In his 1977 memoir, Potomac Fever, former Oklahoma senator Fred Harris wrote that "people should, like snakes, shed their skin every now and then." Harris proceeded to do just that. After retiring from the Senate in 1974 and being defeated in the Democratic presidential primaries in 1976, he moved to Albuquerque, N.Mex., and took up a position at the University of New Mexico. There he studied politicians instead of incarnating one. Over the years at UNM he has produced a steady stream of nonfiction books, all on political subjects. So it was unexpected when in 1999, at the age of 68, he published a mystery novel. Coyote Revenge is set in the small Oklahoma town of Vernon in the 1930s and features sheriff Okie Dunn, a man not entirely comfortable with being on the side of the cops. The novel won this year's Nero Wolfe Award. Harris has followed up with another Okie Dunn mystery, Easy Pickin's (HarperCollins; Forecasts, Oct. 2), published this November.
Curious about a career as littered with molted skins as Harris's, PW met him recently for lunch at his university office in Albuquerque. Harris is a squat, heavyset man who exudes a certain physical nimbleness. It is no surprise that he was a boxer in college. He speaks with a winning, folksy twang, and he laughs easily. Harris suggests Barelas Coffee House, which turns out to be the favorite spot for Democratic political activists in town. We are barely in the door when Harris is headed back to a table at which New Mexico's Democratic Party chairman, Diane Denish, is seated. They confab briefly, no doubt touching on this year's presidential election. New Mexico, like Florida, has produced a controversial vote total that seems to shift between Gore and Bush with every recount. Harris returns to PW's table and jokes that he, Denish and some other prominent local politicians have formed the "Barelas Athletic Club" because they eat here so often. "Somebody even came up with a cap for us," he explains, "and a little motto on it in dog Latin that translates as 'yellow dog Democrat.'" Harris's booming laugh rings out at his own joke. Then we dig into our carne avocado burritos and discuss Harris's fascinating, if partisan, perspective on recent American history and his present unexpected persona as a fiction writer.
Like the characters in his novels, Harris hails from rural Oklahoma. "My father," he says, "had come to Oklahoma with his family as a boy from Mississippi. They sharecropped the place. They came in 1906, when Oklahoma was divided up and down in the middle between the Indian Territory and the United States part."
In Coyote Revenge, the small town of Vernon is modeled on Walters, where Harris mostly grew up. In fact, the book originated in a nonfiction idea. "I started out to write a book that I was going to call Before the World Changed. It was going to be about before WWII in a place like Walters. My sister still lives there, and she sent me a bunch of Xeroxed copies of the local newspaper from 1936, '37. And I always felt that at some point when I could, I'd write fiction, and when that point came, I thought, hell, I have all this material, so I'd set the thing there."
Harris grew up in the farm belt, where money had to be squeezed from pure muscular exertion. "My dad, most of the time, was a cattle trader. I started work on a hay baling crew with my grandfather and uncles when I was five. I did that in the summers until I was 12. Then my dad bought a combine and we went in the summers all the way up to North Dakota and through the Midwest, and I did that up all the way through college."
However, the culture wasn't just about working. "I've known 2,000 Will Rogerses in Oklahoma. There's an indigenous, wry kind of humor in Oklahoma. My uncles have it, and they're the models for Okie Dunn's uncles." Harris's account of his political life is full of Will Rogers nuances-a subtle deflation of pretensions, a preference for the concrete and even the vulgar over the abstract.
Harris went to college, then to the University of Oklahoma Law School. He married his childhood sweetheart, LaDonna, a Comanche Indian, and took a position with a law firm. "When a local state senator died... people kept asking me at the law firm, Are you going to run for something? I'd say no, I have to make a living. Then one of the senior partners said, Well, I kinda think you ought to. And LaDonna liked it a lot-she always liked politics." Harris ran and won, becoming a state senator at 25.
However, even back then he was flirting with fiction. "I was the lawyer for the Oklahoma University Press. They didn't publish fiction then, but the head of the press said to me, I think you should write a book. A book about the Comanche Indians. So he gave me a book that was just terrific, and I came back and said, I don't think I could do this. I told him I'd written a novel about a Comanche Indian when I was 21. I gave it to him and he read it and called me in and said he was going to send it to an agent in New York. And he did, but by that time I was too busy with politics."
Indeed, at 30, Harris made a run for governor. He lost, but he acquired an influential patron: Sen. Robert S. Kerr. Kerr was an Oklahoma legend, a populist on the same scale as Huey Long. The "Kerr apparatus," as Harris called it, was on Harris's side.
Harris was elected to the U.S. Senate in 1964. "The very first day I went to the Senate I met Robert Kennedy. Now I was just certain I wouldn't like Robert Kennedy, because of his connection to Joseph McCarthy, which, incidentally, according to that new Evans Thomas book, took him a long time to disavow. Also, 'cause he was rich, which made me a little suspicious. And I thought he was a carpetbagger, you know, because he'd just gotten elected senator from New York, and he hadn't been living there. It turned out I was exactly wrong about whether I'd like him. We lived around the corner from each other. He came down to Oklahoma a lot, and I went up to Hyannis Port. I became his best friend in the Senate."
But Harris was far from a Camelot courtier. " Time magazine said I was the only person in D.C. who could have breakfast with Hubert Humphrey, lunch with Lyndon Johnson and dinner with Robert Kennedy." The lines were drawn between the president and RFK. "They hated each other."
Harris was never subject to one of Johnson's legendary tirades, but he was witness to them. The first time he met Johnson, he stood by as the president chewed out one of Harris's fellow senators. "It's funny-in private nobody talked more rapidly and colorfully, but in public he was all slow and syrupy and fake."
Although Harris never personally tangled with Johnson, he was at odds with him over the Vietnam war and the Kerner Commission. The latter was one of the high-water marks of '60s liberalism, convened by the Johnson administration to explore the roots of urban violence in the wake of the debilitating riots of '67 and '68. The commission's unpalatable conclusions about the continuing damage done by American racism, expressed in the Kerner Report, were not accepted by the White House and were vilified in the conservative press. Harris's first book, Alarms and Hopes (Harper & Row, 1968), defensed the report.
Harris, along with Walter Mondale, took on the task of managing Hubert Humphrey's presidential campaign in 1968, an almost unbearably tense election year. But even after Humphrey's dispiriting defeat, Harris's appetite for politics was not yet slaked. He mounted his own presidential campaigns in 1972 and 1976. The latter was a more sustained effort, and its failure prompted Harris to rethink his public career. He'd already retired from the Senate. In 1977 he published Potomac Fever. "I was staying in a beach house with some friends, and I thought I'd write a little magazine article. A sketch about Lyndon Johnson. I read it to the friends, and they told me I should make it into a book." The memoir was published by Norton and chosen as an alternate Book of the Month Club selection. "My editor was the same as for Alarms and Hopes at Harper & Row: Evan Thomas Sr. He'd moved [to Norton]. His father was Norman Thomas [the socialist presidential candidate from the '30s and '40s] and his son is the Newsweek writer Evan Thomas Jr.-the one who just published the Kennedy book [Robert Kennedy: His Life]." Harris doesn't remember how he and Thomas came into contact. "Just serendipity."
It was at this time he moved to New Mexico. He and LaDonna divorced, although they are still on amicable terms-after our interview, he was going to see her at a book reading in Santa Fe. He married Margaret Elliston, a city planner in Albuquerque. Although he didn't completely abandon political activism-he was the New Mexico Democratic Party's chairman in 1998, for example-his career centered on academia. He authored seven more nonfiction books and edited or co-wrote seven others. At a certain point, he decided to see whether he could write fiction, just as he had wanted to when he was 21.
"I was a little embarrassed about being a novelist," Harris says. "So I just kept the book quiet-I read it to my wife, and then to my children."
Harris's account of getting the book published is given with the sly humor of a man whose populist instinct tells him that the rules in any system are really devised as obstacles to keep outsiders out. He read several books on getting fiction published, his intent being to obey the rules in order to subvert them. Although he could have turned to his friend Tony Hillerman, probably New Mexico's most famous mystery writer, "I decided to do just what the books said. And the first thing they said is to get an agent. And then I went to the writing conferences."
The agents Harris contacted had numerous suggestions about the book. One said he would take it if Harris set it in contemporary Oklahoma. One said it was too short. One said that historical mysteries don't sell. "So I thought, all right, if that is what it takes, I'll rewrite it. But when I started taking it apart, I saw it just doesn't work outside of its setting. That's the reason I wrote it in the first place." Harris developed other skills as well. "I read up on how to write a query letter. Then I polished one up and sent it off. I got a fax back immediately from an agent, who wanted the manuscript. So I sent it to him and he said, 'I absolutely love this book.' Well," Harris laughs, "I got to learn what that means-it means that they don't hate it. That's the magic phrase that means maybe they'll read it." Finally Harris found an agent out of Dallas-David Stewart Hull-who placed the book with HarperCollins. "Since my first book was published by Harper & Row, I was sort of going full circle."
His editor at HarperCollins was Erin Cartwright. Harris landed a two-book deal. After Coyote Revenge was published, however, Hull died, and Cartwright retired. She handed Harris over to another HarperCollins editor, Caroline Marino, and helped him find another agent, Elaine Markson. Marino had ideas about Harris's second book. "I assumed it would be a second Okie Dunn book," recalls Harris, "because I'd read that publishers like mysteries that generate a series. But Caroline said, Well why not write a political novel like All the King's Men . I told her, Uh, maybe you'll have to let me practice some, here." Harris is clearly amused by the idea that he could dash off a second All the King's Men? "So we agreed that I'd do another Okie Dunn novel. Which I did. Now I'm working on trying to do this political novel. I've reread Robert Penn Warren's book and Joe Klein's Primary Colors. Also looked at Gore Vidal's The Best Man, the play. My problem is trying to put this in the third person, you know. Tony [Hillerman] says, hell, he can never write in the first person, only write in the third person. But I've been even thinking about writing it in the first person as an exercise, and then switching. It knocks out one little element of possible surprise. You can always do it as an observer." Harris is mulling over the formal problems, but has put the manuscript on hold "because I've been out peddling books."
He discusses these things in Albuquerque with other fiction writers, as he has joined Hillerman's First Friday group. PW gets the impression that joining Hillerman's exclusive group is almost as important to Harris as getting his novel published-clearly he relishes his newfound status as a novelist. "We meet the first Friday of every month. And I think the deal is that you have to be a fiction writer. And you have to be published."
He's also looking forward to receiving the Nero Wolfe Award. "They are putting me up in the Gramercy Park Hotel." As an additional incentive, Harris will get to meet his editor and agent in person. "So far, I've just talked to them over the phone." And politicians just love shaking hands.