Reconnecting with Pulitzer Prize-winning writer Paul Harding

March 2, 2012

Of all the conversations we've had this week on the Afternoon Shift, perhaps the one I've been most excited about is the one we scheduled for Friday with writer Paul Harding.

Listen to Steve Edwards interview Paul Harding on Afternoon Shift

For those who don't know, Harding is the writer who shocked the literary world - and, indeed, himself - when his debut novel, Tinkers, won the Pulitzer Prize for fiction in 2010.  Until the Pulitzer, Harding was a respected, but largely unknown writer living outside of Boston, teaching creative writing and trying to find a publisher for his first book.  The New York Times called the news of his win "perhaps the most dramatic literary Cinderella story of recent memory".

As the story goes, publisher after publisher passed on Tinkers, until Harding finally found a home for it at Bellvue Literary Press, an obscure imprint connected to New York's Bellvue Hospital.

Harding told NPR's Lynn Neary that on the morning of the Pulitzer announcement, he learned he'd won the Prize by logging onto the Pulitzer website - and that he kept refreshing his screen because he couldn't believe his eyes. 

And listening to NPR's Morning Edition that morning, I couldn't believe my ears.

Paul's brother, Chet, is one of my closest friends from college. In fact, the first time I remember meeting Paul was at a party he'd invited us to in a house just off the campus of the University of Massachussetts-Amherst.  It was the early 90's and at the time, Chet and I were undergraduates at Amherst College just down the road.

Paul was a few years older and by the time we'd all graduated and gone our various ways, several years passed before I saw him next.  The occasion was at a concert at the Riveria in Uptown. Paul was playing drums for the band Cold Water Flat, which had gained some buzz as part of the 90's alternative scene and now was opening for the likes of Belly and Juliana Hatfield. 

Until then, I had no idea Paul even played the drums (and I was a drummer myself), but his performance blew me away. He was phenomenal - truly the driving force behind the band, ripping off one ridiculous rapid fire fill after another. 

Not long after, Cold Water Flat broke up, and through Chet I learned that Paul was turning his attention from music to writing. In fact, he'd just been accepted into the prestigious Iowa Writer's Workshop in Iowa City. 

In the intervening decade, Chet moved from Chicago and when we'd catch up, on occasion I'd ask about Paul and hear bits and pieces about him rising up the ranks, landing a prestigious fellowship gig here or a publishing short story there. But it wasn't until late 2009 that I ever read any of Paul's work. 

During a visit, Chet handed me an uncorrected page proof of Paul's first book, Tinkers.  I took it home, read it, and marveled at his technique - his disorienting structure, his rich characters and his vivid use of language and memory. Inspired, in part, by Paul and Chet's own family history, Tinkers introduces us to an elderly man on his death bed, blinking in and out of childhood memories of his father.

It's been years since I've spoken with Paul.  In fact, we haven't talked since the Pulitzer.  So when I learned he'd be in town at the AWP convention in Chicago, we jumped at the opportunity to connect.