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During a stint in the Peace Corps in Turkey, Kent Haruf took his first, tentative stabs at writing stories of his own
During a stint in the Peace Corps in Turkey, Kent Haruf took his first, tentative stabs at writing stories of his own
Author Kent Haruf speaks of the success that brought him home
By Patti Thorn, Rocky Mountain News
May 22, 2004
SALIDA - Years ago, before his novel Plainsong hit like literary lightning, before the book signings and interviews and swanky award galas, Kent Haruf was a faceless writer hoping to one day make 50 bucks off his prose, let alone imagine anything grander.
He took a chance and sent a manuscript to New York literary agent Peter Matson.
There was much in that manuscript Haruf's readers today would recognize. Like Plainsong, it was set in the northeastern prairies of Colorado, in an imaginary small town called Holt. It was written in spare language, not an ostentatious flourish in sight, each word set one after another like carefully laid silver on a table.
And maybe it was this, or something more, that piqued Matson's attention.
"It's not that you're reading a page and you go 'Eureka!' Matson recalls. "It's when you put the book down . . . - he pauses - "well, some professionals can weave a spell and when you look up you realize you've been far away someplace . . .
"I can still remember reading the crucial scene in that book. There's an accident with a mower. I was walking along a crowded New York street, and I couldn't get those people and what they'd gone through out of my head."
That's when he decided to represent the unknown writer, for better or worse. And he'd be the first to tell you, there's been plenty of worse.
"It's been almost two decades since making that decision to represent Kent that anything came back to me as far as financial reward," he says. "Nothing. I didn't make my postage back until Plainsong."
Hitting the book lottery
If you count the earnings from Plainsong in stamps now, you'd likely fill up a few post offices, floor to ceiling. Haruf has hit the book lottery.
His story of the intertwining lives of Holt citizens - most memorably, two old bachelor ranchers who take in a pregnant teenager - spent 10 weeks on The New York Times best-seller list and inspired the sort of reviews an author might write for himself when indulging in wild fantasies of success.
"Plainsong," wrote Pulitzer Prize winner Richard Russo, "is nothing short of a revelation."
"A novel so foursquare, so delicate and lovely, that it has the power to exalt," crowed The New York Times.
It's been translated into nine languages, made into a recent Hallmark TV movie, garnered a National Book Award nomination and, more important, has allowed Haruf, for the first time in his life, the freedom to write full time.
Now that Haruf's new book, Eventide, a continuation of that story, has just been released, it seems that a storm of attention is about to hit once again: Already, laudatory reviews are rolling in from across the country.
So while Matson sits behind a desk somewhere in New York, finally basking in the rewards of his foresight, Haruf settles into a rocker in his home near Salida, anticipating the start of another round of nationwide appearances.
He knows what's required - the sound bites and smiles and handshakes all around. But it doesn't come naturally to a man who, like his characters, grew up on the Colorado prairie, about as far from the glitterati as a man can get.
"I've made a kind of adjustment to what's required of me," he notes simply.
'Still waters run deep'
Since the success of Plainsong, Haruf, 61, (the name rhymes with "sheriff") has quit his teaching position at Southern Illinois University. He's clearly satisfied to be back to his native state.
He sits in the living room of his log cabin home perched on a plateau just outside of Salida, a three-hour drive from Denver. On this day, eight inches of fresh snow lie on the ground and a brooding mist rises from the roads and lakes in the valley below.
"Magnificent," is the word Haruf often uses to describe a Colorado day. Today, the adjective couldn't be more apt.
If it's a mesmerizingly surreal scene outside, inside it's bright and cheerful. There are hooked rugs on the floor, Hummel figurines on a table, silk flowers arranged thoughtfully in vases, and the place is so tidy and sparkling you can almost feel the presence of his wife Cathy (his second marriage), though she is at work in Salida.
As for Haruf, he's as sturdy as the structure: a stocky man with a trim gray mustache and wire-frame glasses that give him an owlish look. In his flannel shirt and jeans, a pen stuffed in his shirt pocket, he's the kind of man you can imagine living within his books: solid, earnest and utterly without guile, though not without complexities.
"You kind of have to ease into his characters - and then they surprise you," says writer Stuart Dybek, who studied with Haruf at the Iowa Writer's Workshop.
Dybek struggles to explain the mix of surface gentlemanliness and underground intensity he sees in the author. He finally settles on a simple cliche: "I guess what I'm trying to say is, 'Still waters run deep.' "
Of course, on the plains a man doesn't have to say much to make his presence known. Under a vast Western sky, he learns it's what he does, not what he says, that bends the landscape to his needs.
It's exactly that sense of self-sufficiency and quiet endurance that Haruf has brought to his literature and his life.
Small towns, big dreams
Haruf's books - there are four now - are all set in Holt, a fictional town with gravel roads and "the smells of horse manure and trees and dry weeds and dirt" in the air.
Pickups travel down Main Street and kick up dust on U.S. 34. Customers order butterscotch pie at the diner and everyone is connected in ways they couldn't hide if they tried.
Small towns are like that, Haruf has said in countless interviews.
"You know everybody who lives there - the town mayor, the town drunk, the town idiot - and that may be the same person. You know whose pickup is parked in a driveway where it doesn't belong . . . You see society as a whole in a way that I can't in cities."
Holt, Haruf notes, is an amalgam of the small Colorado towns he lived in as a child: Wray, Holyoke, Yuma and finally Cañon City, where he graduated from high school.
The third of four children born to a former schoolteacher and a Methodist minister who headed a succession of congregations, Haruf loved life on the plains. In Yuma, he recalls with particular affection, he and his brother, Mark, chased gophers and rode horses. They swam at the neighborhood pool and dropped pennies on the railroad tracks. Between their paper route in the morning and the onset of dusk, there'd be a whole world of experience.
"It was sort of a Mark Twain, Huck Finn existence," he recalls. "Idyllic. Do you know the poem Fern Hill? That poem always makes me think of my childhood . . . There's a line in it: 'And the sun grew round that very day.' That kind of wonder and awe, that's how I felt at the time."
He checked out books from the Carnegie library down the way - Western stories like the Black Stallion series, Green Grass of Wyoming, Thunderhead, My Friend Flicka.
And at least once, he had a glimpse of what it would be like to be a published author. He recalls the time Miss Keen, his fifth-grade teacher, asked the class to write stories and poems and then ran them off on a mimeograph machine for everyone to see.
Haruf recites his piece with enthusiasm:
shot a raccoon
in the month of June.
"You can see I was always trying to set stories very specifically," he chuckles. "And there's the interesting rhyme scheme."
Rhymes not withstanding, Haruf had no literary aims at that time. Instead, he entertained the notion of becoming a rancher. But modern realities dashed such childhood fantasies. With property values the way they were, "You could work on a ranch and never afford to buy a ranch," he says.
He went off to college thinking he might become a biology teacher. Then, at Nebraska Wesleyan, he read Hemingway and Faulkner. And the die was cast.
"I knew I wanted to spend my life discussing and reading great writing."
Anyone who's read Plainsong will recognize the influences he discovered in the pages of stories like The Sound and Fury and The Sun Also Rises.
Faulkner wrote about rural people - but not simpletons. "I'd never read anything so profound and true and complicated about rural people," says Haruf.
Faulkner's innovations with the language also clearly affected Haruf. The famed author played with grammatical conventions, often leaving out quotation marks when writing dialogue. Haruf would later eschew quotation marks himself in Plainsong and Eventide, to dazzling effect.
"I thought, 'What a wonderful thing to do.' How interesting it looks on the page. Can you understand the . . . ?" he pauses, reaching for a word. "It just seemed like such a revelation. He was writing about something that seemed exciting to me and in a way that was absolutely brand new."
In Hemingway he found the simple declarative sentences he himself would later become known for.
"In order to do that, you've got to have a very clear ear for language and a keen eye. Otherwise, it sounds like a simpleton. Hemingway is astonishing at that.
"If you read one sentence and stop, it makes no impact. It's like pointillism in painting almost. These little sentences end up forming a picture like those little dots do."
During a stint in the Peace Corps in Turkey - and later as a conscientious objector fulfilling his service at Craig Rehabilitation Hospital, an orphanage in Montana and a hospital in Phoenix - Haruf took his first, tentative stabs at writing stories of his own.
"They were awful, very derivative and amateurish," he says. "They all had some moral point to make."
Still he wasn't deterred. By the age of 29, he was married, with an infant daughter and absolutely earnest about learning his craft.
He had applied to - and been rejected from - the prestigious Iowa Writers Workshop, one of the few programs in the country in the '70s to train serious writers. Frustrated, he picked up his family and moved to Iowa City in the middle of winter, taking a job as a janitor in a nursing home. He continued to submit stories, all while letting the powers that be at the workshop know he was in town.
Looking back, he muses about why he was accepted into the program.
"Maybe that was a curiosity or something," he says, referring to his dragging his wife and child across country to apply. "I never said it, but maybe I conveyed how deadly earnest I was to my craft."
Author John Irving, one of his teachers at the workshop, notes that Haruf stood out from his classmates. "Although I first met Kent when he was my student . . . I don't believe he was ever young. He seemed much more mature than his fellow students, both in person and as a writer - much more serious, and with more firmly held convictions about his writing . . .
"I can't imagine that I ever 'taught' him anything. I just kept encouraging him, although he didn't seem to need as much of that as many of his fellow students, either."
"You learned by paying attention," says Haruf. "It's almost like you're in a perfect place to teach yourself."
Paying attention in this group wouldn't have been such a bad strategy. Haruf's classmates included heavyweights in today's literary world: Thom Jones, TC Boyle, Denis Johnson, Tracy Kidder, Ron Hansen, Tess Gallagher, Dybek.
Many would go on to collect Pulitzers and National Book Award nominations. But as for Haruf, in those days, he was lucky to simply survive. He struggled to raise his family - he eventually had two more daughters - all while keeping one eye on the goal.
"Always I was trying to write and read around the edge."
Slow but sure progress
Haruf has had enough jobs to drive a census taker to drink. He's been a researcher at the Hoover presidential library, a food buyer at a Jewish day camp, construction worker, newspaper carrier, bug exterminator. He's milked cows, cleaned chicken coops, built grain bins, shelved library books, laid railroad track. He taught high school English in Wisconsin and rural Colorado and, for the 9 years before retiring, fiction writing at Southern Illinois University.
He doesn't dwell on the tough times, but matter-of-factly lists the difficulties: "Of course your family doesn't want you to write because it takes time away from them. You don't make much money. And people don't think you're a writer unless you've published."
His agent, Matson, puts it more colorfully.
"He persevered through some very difficult times, times trying to support young children, working lousy jobs, trying to teach people who didn't give a s--- about the English language, all the time thinking he was never going to finish his novel and if he does, who's going to give a damn."
"I was very disciplined about it, very adamant and determined about it," says Haruf. "If I have any virtue, it might be that kind of endurance and doggedness."
It paid off in small increments. Matson sold the manuscript Haruf first submitted to him to Henry Holt. Published in 1984, the book was titled The Tie That Binds. It received a $25,000 Whiting award, a PEN/Hemingway citation and glowing reviews, though it didn't sell well enough to allow Haruf to concentrate solely on writing.
His next book was published six years later: Where You Once Belonged, another critical hit, but commercial miss.
Plainsong was different from the beginning. When it landed on Matson's desk sometime before its publication in 1999, the agent knew he was sitting on a gold mine almost immediately.
"As soon as I saw where he was going (with the story of the ranchers and the pregnant girl), I knew it was going to be a big hit. There's something about that (situation) that's irresistible."
Matson took the manuscript to Henry Holt, which turned it down. The European head of the company "didn't get it," says Matson, "he didn't understand America."
Matson assured Haruf he would have no trouble selling it elsewhere and asked him which publishing house he would prefer. Haruf requested Alfred A. Knopf and its respected editor Gary Fisketjon, who has worked with such notables as Cormac McCarthy, Richard Ford and Tobias Wolff.
It wasn't long before excitement for the book took off like a spark in dry brush. Fisketjon loved the story and passed it around Knopf. Knopf reps talked it up at the national book convention that year. Booksellers snapped up advance copies of Plainsong and returned to their stores ready to sell.
It was a grassroots campaign that "came out of nowhere," says Haruf, who notes - with the expectations of a man who's used to being disappointed - that he would have been satisfied with Fisketjon's approval alone.
"That's what I thought it would amount to, that sort of private affirmation," he says.
The ritual of writing
Haruf has long discarded the faith of his father ("I'm more inclined to Buddhism than Christianity," he says). Still, his work ritual sounds a lot like prayer.
"Every time I go down to work," he once wrote, "I feel as if I'm descending into a sacred place."
Each morning, he writes in a journal and then reads for 45 minutes, often Hemingway and Faulkner. If he's working on a first draft, he sits at his manual Royal typewriter, rolling the rare, pulpy yellow paper he's grown "attached to" into the carriage. As his story evolves, he types on both sides to conserve the paper.
When Plainsong came out, he told interviewers he typed his first draft with a stocking cap pulled over his eyes, in order to connect with his story and avoid focusing on mechanical details. That oddity has taken on a life of its own. "In some ways I'm sorry I said anything about it. It's become hokey, like an aberration."
With Eventide, he says, he simply closed his eyes and went to work. The stakes, of course, were higher this time out.
Haruf worried that by reprising the endearing McPheron bachelors of Plainsong, people would feel he was pandering to popular taste. But "this is darker, has a different tone, different characters, maybe more complicated in structure. I worked very hard in my own spiritual and psychological makeup in not thinking I had to top myself."
Still, he had moments of crushing doubt. Traveling to an appearance to promote Plainsong, he asked Cathy to read Eventide aloud to him. "I was in absolute despair. I thought, what a piece of s---. . . It sounded terrible to me. It sounded mawkish."
When they got to California: "I stayed holed up in a motel rewriting it. I started all over."
Whatever he did, you won't hear critics complaining.
"Who in America can still write like this?" notes one reviewer in a common response to Eventide. "Who else has such confidence and humility?"
Adapting to success
Success changes many, but Haruf is as out of place in the fast lane as a stand of milkweed would be in the middle of Bloomingdale's.
Matson recalls the author's first visit to New York. He was in his 40s and had his two brothers in tow, both as protective of Haruf as, well, his cautious McPherons would have been for each other.
"I have a vision of them walking up Fifth Avenue, Kent slightly ahead of his brothers. And if they (his brothers) weren't carrying concealed weapons, they looked like they might be."
Haruf remains small-town at heart. At the National Book awards ceremony in 1999 (Plainsong lost to Ha Jin's book Waiting ), he weathered the glitz with noticeable discomfort.
"He had the demeanor of a man who was skeptical of the hoopla, a little embarrassed by all the attention, but too humble to do anything but endure until he could get back home," wrote Ron Charles of The Christian Science Monitor.
"There are writers who make money and think, 'Now that I've got money, I can order the world around.' That wasn't Kent's response," says Matson. " . . . He was delighted to concentrate on his writing, quit teaching, build a modest cabin in Salida and go on living a useful life."
Indeed, as Haruf anticipates the 23-city book tour for Eventide that will take him from L.A. to Boston, he is more resigned than eager. He keeps his eye on the goal he's had since his 20s.
After finishing Eventide: "I felt blue . . . I guess because it's not as good as it should be. It's not as good as you dream it."
It's an occupational hazard Haruf has yet to make peace with. He plans to return to Holt in future books, chasing his dream down an interstate forever disappearing in the distance.
"There's a joke between me and Cathy," Haruf says without the trace of a smile, "but I mean it in deadly earnest. I still want to write a good book."
The book on Haruf
His published work includes four novels, all based in the fictional town of Holt, Colo.:
• The Tie That Binds: The 1984 novel tells a sweeping tale of the life of a woman of the American High Plains (Vintage Books).
• Where You Once Belonged: The story of a prodigal son, published in 1990, thrown into jail when he returns after eight years on the run. (Vintage Books).
• Plainsong: The breakthrough 1999 story about intersecting lives in the small town of Holt (Vintage Books).
• Eventide: The story begun in Plainsong continues, blending old story lines with new. (Knopf)
An excerpt from Eventide provides insight into the caring ranchers.