from The Denver Post
Kent Haruf, 1943-2014: An astute observer of rural life in the West
With the death of novelist Kent Haruf, Colorado has lost one if its celebrated native sons, its astute and wise observer of rural life and community on Colorado’s Eastern Plains.
The prize-winning author of the acclaimed trilogy “Plainsong,” “Eventide” and 2013’s “Benediction” – all set in the fictional town of Holt, Colo. – died Sunday at the age of 71. The cause was interstitial lung disease. He is survived by his wife, Cathy, and three daughters. Additional survivors are three stepdaughters and two stepsons.
“He really was a giant,” Gov. John Hickenlooper said Monday of the writer, who was born in Pueblo in 1943.
Among Haruf’s many literary honors were the prestigious Whiting Foundation Award for his first novel, “The Tie That Binds“; the Center of the American West’s Wallace Stegner Award, given to those who’ve “made a sustained contribution to the cultural identity of the West through literature, art, history, lore, or an understanding of the West”; and a special citation from the PEN/Hemingway Foundation.
Winner of the 2000 Mountains and Plains Booksellers Award, “Plainsong” was a finalist for the National Book Award. And in 2008, the Denver Center mounted the world premiere adaptation of “Plainsong.” It was followed by the premiere of “Eventide,” in 2010.
“I thought ‘Plainsong’ and ‘Eventide‘ were two of the best books ever written about Colorado,” Hickenlooper said.
Haruf’s graceful, grounded portrait of a rural community was on then-Mayor Hickenlooper’s short list when he launched One Book/One Denver in 2004. “I came very close to picking ‘Plainsong,’ ” recalled Hickenlooper.
“Except there was one kind of dicey scene where teenagers were having sex and a 10-year-old watches them through a knothole in this shack. For something we were just starting, we thought it was too racy.”
“Like a fool, I told Kent this. I’m not sure he ever really forgave me,” Hickenlooper said. “And you know, with a little bit of distance, he was completely right. It was so integral to the story, so maturely done. In no way was it lascivious. I still feel guilty about it.”
A rare relationship
Actor Mike Hartman, in a phone interview from New York, referred to Haruf as his “BS meter.” The Denver Center Theatre Company member starred in “Plainsong” and “Eventide.” In January, he will portray Dad Lewis, the dying protagonist in “Benediction.”
“He would stand or sit next to Kent Thompson (artistic director of the Denver Center company) or the playwright in rehearsal and he’d be watching things,” Hartman recalled. “When he didn’t like what he saw, you’d see him move around or get agitated. His face would screw up.”
In 2006, Thompson and playwright Eric Schmiedl began working with Haruf to bring his trilogy to the stage.
“It was really one of those relationships that are rare,” Thompson said. “It’s a profound loss on both the friendship and artistic level. We did lose a muse.”
The relationship forged between the Denver Center and Haruf was, to borrow a notion, “kismet.”
A year or two before coming to the Denver Center from the Alabama Shakespeare Festival, Thompson had been given a copy of “Plainsong” by his in-laws.
“The novel was spectacularly good,” he recalled thinking. But at the time it didn’t make sense for what Thompson was doing in Alabama. “Within a year or two, I was at the Denver Center.”
And he “brokered the marriage” between the novelist and playwright Schmiedl.
“These can be quirky relationships when you’re working together, adapting something from another art form and transferring it to a totally different experience,” said Schmiedl.
“Kent was just so generous about the whole process. He wanted to be intimately involved, but not in a controlling fashion. He certainly had a strong view about the work and the characters and the authenticity of story, but he was curious. We talked a lot about how challenging it was as a fiction writer to sit back and kind of trust that the artists working on the show are going to have the best interests of the novel at heart,” said Schmiedl. “It was such an asset for us to have the source of the material in the rehearsal hall with us.”
In 2015, Alfred A. Knopf will publish Haruf’s sixth and final novel, “Our Souls at Night.” Haruf told the Denver Center’s John Moore in what was the author’s final interview that it, too, is set in Holt. Moore asked if the trilogy was about to get a new chapter.
“Well, we’d have to come up with a new word for it: a quad-something. But really, no. I think this is completely separate,” Haruf replied. He then teased: “I will tell you there is a reference to the play ‘Benediction’ in this new book. It’s something these two old people have a little comment about.”
World premiereIn January, theatergoers will be able to join those two old folks when“Benediction” receives its world premiere.
“It’s just reinforced our desire to make ‘Benediction’ as wonderful as possible,” Thompson said.
“Kent knew the struggles of facing your mortality. He hoped it would help other people facing their mortality, to take stock in your life. To try to heal whatever relationships in your life you can or cannot heal. That would be one of the gifts of the production and certainly was of the book.”
In 1999, Jeff Martin (Papua New Guinea 1989-90), who was the Public Affairs Specialist for Peace Corps’ Denver Regional Office, and a freelance writer who had been published in Travel & Leisure, Cineaste, American Cowboy, and the Denver Post, interviewed Kent for our newsletter, Peace Corps Writers & Readers. At the time, Haruf was teaching at Southern Illinois University but soon to retire. Here is the interview, republished below:
Jeff Martin Talking with Kent Haruf
KENT HARUF SERVED in Turkey (1965-67) and is the author of three novels. His novel, The Tie That Binds received a Whiting Foundation Award and a special citation from the PEN/Hemingway Foundation. He is also the author of Where You Once Belonged. Kent’s new novel, Plainsong, has just been published by Knopf and is the “hot” book of the fall ’99 publishing season and was a finalist for this year’s National Book Award in fiction.
I interviewed Haruf in Colorado, the state he was born, raised and will soon retire in, just before a public reading of Plainsong at the Tattered Cover bookstore in Denver. The interview took place in the posh lobby of the Brown Palace Hotel, a sophisticated sanctuary for the elite and world leaders while in town (President Clinton and Mikhail Gorbachev were guests during the G-7 conference in 1997).
Amidst the fast-paced bustle of the business crowd, Haruf, however, seemed to move in three-quarter time. Dressed in casual slacks and plaid shirt with rolled up sleeves, he clearly was in stark contrast to his surroundings. His low-key, understated demeanor is typical of the middle-America he grew up in and the settings for his novels. “That’s the part of the world that is home and where I have the deepest emotional response to. I write very intuitively so I have to depend upon a type of emotional connection, otherwise there is no story.”
Admittedly, his Peace Corps experience may have had some effect on his three daughters: Sorel, a Volunteer in Thailand (1990-92); Whitney, who studied for a year in China and is currently in India with a program called “Friends World;” and Chaney, a senior at the University of Nebraska.
How did you ever cross paths with the Peace Corps?
Like a lot of young people I had a notion of doing some good in the world and seeing as much of it as possible. I ended up in Turkey where I taught English for a middle school in a village called Felahiye.
And your Peace Corps experience was –
– wonderful, an enormously exhilarating experience in so many ways! It basically taught me that, in elemental ways, people are the same all over. It also taught me how to deal with isolation and boredom. I read a lot and that’s when I really began to start writing. A lot of that was journal keeping, but I did write some short stories which weren’t very good. In fact, they were pretty awful.
Has two years in Turkey played any part in your fiction, directly or indirectly?
Not directly. I guess there is an abstract quality of meeting other cultures and the mutual acceptance that occurs, and that does have a bearing on what your interests are, how you write and what you write about.
It has been a long time since you were a Volunteer. Does anything of those years, and that experience, play into your life today?
If you’re asking ‘did it shape who I am today’ – I don’t think so. The Peace Corps simply confirmed the direction I was going in anyway. It did make me less interested in material things and more interested in the qualities of the human spirit. After the Peace Corps you never see yourself as being poor. There, you see real poverty and you can’t feel very sorry for yourself after that.
This novel, and your other two have focused on families and intimate relationships as well as the landscape of small town American life. Do you see this world as disappearing?
Well, I’m not a sociologist so I really can’t comment on the collapse of the American family or anything like that. But I do think that human relationships are always interesting and families are where they are the most intense. At the end of this crazy century I hope that people can focus on what’s important and act out of warmheartedness toward each other even though they are not blood related. Plainsong ends with the characters becoming an extended family with both sides giving something and getting something out of it.
Sounds like a happy ending. Do you like happy endings?
Not especially. Plainsong is more upbeat than my previous novels but there are still problems that are not resolved. I don’t believe in happy endings. There used to be a saying about novels, “they usually end in a funeral or a wedding.” This book ends somewhere in between. Realistically, life’s not very tidy and I think this is an actual portrayal of real life.
Your new book has been compared, in its literary quality, to Cold Mountain. Does this sudden attention from the New York literary establishment surprise you?
Yes, in many ways it does. The other books received good critical attention but just didn’t sell well. I’m pleased and surprised that this one does both.
Do you think of your work in any sort of literary tradition, or do you think of yourself as being out on your own in southern Illinois?
I think it fits into the 20th Century literary tradition. But I reject the notion that it’s regional. Simply because a novel is set in, say, Colorado, doesn’t mean it’s western literature. It’d be reductive to say Faulkner was only a southern writer. Of course, I don’t mean to compare myself to Faulkner.
What do you see as the strengths of your writings?
I’d rather someone else say that than me.
What current writers do you read and appreciate?
James Welch and Louise Erdrich, both Native American writers; Richard Ford, Cormac McCarthy, Larry Brown, and Alice Monru. As for the classics, whenever I get the chance, I go back to Faulkner and Hemingway repeatedly.
What about RPCV writers?
The only one I’ve read much of is Bob Shacochis. I’ve met him and we have talked about the Peace Corps.
You’re not into happy endings, so how does it all end for Kent Haruf?
(laughs) Life is very good for me right now. I’m happily married, I have three great daughters and I have another book to write. That’s about as far as I’m going to take it right now.