With great sadness, we learned of Kent Haruf’s passing on Sunday, November 30. Author of the novels The Tie that Binds, Where You Once Belonged, Plainsong, Eventide, Benediction, and Our Souls at Night, he has long been a prominent voice in Colorado literature, specifically of Colorado’s northeastern plains, which don’t get much attention but whose quiet beauty Kent well understood and celebrated. He was a good friend to literary magazines, and to Colorado Review in particular. In 2002 he was the recipient of the Evil Companions Literary Award, a fundraising event for which Colorado Review was the beneficiary, and he gave (no surprise) a beautiful reading that night, graciously answering questions from the audience afterward and making it an evening to remember for years to come. In a 2004 special issue on Writing of the New West, he allowed CR to publish the first chapter from the then forthcoming Eventide. And though he’d generously agreed to judge the 2014 Nelligan Prize for Short Fiction, his health necessitated his withdrawal from the contest. Though a significant literary icon, Kent was always kind, gentle, and gracious, beginning with our first encounter with him—by way of an interview he gave with his former student Ira Sukrungruang, which we published in the Fall 2001 issue of Colorado Review. We reproduce it here, with much affection and deep gratitude.
From Chicken Farmer to Writer: An Interview with Kent Haruf (conducted by Ira Sukrungruang and published in Colorado Review, Fall 2001, 28.3)
Holt, Colorado, is Kent Haruf’s Yoknapatawpha County. Born and raised in the high plains of northeastern Colorado—a landscape, according to him, like no other in this country—Haruf has discovered the place where his stories dwell. In Plainsong, he creates the fictional town of Holt and introduces us to the dynamics of it, how it breathes and bristles, how the lives in it grow, learn, and understand.
Haruf himself hasn’t always stayed so close to home.
In 1965, he received his BA from Nebraska Wesleyan University and in 1973 his MFA from the University of Iowa. Throughout his life, Haruf has worked a variety of jobs: he was a chicken farmer, a construction worker, a railroad builder; he spent a bit of time working at a pest-control company, a rehabilitation hospital, and an orphanage. The list goes on. He has taught at numerous schools, including an alternative high school in Wisconsin and a small village in Turkey. From 1991 to 2001 he was at Southern Illinois University–Carbondale, teaching fiction writing and forms of fiction classes to graduates and undergraduates. Now professor emeritus, he lives in Colorado.
Kent Haruf is the author of three novels: The Tie That Binds (1984), Where You Once Belonged (1990), and Plainsong (1999), one of that year’s National Book Award finalists. His short stories have appeared in Puerto Del Sol, Grand Street, Prairie Schooner, and the Gettysburg Review, and have been included in Best American Short Stories 1987 and Where Past Meets Present: Modern Colorado Short Stories (1993). He has been the recipient of many awards, among them the Maria Thomas Award in Fiction, the Whiting Foundations Writing Award, and the PEN-Hemingway Foundation Special Citation.
Recently Haruf, who says his last name rhymes with sheriff, took time out of his busy schedule to talk to me about his life, writing, and Plainsong.
Ira Sukrungruang: I’d like to get this question out of the way, Kent. What made you decide one day to become a writer?
Kent Haruf: It didn’t happen like that. It was more of a gradual desire on my part. When I was a sophomore in college, I read for the first time writers who turned my life around. The two writers who did that for me were Hemingway and Faulkner. I was a biology major then, and after reading Faulkner and Hemingway, I changed real quick. I was really shocked by what was going on in their books, how stunningly good they were, and this may sound strange, but reading them changed my life. The more I read people like Faulkner and Hemingway, I knew I wanted to spend my adult life, in some manner, studying and thinking about literature. Gradually it became something I wanted to do too; that is, to try to write something. I wrote a little bit in college. Not very much. Nothing really good. Then I went into the Peace Corps and began to write more seriously there. After I got out of the Peace Corps, for the next several years, I began to write at night and tried to tell a story. So it was a gradual evolution I would say.
IS: Tell me about Turkey, Kent. What made you join the Peace Corps? It seems to be the starting point in your writing career.
KH: Yes, that’s right. I really started trying to write in the Peace Corps. I went to the Peace Corps because I suppose I had some vague notion of trying to do something that was useful to the world. But in addition to that, I wanted to see some other part of the world. I had no money, and the Peace Corps was a way of getting abroad and having somebody else—in this case the US government—pay my way and support me for a couple years. When I got out of the Peace Corps, I traveled around Europe for most of the summer.
But in Turkey I was located in a very small village by myself. There were no other English speakers around. I spent a lot of time alone. During those nights, I began to read intensely and to write the first meager and awful stories that I started with.
IS: What did you do in the Peace Corps?
KH: I taught English as a second language to middle school kids—mostly boys, mostly kids who probably didn’t need it. They would never meet another English speaker in their lives, so I wasn’t really a great use to them. But it was great experience for me and very important in my maturation.
IS: Was there a time when you reconsidered being a writer?
KH: For me, there was nothing else I wanted to do. I suppose I was very naïve about it and was not sure about what being a writer meant. I had to make a living, of course. That meant I had to find jobs wherever I could to have some money in my pockets for my family and myself. I never had any other thoughts about what I wanted to do. Once I got started, I don’t think I had any notion about ever making a living as a writer. I was someone trying to write and make a living however else I could.
IS: You’ve had a variety of jobs: chicken farmer, high school teacher. Have these occupations informed your writing or vision as a writer?
KH: Well, I’m not sure they have, but then, they’ve been very useful. I never set out to have all those many different jobs as some kind of conscious way of doing something that would be of use to me as a writer. But in retrospect, obviously, it seems to me that it was very useful to have a whole variety of jobs, to meet a variety of people from all over the country.
IS: How has your family supported your writing?
KH: My kids have been enthusiastic about it all along. While they were young, I don’t think they knew much about it or paid too much attention to it. They just grew up in a family in which their father was trying to write some stories, which probably seemed more or less normal to them.
Cathy, my wife, is extremely supportive and very encouraging in both emotional and spiritual ways, but also in practical ways. She’s someone who helps deflect any interruption or distraction while I’m actually working. She takes the phone calls, that sort of thing. She’s been a great help to me.
IS: You’ve mentioned Faulkner and Hemingway. Vladimir Nabokov wrote in an article, “Good Readers and Good Writers,” that “a good reader, a major reader, an active and creative reader is a re-reader.” Are there books you return to regularly?
KH: Yes. I have a lot of books I return to over and over. What I return to most often are—in Faulkner’s case—“The Bear,” The Sound and the Fury, As I Lay Dying, and some of his short stories. Those books in particular have been very important to me. In Hemingway’s case, the Nick Adams stories and his first two novels, The Sun Also Rises and A Farewell to Arms.
IS: Any others?
KH: A great many more. Eudora Welty is someone I return to often. Flannery O’Connor. I pick up bits of Joseph Conrad now and then. Ben Green, sometimes. Among more contemporary writers, Richard Ford. Raymond Carver. I read him thoroughly for a while. Susan Minot. Some of her stuff I like a great deal. Two Indian writers: James Welch, who wrote Winter in the Blood, a wonderful book, and Louise Erdrich. Larry Brown. More recently, I’ve read Denis Johnson and Tom Jones. That’s a whole lot of people.
IS: Tell me what Colorado means to you and to you as a writer.
KH: Colorado is where I grew up. It’s a place I know most of. It’s what I know best. It’s part of the country I feel most emotionally attached to. When I reenter high plains Colorado, I get an emotional charge out of seeing the landscape again. I still have lots of friends out there.
Once I discovered that that was what I wanted to write about, I located all my fiction there. There seems to me to be plenty to write about—the advantage of living in a small town when I was a kid. You know a whole society and microcosm; you know whose pickup is parked where it doesn’t belong, or whose dog is running loose, or whose bike is parked in front of the bakery. You know the mayor, the town idiot, the village drunk. All those people may be the same person. You know the histories of all the people you know and meet. That’s the great advantage, Ira, to have that sense of continuity and how generations work. That’s where I find my stories.
IS: It’s not the mountains of Colorado you write about though, is it?
KH: No, it’s not. It’s the high plains of Colorado, up in the northeastern corner of the state. That’s the part of the country most people drive across as fast as they can, trying to get to Denver or the mountains. But for me, it’s the way the world ought to look. If you’ve grown up there, it forces you to slow down and look at things more closely. If you don’t, you’ll miss it.
IS: Your novel Plainsong takes place in Holt, Colorado. You chose to end the novel with the chapter titled “Holt,” whereas the rest of the chapters are headed by character names. When writing the novel, was it a consideration to make the setting a character?
KH: Well, I know people talk about landscape and place in that way. But I never think of it like that. I think that’s kind of cliché, kind of an eastern notion. I don’t buy that. What I’m trying to do is think of this place as a very specific place, to be accurate about the description of it, and to use the details that make it vivid.
And of course the novel has to be set somewhere. If you’re not setting it in the city or any city, or if you’re not setting it in the suburbs, for me then, the place is very important. I’m trying to describe it as clearly and cleanly as I can. But I never think of it as a character. It’s just the place where the story takes place. The place itself is very real to me, so I’m trying to convey that on the page.
IS: I tried to find Holt on the map but to no avail. Does Holt, Colorado, exist?
KH: There is no place called Holt. And there is no Holt County. It is a fictitious place. It is a name that I invented. It’s kind of an amalgam of a number of places in the corner of the state. I moved things around to fit my own purposes. Holt only exists on my own map.
IS: In the Spring/Summer 1999 issue of Crab Orchard Review, there are two excerpts from Plainsong. The first excerpt, “Holt, Colorado,” can be found nowhere in the novel. What happened to it?
KH: When I sent the book off, I had a prologue, which was an attempt on my part to give a kind of mood and tone to the opening of the book. That prologue was kind of a place/setting piece in which I imagine the reader coming into Holt, Colorado, from a distance at night, and I’m suggesting what the reader would see. It was a way, I thought, of introducing the reader to the place in an immediate and, hopefully, lyrical way.
When I got done with the book and sent it off, it was still part of it. But later, my editor and I decided that it would be more dramatic to cut it out and begin the book where I do with the first scene—Tom Guthrie standing in the kitchen in the morning—and then to assume that the place itself would become clear as the book progressed and as the reader read on. The opening prologue, therefore, became unnecessary.
IS: The beauty of the novel is in its characters. Is there any character in Plainsong you identify with? Or do you try to distance yourself from the novel?
KH: I don’t do either. I don’t know how other writers feel about that. I’m trying to get in the mind and hearts and guts of all these characters. I try to treat them as complexly and believably as I can. So, no, I don’t identify with any of them.
Even characters that are considered bad, you want to make them complex so that they’re not just foils. They’re very necessary, and as a writer, you appreciate having them in the story because you know they’re needed to help advance it, to make the other characters act a certain way you know they need to act. I never think about identifying with any of the characters. I’m trying to write a story about people I’m interested in.
IS: Are there any strategies or approaches to writing your characters?
KH: Well, no. For me, it’s a matter of having brooded over a story and having thought about it long enough so that all the characters seem to come, in some way, full blown. I don’t intend to be metaphysical or mysterious about it, but once I’ve thought about a story long enough and thought about characters long enough, they simply appear. It’s not conscious. It’s not organized thinking in any way. It’s sort of brooding and letting your subconscious do some work for you. All I have to do—that sounds silly to say it that way—is to get them on the page in the clear and complex way I see and feel them, making sure they talk the way that sounds idiosyncratic and right for each one of those people.
IS: Where You Once Belonged, your second novel, was published in 1990. Plainsong has just been released (October 1999). Has Plainsong been your main project for the last nine years?
KH: Of course, I finished the book in May of ’98, and I really began it in 1992. I wrote for a six-year period. I don’t mean I wrote every day on it, but it was during that period. Once I got well into it, then I was very disciplined about working on it daily, often six or seven days a week in a concentrated way. But it took me those six years to finish it.
IS: I know when it comes to writing you’re a bit superstitious. Take me through your writing ritual. First off, where do you write?
KH: I write in what used to be a coal room, a room that has plank walls and one little window where they would’ve shoveled the coal in. I put a door on it. It’s about six by nine. It just suits me. It’s a small little space, but it’s just right.
IS: Tell me about the paper you use.
KH: I use some old yellow pulp paper. It has a kind of special texture and feel that I like. You can’t buy it anymore. It’s the kind of paper that used to be used many years ago by newspaper reporters when they were writing their copy. It was cheap paper.
Six years or so ago, I was over at the university in the summer. The secretary was cleaning out one of the cabinets and found six reams of this paper. She was going to throw it away. I snatched it up. It was a great gift for me. Maybe I have enough of it to do all the writing I hope to do the rest of my life. I’m very frugal with it. I type on both sides.
IS: How do you write a first draft?
KH: It’s kind of bizarre. My method is to write it blind. It comes out of a couple things: one, when I was writing my second book, Where I Once Belonged, I wrote the book on the computer and never did feel good about it, never felt right. I didn’t like how it felt to work on a computer, mainly because it’s so easy to spin your wheels. It seems, for me, I was rewriting sentences endlessly. It’s my tendency to rewrite sentences and paragraphs on and on until I get them right, then go to the next thing, but on a computer that seems endless. Also, unless you print out all the time, you lose earlier drafts that may have something in them you want to go back and keep.
When I came to write Plainsong it seemed, all of a sudden, I needed to think of another way of getting at this book. What I developed was a way of writing blind. I use that old yellow paper in my manual typewriter—a big old Royal typewriter with a wide carriage. I put the paper in the typewriter and I take my glasses off, shut my eyes, and pull a stocking cap over my head and write blind on the first draft of a scene, of all the scenes as I get to it. My reason for doing that is, one, I want to get in touch with some intuitive impulses, so that I’m not paying attention to syntax or diction or grammar or spelling or punctuation or word choices, any of that stuff. It forces me to go on and write the next sentence. Also, I’m trying to get a whole draft of a scene down in one sitting, in some spontaneous way. It helps me to see it more visually. I’ll sit there writing that first draft until I get it done. Once I’ve done that, then I’ll spend the next couple of weeks expanding that draft on the computer, but I’m trying not to lose whatever freshness or spontaneity that’s in that first draft.
IS: What’s next for you?
KH: I’m beginning to make some notes and think about another novel. I’m not at all into it yet. I began to make a few little jottings of bits of dialogue and description. The story is still forming in my mind.