GEORGETOWN — Paul Harding said that when he saw his name pop up online under Pulitzer Prize winners, he fell off the couch.
He then resorted to hitting the refresh button on his computer screen for 10 minutes. Then, he went into a complete hysteria, he said.
Harding, 42, of Georgetown, found out Monday his novel "Tinkers" won a Pulitzer Prize for best fiction. Published by Bellevue Literary Press, it is the first small press book to win the prize in decades.
Harding says winning the Pulitzer is "gravy" after the long and difficult road of simply getting his book published. Harding was rejected many times and had even reconciled himself to being an unpublished author.
"I couldn't get the book published, and I kept reckoning with myself, consulting with my soul," Harding said. "I told myself 'you're a writer who writes, and it may be that this never gets published and you teach freshman composition the rest of your life, but you have a perfect wife and kids, and that's already cool.'"
But in 2007, Harding's luck changed.
Harding met a writer-friend who suggested he send the manuscript to Jonathan Rabinowitz, who ran Turtle Point Press. Rabinowitz passed on Harding's book but later mentioned it to an industry veteran.
The next year, Rabinowitz told Erika Goldman, of the small Bellevue Literary Press, about "Tinkers." Goldman, of the nonprofit publisher connected to New York University's School of Medicine, immediately fell in love with the novel.
"When Bellevue said they would publish it, it was already this implausible scenario to me," Harding said. "I was so grateful there was even one book published between two covers; everything else is just gravy."
Harding describes the last few years as a joy ride. Without a huge marketing budget or a book tour, the book caught on the old-fashioned way: word-of-mouth.
"There was a lovely, grass-roots hand-selling," Harding said. "One of the reasons I'm happy about this award is that it's a culmination of a lot of people being passionate about this book. It's about the group effort. This joy ride could have ended at any time, and it still would have been a joy ride."
The grass-roots marketing campaign caught the attention of major book critics, all of whom gave glowing reviews of "Tinkers." Harding also recently found he is the winner of this year's John Simon Guggenheim Memorial Fellowship in creative writing.
"I was already on cloud nine about the Guggenheim Fellowship," Harding said. "It's just absolutely amazing."
In "Tinkers," a dying old man returns to his past, where he is reunited with his father and relives memories of his youth as an impoverished New England boy. While his maternal grandparents did not serve as the outlines for the characters in "Tinkers," Harding said they provided the seeds.
Like his grandfather, the main character repairs antique clocks. His great-great-grandfather is the basis for one character who has epilepsy and abandons his family when his wife threatens to send him to an asylum. He includes a Methodist minister in the book because there was one in his family.
Harding also draws on familiar landscapes for his novel. The story is set in "Enon," a fictionally transposed version and the 17th century name of Wenham, where Harding grew up. The main character's recollection of his past takes place in northern Maine, where the author spent his summers.
"The North Shore is in my blood. On the cellular level, it's imprinted on me," Harding said. "The landscapes, the views, the light — I'm birch bark metaphysics and totally parochial."
While Harding has another five weeks left in his semester at Iowa City Writer's Workshop, where he is teaching, he is already halfway finished with a draft of his second novel due out in 2012. His wife and two sons Sam, 9, and Ben, 5, are in Georgetown. His mother is in Wenham, he said.
"I'm excited to get home and celebrate with them," Harding said, noting he hasn't seen his family since the news broke. "My mother is running around spontaneously telling people."
Harding is currently under contract with Random House for a second and third book about the Tinkers. He says his next book will be about a different generation of the family featured in "Tinkers," Kate and Charlie Crosby.
"I'm thinking trilogy," Harding said. "I'm really excited to get home and do what I do; walk around the Ipswich Audubon."