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Plain Talk

Author Kent Haruf on art and inspiration



Kent Haruf's prose is lauded by critics for its quiet, spare quality; his fiction for its stark but humane depiction of small town life on the rural eastern Colorado plains.

Nominated last year for the National Book Award and many other weighty prizes, Haruf's Plainsong brought the author to the attention of a much wider audience of readers. Though his two earlier novels, The Tie That Binds and Where We Once Belonged, were both critical successes as well, those two books had fallen out of print before the release and popular success of Plainsong and, happily, are now back in print in handsome paperback editions.

To read all three is to understand something about the development and singular vision of one of America's finest living novelists. Together, Haruf's cast of characters, all residents of fictional Holt, Colorado, comprise a population as real and consistently fascinating as Faulkner's Yoknapatawpha clan.

The Independent caught up with Haruf in Salida, where he will soon relocate from Carbondale, Illinois, home of Southern Illinois University where he teaches. The author, who grew up on the northeastern plains of Colorado, the son of a Methodist minister, talked about his influences, his inspirations and the focus of his work in conversation as solid and plain as his prose and his homeland.

Indy: You are lauded for your tight, spare prose. Do you rewrite and cut a lot or do you just write that way?

Haruf: My inclination is to write spare prose. I basically mistrust gorgeous prose, though I admire a great deal of it. James Agee's opening sequence to A Death in the Family comes to mind, so lyrical and gorgeous. But I'm trying to write prose that is absolutely economical to tell the story. The story is preeminent.

I do like clean writing. I read Hemingway very carefully early on, and still do every year.

Indy: You have such a clear understanding of your characters. In Plainsong and Where We Once Belonged, you are able to subtly but powerfully depict unhappy women, who are often drawn in fiction as hysterics.

Haruf: Well thank you. I hope I do. I know what you mean, but it's not necessary [for them to be depicted that way] -- unhappy people of either sex are often pretty quiet about it.

Indy: The boys, brothers Ike and Bobby in Plainsong, there's such a tight and unique understanding between them. How did you think of them?

Haruf: They appeared in a short story I wrote in the mid-'80s with their horse which was also in the book. Yes, the boys seem to almost communicate without words. They have the same reaction, same emotions to the same events with little variation. I suppose in some ways that those two boys came out of my relationship with my younger brother; he's a year younger than me. We were and are still very close; he lives in Denver and I talk to him about every day.

I wanted those boys to be connected to each other thoroughly. They are isolated together in that town, and they relate to each other in ways that people don't ordinarily.

Indy: And the older set of brothers, the McPherons, what about them? (The McPherons are two single men, brothers and ranchers, who take in and care for Victoria Roubideaux, a pregnant teenager, in Plainsong.)

Haruf: Well, when I was a kid, there were two old bachelor farmers who came in every Sunday to my dad's church in their black suits and white shirts. They were very shy, never said anything to anybody. My brother and I thought that would be an ideal life. The McPherons are not them, but I've had that situation in my mind for over 50 years.

Indy: How'd you come up with the grand name Victoria Roubideaux?

Haruf: My grandfather had a farm in South Dakota he rented to a family called Roubideaux. It's a fairly common name among Native Americans who live in South Dakota. I guess I had a certain affection for it.

And I named her Victoria because, within her own constraints and her own limits, she's ultimately somewhat victorious.

Indy: Your first two books were straight, first-person narratives, and Plainsong changes vantage from chapter to chapter. Did you write it differently?

Haruf: I read The Great Gatsby very carefully in college, and tried to do with The Tie That Binds what Fitzgerald did there with Nick at the edge of this circle of characters, but drawn in and impacted by them. I put the narrators at the edge of the story [in the first two novels], telling the story about characters who mattered to them. Eventually, they become involved with those characters.

With Plainsong, I was trying to advance seven or eight stories simultaneously, and fumbling about with the stories I saw I had to tighten the time frame. That's why it ended up the way it is. My view of novels and books generally is that when you read them they seem logical but the process is messy.

Indy: Which contemporary authors do you read and admire?

Haruf: I've read Cormac McCarthy's work thoroughly and admire him. I think he's the greatest American novelist currently working. I also read Larry Brown, the Canadian Alice Munro. I've read a lot of Eudora Welty and Flannery O'Connor. I admired Richard Ford's book Rock Springs.

And I admire the Native American writer James Welch -- a great writer and just a great guy. I consider his first novel, Winter in the Blood, to be one of the masterpieces of American fiction.

Indy: Is small-town life in the heartlands over?

Haruf: I don't think so. I lived out in Yuma in the mid-'70s to early '80s, teaching in the most rural school district in Colorado. I found it very much to be as it had been when I was growing up. That's not to say that the problems of cities don't creep in -- that pregnant, unwed teenagers only exist in Denver.

I think small towns still have this wonderful sense of everybody knowing everybody's business. Of course there's a disadvantage to this, but for a writer, it's a big advantage.

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