Paul Harding, who won the Pulitzer Prize for his first novel, remembers the exact day he started to write his second.
The Topsfield resident recorded the date, March 17, 2009, in a notebook after telling literary agent Ellen Levine that he would give her 50 pages of new work in six months.
“I used that as a motivational tool,” said Harding, whose new novel, “Enon,” was published last week.
Harding had finished “Tinkers,” his first book, five years earlier and didn’t have a new manuscript for his agent until he was struck with “this instantaneous image.”
“It came to me as this weird silhouette,” he said. “A black paper cutout of an exaggerated hillside studded with headstones and, on top, a figure creeping across the hill.”
That figure turned out to be Charlie Crosby, grandson of George Crosby, the clock repairman whose deathbed reflections formed the core of “Tinkers.”
“I knew it was Charlie Crosby,” Harding said. “It was late at night, he had been up to no good, and his daughter was buried at the bottom. He was sneaking behind her because he was ashamed of who he had become since she had died.”
While this image was shaped by his imagination, many of its details were provided by sites in Wenham where Harding, 45, grew up.
The graveyard where Charlie spends a great deal of time in the novel is flanked by two golf courses, exactly like the Wenham Cemetery on Route 1A.
It is also near a lake that Charlie visits, just as Wenham’s cemetery is down the road from Wenham Lake.
The stretch of Route 1A that winds around the lake, which is the scene of a fatal accident in the book, is another spot that Harding knows well.
“Years ago, my father was in a weird car accident and rolled over the guardrail and down into the lake,” Harding said. “I worked at that McDonald’s in North Beverly when I was 15. I remember riding my 10-speed bike along that guardrail in my McDonald’s uniform thinking, ‘What if I ever got hit by a car?’”
Harding, who graduated from Hamilton-Wenham Regional High School in 1986, also said there are particular people he knew in Wenham who appear as characters in the book.
One of these, a woman who lived in an estate off Cherry Street where he and his friends used to sled and fish, scolded him in real life exactly the way she does in the book.
But however much literal and historical detail travels from Wenham into Enon — which was the early settlers’ original name for the town — it is how Harding uses this material that makes his novel sing.
He acknowledges that his style and methods are inspired by New England writers from the Transcendentalist movement in the 19th century, such as Emerson, Thoreau and Emily Dickinson.
“I’m in the same place and do the same things, taking landscapes and refracting them through character,” he said. “It’s just the idea that conscious experience, paying attention to it and taking the time to render its nuances, is its own justification.”
As in “Tinkers,” where one character’s mind is decaying and another character suffers from epilepsy, Charlie Crosby’s experience in “Enon” is that of a man operating at the edge of reason.
“The protagonist has this ordinary life and has ordinary love for his daughter, and can describe it in terms everyone would recognize,” Harding said. “When this terrible thing happens, it puts terrible pressure on him. Suddenly, normal language and ideas are no longer adequate to his experience of the world.”
Charlie’s reflections on the boundary between life and death lead to fantastic speculations, but these are balanced by confrontations with his conscience.
“I’m interested in disciplining myself to write the things that seem most difficult about human experience,” Harding said. “Why bother trying to make art if you’re not trying to make it out of the most difficult material?”
Harding has started on a book tour for “Enon” that will take him across the country to 29 stores and should be finished by Thanksgiving, he said.
He has no idea what his next novel will be about, but relishes not knowing exactly where he’s going or why.
“The term I’ve always thought of is interrogative fiction,” he said. “You’re writing in order to find out what the subjects are, rather than you know and you’re telling people.”