Following is an excerpt of an interview with Paul Harding from the Spring 2015 issue of RWU’s literary magazine, Mount Hope. Harding rose to literary prominence with the publication of his first novel, Tinkers, which went on to win the 2010 Pulitzer Prize in Literature. In 2013, he followed that with his highly praised novel, Enon.
As the 2015 Bermont Distinguished Visiting Writer in Fiction or Nonfiction, Paul Harding will be visiting RWU on April 12-13. A public reading will be held on Monday, April 13 (4:00 PM) in the Mary Tefft White Center in the University Library.
Mount Hope: You were always probably a reader and a writer, but before you were published you became a musician.
Paul Harding: I thought of myself as a writer easily ten years before I ever wrote anything. But I was always a reader. My mother, my grandmother, they’re big readers. My grandmother partially because she never had a college education, and she idealized literature and writing. She’d always say, “The Bible is literature and John Updike is pornography.” But she’d still read him. She’d given me [Updike’s] Pigeon Feathers—that early story collection. So I always remember that literary fiction was something to aspire towards being able to read in the first place.
I went to UMass Amherst. I very vividly remember that my exclusive goal for myself in college was—and there weren’t many goals, I wasn’t an ambitious student—my goal was to become a good enough reader so I could say I’ve read The Sound and the Fury, and I can actually catch a rap about it and not sound like an idiot. I just continued to try to read better books, denser books, longer books, just that ambitious kind of reading. Trying to read Tolstoy, reading Proust.
That was like ‘86 to ‘90. I was an undergraduate. So I was really taken up with the magical realists, reading Julio Cortazar and Gabriel Garcia Marquez, and Carlos Fuentes, all those guys.
MH: Did you have particular teachers who really inspired you in that way?
PH: Yeah. It’s a funny thing. This is very circumstantial, so it’s strange. So I came from Wenham, a very small New England village. I went to UMass Amherst, and by the luck of the draw, I ended up roommates with all these really radical dudes from the Upper West Side of New York City whose parents went to Cuba and China and they all went to this radical day camp called Camp Kinderland in Massachusetts. So they all hooked me to radical music, radical literature, and all that sort of stuff. We were so baked all the time and lazy.
The building next to the dorm that I lived in with these guys was the Afro-Am department at UMass. At the time, James Baldwin was teaching there, Archie Shepp was teaching there—the saxophone player—Julius Lester. These guys all just took classes there, because it was right there, and it was already their politics and their art. I took a yearlong class with Archie Shepp called Revolutionary Concepts in Afro-American Music, and he just played all that Pharaoh Sanders and all that stuff, and took classes in the Harlem Renaissance, and then in Black and White Southern literature. That’s how the Faulkner I knew got incorporated into Zora Neale Hurston.
So it was a real catalyst. I was wide open to any of these ideas. Yusef Lateef was teaching at Hampshire. Anyway there was a lot of good music—Max Roach was teaching there—a lot of good literature and a lot of art that was leftist, like social justice, racial justice, labor, all that kind of stuff. They blew me away, and it was enlightening and very cathartic.
MH: Was music a part of your life at this point?
PH: Yeah, I’d been playing in bands forever, for sure. So I was doing all that kind of stuff. But playing the music that wasn’t like broken or just power-trio kind of stuff. But I remember reading Carlos Fuentes’ book Terra Nostra. That is a big doorstop of a book. Just in the middle of it one day in my apartment in Northampton, I was actually, literally putting the book down, and just saying, “I want to do this. This is what I want to do. It has the whole world, it has history, it has politics, it has music, it has everything. How do you do this? Where do I sign up? How do I get on to that?”
Still I didn’t write for another seven or eight years. But like a lot of writers, your reading hits a critical mass at a certain point, and you want to almost start—my first impulse is towards fiction, where there’s almost some overlap of the same impulse. There are people who want to write fan letters to their favorite whatever—movie stars, musicians, or whatever. I just wanted to start a dialogue with my favorite books.
So the first short stories I tried to write all sounded like they were very terrible fourth-rate fiction that had been even more terribly translated from Spanish. I was trying to write Julio Cortazar, Carlos Fuentes and all that sort of stuff. I just took a couple of these really, really shady stories. I’d been in the band for a while. I finally graduated in ‘92, and was touring around with the band I was in early ‘92 to’96 or ‘97.
MH: What was the band called?
PH: Cold Water Flat—terrible, whatever. We had fun and we got to tour all around Europe and North America but it was cut cocky power trio stuff but…
MH: And you were playing drums the whole time?
PH: I was playing drums the whole time. I was a good enough drummer to know what it took to be a great drummer and just knew that was never going to happen that way. So when the band was on a hiatus that proved to be permanent, I tried to write a couple of these short stories, which were really bad. Then I signed up for the whole month, the whole four weeks, at Skidmore College, in the New York Summer Writer’s Institute.
MH: What year was that?
PH: This was ‘96. Just by the luck of a draw the first teacher I ever had for creative writing was Marilynne Robinson. Within ten minutes of her walking into the room it was just like, “That’s it. That’s the life of the mind, the intellectual, the aesthetic, the spiritual, the soulful—the whole thing—there it is. It’s all pulled together in a way that I can completely relate to and I feel like I can aspire towards.”
To read the complete interview, please pick up the Spring 2015 issue of Mount Hope, or access it online in April at http://www.mounthopemagazine.com