The 59-year-old author of the critically acclaimed novel ďPlainsongĒ didnít publish his first piece of fiction until he was 41. And even now heís seen only three of his books (including ďThe Tie That Binds,Ē ďWhere You Once BelongedĒ) hit print.
Yet he isnít complaining. Speaking over the phone from his home in Salida, Colo.ó a small town with a population of 5,000 that sits in the south-central part of the state between two picturesque mountain ranges ó Haruf talked about everything from his townís reaction to the anniversary of 9/11 to his memories of a young creative writing instructor at the University of Iowa Writerís Workshop named John Irving.
Above all else, Haruf came across as an unassuming man who is happy to be where heís at now. Once bitter at not having his first novel published, he now sees the wisdom of that decision. The passage of time has given him a chance to perfect his craft, and the struggle to keep at that craft just makes his current success that much sweeter.
Harufís talents include the ability to create similes that are as true as they are poetic ó ďface as pale as schoolhouse chalkĒ ó and ways of speaking that seem as authentic as the settings he uses. When an old woman tells two young boys that them must feel lonely now that their mother has moved out, Haruf writes, ďThey didnít know how to say anything about that.Ē
And while ďPlainsongĒ doesnít dodge the negative side of small-town life (pregnancy, drunkenness, bad tempers, intolerance, sexual abuse, adultery, depression, the harsh reality of raising cattle), Haruf nevertheless is able to tell a story that is ultimately uplifting.
A Colorado native, Haruf earned a bachelorís degree from Nebraska Wesleyan (1965), and his MFA from Iowa (1973). Heís worked at a number of jobs, struggling always to find the time to write, and he taught creative writing for nearly a decade at Southern Illinois University, Carbondale.
The father of three daughters, he lives in Salida with his wife Cathy and is at work on his fourth novel. As part of Octoberís Spokane Is Reading event, Haruf will speak at The Met on Oct. 30.
Webster: I have to say that it is a pleasure to talk to you, even if it is on such an auspicious anniversary. So whatís the feeling in your part of the world about whatís going on today with the observances of Sept. 11?
Haruf: I assume that people are feeling what everyone else in the country is feeling. I suppose thereís a mixture of vindictiveness and other people thinking of ways of trying to forgive. I wouldnít say that there was one monolithic way of looking at it.
I think you could say that same way for everywhere, although there are probably some places with more vindictiveness than others and other places with more compassion. But the way you put that Ė and howís this for a cool segue? Ė thatís exactly how I feel when I read ďPlainsong.Ē It does not give a Pollyanna view of small-town life. Yet there is a feeling, when all is said and done, that this is what life is and it is worth living.
Well, I really want to believe that. I certainly donít think it gives a sentimental view of a small town or any town, nor of human nature. But these people find a way and a reason to connect with one another, and in these peculiar times it seems to me appropriate that unusual connections are made. The McPheron brothers and Victoria, the two little boys and the old, lonely woman, those kinds of connections come out of need that, as strange as they might be, at least, nevertheless, seem believable.
Absolutely believable. And I think the believability comes through not so much what happens in the book but in how you describe how it happens. Iím sure youíve been told this, and you probably know this, but your prose style is some of the cleanest, most beautiful, direct prose style that I have read in years.
Well, youíre very kind, and certainly thatís my goal. What I want to write is clean prose, exactly. I want to be clear, clean, direct and as accurate a way that I can. Hemingway and Raymond Carver both said something about that, and Iím not comparing myself to either one of them, but I do believe that if you use language carefully that it has a kind of mint-fresh quality to it. Or it can have.
This is probably a question that youíve probably answered a million times, but as I understand it you didnít publish a short story until you were 41?
Thatís right. I published a short story and actually ďThe Tie That BindsĒ both came out when I was 41. I didnít publish anything until then.
How did that happen?
Well, there are a number of reasons. One, I had been writing for nearly 15 or 20 years seriously. It turns out that I had to serve a long apprenticeship. I was never a prolific writer. In the meantime, I was trying to make a living. I had three daughters, and I found it very difficult to find a way of making a living and also to write fiction. I finally got a public school teaching job in the most rural school district in Colorado. So I wrote ďThe Tie That BindsĒ over three summers. And that was the first time that Iíd had a job that allowed me any free time like that. I got paid through the summers so I could write then. By that time I was so desperate for time I was really ruthless with my time. I wouldnít do anything else but work during those mornings. But it did take me awhile to get good enough to write anything that was publishable. Coming out of graduate school, I was finishing a novel. And I got some encouragement on that. Harper & Row had signed an option on that book with me, but they didnít publish it. I felt bitter, of course, about that.
Which book was that?
Well, it never was published. And it wonít be. Iím glad now that it never was. It was an autobiographical novel, fairly angry, fairly bitter. But not good enough to publish, I can see now in retrospect. At the time, of course, I thought it was. Anyway, itís taken me a long time. And I want to think that I can be encouragement to other writers who are struggling to get published and find time to work. Most of the graduate students that Iíve had, as good as they are, have quit writing after theyíve been out of school for a few years because itís too difficult. Most people quit before they get good enough.
I donít know if you ever saw the documentary film, ďHeart of Darkness.Ē It was done by Eleanor Coppola, and it was the story about how Francis Ford Coppola made ďApocalypse Now.Ē
No, Iíd like to see it. Iíve heard about it.
Itís a wonderful documentary. And thereís one scene in which Coppola is sitting in this little trailer. And heís sitting in front of a typewriter. And the hurricane has happened, the sets have all been blown down, Martin Sheen has had a heart attack, heís running of money, everything is falling down around him. And heís sitting there, desperately trying to work out a scene for this movie that he may not even be able to continue. And that, to me, was the single most scary thing that Iíve seen in a documentary film about an artist.
What youíre describing is exactly what has to happen, I think, in some sense. You have to be somehow so driven and confident in your own material and your own story and your own ability to tell the story that despite all the odds, despite all the confusion around you, youíre still going to get the job done.
And that it matters.
And that it matters. But at that time that work mattered to nobody probably except him, at least not in some ultimate sense. It certainly felt like that for me. By the time I published anything, whatever contacts Iíd had at the Writerís Workshop at Iowa Iíd lost. I was completely anonymous, writing away in my cold room down in the basement. And you have to have some belief in what youíre doing, and it had to be an unshakable belief, whatever the odds. I donít know how to explain it, but it certainly felt that way to me.
Well, I think you are an inspiration to most people who write. Look at Norman McLean (author of ``A River Runs Through Itíí). He didnít get published until he was 70.
Absolutely. Heís an encouragement to everybody.
On the other hand, my idea of a writer is, if I could write one, little, true novel, which I think ďPlainsongĒ is, Iíd say, ďWell, thereís a whole career there. Itís all in that book. I donít have to write another thing. That says it all.Ē
Well, thank you. Youíre very kind.
And the fact is that it was chosen here in Spokane to be the focus of a month-long reading event at every library, at the community colleges, so obviously Iím not the only one who feels that way.
Well, Iím very gratified by that, obviously, and Iím humbled by it, too, in a lot of way. Iím looking very much forward coming to Spokane and talking to people about it. The idea of talking to people who have read your work and want to talk to you about it, that sound like a good time to me. Iím not much of a public person, but thatís going to be a treat.
The one kind of question that is always asked about writers such as yourself is, you write about a certain place, and then immediately people apply the title ďregional writer.Ē Itís happened to writers from the Pacific Northwest ó Sherman Alexie, even Ivan Doig. Someone once asked Sherman, ďWhy do you just write about the Reservation?Ē And his answer was, ďWell, you know, I can write about everything in the world in that Reservation.Ē And he brought up the same thing that you brought up in one interview: Faulkner wrote about Yoknapawtapha County. And yet Faulkner wrote about anything that anyone would care to write about.
Thatís right. He made that little postage-stamp country of his universal and timeless. And I think Sherman Alexie has done that. So has James Welch, over in Montana. I like his other books. But for me, his best book is his first, ďWinter in the Blood,Ē which I think is an American masterpiece. But they both, and Faulkner, obviously, have made something universal out of their own material. And so itís really exasperating to have people suggest that what youíre writing is just regional literature. Itís not. I mean, this book has been published, I think, in seven or eight, nine languages by now. And there must be something that appeals to people anywhere about that story. Thatís what you hope to do anyway.
Iíd like to have an entire class on this one book, just to see exactly how it works. Because when you start looking at it, I canít really figure out what you do there that is so enchanting. You write about so many things that I have absolutely no idea about and I really donít care about. I donít care how cattle are herded into a chute, or how you cut off their horns. And yet I couldnít not read it. It seemed as if you were able in that novel to take mundane and make it important.
Thank you. I certainly hoped to. It does seem to me that old bromide, ďAnything looked at significantly becomes significant,Ē is true. I would like to think that thatís what a writer can do, take something mundane and make it significant. And certainly it is significant to the people who are doing it. And by extension, I want to make that important, at least temporarily to the reader. Because it matters to the characters, and the characters matter.
When did you start writing this book? It was published in 1999, right?
Yeah. I wrote it over a six-year period. Iím usually slow but not that slow (laughs). I went through some changes in the middle of that. I got divorced, and that slowed things down a lot.
Were you teaching at Southern Illinois University?
I did. I taught all during that period. In fact, I taught there until about two years ago. Then I resigned my position, and Cathy and I moved out here.
And youíre making your living as a full-time writer now?
I am. I tell people, after 30 years or more Iím an overnight success. I can finally write full-time.
When you were constructing ďPlainsong,Ē did it end up as youíd envisioned it from the first? You had an original idea, you started typing and six years later. . . .
I didnít know all the details of the ending, but I knew the emotional and the physical place were it would end. And I knew essentially that these characters would be together at the very end. I think Iíve mentioned in other interviews, and you may have seen this, that I always know the ending before I begin. My task, or at least one of my tasks, is to make sure that the characters arrive at the ending that I envision for them in a plausible and almost inevitable way. Of course, in this story Iím telling the story of six or seven people simultaneously, so what was especially challenging was trying to think of scenes and developments which would raise the tension in each of those stories so that they came out more dramatic toward the end than they would have earlier. You donít want a book to fall apart because nothing else that follows a particular scene canít match it.
And it happens. There are books I read that are constructed as yours is, but at the end I go, ďWhat was that?Ē
You do feel that way, and I often feel that way with mysteries. I read mysteries sometimes as entertainment, and the buildup is always better than the ending, it seems to me. But thatís also true in serious novels. I sometimes think of John Irvingís book ďTheWorld According to Garp,Ē that horrific scene in the middle. Nothing that comes afterward can match it. That was a problem, I think, for him.
Was he at the Writerís Workshop when you were there?
Yeah, he was. He was a young guy. Heís not much older than I am, but he was teaching there. He was a whiz kid. He was a nice guy. I took one class from him, and heís been very generous to me. I donít have much contact with him anymore, but heís one writer I admire, as much for his discipline as anything. Heís a very disciplined writer.
How hard was it in constructing ďPlainsongĒ to write in different voices? I mean, youíre writing about the McPheron brothers who are more your age. And Guthrie, a young guy, we can all understand him. And the boys. Even Maggie Jones might be somewhat easy. But Victoria Robideaux. . . .
That was the biggest challenge, I suppose. That and the little boys. Of course, the book is written in the third person, and the narrative voice through most of that is nearly the same. Except in dialogue youíve got to make people speak idiosyncratically and appropriately. But youíll notice that through most of the book I have stayed away from entering into the thoughts of the characters.
Which I absolutely love.
Thank you. I wanted to try that. I havenít done it all the time. There are a few cases in which I go into the mind of, maybe, Victoria Robideaux just a little bit. Even then, only very briefly. But my intention was to tell the story externally, as if you were watching it from the next table, or just out of sight. Because thatís how we know people, essentially. We donít really know what their feelings are except what they tell us and what we surmise from what we observe. So I was trying to do that with this book, and that made it harder in some ways because I had to put everything in scenes. But it also made it easier to try to observe women, girls, young boys in ways that I might not relate to because Iím an older man. I could sort of observe this 17-year-old girl and think I know what she would do and say in certain circumstances. You try to enter into these characters. Thatís all you can do.
I think the way you chose to write the novel did help in that sense. You didnít presume to let us deeply into the mind of a young girl. You just basically showed what she was going through. When I was younger, I said that I wanted to write a novel in which everything basically just happens. No one tells you anything. And because you follow whatís happening, you learn something about life or about the people or whatever. And thinking about that now, this comes about as close to that intention as probably anything Iíve ever read.
I want to think that it works. It seems to me that if you do that clearly enough and accurately enough and believably enough, that it does work. But you also want your readers to care about what happens to these characters. And I want to believe that if you do this well enough, readers do care.
You have three daughters. Did I read that one of them spent time in the Peace Corps?
Thatís right. My eldest daughter was in Thailand for a couple of years. Theyíve all studied internationally. The middle daughter spent a year in China and a year in India. And my youngest daughter spent a summer in Florence (Italy) studying art.
So you have three novels now. Are you working on a fourth?
I am. Iím more than halfway finished. I hope to be done early next year.
And where is it set?
Again in Holt. Iím stuck in Holt, County.
Is it going to have some of the same characters?
I donít mean to be disingenuous, but I just donít ever talk about what Iím working on.
Thatís fine. I donít like doing it either. It seems to jinx it. If it comes out of my imagination, and itís already out there in public, then somehow it dies.
Well, thatís right. Itís not just yours anymore. Youíve already defined it and put borders around it by talking about it. And, of course, itís easier to talk about it than to do it.