Kent Haruf

haruf1 Kent HarufNovelist Kent Haruf, who was a finalist for the National Book Award for Plainsong in 1999, has also written The Ties That Bind, Where You Once Belonged, and now his fourth novel, Eventide. He was born in and lived on the high plains of northeastern Colorado and was educated at Nebraska Wesleyan University and the University of Iowa. He has been an itinerant teacher for the better part of 30 years, in Wisconsin, Illinois, Colorado and Nebraska and also 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, and a presidential library in Iowa. 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, and he has won numerous awards and citations. Kent Haruf lives with his wife Cathy in his native Colorado, has retired from teaching, and now writes full time.

Eventide continues the story of the McPheron Brothers and introduces a number of new folks in what Publishers Weekly calls "a moving exploration of small-town lives in Holt, Colorado." Again, Kent Haruf, who is categorically what James Wood calls a "Shaker American craftsman," exhibits what his National Book Award nomination cites: "From simple elements, Haruf achieves a novel of wisdom and grace—a narrative that builds in strength and feeling until, as in a choral chant, the voices in the book surround transport and lift the reader off the ground."

Amen.

Robert Birnbaum: Let me get something obvious out of the way first. Is there a third book planned?

Kent Haruf: Out of this material?

RB: Yes.

KH: Not that I know of now. I have been asked that several times and I don’t anticipate that.

RB: Did you anticipate the second one?

KH: Well, at the very end of Plainsong I knew that I knew more about the McPheron brothers’ story. And I knew the central event that would happen to them, and I knew how their lives played out. So I made myself a few notes and—I don’t know, I never had that experience before and I don’t know if I ever will again. But I did know more of those two old men, and I cared about them, and I was interested in their story. So I did start writing this new book even before I finished Plainsong, in some sense.

RB: Was it a matter of practicality or of business that you just didn’t write one big book?

KH: No, I thought of the other book as being separate from their story. Although I think of their story, The McPheron brothers’ story, as being one continuous story, but the other parts of it were separate and different. And I think of Eventide as being darker, a different tone, and that it has a final different import.

RB: Because you have more characters that have troubles.

KH: Yeah, the other people had trouble in Plainsong, and their troubles are not resolved at the end of that, exactly. Victoria Roubideaux is still a single mother. At the end of that story, Guthrie is still in danger of losing his teaching job. The two little boys are still going to lose their mother, as they do. But the end of that story is a little more upbeat. The people have found one another, and they’ve made some connections. And they are going to be called into supper pretty soon. That’s not everything, but that’s something.

RB: [laughs]

KH: But this book, I think of more like the afternoon moving towards evening, moving towards darkness.

RB: It seems natural that there would be more. I was reading some mention of a Norman Mailer discussion of plot and character, and he was saying that you just work on the characters and they will lead you to the story line.

KH: I feel exactly the same. My stories all start with character, and because they all have trouble and they have to figure out what they are going to do about these troubles. That trouble makes plot. That trouble makes story line.

RB: In Eventide, you have a whole slew of people who have their separate troubles.

KH: Right.

RB: And just as an aside, I thought the kids were the most compelling characters. So now I want to know what happens to these children when they grow up. And as an aside to this aside, last week I was talking to a writer [Zoe Heller] I liked her book very much but not because of the characters. I didn’t find one that I liked. In Eventide, except for the sociopathic uncle, these are sympathetic and decent people—though I think Rose is kind of the radiant flower in the story.

KH: That’s a nice way of saying that. Yeah, I think so these are decent people. [There are] Luther and Betty, who some people find detestable, I don’t think of them that way at all.

RB: They are pathetic.

KH: Yeah, pathetic. They are people who are mentally deficient and they get themselves into trouble—because of the trouble they have, their kids have trouble. And their problems and their predicament, if those don’t affect you, than the ending of this book makes no impact on you and doesn’t make any sense. But no, I think these people are essentially decent people. They have trouble, and that seems to be the condition of being alive. And they have to figure out what to do about that.

RB: I continue to think about the novels that are written on the East coast, close to New York City and the ones that are written in the rest of the country. Somehow the novels on the East Coast have certain predictable, banal problems. They fall into a type that makes them hard to take seriously. I felt like your characters, and in Jim Harrison‘s True North, these were characters I wanted to know more about and how they resolve their lives.

KH: Well that’s an interesting generalization. I don’t know how far you can go with that. There is nothing in these books that I am trying to write that is cynical or satiric or ironic. I am not interested in that. There is a place for that. But in my view that is a kind of easy out. You are not really trying to talk about the human condition, which is what I am after. I am trying to talk about, to write about the kind of universal problems that people have everywhere. And I am not interested in being hip or paying any attention to technology or any of that stuff. None of these characters ever talk about cell phones or computers or any of that.

RB: No brand names appear in these novels.

KH: No, there aren’t any. And that’s quite deliberate. So what I am after is something different, and if you care about these characters, then I am pleased. Because I hope that’s going to happen. And that’s how I feel about them. I do care for them. I don’t think I am blind to their foibles or their flaws. I am quite clear about that, but nevertheless I have some sympathy and compassion about them, I think.

RB: I have read that you wrote Eventide and weren’t happy with it and then you rewrote it. What was the form of the original that you found it so totally wrong?

There is nothing in these books that I am trying to write that is cynical or satiric or ironic. I am not interested in that. There is a place for that. But in my view that is a kind of easy out.

KH: I had done what I thought was a finished draft. My method of writing is that I write each sentence endlessly until I get them done, and then move on. So when I get done with the final chapter, I believe I am done with the whole book. And that there is no real compelling reason to go back to it. My wife and I were going to California and I was doing a reading out there or something, and this was back last fall. And I had her read it [the manuscript] aloud on the way out there.

RB: Is she a good reader?

KH: She’s good reader [laughs]. And that’s one of the things I thought about. The more she read, the more discouraged and distressed I was with that book.

RB: It must have killed the trip.

KH: It did. I hated it. I was in despair about how far I had missed the book. It wasn’t the story line—it had to do with the quality of the prose. And I could have said, "Oh, Cathy is just not a good reader." But it wasn’t that, clearly. And she and I both recognized it. I did, intensely. So as soon as we got to California, rather than do the things I had intended to do—her kids live out there, and I was going to spend time with them. I didn’t do that. I went into a motel and began to rewrite, right away. I think what had happened was that I had begun to read some things while I was writing and I am usually more careful about that. I had read, in particular, Cormac McCarthy. I admire him, and I think he is probably one of the very best living writers at work in America today. But I was sort of under the influence of his prose. I suppose I made some attempt to write in a more lyrical way. And it wasn’t my writing. I saw that as soon as I heard Cathy read it. And I began to go back and prune and sharpen and clarify what I had done, in terms of each sentence.

RB: That would be a serious case of self-editing. Do you look for a relationship with your editor?

KH: The editor I have is Gary Fisketjon. I don’t know if you know Gary or not. In my view he is probably—if he is not the best editor in the country he is damn close. I think he is the best. And certainly the best I have had anything to do with and anything I have heard about. I am very close to him. We are close friends as well working—

RB: He’s like that isn’t he?

KH: Yeah.

RB: His writers are his buddies.

KH: That’s right. That’s exactly right. Raymond Carver—Gary was his last editor and he and Gary were great friends. They fished together. And I think he feels that way about Richard Ford.

RB: And Ford feels that way about him. Ford has said that he would stop writing if Gary were no longer his editor.

KH: That could be. I know that if he leaves Knopf I would do everything I could to follow him where he goes. And, in fact, that was one of the questions I had of him—"Are you staying here?"—before I signed.

RB: I get the sense that he is spending more time in Tennessee.

KH: That’s right. He really does the editing down there. It’s so distracting to be in his office there [in NYC]. He doesn’t like New York City anyway.

RB: When I talked to Jim Harrison he was joking about how when you go to New York the publishers think they are the only ones responsible for the success of a book.

KH: I’ve been very pleased with what’s happened to my books at Knopf. They have done a great job, and Gary is a big part of that. Some of the other people are, too. [But] Gary preeminently.

RB: You taught for many years.

KH: Yeah, I taught for 30 years at various levels—high school and college and university level. I quit about three and half years ago.

RB: You were last at the University of Southern Illinois. Was Brady Udall there?

KH: No, he sort was my replacement. Richard Russo was there and he was just leaving. Actually he hired me. He is one of Gary’s writers. Russo is a terrific guy. A wonderful guy.

RB: He gave the address at his daughter’s commencement at Colby College. And it started circulating around the Internet. I offered to publish it, but he demurred. I told him it would probably continue to circulate samizdat style.

KH: Maybe he should publish it. I would be surprised if he did not give a very compelling speech.

RB: It would be great if some enterprising editors started to ask him to write more essays.

KH: I read one of his essays in the New York Times Magazine. This was about five years ago. I don’t seem to recall what it was about. It was, as you would expect, very literate and well reasoned. He’s a smart guy.

RB: Yes, he is. And another writer who is not New Yorkish in the stories he tells. I’m still working with the notions that there is a polarity —the stuff that is written in and around NY and what’s written in the rest of the country.

KH: It may well be. I don’t want to think of myself as a regional writer.

RB: The rest of the country isn’t ‘regional.’ [laughs]

KH: That’s right. But there is a kind of—maybe this has been so for a long time—I don’t know if you saw the review in the Sunday New York Times by Jonathan Miles—it was a smart-ass review. A quintessential hip cynical eastern view of things. The following Tuesday Kakutani wrote her review, which for her, was a rave. A very positive review. So I figured her review cancelled his out.

RB: Aren’t you review proof, at some point?

KH: Well at some point, I guess. I don’t know whether I am or not.

RB: I don’t mean personally.

KH: They still cut you.

haruf2 Kent HarufRB: I am thinking more of the sales of your books would not be depend on such reviews or that they have a marginal effect.

KH: I would think so. Besides that if you get away from New York City, away from the small literary pond, who reads those reviews any way? People out where I come from, they don’t read the Sunday book reviews.

RB: The Book Review is the focus of a lot of attention in the literary web journal circle that I know of and my expressed opinion is that the Book Review is not that important to readers. I think they [its editors] are followers, not leaders. I guess they sell books, but if that were a certainty, then very positively reviewed books would have strong sales.

KH: I don’t know what the research says about that, what the connection is with a rave review and sales. I suppose they don’t hurt, but what’s the effect generally? Look at Clinton’s book. That’s a special case, but he was terribly reviewed. Kakutani, she tore that book apart and yet—

RB: That book is review proof. I would wager that that’s the kind of book that is one of those unread bestsellers. Most people buy it and getting caught up in the momentum and hype and may never read it. What is it, 900 pages? 800 pages?

KH: 957.

RB: Most Americans don’t read 957 pages in a year.

KH: It’s like a Hollywood show. It has to do with glamour and personality and fame rather than literary or even historical value.

RB: The first thing I want to read about Clinton’s presidency would not be by him. There is a Nigel Hamilton book I would be more inclined to read. But you are right that it has nothing to do with anything literary. Is he much of a writer? It’s got all the earmarks of a self-serving memoir.

KH: I haven’t read it, but that’s what I have been told, and reviewers have said as much. Of course, he is going to make money, and he is being published by Knopf, my publisher. I have my own self-interest about that. I hope they sell plenty of books.

RB: With that kind of advance, I don’t know. Some are just too high to allow for much profit.

KH: They think they are going to make their money back. And I hope they do because that means—and I talked to Sonny Mehta about this—he is very insistent about doing what they have always done. And that is to buy new writers and publish mid-list writers, and if they make money on Clinton’s book it will be all the more easy to do that.

RB: I always thought that was the way it was done, but I spoke with Nick Tosches a while back, and he claimed that the Grishams and the Kings are loss leaders. They are paid so much money that the publishers can’t make money.

KH: Really?

RB: So the idea that big, best-selling writers are subsidizing new and untried writers may not obtain.

KH: You don’t buy that idea?

RB: No, but it made sense, and I couldn’t think of why they published neophyte literary fiction otherwise.

KH: Sonny, anyway, told me that was true at Knopf. How true that is elsewhere, and how far that goes with Knopf, I don’t know.

RB: At the point when you were teaching and writing, did you think much about the business of books?

KH: I didn’t know anything about it. My first two books did well critically. The first one sold a little bit but not very much, and the second one sold much less. So I never had any expectation that I would do anything but continue to write and maybe get some critical attention but that was it. So what happened to Plainsong was completely unexpected.

RB: You completed it and then you sold it?

KH: Yeah, my agent sent it around and there were other people interested in it, but as we said earlier, as soon as I knew that Gary was interested, that settled it for me. And even then I thought, "Well, the value of this is going to be that I have gotten what I think as the premiere editor to look at it and to work with." And that was a great satisfaction. Still is. But I had no notion of any commercial success. I didn’t know anything about it, really.

RB: So has it been eye opening? [laughs]

KH: It has been, but I have stayed away from it as much I can. I still want to be anonymous and private and unnoticed. I don’t see how anybody gets the work done otherwise. I have said before that one of the worst things that can happen to you in this country is to get famous. And I am not famous by any means, and sure as hell don’t want to be.

RB: I love Jim Harrison’s remark that he likes to live away from the "centers of ambition." [both laugh]

KH: Good way of saying it, isn’t it?

RB: You’re living in Colorado?

KH: My wife and I have moved back to where we came from. We’re both from Colorado. I was born and raised there. We live up in the mountains near a little town, and so we are far away even from the centers of ambition in Colorado. So we are quite content there. I don’t expect ever to move again except to the graveyard.

RB: [chuckles] I don’t know why that amuses me.

KH: Yeah well, [chuckles] it strikes me as appropriate and maybe a little amusing, too.

RB: Where else have you lived?

KH: Oh I’ve lived in Wyoming, Montana, Nebraska, Iowa, Wisconsin. I was in the Peace Corps. I lived in Turkey a couple of years. All those states in the middle of this country.

RB: That’s where you got teaching jobs?

KH: A lot of it was just trying to make a living.

RB: You never pursued trying to work in Chicago or Seattle?

KH: The only two cities I have lived in were Denver and Istanbul when I was in the Peace Corps. That’s it. Unless you consider Madison, Wisconsin a city. It’s a big town. A great place—one of the best places in the country. I loved it there. I was crazy about it.

RB: One of my nieces goes to school there.

People out where I come from, they don’t read the Sunday book reviews.

KH: It’s a great school. A wonderful school. I taught in an alternative high school when I was there.

RB: What years were those?

KH: Early to middle ’70s.

RB: That would explain the "alternative."

KH: Well, yeah and the Vietnam War was still going on then, and people who were involved in the protests were still very vocal there, and as you know that’s a progressive city.

RB: A hotbed of progressivism.

KH: Oh yeah. And Paul Soglln, who was the mayor of Madison at that time, [was] a lawyer who had been a student radical leader and he went to Cuba while he was Mayor of Madison, and that raised some eyebrows. It was a great time to be there. Wonderful.

RB: I grew up in Chicago, which might explain my "us against them" attitude.

KH: [laughs]

RB: I moved here a long time ago, and have always felt that there was this sort of almost impermeable barrier somewhere around Philadelphia where people east of that city can’t see past.

KH: I think you are right about that in some ways. I feel a kind of—what—really, I feel angry about it in lots of ways. I feel as if the East and California dismiss the middle part of this country in ways that seem—that’s out of ignorance, I think. I don’t think they know a damn thing about the middle part of this country.

RB: It’s called the fly-over zone.

KH: What the hell. Not in my view. But I hope they keep flying over.

RB: [laughs]

KH: Don’t stop, that’s fine with me, I don’t want you to stop. But that’s nuts. Hallmark made a film out of Plainsong, and my deepest objection to that film was that they did not understand rural America at all. And they treated these old men with contempt.

RB: Who was in the cast?

KH: Aiden Quinn and Rachel Griffiths, and their story was more important to the moviemakers than the old brother’s because there was a hint of romance. Quinn and Griffiths are decent actors, but they did not let them act in any complex way. I thought it was a terrible piece of work. I had nothing to do with it. It has to do with the kind of bias that you are talking about—that bias out of ignorance. As I have said many times and it may apply to elsewhere, there aren’t any dumb farmers left.

RB: [laughs]

KH: Because it’s too complicated. It’s too damn difficult, and so in regard to filmmaking, the dumb people are in Hollywood.

RB: I guess I get why they buy these film properties and then adversely augment them. But it’s no consolation to anyone that what has the makings of a film based on a good story isn’t. You know what I did think was a great rendering of a literary text—the movie of Larry Brown’s Big Bad Love.

KH: I’ve not seen that. That’s one that I want to see.

RB: It’s wonderful.

KH: I hope it is, because Larry Brown is one of the best writers in this country and—

RB: It was directed by Debra Winger’s husband, whose name escapes me [Arliss Howard], and he played the Brown character. Played against the grain of conventional wisdom of southern gothic characters.

KH: My favorite book of his is Joe. I think it’s an absolute masterpiece, a superb book. I’ve met him a couple of times. He’s a very nice guy.

RB: He apparently doesn’t like to leave Oxford much.

KH: Not very much. He used to but he does a lot less of that than he did previously.

RB: Have you met Cormac McCarthy?

KH: I have not. Again I hear I hear through Gary Fisketjon, who is also McCarthy’s editor, that McCarthy is a very social guy, he just doesn’t want to be bothered with interviews or that stuff. And you can understand that.

RB: Did we tap the thing about your anger at the—

KH: The other part of that is I resent any notion of these books being regional. Obviously, they are set in a very specific place and that’s a place that I care for, but you have to set a book somewhere and you can make something universal by being specific about being an individual place. That’s an old idea—that’s nothing new with me. I would guess that Faulkner would have resented being thought of as simply a southern writer. Or Eudora Welty or Flannery O’Connor, Truman Capote, of any of those people. So that notion bothers me. I get those questions often, and people sometimes think then that the way I write, this kind of spare stark writing, has to do with the fact that I am writing about the high plains. Well, that’s nonsense, too. The high plains are spare and they are stark. Of course they are. But that doesn’t, in my view, affect the way I write. The way I write is simply my nature and what appeals to me.

RB: When Jonathan Raban wrote Badlands, his prose didn’t seem to be dictated by that terrain. Here’s my theory [laughs]: It’s just the culmination of this marketing, where everything becoming so homogenous, and it’s the homogenous American city imposing its values. How did Pittsburgh become a shitty place to live? Or Cleveland? Where do these bad reputations come from? I’m sure there’s bodies of water and trees and clean air and all the things that make up a congenial place to live.

KH: One of my best friends, a guy named Richard Peterson, who taught at Southern Illinois, he is a good friend of Richard Russo’s. He was the chair of that department when we were there. He came from Pittsburgh, and he’s written a couple things about Pittsburgh since he quit teaching. It sounds like a rich, interesting, fascinating, city to me. I’ve never been there.

RB: There are these unexamined bias floating around. So the Cuyahoga River caught fire in Cleveland.

KH: That’s old news. I have heard people say that Cleveland is a very attractive place now. They’ve made big changes there in the last 30 years. I was just in Cincinnati. You don’t usually think if that city as an exciting place to be, but parts of it are. Mt Adams, that part of the city above the rivers is—

RB: Aren’t there seven hills?

haruf3 Kent HarufKH: Yeah and it’s like a bohemian area. It’s artsy. And that’s as nice a place to be as there is in this country. And, of course, you never hear that about Cincinnati.

RB: The converse of that is that when people move to NYC, especially when they are young, they wear as badges of honor the fact that they can live in small airless spaces, pay a lot of money and have to deal with rodents and insect infestations, rude people and lots of crime. And that’s okay. [both laugh]

KH: That’s high living. And the other thing is, I think, is people who are not from the middle part of this country, they drive across it and they—this is true anywhere—but they do not have any idea what they are looking at. People drive across the eastern Colorado, the high plains. It’s flat, treeless; it’s sandy. And they don’t have any idea and they drive across as fast as they can to get to Aspen or Vail or whatever. And if they knew what they were looking at it would be absolutely fascinating. I do understand. I grew up out there, and I know what I am looking at. I know whether it’s first or second cutting of alfalfa out there and all that kind of stuff. And that’s fascinating to me. I suppose when I go to New York City, I miss a whole bunch that’s there that the natives would be able to point out to me. But I am not arrogant about it either, the way Easterners—

RB: What does it feel like when you go to New York City?

KH: I feel shocked by it. The areas I grew up in, you are paying attention to everything around you, and because there are fewer things going on around you, so you can take them all in. And I need to and I want to. But in New York City, I’ll walk a city block and there are so many dramas going on that I feel over-stimulated.

RB: My standing joke is that the East Coast and its unplanned growth are one big psyche experiment—a huge sensory overload. Why and how would anyone be expected—any rational, reasonable human being—to survive with all this noise going on?

KH: [laughs] I’m glad to hear you say that, that’s certainly my view of it. I am happy to come out here for a while, but I don’t want to stay.

RB: Of course there is something wrong with you and me, not the people who accept these conditions.

KH: That’s right. Why can’t we adjust? I think they assume that I am some sort of ignorant small town preacher’s kid. And I am, at the base of myself. That’s who I am still. And I don’t want to adjust to this.

RB: I can’t get away from the idea that there is more to be heard from this group of characters—the five children, the single mother Mary Wells. And DJ [Kephart] the most, to me, fascinating of all. What an admirable child!

KH: I think of him as being admirable. I think of him as being a kid with integrity and a kind of nobility. And courage.

RB: Don’t you want to know what happens to these people? [laughs]

KH: That’s a good question. Robert, I’ll have to think about that. You are prompting me.

RB: You’re being cagey. [laughs]

KH: You’re pimping me here.

RB: What does Gary Fisketjon say?

KH: He hasn’t said anything about that.

RB: [laughs]

KH: I have heard from other readers, like yourself, who insist there has to be another story about these folks.

RB: Do you have some sort of bias, some rule or something that holds you back?

KH: I do. That’s why I am antsy about talking about Eventide about being a sequel because it implies that you’re simply trying to cash in a previous success.

RB: No, it doesn’t.

KH: Usually sequels in movies and books are not nearly as good as their predecessors, right?

RB: Think of Faulkner creating an imaginary landscape with his Yoknapatawpha County. William Kennedy’s Albany cycle has—there is a precedent for continuing—

KH: Right. I don’t compare myself. They are good models, obviously. I mean [Faulkner's] Hamlet Trilogy is an interesting one.

RB: I know what you mean about the conventional perception of sequels.

KH: I feel antsy about that, I do. But in writing this book I decided to hell with it. This is the story I want to tell now. The story I know to tell now. And if that becomes a problem for readers or an issue with critics, then so be it. I can’t do any thing about that. That’s what I want to write. And it really hasn’t been. Partly because these books are so different, I think. But, I don’t know. That may happen.

RB: You are on an extensive book tour. A month, six weeks?

I have said before that one of the worst things that can happen to you in this country is to get famous.

KH: It’s much of three months actually.

RB: [laughs] Sorry.

KH: It’s nearly thirty cities. We are out and back and out and back.

RB: So what happens now when it’s over—once you have recovered?

KH: I’m going home, and I hope by September I am into writing some thing else. I may write some short stories. I have not done that for a while, and I have published a few stories, and I would like to have enough for a collection. But in addition to that, I have the beginning of a kind of an itch at the back of my mind.

RB: A beginning of an itch? [both laugh]

KH: How tentative is that? A story that may turn in to a novel.

RB: So you sit down intending to write stories?

KH: Yeah, I know that in advance. All the stories, including short stories, I know how they are going to come out. What the ending is and you can tell from that how lengthy, how complex a story it is. I don’t know if I have any great facility for writing stories, but I love them. That’s it. I don’t have any particular stories in mind right now. There may be one. Chekov is one of the writers I admire the most, and to attempt to do in some small way what he was able to do would be something I am interested in.

RB: It’s an oddity to me. The short story seems to be the signal literary form. People who are devotedly interested in literature will read short stories.

KH: That’s right. It’s like poetry in that way.

RB: And they are hard to do well. People who write them say they are difficult. Do people think that because you live in a small town in Colorado that you are out of touch with the world?

KH: They may assume that I don’t know. We live out in the mountains, but we still have cable. We don’t watch that much. Internet and all that stuff. I don’t pay that much attention to Internet. And I don’t do much email. I don’t care for it.

RB: It’s a brave new world.

KH: Yeah. To me, I don’t find that interesting. I feel I’m still in the previous century. I have not entered the 2Ist century.

RB: Well, if you don’t have to, you don’t have to. I was getting to your sense of the current political climate in America from where you sit.

KH: I think it’s an absolute disaster. Bush is a privileged ignorant little boy, and he has gotten us into a goddamn mess. If I was a parent and my kid was killed over there, I don’t know if I could ever get over that or forgive him in any way. I was a conscientious objector during Vietnam, and I feel equally opposed to war. I can’t not see how killing someone is the answer to anything. And I think he has made us more enemies in that part of the world than we had three years ago. I can’t see that anything is improving. I don’t know if you saw any of the interview with the Irish TV correspondent [Carol Coleman] recently, she was nailing him: I thought, and he wouldn’t answer her.

RB: I don’t watch TV, but I read that this may be the first U.S. president to get an unfriendly reception in Ireland.

KH: It was. At least by the press, and he had all those thousands of protesters in Dublin and Galway and so on. He’s one of the most inarticulate presidents in my lifetime.

RB: I am used to flawed and deficient men in public office. I worry more that the political system is skewed to allow for that. And that the voters continue to be sold bills of goods. And they accept that.

KH: All these white male protestant guys keep getting elected over and over. Jimmy Carter, he didn’t succeed as a president, but he’s my idea of what a president could be in terms of his character and his abilities and his heart and all that stuff. And in terms of his experience. If you think about him. He came up; he was a farmer. He had been in the Navy. He was a scientist. And a businessman.

RB: And a state chief executive.

haruf4 Kent HarufKH: And he came up through the state legislature and then as Governor of Georgia, and then finally national office. He was as well prepared as anyone for the presidency.

RB: And still he had flaws.

KH: That’s right, he did.

RB: Keeping track of the White House tennis court schedule.

KH: That’s what they say about him. He had to manage everything. He couldn’t leave the details to anyone else.

RB: So let’s see, we have covered your past, your present, and talked a little about your future.

KH: It must be time to go drink a beer.

RB: [laughs] What is it that you are reading these days?

KH: Some of the people we have mentioned. I always read McCarthy. Russo too. Larry Brown. Alice Munro, I like her stuff a lot. I usually mention and I want people to read him, James Welch, the Native American writer.

RB: Didn’t he die recently?

KH: He died about a year ago. He died of a heart attack. He had lung cancer. And I guess fortunately for him and the people around him, that he died suddenly rather than that painful choking way. But his first book, Winter in the Blood, is absolutely a masterpiece. It’s a very important book to me. And I learned a great deal from it. He is writer I hope people will come back to.

RB: I know The Indian Lawyer.

KH: That’s not his best book. His first two books were his best books. I wrote a blurb for his last book. Mainly I wanted to help what little I could to draw people’s attention to him. I met before he died. He was a very gentle, really nice guy—well, I’ve already said it—I hope people will find him. Refind him. Rediscover him.

RB: That’s the thing about books as opposed to other cultural clap trap—that they are not so perishable, despite a lot of things that intervene.

KH: I read some non-fiction. I just read that book by Atkinson about the American forces [An Army at Dawn: The War in North Africa, 1942-1943 Volume One of the Liberation Trilogy by Rick Atkinson] in North Africa, that’s a damn good book. Those are the kinds of things I am reading. I am now reading the Scottish writer James Kelman. I don’t know all of his work, by any means, but that previous book that won a Booker Prize, How Late it was How Late. That’s wonderful a book. And this new book is a wonderful book, You Have to Be Careful in The Land of the Free. I just started. It’s another wonderful book.

RB: I started reading Port Mongo by Patrick McGrath and finished reading Steve Yarborough’s Prisoners of War, which I loved.

KH: That’s a good book. I know him a little bit. He is another of Gary’s writers. I’m going to see him [Yarborough] in Oxford, when I get down there.

RB: He just wrote me that he was spending the summer in Poland.

KH: Is he? If he does, that’s interesting, because he and I were supposed to be on a round table—

RB: Well it’s a skip and a jump from Poland to Mississippi. [both laugh]

KH: I suppose. Anyway, we’re going to be talking together on TV.

RB: Oh good. Well thanks very much.

KH: It’s a pleasure being here and good to meet.

RB: Cool, as the kids say.

KH: Yeah, cool.

© 2004 Robert Birnbaum
Images by Red Diaz/Duende Publishing

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