I reached Kent Haruf in his home in Salida, Colorado where he has lived now for many years. He chose words on the telephone as carefully as he writes his well-chiseled prose. The owner of many literary awards, including one as a finalist for the National Book Award, Haruf talked as plainly as a salesman at the hardware store giving advice about how to clean the trap in your drain.
Kent Haruf’s honors include a Whiting Foundation Writers’ Award, the Mountains & Plains Booksellers Award, the Wallace Stegner Award, and a special citation from the PEN/Hemingway Foundation. He’s also been a finalist for the National Book Award, the Los Angeles Times Book Prize and the New Yorker Book Award. The following transcription contains only a few repairs for precision and accuracy, including a handful of edits from Kent Haruf, who was gracious and giving in fielding the following questions.
The following is a transcription of that telephone interview conducted on Thursday, Feb. 28, 2013.
Q: “Benediction” is timeless—there are no brand products, no makes and models of cars to anchor the story, no commercial references that I spotted. For me, this gives the story a kind of timelessness. Was this your purpose and can you talk a bit about why you chose that approach?
Kent Haruf: That was my intention. The only internal dating that I think I’ve given is that it’s after the collapse of the World Trade Center. And what year after that, we are not informed. So my intention was just as you’ve suggested, to make it timeless and not to claim too much for it, but to suggest that it’s in some sense universal. So I decided not to give it a specific date because I feel as if I’d be obliged to keep the facts of that particular summer. I didn’t want to do that. I wanted to give it a kind of timelessness, a non-temporal kind of feel and I hope I’ve done that. It certainly suits my purpose to have it open-ended that way.
This is the first book I’ve written in which I even mention a computer. It’s not a book about technological devices or commercials or anything like that. It’s an attempt to convey human nature at its most elemental.
Q: One of the big themes in the book deals with forgiveness. The town seems very unforgiving with the preacher, a preacher who suggests an extreme form of forgiveness or of generosity, of putting aside previous injuries on a global scale, and at the same time we have Dad, who goes out of his way to take care of the ex-wife of the employee who was stealing from the hardware store. There’s the attitude of the parents toward Frank, too, and how he has treated his parents. Was the ability to forgive—as communities and as individuals—one of themes you were thinking about?
Haruf: That’s an interesting question to think about but let me suggest as background that none of these principles or themes that you suggest are thought out in advance. I write out of forty years of experience but also out of intuition. I envision these characters, I know what they are going to do and I don’t at all want to think about themes or central principles. I want to write these stories in a way that seems compelling and seems significant. Only afterwards do I have any idea for sure what this book is about. I don’t want to think about it. I don’t want to shape the book according to themes. I’m trying to do something more organic than that.
This suggestion about forgiveness, once I get away from the book, I think you’re onto something. On a personal level, it seems to me these characters and maybe all of us are more willing and more able to forgive than we are as a community or as a nation or a state. And that’s true in this book. As a congregation, they are not as willing to be forgiving or understanding as some people individually in that congregation are, like the Johnson women. That’s certainly true of the Lewis family—Dad Lewis and Mary. Mary probably never had any other inclination but Dad certainly has to struggle with it. At the end, that’s one of the things he wishes for most emphatically—he wishes he could have his son’s forgiveness. He certainly has forgiven whatever he thought he needed to forgive to his son. And that’s one of his primary regrets, his estrangement with his son. In the vision he has the second time—which ends with him reaching out and hoping that his son would take his hand—that is certainly in my mind a gesture of wanting to heal the wound with his son. But even in his imagination that won’t happen.
Q: Holt, Colorado seems to stand in for all of the Eastern Plains of the state—not exactly what people think of when they think of the Colorado of mountains and skiing and Rocky Mountain National Park, etc. But Dad wants something of his buried on one of his favorite high spots and his wife notes that Dad likes to stare out the window—although what he’s staring at, nobody knows. It seems to me that with the last two books and now with “Benediction” you are putting Eastern Colorado on the map. Is it fair to say that one of the things you are saying is that there are real people out there who shouldn’t be overlooked?
Haruf: I think that’s a fair statement—and that’s true of every place. Once we look at them closely, they become significant. It’s like Thoreau said, “I have travelled much in Concord,” meaning of course that he had seen much of the world in his own backyard, within in his own little place. And that’s what I think about these people and this book and this country.
When I first started writing, “The Tie that Binds” was a very conscious effort on my part to try and tell a compelling story but also I had in mind to put northeastern Colorado on the literary map. I know that sounds grandiose, but that’s sort of what I had in mind. The longer I’ve written and the other books that I’ve written, that’s still true but it’s less true than it was about eastern Colorado but it’s become more and more my effort to say something about that part of the world that would apply to all of the world.
Surely there are pregnant teenage girls everywhere. And surely there are lonesome old men and lonesome old women dying upstairs in a dark apartment and surely there are old men dying and their old wives taking care of them, as there is in “Benediction.” So those are to me universal almost archetypal situations and that’s what I’m really trying to do.
As I said earlier, when I think about eastern Colorado, it doesn’t seem uninteresting to me. People drive across from Nebraska and Kansas and they go across eastern Colorado as fast as they can—to Aspen and Vail and the national park. But they don’t know what they are looking at, I don’t think. If you do know what you’re looking at, then in every mile there is something very interesting to see. That’s I feel about feel about driving across that part of the country. I don’t do that much anymore, but I lived out there when I was a kid and later taught school out there for about eight years.
When I drive across, I’m looking to see what’s growing, how high the wheat is or how the corn is doing or what cattle are out in the pastures, all of those kinds of things, what plants are growing. I’m fascinated by what I see out there. I think that’s true of everywhere. Every block in Denver is fascinating—if you know somebody who lives in that block or you’ve seen that block, a particular house. When I was a kid I knew all about the back alleys and who lived in the houses. It’s an old notion of course but when you think about home then all those things become precious.
What I usually say about the plains is it’s not pretty but it’s beautiful if you know how to look at it.
Q: The stock tank scene—the women seem to relax and loosen up and think about their hopes and dreams. This seems like such a moment of pure joy, and so simple. It’s such a contrast to the rest of the story. It’s a beautiful scene and seems, by contrast, to suggest the restraints that surround the women in the rest of the story. Plus, the idea of finding refreshment in a stock tank seems oddly jarring to us city folks—but makes sense, too. These are not characters who have sought out pleasure throughout their lives, they have just tried to make their lives work and they have worked for their lives. This is a scene that could only happen in farm country. I’d love your thoughts on this scene and this is about how you see it?
Haruf: I like the phrase you just used, about working for their lives. That’s a way of talking about it that I had not framed myself and I appreciate that. Again, this scene came out of some intuitive place and some intuitive impulse. And once I get away from what it was, the scene does do what you say it does. It’s a kind of a joyful moment, these women are free. They are free enough to take their clothes off in public, outdoors in the air amongst one another. There is a tremendous sense of freedom and comfortableness with one another, with the world, with the air, with the sun.
And it also seems to me that it’s not too much to think that it’s a ritualistic or almost a baptismal kind of moment. They have had some wine and they have some food and now they are going out and they are going to sort of ritualistically take off their clothes and get in the water. And when they get in the water they not only feel refreshed and excited by it—they teach this young girl how to hold her head above water. So they bring her in this circle of adult women and she ends up learning how to float and she goes back in the water on her own to practice and they all get back in, following her lead that time.
And also the cattle come up and they have calves with them. There are no bulls out in the pasture. They are cows and calves and there is a kind of communal suggestion, I think, between both species, particularly between the mothers and the children. I don’t want to claim too much but it seems to me that it is a possible way to think about it. It’s a moment in the book in which some of the other tensions and the other ways of holding back are released, at least temporarily. In a way it suggests that the way people could be if they were not restrained in the way they are by their normal, difficult lives.
Q: Your writing process—it seems to me you work hard to use the simplest, most clear word choices and let those do the work. The style is achingly straightforward and, as a result, penetrates very deep. You work hard not to draw attention to the writing and want readers to see what you see. Is that a fair description of your intentions and how hard is it to achieve?
Haruf: I hope I’ve done what you suggest. I don’t want to call attention to the writing—to me, that’s a mistake. John Gardner had that idea about putting your reader into a narrative dream and anything that stirs the reader out of that dream is a mistake. And to me that’s exactly the truth about that. If I could write lyrical prose like James Agee, who was able to stun you and take your breath away by the skill of his writing, I might try to do something else, but I don’t seem to have that talent. So I’ve gone the other way and I have worked as hard as I know how to write clear, clean direct prose. I want to use words as carefully as I possibly can so it looks like these words were minted just this morning. I want to think that if you are really careful in your choice of words and how you put them together that language can become elegant even if it’s very simple.
So I have worked really hard—I’ve been writing over 40 years now—to try to teach myself how to use language in that way. I’m not saying I’ve done that but that’s my intention and my goal.
I’ve tried to learn all I can from Hemingway and Chekhov, Chekhov more recently—he’s very important to me as a writer. So you use only the minimum number of adjectives and almost never use adverbs. Those kinds of principles help me try to write the way I want to.
It’s a discipline. When you do that, you put pressure on every word. The effort has to be that it is simple but not simple-minded or simplistic. So you are choosing words very carefully and it puts pressure on every word because there are not very many of them.
Q: “Benediction” is both a state of having been blessed or it’s the religious blessing itself and it usually comes at the end of the service. Was this the title and the thought in your mind all along? A related question involves the character of Dad—he doesn’t spend a lot of time contemplating his religious upbringing or what he thinks about where he’s going, if anywhere. He seems very secular, if anything. Is the individual more capable than the institution of spreading true love and true peace?
Haruf: I grew up in a Methodist church, my dad was a preacher. By the time I was eighteen, I had grown away from it and I have not got back to the church in any significant way since then. If anything, I feel now more drawn to Buddhism. I do think of organized and orthodox religion in a suspicious way but I think individuals are more capable of honesty and genuine religion than maybe all the strictures and rules of orthodox churches. I got put off by that when I was a kid and still feel that way. “Benediction” was not the first title. I did not think of any title until the end of the book. One of the titles was “Bring Me A Little Water,” which goes back to that old spiritual song, Bring me a little water, Sylvie…Bring me a little water now. I decided that didn’t work so well. Then I thought about another line from the song This Morning, This Evening, So Soon. Again that’s an old black song and I liked that pretty well and it didn’t quite do it either. I had one other title “Soon And Very Soon,” the title and refrain in a pretty well known song and it seemed to me too much. Then I began to think about religious terms and I remembered the term “benediction” and I had to look it up to make sure I did know what it meant. It seemed to me to fit what this book was about, that these people were looking for some blessing, were in need of a blessing and in their own ways, asked for a blessing. Whether they kept that or not, that’s for the reader to decide. When I looked it up, I found that there were almost no books that used “benediction”as a title and I was surprised by that and that encouraged me to use that title as well.
Q: Do you view “Benediction” as a trilogy?
Haruf: I don’t think of it as a sequel to “Plainsong” and “Eventide.” It certainly has some of the same feeling, but there are no repeat characters. There’s a reference to the McPheron brothers and to Victoria Rubideaux. And we do see Rose Tyler at the end of the café when they take Alice out to the Wagon Wheel restaurant—that’s a reference to her, the woman that Raymond connected with. But “Benediction” has a different tone and an even leaner style than the other two.
“Benediction” says we all matter. Each of us. You.
“Benediction” looks at our faint footprints on the surface of the earth and says, quite simply, that each step counts.
Kent Haruf takes us back to Holt, Colorado. We return to the land of “Plainsong” and “Eventide,” but there are only a couple of faint references to the characters who absorbed our attention during those two novels. If “Benediction” is the cap on a trilogy (and Kent Haruf says it’s really not), then it’s a trilogy by landscape, not character.
Except the landscape, out in eastern Colorado, seems to form the character. These are hard, rough-hewn lives. You hear the car tires crunch on the gravel streets, feel the wind blow and the sun beat down. If you live out here, you work.
Haruf doesn’t judge. He’s neutral. He’s a documentarian. There are few books like these three (the only three of Haruf’s that I’ve read) that will give you that in-the-moment feeling. The tone of the words says, “here is what’s happening and there’s nothing I can do to change it.” The plot, if that’s even the right word, is as organic as the soil. By the way, while “Benediction” feels even more terse and tidy than “Plainsong” (and that’s saying something), there is also an awful lot of plot in “Benediction.”
We are never ahead of the characters, nor are we encouraged to think about them one way or another. Haruf is their silent, stalking shadow. He doesn’t push them from behind or tug them from in front.
Their actions are their actions, driven by how they think and their internal moral compass.
In “Benediction,” the story settles on dying “Dad” Lewis and his wife Mary and their children, one estranged son and one daughter. “Benediction” encircles the lives of others in town, too, and we leave Dad and his decline for many pages at a time. He’s in hospice; the outcome here is not in question.
There are only a few references that will place this story in any given period of time and those are so vague that “Benediction” takes on a dream-like quality. Not one commercial product (like the make and model of pickup) is recorded.
Haruf’s detailed, up-close style manages to make the characters both intimate and universal at the same time. It’s as if Haruf has the code to each character’s soul.
For me, the most powerful ideas in “Benediction” revolve around the contrast between Dad’s apparently secular life and the rebellion sparked in church when a new pastor suggests a radical form of international forgiveness. The pastor’s idea is clearly just a theoretical, rhetorical question designed to test the congregation’s appetite for peace, but even the concept is enough to trigger trouble. Imagine that.
At the same time we see Dad do the small things that suggest true community comes one conversation and one gesture at a time.
Banish the thought if you think any of this might dip, just for a flash, into sentimentality. Haruf never wavers. Death is death. Life is life. Now is now. Despite the use of a religious term for the title, “Benediction” is no ode to the power of a church. It’s about the power of the individual. Haruf’s spare, precise prose celebrates each person. We see individuals because Haruf sees distinct people in sharp relief.
“Benediction” is both bleak and beautiful, but I’ll remember the beautiful and the reverence this novel holds for each human being.
“Benediction” makes us feel a bit better about ourselves, even as we feel the weight of one journey coming to an end.