A Conversation Between Paul Harding and Shelf Unbound
The following is excerpted from an interview that appeared in the February/March 2014 issue of Shelf Unbound.
Shelf Unbound: You dispense with the obvious plot line in the first chapter: Charlie Crosby’s thirteen-year-old daughter is killed in an accident and his wife leaves him.The rest of the novel unfolds the myriad ways Charlie attempts to distance himself from his pain but not from the memory of his daughter. How did you go about structuring the novel?
Paul Harding: Pretty much just as you describe. I wanted to lay all of the cards on the table, right up front, so there was nowhere to hide.The first paragraph is like the opening of an old newspaper article: who, what, why, when, where. It’s one thing to know all of the facts, one thing to understand the facts intellectually, abstractly, as, say,“tragic.” It’s another thing, though—the job of a novel, a work of art—to describe the human implications of those facts, the experience of them by a particular, imperfect human being. It was also one of those challenges you set for yourself as a writer, because such challenges are why you write; the language and the art are there because they have the capacities to explore the impossible facts of human experience, in this case of tragedy. How possibly to express the impossible fact of losing your daughter? A voice breaks the silence and begins an attempt at an account. . . .
The structure of the novel emerged as I listened to Charlie tell the story, one sentence at a time. I think of the book as a confession, like St. Augustine’s—one voice speaking intimately and directly, in good faith, to the reader, trying to account for the speaker’s actions, as flawed and troublesome as they might be. I didn’t want there to be any layers of narrative between the reader and Charlie’s experience. It had to be direct, because so much of the book is about Charlie trying to figure out how to be equal to the tragedy of losing his child, how to improvise a new language, a new perspective, a new, heartbroken humanity out of what remains. His response is fragmented and off-balance and radically disoriented, full of advances and retreats and redoubts and descriptions of how, to paraphrase Shakespeare, his heart is not confederate with his hand, and that is reflected in how the book is structured. There’s no overseeing narrator next to or, perish the thought, above him, tidying things up, smoothing things over for the reader. It’s raw, in real time.The book was also always a monologue—again, a single voice speaking directly to the reader. It is meant to read like a book fromtation.
SU: Your debut novel, Tinkers, won the Pulitzer in 2010. How did the weight of expectation for Enon impact your experience of writing it and perhaps even the novel itself?
PH: I was lucky in that Random House had bought Enon and I was seventy-five or so pages into a draft before Tinkers won the Pulitzer. That and the fact that the editor who bought the book, Susan Kamil, had not read Tinkers before she picked up Enon helped a lot. Whenever the gravitational pull of Tinkers threatened to distract me from the particular difficulties of composing Enon, I was able to go back to those first seventy-five pages and remind myself, whatever the solution, it lies in here, not in Tinkers.
As far as the worldly distractions of following up a successful debut and so forth, I didn’t let them worry me much. Publishing is a rowdy, contact sport, and I’m just as opinionated as the next reader about what books I think are solid works of art or clever, depthless sleight of hand. After the feel-good story behind Tinkers, I knew that no matter what there’d be some, um, blowback, so I just ignore it. Tinkers took guff before and after the prize, Enon will take its fair share of guff, too, and that’s how it is. I always tell my writing students, don’t write your books for readers who won’t like them, and don’t write your books for bad readers. Enon is consistent with its own terms, not Tinkers’s terms, and that’s bound to fluster some people. I was a drummer in a kind of second-or third-tier touring rock band for years, and once you’ve had the piss taken out of you by, for example, the English rock press, a snippy notice from, as William Hazlitt described it, a reviewer engaging in irrelevant smartness at the writer’s expense seems downright quaint. Really, I should be so lucky that my biggest problem is dealing with following up a Pulitzer Prize–winning debut novel, you know?
SU: Charlie is the grandson of the main character in Tinkers. Why did you decide to revisit this family and to continue exploring themes of time, loss, and nature?
PH: Well, the book came to me as a visual image accompanied by a version of that first paragraph. Or the first paragraph contains the fundamental facts that I understood from the visual image, which was a sort of black paper silhouette cutout of a steep hill studded with gravestones and the figure of a man skulking across its crown, under the moon and stars. I knew all at once that it was the Enon cemetery, that the man was Charlie Crosby, that he was scurrying home after a night of misadventure, that his daughter was buried below at the bottom of the hill, and that he was sneaking behind her grave because he was ashamed of who he had become since she died. It was a fairly traditional, classic, mythical, legendary story, like Orpheus, like Persephone. From there it was just a matter of quietly listening for, then to, his voice, of listening and watching as he attempts to reckon with what happened.
Thematically, time, loss, nature, memory are what I find myself always obsessing over.Those things are the hallmark mysteries of our fraught human careers. They are essential and irreducible. With Enon, I also found myself putting pressure on things like belief. In what do we believe? How is belief constructed? How does it persist or corrode? What is belief? What happens when the world in which we believe, or think we believe, assume we believe, evaporates? Charlie enacts all of these improvised personal rituals; it’s like he conjures or improvises a religion based on the worship of his dead daughter, something he understands is bad news, but in which he nevertheless persists for some time. And that fascinated me, too—the discrepancy between what we know and what we do. He knows better than he acts. It’s St. Paul, the evil which I do not want to do is that which I do, and the good I mean to do is that which I do not do.
Check out the back of your trade paperback copy of ENON for more of this interview as well as questions and topics for your book club discussion!