Though many readers know Kent Haruf as the author of 1999's acclaimed novel Plainsong, Haruf had already made an auspicious debut with The Tie That Binds in 1984. Where You Once Belonged followed in 1990. Some short stories appeared in literary magazines, but it was another nine years before Haruf surfaced again on the bookshelves.
Despite the long gestation period, Plainsong yielded rich returns. The story weaves together several characters: pregnant 17-year-old Victoria Roubideaux; the McPherons, an elderly pair of cattle rancher brothers who take Victoria in; Tom Guthrie and his two young sons, abandoned by their depressed mother; and a high school teacher who knows them all, Maggie Jones. Each chapter is titled for one of the characters, carrying the reader along with one or another as all of them intersect. Nominated for the National Book Award, Plainsong became a bestseller and was warmly reviewed. "It has the power to exalt the reader," the New York Times Book Review declared.
Plainsong, which derives its title from the unadorned vocal music often sung in Christian churches, is aptly named. The tale is simply told, the action moves slowly, and dialogue resides within the text, unframed by quotation marks. All of Haruf's novels are set in the High Plains community of Holt, in eastern Colorado -- a fictional town much like the ones Haruf grew up in.
"In the Plains, things are stripped down to the essentials, and that seems to fit what [Plainsong] is about and that seemed to be an obvious setting for this story," he says in a publisher's interview. The rhythms of nature and simple work are a latticework underlying the author's stories. Like the landscape of the setting, the progression of Haruf's tales is subtle. He is a thoughtful, understated writer who writes with a restrained sympathy for his characters, even when they seem not to warrant much.
Haruf revisited some of Plainsong's characters in Eventide, continuing Victoria's story as she heads off to college and bringing both tragedy and renewal to the McPheron brothers. The theme of unconventional family units continues, as does the mixing of modern urban problems and simple rural life. An 11-year-old orphan cares for his grandfather; a mother of two copes with being abandoned by her husband; and a mentally disabled couple struggle to keep their family intact.
Like his later novels, The Tie That Binds and Where You Once Belonged feature Haruf's straightforward narrative style and rural setting. However, both have a sharper edge and more explosive content, dealing with hard crimes and focusing more on individual characters. Tie focuses on one woman's tragic life story of family sacrifice; Belonged tells about the crimes inflicted on the town of Holt by one of its former residents, an ex-football hero.
Haruf's stories end as openly as they begin; though well crafted and thoroughly imagined, they are not about tight plot construction or surprising twists. Instead, Haruf is more concerned with expressing emotional truths. "Our lives are generally pretty messy," Haruf told the Kansas City Star in a 2000 interview about Plainsong. "What I want to suggest at the end [of the book] is that at this point, at least this day and this point in their lives, all these people have found a place in a small community -- it may even be an extended family -- in which they can connect with other people and find solace and communion."
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Over the years, Haruf has worked as at a variety of places, including: a chicken ranch in Colorado, the Royal Gorge in the Rocky Mountains, a construction site in Wyoming, the railroad tracks in southeastern Montana, a pest control company in Kansas, a rehabilitation hospital in Denver, an orphanage in Montana, a surgery wing in a hospital in Phoenix, a presidential library in Iowa, an alternative high school in Wisconsin, a country school in Colorado, and a college in Nebraska.
Haruf lives with his wife Cathy. Between them, the two have eight children from previous marriages. Haruf has three daughters.
Haruf taught at Southern Illinois University before the profits from Plainsong allowed him to retire and move back to Colorado.
Plainsong was made into a CBS TV movie in 2004. Rachel Griffiths starred as Maggie.
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In the spring of 2004, Kent Haruf took some time out to talk with us about some of his favorite books, authors, and interests.
What was the book that most influenced your life or your career as a writer -- and why?The Sound and the Fury by William Faulkner
The Bear by William Faulkner
The Sun Also Rises by Ernest Hemingway
The Snows of Kilimanjaro by Ernest Hemingway
These four books shocked me when I first read them as a junior in college. I've never gotten over the shock and don't want to. I was shocked, astonished, by the skill on the page; I'd never read anything I liked so much, in terms of craft and story. These books changed my life. I knew after I'd read these books that I wanted to do something with literature from then on. I didn't know what, but I knew I wanted to spend the rest of my life in the presence of these books and others. Only later did I realize that I wanted to write. Saul Bellow is reported to have said, "A writer is a reader moved to emulation." That's my story.
What are your ten favorite books, and what makes them special to you?The Sound and the Fury by William Faulkner -- The experimentation, first; then when you've understood that, the story itself, which lasts and lasts.
The Bear by William Faulkner -- The story of woods and nature, the boy Ike and his mentor, Sam Fathers -- then the great innovation in the ledgers revealing Ike's grandfather and the slaves he ruled over utterly.
The Hamlet by William Faulkner -- The Snopes saga, and Faulkner's revelation of their astonishing vagaries, and the great spotted-horse sale; Faulkner's treatment of rural people in all their complexity and dignity and cruelty and compassion.
As I Lay Dying by William Faulkner -- This shocking story of a family carrying the dead body of its mother to a distant graveyard, through rain, fire, mud, stench, suspicion, insanity, and folly. This astonishing innovation in narrative point-of-view -- some 13 narrators.
The Sun Also Rises by Ernest Hemingway -- His first novel and maybe his best. You have to look past the bigotry and silliness to see the prose for what it is: the clean, clear, direct, simple declarative sentences, one after the other, on and on. No one writes as cleanly as Hemingway at his best. The fishing episodes, preeminently. That ear and eye he has, so that he reinvents the English language, re-mints it brand new.
The Snows of Kilimanjaro by Ernest Hemingway -- All these amazing stories. Perhaps "In Another Country" most of all. That opening paragraph, which I memorized as prose at its best, and later had my graduate students memorize.
Winter in the Blood by James Welch -- The simple prose, the lyricism in its simplicity, the clear delivery of the story. This is the best story of life in and around reservations I know. The book was an important influence on my own first book.
A Good Man Is Hard to Find by Flannery O'Connor -- The title story, and most of the others. That hard intelligence she had. That great skill with dialogue and the rendering of dialect. Her own courage.
All Alice Munro stories. She's perhaps the best short story writer in English today. They're all good. She's terrific.
Snow Country byYasunari Kawabata -- The subtlety, the lyricism even in translation. The sadness of the woman in the end, inevitably.
The Stranger by Albert Camus -- When I first read it as an undergraduate, I thought it was the truest book I'd ever read. I still think so. At least one of them.
Child of God by Cormac McCarthy -- The story's grotesque, yes. But the prose is beyond compare.
Chekhov's stories -- No one is better at the suggestion of a whole life, a whole story, in just a few pages. And he's taught us all how to end stories.
What are some of your favorite films, and what makes them unforgettable to you?The Thin Red Line -- Terrence Malick uses voice-over better than any other director.
Days of Heaven -- Malick, again. This girl narrator is utterly wonderful.
The Last Picture Show -- Peter Bogdanovich gives us this town in black-and-white, and makes of its characters people who are so real, they cast shadows.
Shane -- You can't see this western too often. It's a nearly perfect movie of the Old West.
Close to Eden. This Russian movie set in Mongolia is a sad, lovely, beautiful film.
What types of music do you like? Is there any particular kind you like to listen to when you're writing?
I enjoy Bluegrass, folk, gospel, and classical. I don't listen to music when I write. I sometimes listen to music just before I sit down to write. For example, the old, sad "Hard Times" by Stephen Foster.
If you had a book club, what would it be reading -- and why?
Mark Spragg's Where Rivers Change Directions, and the new book coming out this fall: An Unfinished Life. Because he's so good and knows so much about the Rocky Mt. West.
Also, Halldor Laxness' Independent People. This little-known, classic Icelandic novel goes so deep, so far. An elemental story.
What are your favorite kinds of books to give -- and get -- as gifts?
Novels, collections of stories, and poetry by Rodney Jones.
Do you have any special writing rituals? For example, what do you have on your desk when you're writing?
I write in a journal first, briefly. Then read something I've read many times before, for about half an hour, then rework what I wrote the day before.
I have many totemic things on my desk and around my office: a bull skull, favorite books, a jay's feather, a bird nest, my grandfather's pocket knife, drawings by my daughter, photos of paintings, a stone from Faulkner's Rowan Oak, turf from Ireland, a beaver-chewed stick, arrowheads in a box, sunflower seeds, the latch from my grandfather's sheep barn, lines on yellow paper culled from writers (for example, this from Flaubert: "Be regular and orderly in your life like a bourgeois, so that you may be violent and original in your work").
What are you working on now?
I'm waiting to fill up.
Many writers are hardly "overnight success" stories. How long did it take for you to get where you are today? Any rejection-slip horror stories or inspirational anecdotes?
I began writing seriously in my mid-20s and didn't publish my first book until I was 41.
What tips or advice do you have for writers still looking to be discovered?
Read every day. Read with concentration. Read the same things over and over, learning as you read down the page. Write without expectation of success. Write like John Irving did as he was starting: He set himself the task of writing a new story every week.
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