Tag Archive: Paul Harding

Words from Paul Harding about his workshop


“In our workshop we will gladly ponder whatever kind of prose you write, from the most photorealistic fiction to unlineated poetry, from the most heavily plotted story to stream-of-consciousness lyric. We will allow each piece its own terms and judge its effectiveness at embodying them, rather than any we might impose upon it from the outside. We will consider genre as a description applied subsequently to the composition of a piece of writing, not a received premise that might constrain it in its making.”  Paul Harding

My Week at Hever Castle, by Alex Shoumatoff

The week I spent with Robert Olen Butler and Paul Harding at Hever castle was marvelous and memorable, not just for the spectular venu that the castle provided for the conference. It was really reinvigorating and reinspiring to get into the work of our eleven participants, an incredibly varied bunch of backgrounds and sensibilities all of whom had serious literary chops and distinctive voices. To know that the written word is not dead, that  it still has such passionate afficinados with whom I could share the insights into the writing game and tricks of the trade I have picked up over the decades, and could make specific textual suggestions on how to make their work clearer and stronger, to “make every word tell,” in Strunk and White’s famous injunction, to “love” the writing, as William Shawn used to tell us at the New Yorker, until the sound and flow and sense of the words become what they are talking about. I particularly enjoyed interacting with two great fiction writers, and I think the participants benefited from having the perspectives of both novelists and a literary journalist. It was fun, but intense. Some of these writers we are definitely going to be hearing more from.  Ic raise my glass to Nancy Gerbault for putting together such an interesting gathering.

Memories of Hever Castle by Mary Pauer

Hever Castle, Kent, England – Anne Boleyn’s Childhood Home        November 21-28 2012  Abroad Writers Program

My bedroom, Daffodil, is on the cover of the brochure, the double bed with a canopy – and featured in the Hever Castle history book available to all guests. Daffodil a sumptuous and elegant room, with a door latch and a real key; each detail designed to elicit the feeling of royal opulence.

I’ve been home for almost two weeks, and I can shut my eyes and feel the firm warmth of their down comforter, the starched sheets and the exuberant suds of their body wash. I know I didn’t stay in the Castle proper: I know I stayed in a wing designed for guests, a rambling warren-like extravaganza of 1905 Astor-built plush and posh: a mixture  of styles: Tudor, Edwardian and Victorian, but a the orchids on the conference table were real, from the Hever gardens.

The wait staff, with spotless white gloves, served us Thanksgiving dinner in the Great Hall. Other meals were as sumptuous, served in a fireplace lit room with silver candelabras entwined with season’s greens. Quail eggs, poached eggs; they served eggs to me over-easy, with a smile at my Americanism.

The writer’s workshop was as rich and delightful as the surroundings. Through the leaded glass we heard geese honking, the moat pool directly outside, like glass mirror reflected our white hot writing; our scribbled words and worked dialogue. We pushed, shoved and moved those sentences. We earned our character development, and the trips to the silver and crystal ladies cloak room.

I am back stateside for two weeks have already read three of Alison Weir’s books on the history of England from that period. She lectured twice, as smooth as if she were gossiping about the affair at the office cooler, a piece of gossip alive, in the political arena three hundred years later.

In the castle I sense the treachery, the sensuality and shrewish nature of Anne Boleyn. When I am reading Ms. Weir’s pages I cast my memory to the small upstairs room that had been Anne’s during her youth, a room she most likely shared with her sister, not the only thing those two women shared.

So, while I was treated like a princess, thankfully my days did not end in the Tower waiting for a swordsman imported from France.

But my writing workshops with Robert Olen Butler, Paul Harding, and Alex Shoumatoff, did end, and reluctantly I turned in my key and folded notebook my pages.

If I work really hard, I have sufficient material to keep me going for at least a year. If I remember Robert’s advice, to forget everything I learned, I still have sufficient molten lava for a good short story, and Paul suggests we press our characters so they earn the right on the page.  Alex hopes we praise the world, sing songs of diversity, and he gave me a nickname, Moxie Mary.

I can be a writer with social consciousness. I can find my true story. I can return to Hever Castle in the spring, perhaps, when the flowers are budding and the romance is in bloom. I can be a princess and I will ask for the Daffodil room again.

Mary Pauer –marymargaretpauer@gmail.com

Past times: Sally Potter at Abroad Writers’ Conference in France

Sally shares memories of Abroad in France

As the train slowly moves south through France from its mountainous centre to its arid plains the colours of the vegetation subtly shift. We pass gardens with neat rows of tomatoes and haricots verts, tables with oilcloths and plastic chairs invitingly waiting under shady trees. Lavender bushes which were still in tight pale green bud in the mountains are in full purple bloom as we approach Nimes. Roses are full, open. The sky is deep blue.

I am met at the station by Nancy Gerbault who has organized a literary event which I am to attend for the weekend en route back to London, lured out of my writing retreat by the promise of spending time in the company of Michael Ondaatje, Andrew Motion and others, with the fantasy luxury of a bed in a chateau with breakfast on a pale stone terrace, with my only duties a screening or two and a session answering questions about screenwriting.

What I did not know about was the garden.

The Alchemists Garden

Next to the hotel (not a chateau, in fact, but a Ferme or farm) is a garden built relatively recently, based on alchemical principles. The next morning, in a soft warm breeze, the sun already slanting, hot, onto the immaculate lawns, I enter the garden through its labyrinth and become absorbed and entranced by what I find there. Lavender beds surrounding olive trees, enclosed by willow trees planted in criss-cross lattice form; herbs, vines, flowers; each bush, plant or tree with an adjacent discreet notice describing its properties, many of them traditionally seen as protective against the evil eye, bad influence, or sickness.

After this gentle tour through the powers of plants, comes the alchemical voyage through three inner gardens. First the alchemy garden, the ground covered in slate, everything laid out in straight lines, the borders metallic, the presence of still water, the mood somber. The alchemy garden has paths covered with white gravel, inset with circles of pale stone, a central stone pond surrounded by beds of white roses. A circular entrance through a hedge leads to the alchemy garden with rust-coloured gravel paths, beds of red roses and orange flowers, a central fountain in a six pointed star.

You can leave the black garden by using your mind, says a notice, but to transit the white garden, governed by the moon, you must open your heart. The journey through the red garden, governed by the sun, leads you to a state of transformation. You leave it ready to begin your life again.

I walk through the gardens three times during the weekend. In between I listen to readings (Michael on the craft of writing, Alan Lightman reading from his book Einstein’s Dreams and talking about his dual life as a writer and astrophysicist, Andrew Motion reading his poems, movingly) gaze at the golden light falling on bleached grasses, relax in the heat, talk, eat.

The screening of YES, in the Papal Palace in Avignon, leads to a long Q and A in which, in response to a question and to my observations of the preoccupations of some of the paying participants, I address the question of doubt, self-doubt in particular, as an important part of the writers’ process. My Self-esteem being an overvalued attribute in my view (you feel ashamed if you don’t have enough of it, adding to the sense of lack) I put forward a case for the celebration of both self-doubt and self-criticism. I have noticed that many students feel bad and anxious about the fact that they don’t feel happy with what they have achieved. They assume that those bearers of more conspicuous success must feel good about themselves.

I hope it is reassuring and energising to hear that feelings of confidence are a bonus and not a necessity in writing a screenplay (or perhaps anything else). The point, really, is to get on with it whatever you feel; to learn to coexist with emotional discomfort or anxiety, not to think there’s something wrong with you because it feels hard or you make mistakes.

(My repeated contacts with people struggling with these and other obstacles on the road of screenwriting and directing, some of them students, some practitioners, and the pleasure I get from being able to be of some assistances perhaps simply by saying out loud the things |I wish someone would say to me when I am struggling and it has led me to decide to offer an open workshop or two some time later this year.


As we emerge from the Papal Palace to a soft pink early evening light, Michael Ondaatje suggests a ride on a carousel.  Rebecca Swift and Rebecca Abrams, Michael and I sit on our painted wooden horses, laughing, laughing, and singing, as we slowly turn and turn on our horses as they rise and fall. Later, around midnight, after a feast, driving back into Egaylieres, Michael and I are consumed with the need to find a house we had each stayed in (at different times) some years back.  Laughing, again, we stumble about in the dark. This is it.  No, here!  A light on in the house, a figure moving behind the shutters. Michael shouting up a name into the darkness.

The next morning I visit the alchemist garden one last time and take some photographs with my mobile phone.  For the last month I have been gardening in southern central France: a view of mountains in the distance, but my eyes mostly scanning what is close.  I have had my hands in the earth, day after day, calloused from digging, torn and bleeding from brambles, thistles and nettles. 

I have planted three varieties of potato, two of carrot, four of French bean; tomatoes, leeks, beetroot (red and golden), three types of basil plus thyme, rosemary, mint, dill, tarragon, borage and coriander.  The strawberries, when I left, were red and heavy; the roses were starting to bloom.  A year ago it was a wilderness, full of choking weeds.  Now it looks empty, too clean, but cared for. 

Tomorrow, in London, I will be in a meeting about an opera; two scripts now sit in my suitcase, surrounded by uncertainty, budding but not yet blooming.

From YES BLOG by Sally Potter

The next Abroad Writers’ Conference is scheduled for 21 to 28 November 2012 at Hever Castle. Authors teaching workshops are: Robert Olen Butler, Paul Harding, Edward Humes and Alex Shoumatoff along with three lecturing British historians: Sarah Gristwood, Eric Ives and Alison Weir.

Conference schedule

Meet the experts: Abroad’s lecture series

Come to the castle, have dinner with us, and chat with the experts

A while ago, we wrote our Hever Castle writing conference would be a first for us on many levels – our first conference in a castle, our first conference in autumn, and the first time we have combined history with literature.

But there’s another first for us. We are opening our doors to the public.

In the past, we met dozens of fellow writing types at our workshop events. But this time we hope to meet hundreds, because we are also staging a series of lectures.

Dress up, come and have dinner with us and a glass of wine, hear our speakers, get your book signed, meet like-minded writers and have a chat with our experts.

They will be talking about the Tudors – particularly Anne Boleyn who lived at Hever Castle – the state of publishing today, literature and journalism for our time, along with the art of simply putting words together and crafting your stories. If you’ve been following our blog, you’ll already know some of our speakers.

Here are the details of our lecture evenings. Each dinner will raise money for a locally-based charity. Those organisations will receive 20% of our profits.

21 November – Historian Alison Weir, in support of Hospice in the Weald

22 November – Historians Alison Weir & Sarah Gristwood, in aid of Kent Air Ambulance (This lecture is followed by a special Thanksgiving dinner)

23 November – Pulitzer prize winning author Paul Harding, in aid of Action for Children

24 November – Pulitzer winning author Robert Olen Butler in support of the Dogs Trust

25 November – Vanity Fair contributing editor Alex Shoumatoff, in aid of WWF

26 November – Historian Eric Ives in aid of the YMCA

27 November – Pulitzer prize winner Edward Humes in support of the Wildwood Trust

Tickets are £115 or $184.00 for one lecture and dinner with wine.

Contact: abroadwriters@yahoo.com

Conference schedule

Pulitzer winner Paul Harding: ‘Publishing is not writing’

Paul’s first novel, Tinkers, won a Pulitzer (Pic: Lauren Goldenberg)

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.”

At Abroad‘s Hever Castle conference this November, he will be helping participants cultivate their own intellectual and aesthetic autonomy.

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.

Competition details

Conference schedule