From Small Press to Big House: How Bellevue Literary Press Paved the Way for Paul Harding

From Humble Beginnings

For Paul Harding, Pulitzer Prize-winning author of Tinkers, the road to Random House started small (and we mean this in the proudest sense!). CLMP Member Harvard Review published his first pieces of short fiction, and Bellevue Literary Press, a CLMP press, gave the Pulitzer Prize-winning Tinkers a home. Random House then published Harding’s second novel Enon in 2013, but Harding’s success remains a celebration of small publishing: for Paul Harding, starting small meant making it big.

The Prize Surprise

In 2009, Erika Goldman, Publisher and Editorial Director of Bellevue Literary Press, got ahold of Tinkers after many houses, both large and small, had turned it down for publication. It blew her away. Jonathan D. Rabinowitz, founder of Turtle Point Press, had passed the book along to her one evening over dinner. He didn’t feel it was quite right for Turtle Point, but thought that Erika might respond to it for Bellevue. Within the first few paragraphs, she said, she knew the book would be Bellevue’s. “You know it when a manuscript arrives that is several cuts above the norm, and this was it, this was it,” Goldman told NPR.

The following year, Harding checked the Pulitzer website, curious who had taken the 2010 title, and came the closest he’s ever come to fainting in his life when he saw his name and Tinkers listed there.

Paul Harding grew up in Wenham, Massachusetts, and attended UMass, Amherst, for his Bachelor’s and, eventually, the Iowa Writers’ Workshop for his MFA. It was there that Tinkers began to take shape. But Harding didn’t think it would get very far. “I just put it in a drawer for three years I guess, and just thought this’ll be the one I have in the file cabinets and I’ll just start working on the next thing.”

Bellevue’s Goldman found herself just as surprised to find out Tinkers had won. Indie booksellers around the country, according to The New York Times, started championing Harding as independent publishing’s “Mr. Cinderella,” telling his rags-to-riches story as proof that the independent publishing and bookselling community can really make waves on the big-time market. Even if a brilliant author doesn’t land there on his first go, the small mags and presses he calls home along the way help immensely to boost him closer toward the big-time. Goldman described Harding warmly, calling him a “wonderful, funny, and humane person” and praising his brilliance as a writer. “It was a wonderful privilege to work with him,” she told me. When small-press authors make it big, it’s unfortunate to lose them, she said, but wonderful in the end for their careers. And there’s always the chance that mid-career they’ll return to small press, where editors can “take great care with their books,” something big publishing isn’t always able to do at the same intimate level.

Celebrating Small

Bellevue Literary Press, founded in 2007, publishes literary fiction and nonfiction “at the intersection of the arts and sciences”; they believe that “science and the humanities are natural companions for understanding the human experience.” BLP’s website describes its goal: “to foster a rich, interdisciplinary dialogue that will forge new tools for thinking and engaging with the world.” Since Tinkers, BLP has gained more widespread press with its 2011 novel The Sojourn by Andrew Krivak, which became a finalist for the National Book Award. Supporting brilliant authors and their work means supporting them at their starts, at the “little” level.

CLMP, with close to 500 members, works to support the work of magazines like Harvard Review and small publishers like Bellevue Literary Press so that they can continue to bring the work of authors like Paul Harding and books like Tinkers out into the world. Peruse our extensive directory of indie publishers, and join us in celebrating small!

—Megan Swenson, Fall 2017 CLMP Intern