‘Enon’ a heart-breaking, gripping New England novel
Paul Harding surprised the literary world when he won the 2010 Pulitzer Prize for his first novel, Tinkers. His second novel, Enon, will hit bookstores Tuesday, and on Saturday at 1 p.m., Harding will appear at Gibson’s Bookstore in Concord. In a recent email interview, he discussed his new book.
The narrator of Enon, Charlie Crosby, was a minor character in Tinkers. What was it about Charlie that made you decide to spend a few years of your life with him?
Enon came to me as an image, a silhouette of an exaggerated hillside studded with headstones and the figure of a man creeping over the summit. I knew at once that the man was Charlie Crosby and that his daughter Kate was buried below at the bottom of the hill, and that he was sneaking behind her after a night of misadventure because he was ashamed by what had become of him since her death. I knew that the cemetery was the Enon cemetery, too. So, just like that, the germ for the novel presented itself. Of course, I’d been thinking about the Crosbys and Enon since Tinkers.
Enon is a harrowing book. In the first paragraph, Charlie Crosby reveals that one year earlier his only child was killed while riding her bike; his marriage then dissolved.
Tinkers centered around the deathbed thoughts of Charlie’s grandfather, George.
These are not, generally, the topics of best sellers. What draws you to such difficult material?
I don’t pick topics so much as find people about whom I’d like to write. I’m drawn to difficult material because I think of art as a discipline that is to be devoted specifically to exploring the most complicated, mysterious, irreducible, difficult aspects of human experience.
If a subject or set of dramatic premises is easy or if I already know what I think about them or how to treat them, it’s not worth the effort to attempt to make art out of them. I am reassured that I’m working on a viable project if I feel like I’m not a good enough writer to pull it off.
A large part of writing any book is the process of attempting to be equal to the subject.
Many authors, when they want to write about vexing existential issues, employ form to lure readers to their work – readers who might otherwise be reluctant to think about hard topics. Margaret Atwood, for example, is expert at using genres such as science-fiction and mystery to engage her audience.
It seems to me that you are able to be more straightforward in your approach because the interior lives of your characters are so rich – there’s almost a quality of magical realism in their experience of the world.
For example, Charlie Crosby is a college drop-out, a guy who makes his living as a landscaper and handyman. But Charlie is also intelligent, curious, and keenly self-aware. He has a remarkable sense of history and community and his place within both. And his baroque, heart-breaking, fantasy scenarios about his dead daughter could only be contrived in the mind of an extraordinarily creative human being. Could you talk about your impulse to write about people like Charlie Crosby?
Simply put, I want to blow the reader’s mind and to break her heart. Not with melodrama or bathos, but with truth – truth as in Keats’ line about how truth is beauty, beauty truth. Two things I always tell my students are, don’t write for readers who won’t like your books, and don’t write for bad readers. In my opinion, that’s finally the best way to give proper respect to the reader.
Personally, one of the greatest pleasures and challenges of writing is in not watering anything down through genre or form. That’s not the same thing as refracting painful material through various narrative lenses to get variations on theme and so forth.
But I’m interested in character first and foremost, so in the case of Charlie, I put him in these extreme circumstances and a large part of the book became about how he attempts to survive them, how he mediates them, how he creates narratives about his daughter’s death, how he creates this imaginary realm where he can attempt to negotiate her loss.
It’s the equivalent of looking at the Medusa through a mirror, of negotiating her through a medium, so that you will not turn to stone, will not perish by looking straight at her. If Charlie mediates his existential distress, I don’t think I should further do so. That mediation is the central dramatic action of the book, in some ways. It’s more challenging and interesting, too, to grapple with the stark facts rather than water them down or add sugar or chew them up first before giving them to the reader.
I write about everyday characters because I believe that they have rich inner lives. In principle, it’s the same thing with someone like Faulkner, who gives outwardly ordinary, modest characters the richness and complexity of his art.
You include in both Tinkers and Enon a great deal of nonfiction about horology – the science of time-keeping and clock-making. In Enon you write about an actual New England clockmaker, Simon Willard, who lived from 1753-1848. You even invent an object made by him, an “orrery” – a kind of clockwork model of the solar system – which is pivotal to the plot of Enon.
Where does your fascination with horology come from and why are clocks central metaphors in your books? Is there a place in New England where your readers can go to see a working orrery?
I read somewhere that Simon Willard’s brother, Aaron, made orreries. There were three or four Willards who made clocks. I loved the idea of a mechanical model of the solar system, and then I got the idea of this one sort of secret, sacred one that Simon made especially for one person, that no one else really knew about, sitting in the dark back room of some huge old house. So I made it up and gave it to Charlie to discover and lay awake at night pondering.
Clocks show up in the books simply because my own grandfather repaired and traded antique clocks all around the North Shore, and I apprenticed with him for a few years. So they lay a large claim on my imagination.
There’s another instance of having to rise to the challenge of making the writing I do about them fresh and worthy, too, because what more potentially cliche and shopworn symbol of time could there be than a clock? The difficulties that each writer’s own subjects present him with are precisely the occasion for making art, even though the impulse is always to flee when they show up.
I wish I knew where there was an orrery. I’d love to see one! I’m kind of glad that I didn’t while writing the book, though, because that meant that I got to make it up from scratch for myself.
You titled your new book Enon, which is the name of the coastal Massachusetts town where Charlie Crosby lives. And it seems to me that, ultimately, the town of Enon – the community, the landscape and buildings, the people who live in it now, and all the ancestors who came before them, even the weather and wildlife – is what this book is about.
Charlie spends his year of decline (and resurrection) wandering through his hometown. And all that time, though he is not aware of it, the people of the town are watching him, and, in the end, watching out for him. It almost seems the birds and the trees, the stone walls and houses, even the weather are trying to speak to him, to help him.
Could you speak about place, about home, in the context of Enon, and in the context of your own life?
Autobiographically, Enon is the original colonial name for Wenham, (Mass.), where I grew up. I use the landscape and light and geography of Wenham a lot because I know it so well. It’s right at my fingertips, so that when I’m wrestling with the difficulties of writing about, for instance, losing a child, I won’t be distracted by questions about what the meadow the grieving father walks through in the first week of September looks like, and so forth. The area is the medium, the milieu, the idiom, as it were. I spent my formative and normative years kicking around the woods and fields over here, too, so my deepest loves and agitations, my sleepless nights and midnight terrors are all intimately bound up with and in this place.
Place achieves a level of complexity where it becomes something like a mind itself – the birds and streams and boulders and ghosts and houses and eccentric rich old women issuing stern rebukes like its thoughts. That’s pretty cool – the kind of place, the kind of thoughts that sustain years of pondering and applying aesthetic pressure on, rendering them into narrative prose. Enon is a protagonist as well as antagonist, as most people’s homes are.