Novelist 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
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
Robert Birnbaum: Let me get something obvious
out of the way first. Is there a third book planned?
Kent Haruf: Out of this material?
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
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.
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.
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?
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?
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
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
RB: You were last at the University of Southern Illinois. Was Brady
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
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
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.
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 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?
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
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.
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
RB: One of my nieces goes to school there.
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
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
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.
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?
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.
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?
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
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
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
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.
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
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
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
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
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
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