It’s the stuff of writerly dreams: a quiet novel by a debut author, published by a small press, defies the odds and wins the Pulitzer Prize. No one expected it to happen to Paul Harding’s Tinkers—a story about a clock repairman on his deathbed remembering his life, as well as his relationship with his father, published by Bellevue Literary in 2008—least of all Harding himself, who discovered he’d won when he checked the Pulitzer website and, as he told NPR at the time, nearly fainted as a result.

Born in Beverly, Mass., in 1967, Harding, speaking via Zoom from his home office on Long Island, says he spent his 20s and 30s “temping and working in bookstores” while “playing drums in a sort of third-tier rock band.” When the band dissolved, he was at a crossroads and decided he needed a change. His desire to put himself in conversation with the writers he loved led him to the New York State Summer Writers’ Institute at Skidmore College. While there, he met novelist Marilynne Robinson, who became his friend and mentor.

Robinson prompted Harding to apply to the Iowa Writers’ Workshop. “It’s a state school,” he says, amused at describing his thinking at the time. “I can get into a state school, no problem. Better-informed friends soon let me know precisely how ignorant I was about the matter.”

Nevertheless, he did get in. Harding didn’t start work on what would become Tinkers there (even though it had been part of his application)—he was instead keen to pursue what he characterized as a costume drama that was inspired by his love of Thomas Mann and Carlos Fuentes. But he returned to the story that would win him the Pulitzer after he graduated, in 2000. He is currently the director of the MFA program at Stony Brook Southampton.

His latest novel, This Other Eden, is due to be published by Norton in January 2023. “Ten years ago,” Harding says, thumb and finger forming something like an egg cup beneath his chin, “when I started writing This Other Eden, I’d just finished doing publicity for Enon [Harding’s second novel], and I had this idea—wouldn’t it be interesting to see a character from Enon when she was 10 years old?”

Enon, which follows the Crosby family, the same clan from Tinkers, also received strong critical acclaim; it was named one of the best novels of 2013 by, among others, the Wall Street Journal and the American Library Association. In the book, Charlie, the grandson of the hero of Tinkers, is a man struggling to deal with unfathomable grief, coping first with the loss of his young daughter, then of his wife.

Just as Harding found a through line from Tinkers to Enon, keeping his focus on members of the same family, for This Other Eden he began ruminating on a character from his existing fictional world. “I began the novel by riffing on the childhood of the grande dame from Enon,” he explains. “She has no name in that book. She is only referred to as Ms. Hale.” In thinking about this character for his new novel, he came up with the name Phoebe.

However Harding knew Phoebe wouldn’t be “the story of the novel,” he says. Instead, he began swirling thoughts about her with ideas about other things he was reading. This, he says, is his process. “When I write, especially early in a book, I throw everything I come across and find interesting into the manuscript.”

In the case of This Other Eden, these included a Black painter based on Charles Ethan Porter, the history of labor unions in the U.S. after the Civil War, and Malaga Island, Maine. Referring to Malaga, which inspired the novel’s setting, Harding says he was particularly taken by photos of its inhabitants, “who ranged in skin tone from very light to very dark.”

This Other Eden is not a novel that relies heavily on plot. Matthew Diamond, the island’s priest at the turn of the 20th century, sends talented young painter Ethan Honey away to study art because he knows that the Black inhabitants of the island are set to be evicted by the state. Diamond also knows that Honey is the island’s only Black inhabitant who can pass for white.

To Harding, however, the plot specifics aren’t that important. He says he’s more interested in chronicling how characters experience a moment than he is in following a traditional storytelling structure. This is one reason why he spends so much time with a character who is a painter. A painter, he explains, focuses on chronicling sensory details. He also notes that after a certain point in the novel, Honey—who could be called the novel’s protagonist—simply disappears.

“Being fiction,” Harding says, “all this sifting and arranging and choreographing of history and literature and tradition was to get a fictional setting that would be just right for following the characters of the book and what it is like to live through their own particular experiences of these well near universal and hopefully universally recognizable afflictions.”

Harding explains that “a lot of the writing” comes off as “moments that are arrested.” He explains that he thinks of the scenes in the novel as akin to “mechanical drawings” that give readers “a million different ways to look at things.” Rather following a specific character with a consistent point of view, a scene shifts again and again: two young girls finish swimming and head home, an old man strolling through the woods runs into two young girls on their way home after an afternoon swimming and offers a friendly hello, and a young boy notices two young girls talking with an old man and decides to draw their pictures.

If one engine of the novel is the exploration of moments and sensations as seen through the eyes of Honey, another is the character of Diamond. The priest has roots in Harding’s fascination with Karl Barth, the 20th-century Swiss theologian best known for his commentary on the Epistle to the Romans and for his multivolume work Church Dogmatics. “It’s incredible,” Harding says. “It’s metaphysics. It’s cosmology. It’s close reading sin qua non.”

Barth was also one of the founders of the Confessing Church, which, Harding explains, “openly defied Hitler throughout the entire second world war.” The church, he notes, “actively got Jews out of Germany.”

But there’s a twist. After years of reading Barth, Harding was stunned to come across a letter in which the theologian expresses deep feelings of antisemitism. Barth writes that he “was always grateful my son was not afflicted with my shortcoming, which is the visceral disgust I feel whenever I am in the presence of a living Jew.”

A slightly altered version of that line from Barth is given to Diamond in the novel, who feels disgust in the presence of a “living negro” yet has been charged with teaching the children on the island. That tension creates space for moral inquiry. Diamond’s decision to send Ethan away is a small, kind gesture by a racist man offered in the face of a forthcoming racist eviction by the state.

Maybe this is why Harding sees This Other Eden as “a big, tenderhearted novel set in a coldhearted world.”

Evan Fleischer is a writer and editor living in Virginia.