THIS STORY HAS BEEN FORMATTED FOR EASY PRINTING

A tide of affection for prose that nearly went unpublished

Word of mouth helped propel Mass. novelist to Pulitzer

By Geoff Edgers
Globe Staff / April 15, 2010

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For three years, Paul Harding’s unpublished novel, “Tinkers,’’ sat in a drawer. The writer, a former Boston rock drummer who grew up in Wenham, had tried selling it, but nobody was interested.

“I thought, ‘Maybe I’ll be a writer who doesn’t publish,’ ’’ Harding, 42, said this week, a day after “Tinkers’’ earned him the Pulitzer Prize for fiction — the first book by a small publisher to do so in nearly three decades.

The author’s unlikely success story is rooted in a series of personal interactions between publishers, booksellers, and reviewers that launched a book the old-fashioned way. There were no media campaigns, Twitter feeds, or 30-city tours. Instead, the success of “Tinkers’’ can be linked to a handful of people who were so moved by the richly lyrical story of an old man facing his final days that they had to tell others about it.

“This wasn’t social media,’’ says Michael Coffey, co-editor of Publishers Weekly and a big booster of “Tinkers.’’ “It was real word of mouth and somebody picking up a lunch check.’’

The journey to success began in 2007, when Harding met a fellow writer who suggested he send the manuscript to Jonathan Rabinowitz, who ran Turtle Point Press. Rabinowitz passed on Harding’s book, though he liked it a lot.

The next year Rabinowitz said he met a colleague, Erika Goldman, for lunch and happened to tell her about “Tinkers.’’ Goldman ran the tiny Bellevue Literary Press, a nonprofit publisher connected to New York University’s School of Medicine. She curled up in bed one night and cracked open the manuscript.

“It was so exquisite that I found myself — and this has never happened — weeping for the beauty of the prose,’’ she said. “Paul is a poet who writes prose, and his ability to evoke nuanced emotions through the images that he creates is remarkable.’’

Goldman called Harding and gave him the good news. She would publish his novel, with an initial run of 3,500 copies. The advance: $1,000.

That’s a tiny fraction of a typical advance, but Harding didn’t complain. He was surviving on unemployment checks and his wife’s salary as a middle school teacher in Georgetown, where the couple now live with their two sons. He drove a battered 1992 Oldsmobile station wagon, a car that had served him well 15 years earlier as drummer of the Boston-based rock band Cold Water Flat.

That May, the galleys arrived, with blurbs from some of the esteemed writers Harding had studied with over the years — Barry Unsworth, Elizabeth McCracken, and Marilynne Robinson. Goldman, a veteran of several major publishers before joining Bellevue, met Publishers Weekly’s Coffey for lunch. She handed him a galley.

He started reading it at work, went home for dinner, and kept reading until midnight. “It’s not something I normally do,’’ he said. “But it was just so beautifully written. I don’t often see prose like that. I saw him as a sort of heir to Updike.’’

The book would receive a starred review in Publishers Weekly and, after Coffey advocated for it, “Tinkers’’ would be recognized as one of the year’s best books in Publishers Weekly.

At the same time, Lise Solomon, who lives just outside San Francisco and serves as a sales representative for a group of small presses, sat on her couch devouring her advance copy of “Tinkers.’’

“I sat and lingered over it,’’ she said of the 191-page book. “I read and reread it, because the writing is so luscious and I didn’t want to read it in an hour.’’

Solomon, who spends much of her time driving between independent book stores to pitch them on which books they should stock, came up with a plan for “Tinkers.’’

“I was going to make it a Bay Area bestseller,’’ she said.

She brought it to a Marin County store called Book Passage and received what she called a “nice opening order’’: five books. Sheryl Cotleur, the buying director at Book Passage, passed the book to John Freeman, who featured “Tinkers’’ as one of the best books of the year on National Public Radio, and a buyer at Random House, who passed it on to an editor. Harding was signed by Random House for his next two books.

The 500-book run created after Cotleur’s request was met by a larger, 750-book hardcover order by Powell’s in Oregon, the largest independent bookseller in the world.

Then, Solomon talked with Bellevue about getting Harding to go out west to do a small tour for “Tinkers.’’ He did in January. On Feb. 8, the book cracked the number 10 position of the Bay Area best-seller list.

Back east, it also gathered steam. The New Yorker raved about it, as did the Los Angeles Times and The Boston Globe.

At the same time, Harding was back in Massachusetts. Commuting from his home in Georgetown, he had been teaching English at Harvard as a nontenured faculty member for years, but the university cut back his classes. He went on unemployment and drove all over, whether to bookstores or people’s living rooms.

“People would get together, and they’d cook food, and they’d read the book, and I’d sit amongst them and do the Q&A,’’ he said from the University of Iowa, where he’s currently teaching at the prestigious Iowa Writers’ Workshop. “The book seemed to have legs. Usually, the life of a book is almost like the opening weekend for a movie. But this just kept chugging along.’’ There are now 15,000 copies of “Tinkers’’ in print, but it is going back to press now that the Pulitzer has been awarded. (“Tinkers’’ was number 10 yesterday on Amazon.com’s list of bestsellers.)

Last fall, an administrator from the Pulitzer office called Goldman and requested Bellevue submit “Tinkers.’’ Recognizing the company’s nonprofit status, the Pulitzer folks waived the $50 submission fee.

But the last book from a small publisher to win the Pulitzer Prize for fiction was John Kennedy Toole’s “A Confederacy of Dunces,’’ published by Louisiana State University Press in 1981 — recent winners include such best-selling authors as Cormac McCarthy, Michael Chabon, and Richard Russo — so Harding didn’t think he had a chance. And when he did win, no one called to tell him. He discovered it when he logged onto the Pulitzer site to see who had won.

“I just keep thinking of Keith Richards, wearing that ‘Who the [expletive] is Mick Jagger’ T-shirt,’’ Harding says. “That’s the story line. What the hell? Where did this come from? This weird end run from noble obscurity to a Pulitzer.’’

Geoff Edgers can be reached at gedgers@globe.com.

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Recent winners of the Pulitzer for fiction
2009 “Olive Kitteridge,’’ by Elizabeth Strout (Random House)

2008 “The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao,’’ by Junot Diaz (Riverhead Books)

2007 “The Road,’’ by Cormac McCarthy (Alfred A. Knopf)

2006 “March,’’ by Geraldine Brooks (Viking)

2005 “Gilead,’’ by Marilynne Robinson (Farrar)

2004 “The Known World,’’ by Edward P. Jones (Amistad/HarperCollins)

2003 “Middlesex,’’ by Jeffrey Eugenides (Farrar)

2002 “Empire Falls,’’ by Richard Russo (Alfred A. Knopf)

2001 “The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay,’’ by Michael Chabon (Random House)

2000 “Interpreter of Maladies,’’ by Jhumpa Lahiri (Mariner Books/Houghton Mifflin)

1999 “The Hours,’’ by Michael Cunningham (Farrar, Straus & Giroux)

1998 “American Pastoral,’’ by Philip Roth (Houghton Mifflin)