Friday, April 16, 2010

Complete Q & A with 2010 Pulitzer Prize winner Paul Harding

Paul Harding, currently a visiting faculty member of the UI Writers' Workshop (and graduate in 2000), won the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction on Monday for his novel, Tinkers. He's the 17th graduate of the UI Writers' Workshop to win a Pulitzer.

Mr. Harding was gracious enough to do an interview with me yesterday over the phone. And let's just say, to put it lightly, Mr. Harding was still on cloud nine and extremely excited. Then again, who wouldn't be? He just won a %$#!in' Pulitzer!

How’s the week been? Hundreds of interviews?

I’m doing very well. Very busy, but in a state of euphoria that’s existed throughout the week.

I haven’t had a moment to sit down and think about it. Within 30 seconds of finding out that the book had won, the Associated Press was on the phone. It shows no signs of letting up, either. Right now, it’s just go, go, go.

I read that no one told you that you won? Where were you when you found out?

The Pulitzer folks don’t call any of the winners ahead of time to notify them. They pick the winners and they compile them, and then they just post it on their website.

I just logged on. Being a writer, I knew the prize was coming out, and being interested in it, I thought I might know someone who won, all that stuff. So I checked it, and when I saw *Tinkers* it was this weird, cognitive, dissonance thing. I just kept seeing Pulitzer, *Tinkers*, Pulitzer, *Tinkers*, and kept thinking “that’s not true, that’s not true, I’m looking at the wrong website.”

And then it hit me, “no, you just actually won the Pulitzer Prize,” and I fell off the couch basically. It was just astonishing.

Your win has been very surprising to the literary world, seeings as *Tinkers* is from a small publisher and did not even receive a review in the NYT. What does it say about small press?

Well, they give out a ton of Pulitzers, but I think that’s why this one is getting so much attention because it sort of came out of nowhere. That’s remarkable in and of itself, but there’s a lot of people who are passionate about reading, literature, and book-selling, and I think it’s encouraging to them because it makes them feel like small presses still represent a legitimate part of the viability and the lifeblood of American arts. They’re still connected with these larger prizes that go on. It’s very validating for all these people who do it for the love it, you know?

Lots of folks are calling this a victory for the small press, and are so happy you won because it’s not the typical book. It’s lyrical. It’s stream of consciousness. Do you believe your win breathes some new life into the Pulitzer competition or opens up more doors?

That I don’t know. I don’t know if it opens more doors, but I think that *Tinkers* and Bellevue Literary Press getting a Pulitzer is the open door itself in some ways. I don’t really know and can’t really speak to how it would change the Pulitzer competition. The underlying anxiety with a lot of these things is that people think these prizes are already a lock a lot of times. So I think what this does is it says, “no, it’s not a lock,” and this and hopefully other prizes are open to just the books that they think are good.

A lot of times I think people can get freaked out by thinking, okay if this person won it then who lost it. This is one where it looks like the dark horse or the underdog got the big prize this time, and I think there’s something lovely about that.

Since you’re a graduate of the Writers’ Workshop, how has that and Iowa City played into your writing life and career?

When I was accepted here, I had just started writing. I think my application was the second and third short story that I tried to write. And for some miraculous reason, and I must say that I didn’t know how to write, and God bless him, Frank Conroy, the director of the Workshop at the time, saw my stuff and saw something in there that made him think “this guy should be here, and we’ll shape him up the next few years.”

And that’s what happened. And it was impossible to have better teachers, or better people, modeling what it means to be a writer, what it means to live the life of a writer, and what’s at stake and how high you have to raise your game in order to create literature and aspire to writing at the highest level. They’re people that I deeply love. They’ve all become friends. They’re people who every time I see them they just make me happy again to be a writer, you know? I want to write, I want to sit around and talk about art, talk about music, painting, writing, and ideas, and then write creative fiction.

Since I was so green when I started here, it was the best possible two year preparation. When I left, I was armed with all the best tactics and ideas and approaches to becoming a writer. So that’s what I set out to do.

So it’s essential. It’s fundamental. The germination of everything happens at the workshop for me. 

What was the process like to get *Tinkers* published? It took a few years, right?

Yeah, I’d written a pretty full, polished first draft of it probably by the end of 2004, 2005. I couldn’t get it published, so I put it away in the desk drawer for a couple years and went on to the next thing. Then it ended up getting published, almost by accident, when Erica Goldman, the editor at Bellevue, and I made a connection just by chance.

Yeah, it did take a long time, but I feel like although *Tinkers* is brand new to everyone else and I’m brand new to everyone else, and it’s a first novel, that sort of thing, but I’ve sort of doggily been going along at this for awhile now. It’s nice because, as knocked out as I am right now by all of this, I feel like what the prize does is it authenticates and encourages me to keep going along the same exact way that I’ve always been. It’s great positive reinforcement and I don’t need to change anything right now. It all worked out.

Personally, when I think, jeesh I won the Pulitzer, now I think, what do I have to do now to deserve this? It’s great, because it’s like, well, keep being humble and keep just doing what you’ve been doing, you know? Don’t change a thing. 

How does it feel to be, from an outside eye, considered on the same level as writers like Marylinne Robinson or other Pulitzer winners and be considered an equal to those who taught you?

To me, it’s a nonissue because I’ll never be an equal to those people. To me, getting the Pulitzer does not change where I feel like I am in relationship to all those other people. I don’t think that it objectively puts me on par with Marylinne Robinson or others. I mean, I will be included with in that role, on that list of other Pulitzer winners, so I’m among that number for that reason. But to me, all those people are my superiors, that’s just how I experience it. Because they’re my mentors. I don’t even think about it in those terms. 

Last question -- favorite place to eat in Iowa City?

I’d have to say the place that I eat the most is probably the Hamburg Inn. A lot of workshop dinners happen at the Motley Cow, and they have beautiful food as well.

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