When the Pulitzer Prizes were announced this past week, perhaps no one was more surprised than fiction winner Paul Harding. His novel, Tinkers, was released by a little-known publishing company with few works of fiction to its credit, the first time a book published by a small independent press has won the Pulitzer for fiction since 1981's A Confederacy of Dunces.
No one notified Paul Harding that he had won the Pulitzer. There was no congratulatory phone call. He wasn't sitting around with a group of friends waiting breathlessly for the news. Harding was alone when he checked the Pulitzer website, curious to find out who had won.
"I came as close to actually fainting as I think I ever have, because I literally just could not believe what I saw when it came up on the website," Harding says with a laugh. "And I kept refreshing and it just kept coming up Tinkers, Tinkers, Tinkers."
Harding's short novel is the story of a dying man, George Washington Crosby, and his relationship with his father, who suffered from epilepsy and eventually abandoned his family because of the affliction.
After Harding finished writing the book, he sent it out to agents and publishers, but there were no takers.
"I just put in a drawer for three years I guess, and just thought this'll be one I have in the file cabinets and I'll just start working on the next thing," Harding says. "And then it was published more or less through a series of ... wonderful, improbable accidents with the Bellevue Literary Press getting a hold of it and wanting to do it."
The Bellevue Literary Press was not exactly known as a powerhouse in the publishing world: The staff comprises editorial director Erika Goldman and an assistant. Their office is in a most unusual setting for a publishing company, "nestled," as Goldman puts it, "within the department of medicine at the New York University School of Medicine, which is at Bellevue Hospital."
Bellevue is a major center for emergency services in New York City, but it is probably best known in the public imagination as a mental hospital. The hospital's literary press was established five years ago, mainly for the publication of high-end medical books. But Goldman, a veteran of the publishing business, is also committed to releasing works of fiction with a scientific or medical theme. A publishing colleague who had passed on Tinkers because it didn't seem right for his company thought it might work for Bellevue.
Goldman says she responded immediately.
"It just leapt off the page," she says. "You know it when a manuscript arrives that is several cuts above the norm, and this was, this was it."
Goldman ordered a first printing of 3,500 copies, a small but not unusual number for a first novel from a small press. Then a sales rep in San Francisco fell in love with the book. She got the book buyer at the independent bookstore Book Passage interested, and that book buyer brought Harding to the store for a signing event. Soon he was visiting other bookstores and started getting invited to speak at book clubs.
"So I went to people's houses and hung out with groups of eight to a dozen people and sat in people's living rooms and talked about the book and art and all sorts of pleasant things," Harding says.
The book, which had won glowing reviews from The New Yorker and the Los Angeles Times, started to benefit from a sort of ephemeral "word of mouth" buzz, Goldman says.
"This is a real phenomenon. It's not hyped. It's not heavily marketed and spun," Goldman says. "It's just passionate readers falling in love with a gorgeous work of literature and sharing the wealth."
Eventually Tinkers had gotten enough attention in literary circles that the Pulitzer committee called Goldman and asked her to submit it for the award. But neither she nor Harding ever expected it to win.
About 15,000 copies have been published, and since the award, Bellevue has ordered another run, of 30,000. But even before winning the Pulitzer, Harding had gotten a contract for two new books, though not with Bellevue. His new publisher will be Random House; Goldman gave him her blessing. And the Pulitzer, he says, belongs to her and Bellevue as much as it does to him.
"When I step back a little bit," Harding says, "[I] just think this is just one of these really, really cool, wonderful literary anecdotes. But then what's mind-blowing to me is that I happen to be the protagonist."