness the focal point of the novel?
His troubles emerged over the course of writing the book. I did not think of him abstractly or theoretically at the outset as a “troubled protagonist.” I thought of him as Charlie, who has just lost his beloved child and went from there, moment by moment. He’s also pretty much aware of how screwed up he is throughout the whole book. One of the things in which I was most interested, in fact, was exploring the very common discrepancy between what we know and how we feel. We know better than we act. Charlie is acutely aware of this fact throughout the book and his struggles largely have to do with trying to reconcile the discrepancy.
Charlie’s wife, Susan, essentially disappears in the novel’s early pages. Why did you choose to focus on Charlie’s singular grief and not make her a larger part of this story?
The idea for the book came to me in a single image, an intricate silhouette of a headstone-studded hill over the top of which a man who proved to be Charlie was creeping very late at night. I knew that he had been up to no good and that his daughter was buried down below and that he thought of himself as sneaking behind her grave because he was ashamed of what he was doing. From the beginning, the book was about Charlie, a single, isolated soul, confronting the starkest kind of existential crisis.
Although its structure isn’t entirely conventional, this novel is a more straightforward narrative than Tinkers. What caused you to move in that direction?
The material dictated itself more or less and I just dutifully followed. I spent some time early on resisting, for example, the dialog that kept coming up. I’d try to hush the characters, thinking, “I don’t write dialog; I don’t use quotation marks” and that kind of thing. It was a little scary finding that I had a different kind of book on my hands. But then, it’s the writer’s job to render the story, not subject it to his conceits about style or whatever. When I look at Enon now, too, it seems to me that it necessarily had to begin a bit more conventionally because the story is after all about the corrosion of a fairly conventional set of circumstances into something a lot darker and turbulent and harrowing.
You write with great feeling about the natural world and about history. What gives you such an affinity for these subjects?
It’s just my natural disposition. I spent and spend a lot of time knocking around in the woods and meadows of the North Shore of Boston, so I associate that landscape with all kinds of essential, formative and normative experience. History interests me largely in relation to the mysteries of the nature of time.
Marilynne Robinson, with whom you studied at the Iowa Writers’ Workshop, has praised both this novel and Tinkers lavishly, and it feels as if the two of you share a common literary sensibility. Has she been a significant influence on your writing and, if so, in what ways?
She was and is hugely influential. She is a dear friend now. She taught the first writing class I ever took and within 10 minutes of her walking into the first meeting I knew that hers was the sort of life of the mind, the intellect, the soul that I wanted for myself. For whatever reasons, she and I can plunk down onto whatever chairs or park bench might be at hand, or just walk around in circles and talk and talk for hours about theology and art and politics and physics and cosmology. She is justly beloved around the world because she is brilliant and gracious to nearly unbelievable degrees.
Who are some other writers that have influenced your style in a significant way?
I have no anxiety of influence. I love making prose that is tinctured with my favorite writers. So long as the writing is not merely imitative or derivative, I love the fact that, reading Tinkers or Enon, a reader can clearly see my love for and devotion to Faulkner and Dickinson and Emerson and Hawthorne and Melville and Stevens, et. al. I think of them all as my aunties and uncles—Uncle Bill, Aunt Emily. So, the New Englanders are always at hand, not because they’re New Englanders but because of their aesthetics, which came out of the New England religious and theological tradition. I count Jonathan Edwards as an influence, too. Slightly apart from that group stands Henry James, who I adore. Then there are others slightly more far-flung but no less influential, like Thomas Mann, Tolstoy, Zola, Proust, Turgenev and on and on.
Tell us something about your next project.
I’m digging up some tree stumps in my yard, rereading Absalom, Absalom! and the selected poems of Wallace Stevens and whatever other books are piled up in various corners of the rooms in my house, watching my kids play lots of little league baseball games, and trying to stay open and receptive to the next, mysterious, irresistible image that, when I make inquiries, will unfold into another fictional world.
ALSO IN BOOKPAGE: Read our review of Enon.