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Kent Haruf


Kent Haruf grew up on the high plains of northeastern Colorado. He was Educated at Nebraska Wesleyan University (B.A. 1965) and The University of Iowa (MFA 1973). He served in the Peace Corps in Turkey, teaching English as a second language to middle school kids in a village on the Anatolian Plateau. Besides that, over the years, he's worked at a variety of other places: a chicken ranch in Colorado, the Royal Gorge in the Rocky Mountains, a construction site in Wyoming, the railroad tracks in southeastern Montana, a pest control company in Kansas, a rehabilitation hospital in Denver, an orphanage in Montana, a surgery wing in a hospital in Phoenix, a presidential library in Iowa, an alternative high school in Wisconsin, a country school in Colorado, and a college in Nebraska. Since 1991 he's been at SIUC where he teaches fiction writing and forms of fiction classes to graduates and undergraduates.

Haruf (pronounced so that it rhymes with sheriff) is the author of two novels: The Tie That Binds (1984) and Where You Once Belonged (1990). His short fiction has appeared in Puerto Del Sol, Grand Street, Prairie Schooner, and Gettysburg Review, and has been included in Best American Short Stories (1987) and Where Past Meets Present: Modern Colorado Short Stories (1993). His awards included the American Library Association Distinguished Book List, the PEN-Hemingway Foundation Special Citation, a Whiting Foundation Writer's Award, and the Maria Thomas Award in Fiction.

His third novel, Plainsong, published by Knopf (October, 1999), was a nominee for Book of the Year

"Kent Haruf's new novel Plainsong is nothing short of a revelation. I don't expect to read a better novel this year. Or next, for that matter." -Richard Russo, author of Nobody's Fool

 

Page One: "Where did you grow up and how much did books and writing effect your life? Who are some of your favorite books/writers?"

Kent: "I grew up in Colorado on the high plains NE where I write about. Both of my parents were avid readers. As a kid I read the Black Stallion series, My Friend Flicka, and westerns. In college it was Faulkner and Hemingway. "The Bear" and "The Sound and the Fury" are two of my favorites."

 

Page One: "What is at the center of the story PLAINSONG? Your writing has an emotional impact -- Would you say this is your style? Or is the story? Or both?"

Kent: "Plainsong is the story of decent people who have real problems and they are trying to find the solutions to their problems. I was very consciously trying to avoid sentamentalsim but wanted the story to be compelling. Every good novel/story should involve the reader. There should be some kind of connection with the characters.I wanted to show rather than tell. Present in compelling ways --"

 

Page One: "Where does the title Plainsong come from?"

Kent: "The title came to me after the book was finished. It came from an old gospel song, "They tell me of an Uncloudy Day" which appealled to me because it was a song sung in unison without accompany. It was a simple song. It was a plain song. Plainsong--the unisonous vocal music used in the Christian church from the earliest times; any simple and unadorned melody or air. There's an obvious pun that this is kind of a song or an emblem for the Plains or an anthem for the Plains. Sung in a plain style. These are regular, ordinary sort of elemental characters and I think they're presented sort of directly and I wanted the prose to be kind of simple and direct. My first two books had titles that were from songs.

The story took about six years to evolve but when I was a kid my father was a preacher and there were two old men who were brothers who came to the church every Sunday."

 

 

Page One: "One of your main characters is Tom Guthrie.
Do Kent Haruf and Tom Guthrie have anything in common?"

Kent: "Plainsong is not at the least autobiographical. We both are teachers and that's about it."

 

Page One: "The character of Tom Guthrie is flexing his character in his roles as father and romantic partner. He doesn't flinch to defend right from wrong. He's very strong?"

Kent: "He is, but he's also numb and it took someone like Maggie Jones to wake him up. He has in some ways gone the path of least resistance. Judy, the high school secretary, is attractive and attracted to him and that's not going to go anywhere. But Maggie insists that if he's going to be with her he's going to have be straight and responsible in ways that he hasn't been, at least with the school secretary. In other ways he is an ethical man and he's trying to do the right thing."

 

Page One:"Would you agree that he matures with the evolution of his relationship to Maggie?"

Kent: "I do. I also think that he's a caring and attentive father but when the boys go out to the McPheron's, he's shocked by their disappearance and that shakes him up, too. He realizes that he's going to have to be an even better father than he's been before because his boys have left home."

"The characters' voices are as fully developed and consistent as the voices one knows from one's own life.You are able to conjure the voice of children, specifically Ike and Bobby, in a realistic, heartwarming and memory-stirring way. How did you find the access to children's rhythm?"

I was conscious of trying to tell the story in a clear-telling way. I was trying to deliberately not create the internal type of prose but to show what they are thinking by an external presentation. I remember my boyhood in this area and I wanted to portray these little boys accurately without sentimentalism. I think that usually the risk in trying to write children in fiction is the tendency to make them too cute or something. In this case, these little boys are almost two halves of the same whole. They can communicate with very few words there. They're close, always have been, but they're both undergoing the same problems. In my view, what they're trying to do is find some understanding or at least consolation for the first major problem in their lives. Their mother has retreated into a really strong, deep depression and leaves them, leaves the house, and so on. These boys are on an inarticulate search for some kind of comfort or love and in their search they are thrown up against all kinds of adult experiences. They are not old enough to understand all they see or do, so by the end their only recourse, and again it's intuitive rather than analytical, is to ride out to the McPheron brothers where they had been well-treated once before and sensed that there was some solace there.

At seventeen, Victoria Robideaux is at the other end of childhood facing an adult dilemma. Her life is very different from the boys'. They live just five blocks from her but with their paper route and bicycles and horses and early morning risings, they live a more rural existence. She lives right in town and experiences a more contemporary version of this town's life. Her malaise is presented in very contemporary tones.

I think your right about that. She's gotten herself caught up into events and problems that she's not ready to deal with. She's pretty innocent and has to try to find her way, and she bviously needs help doing that.She dresses in a racy fashion but doesn't seem to have a lot of vices.No, she's a fairly moral person within her own constraints. She dresses a little racy in a way many teenage girls do but without really knowing what that implies or means and so she has gotten herself into trouble and now needs help with it."

 

Page One: "Ike and Bobby are responding to a situation in their life while she is responding to an endemic aspect of her life, which is a lack of love?"

Kent: "That's right. Her mother kicks her out and her father disappeared long ago and she's kind of a loner in town. She doesn't have many close friends. I had in mind that part of the cause of that is her father is an American Indian and so she's kind of an outcast in town. Her mother is taking out some of her feelings for the father on the girl."

 

Page One: "What does the imagery of cooking and food play in this story?"

Kent: "Thank you very much for noticing that. I did have something in mind in terms of food in the communal use or consuming of it. It always seems to me that one of the ways you show love is to prepare food for somebody. The father is doing that at the beginning of the story. At the end, Victoria feels confident enough and secure enough in her place out there so that she is the one who has begun to do the cooking and she's the one who presents the food to the boys when they come out to the McPheron's. At the very end of the book there is the suggestion that soon they will all go in and eat supper together."

 

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