The experience of having your novel rejected repeatedly can be liberating, says Paul Harding, because it leaves you free to write whatever you want.
And Paul has proved that writing for writing’s sake pays off, because his journey from rejection slips to Pulitzer recognition is now known throughout the publishing and literary world.
He wrote Tinkers, a novel about a dying clock repairer who is released from the constraints of time and memory to return to the life he had with his father, but the manuscript remained unpublished for years and was repeatedly rejected.
Eventually, Tinkers found its way into print through a small publisher. It has since won the Pulitzer Prize.
The important thing to remember is not to confuse publishing with writing, Paul says.
“I felt that I was having my fair share of rejection, along with everyone else. But in the meantime it helped to think ‘hey, if I don’t get published, at least that means I can write whatever I want’. Art for art’s sake.”
‘It’s worth the trouble’
This is the advice Paul now offers to first-time novelists in the light of his experience.
“Be dogged. First, it can take a lot of time and effort for your manuscript to find the editor or agent who is going to love it and be its best advocate.
“Second, keep in mind that you’re working on something that might have profound meaning for other people someday – so it’s worth the trouble.”
And it’s that connection between the writing and reader that is key to producing exceptional writing, Paul says.
“I think that all good writing activates a sense of recognition in the reader.
“It’s the sense of ‘I’ve seen that before; I’ve felt that way before’.
“My favourite moments as a reader are when I realise that I’ve just read something that is true, and I’ve always known it to be true, and I’ve never seen anyone put it into words before.”
‘Read the best’
One of the most important jobs for a writer is to expose themselves to the best writing they can lay their hands on, Paul says.
“If you’re serious, you need to know what your art can do at its very best.
“You need to know the high-water marks of your chosen art, humbling as it is to compare your own stuff to it.”
The books that have inspired Paul are the classics. “I read and re-read older books – and tons of theology,” he says.
He freely admits to having barely made it past 1950 in terms of who he has and has not read. His favourites include Thomas Mann’s The Magic Mountain, Tolstoy’s War and Peace, Proust’s Remembrance of Things Past, and The Portrait of a Lady by Henry James.
Paul’s view is simple. “Time sorts art out, in some ways.”
Cultivating artistic vision
When he thinks back to his education in creative writing, he remembers his tutors showing him how they modelled the life of the mind that was necessary for making art.
He says: “I was privileged to watch people conducting their lives at the highest levels of intellectual and aesthetic sophistication.”
Paul explains: “I want to help them on their way to their own artistic visions, whatever they are, in whatever idiom.”
As for Paul’s own Cinderella story, he says he is now just “carrying all of the good fortune forward”.
Paul has already drafted his second novel, Enon, which is set in the same fictional world as Tinkers. He expects his next book to be out by summer next year.