I was sad to hear that Kent Haruf passed away this past Sunday. It got me thinking about that interview I did with him back in June of 2004.
I did the interview for CityBeat but when I went to their archives on their web site, it wasn’t there. That happens from time to time. Articles somehow get misplaced and never make it to the web.
I’m going to rerun it here today. Hard for me to believe this interview took place over ten years ago.
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When I first meet up with Kent Haruf at The Cincinnatian Hotel on June 7, I explain to him I came across his new book Eventide by accident. I had been in contact with Gabrielle Brooks, director of promotion, at book publisher Alfred A. Knopf in an attempt to contact another writer to discuss the works of Raymond Carver. That discussion lead to learning about Haruf’s arrival in Cincinnati and his new book.
Haruf, who has taught writing in college for 30 years, proceeded to give me insights into Carver and his masterful short stories. He’s so excited talking about “the master,” it’s hard to get the subject turned around to talking about himself.
“Let’s talk about you,” I finally say.
Looking disappointed, Haruf says “I’d rather talk about Carver.”
And this is how Kent Haruf is. He’s an unassuming, down-to-earth gentleman who would rather talk about his writing heroes like Faulkner, Hemingway or Carver than spend any time talking about his own work.
Interviewing him is like talking to an old neighbor and friend that I haven’t seen in several years. We’re both country boys and respect the rural way of life. I grew up on a farm in southern Indiana near a small town called East Enterprise.
“Where’s that?” Haruf wants to know.
“Oh, it’s about half an hour away from Vevay.”
Haruf doesn’t know where that town is either. That’s all right. I’m not familiar with Wray, Yuma or Holyoke, small towns by the border of Nebraska where Haruf grew up and spent many of his adult years. Later in life, Haruf would transform these three rural communities into Holt, a fictional town sitting in the High Plains of Colorado and a town that is quickly becoming a household word in the literary world.
After publishing two novels with limited success and three decades of teaching writing in college, his book Plainsong was released in 1999. Set in Holt, the novel introduces us to the rigors and rhythms of small-town ranch country and the people who live there.
Among the many strong characters in the book, we come to know the McPheron brothers, two old rangers set in their ways who give shelter to Victoria Roubideaux, a young single mother disowned by her parents. With these characters and the rest, Haruf writes with respect and dignity, telling their stories with plain-spoken, straight-ahead prose.
In Eventide, also set in Holt, the McPheron brothers are back as well as Victoria but we’re introduced to new characters as well. Among them is DJ Kephart, an orphaned 11-year-old boy and caretaker for his frail, gruff grandfather. We meet Rose Tyler, a social worker dealing with bad situations caused by poverty, isolation and violence.
Perhaps the most intriguing of the new characters are Luther and Betty Wallace, a mentally challenged couple trying to raise two children in a trailer amid threats from an uncle named Hoyt Raines.
“For me, the hardest characters to write are the bad people. In this case Hoyt Raines, this evil figure,” the author states. “It’s easy enough to make him do the things he has to do for the story to progress, to move forward, but what’s harder to do is to make him more than one-dimensional, to make him not all bad.”
While Hoyt causes havoc in the lives of Betty and Luther, I found myself rooting for the couple, hoping they can pull it off as good parents to their children.
“I’m glad to hear you say that,” Haruf says. “Those were characters I was the most concerned about. I didn’t want to sentimentalize them nor make them unlikable. If a reader doesn’t care about these two people and about what happens to them and their kids, then the ending makes no sense. The book doesn’t work.”
Since its release last month, reviews for Eventide have been glowing and sales brisk. The initial press run was set at an astounding 250,000 copies. Just like with the previous novel, there’s talk of turning Eventide into a movie. Haruf won’t make the same mistake he made with Plainsong which was turned into a Hallmark TV movie without his involvement.
“It was a complete distortion of the book. They portrayed the McPheron brothers as buffoons. I could go on for half an hour about all the mistakes they made and some of them were so obvious. All they had to have done was talk to any rancher or any rural person to correct them.”
Plainsong has now sold close to one million copies and, at the age of 61, Haruf has become an overnight success. When I tell him this, he corrects me.
“What I say after 30 years of writing is that I’ve been overnighted success.”
With success comes fame.
“I like – I want my private, independent, anonymous life. In my view, one of the most dangerous things that can happen to anybody is to become famous. It’s very seductive.”
When Haruf visited Cincinnati, he was in the middle of a grueling 30 city book tour promoting his new book.
“This tour has nothing to do with writing. It has to do with promotion,” he says. “I feel an obligation to Knopf and to independent bookstores. Independent bookstores hand sold Plainsong all over this country.”
With the success of his last two books, Haruf no longer teaches in college. He’s now a full time writer, something he finds “enormously satisfying.”
“I miss the contact with the kids,” He says. “I miss talking about great literature and good writing. I don’t miss reading student stories. I’ve read so many of them over the years. I got to the point when I was teaching that if I didn’t read some short story by some kid by 6:30 in the morning, I could not force myself to read one.”
And while he hasn’t started his next novel yet, Haruf’s pretty sure it will be in Holt.
“I’m stuck in Holt. To me, it’s utterly clear in my mind – the place, the town, the county. I got a map in my mind of this place. I’ve even got a literal map that I’ve drawn. There’s no reason why I can’t tell the stories I want to tell and set them right there. I don’t feel like I’m writing exclusively about northeastern Colorado. I would never compare myself to Faulkner but as an illustration, he can say so much about human nature and the human condition by setting them all in his little postage stamp county.”
As I start to wrap up the interview, I tell Haruf how much I thoroughly enjoyed his new book. Compliments clearly make him uncomfortable.
“You’re very generous,” he says, then quickly switches the subject back to Raymond Carver. He gives me some names and phone numbers of people at Knopf who have worked with him.
“Make sure you tell them I urged you to call,” he says. “Do you know of one of Carver’s very early stories, ‘Nobody Said Anything.’ Do you know that one? I urge you to get it. That’s absolutely a masterpiece of writing. I use to teach that story all the time.”
While realizing he would rather be talking about Carver, I ask Haruf about his book tour and the slew of interviews he’s done recently. I want to know if we all ask the same questions.
“No, you asked some questions that are somewhat different and I feel somewhat of a kinship with you, because we both have pretty strong views of rural America.”
I then say, “is there one question that everyone’s missing? Is there one question that you wish someone would ask?”
He looks at me for awhile, and then says “I don’t know the answer to that question. But it would have something to do with –. See, what people don’t know anything about is – it’s an abstraction really – but it has to do with what you hope for in a book in terms of the composition of it. Not it’s commercial success, not even its critical success but just your own dream of a story. And, of course, you can ever do that. You can try to as hard as you can and as well as you can, but you never get as close to that dream as you hope for.”
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I hadn’t read this interview in a long time and reading it took me back to June of 2004 and the unassuming Mr. Haruf. Rest in peace, sir.
I’ll be back here on Thursday.
(Photo from centerwest.org)