Kent Haruf's books are listed in the Bibliography of Peace Corps Writers
You can buy Plainsong at Amazon.com
. . . as well as The Tie That Binds
|KENT HARUF SERVED in Turkey (196567) 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. Kents 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 years 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. Thats 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 (199092); 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 thats when I really began to start writing. A lot of that was journal keeping, but I did write some short stories which werent 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 your were a Volunteer. Does anything of those years, and that experience, play into your life today?|
If youre asking did it shape who I am today I dont 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 cant 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, Im not a sociologist so I really cant 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 whats 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 dont 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, lifes 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 didnt sell well. Im 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 its regional. Simply because a novel is set in, say, Colorado, doesnt mean its western literature. Itd be reductive to say Faulkner was only a southern writer. Of course, I dont mean to compare myself to Faulkner.|
|What do you see as the strengths of your writings?|
|Id 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 Ive read much of is Bob Shacochis. Ive met him and we have talked about the Peace Corps.|
|Youre not into happy endings, so how does it all end for Kent Haruf?|
|(laughs) Life is very good for me right now. Im happily married, I have three great daughters and I have another book to write. Thats about as far as Im going to take it right now.|
|Jeff Martin (Papua New Guinea, 198990) is the Public Affairs Specialist for Peace Corps Denver Regional Office. A freelance writer, he has had articles featured in several publications, including Travel & Leisure, Cineaste, American Cowboy, and the Denver Post.|