Almost three decades since his first novel, The Tie That Binds, was published, Kent Haruf says the stories that he writes, invariably set on the high plains of eastern Colorado, have become more mythic than factual, intuitive rather than rational. “I haven’t lived in eastern Colorado for 35 years,” says Haruf, 69, the son of a Methodist minister and a schoolteacher. “I grew up out there. My memory of it is shaped by my experiences decades ago. Memory changes your perspective.”
Haruf’s fifth novel is Benediction. Like the first four novels, it is set in fictional Holt County and delves, in spare, simple prose that many have compared to Ernest Hemingway’s, into the inevitably entwined lives of its rural inhabitants. Haruf considers William Faulkner as the author who perhaps has most influenced him, saying that he likes “to read some Faulkner, Hemingway, or Chekhov before sitting down to write anything.”
Benediction is Haruf’s first novel in eight years. Eventide, his sequel to the 1999 National Book Award nominee Plainsong, came out in 2004. Those two novels, paeans to small-town life, feature characters from multiple generations whose joys and sorrows intersect with those of the McPheron brothers, two aging bachelor farmers whose lives change after they take in a pregnant, homeless teenager in Plainsong.
Haruf introduces completely different characters in Benediction, with a widow and her daughter at the center of stories of ordinary folks trying to prevail under difficult circumstances: an elderly couple deals with the husband’s terminal illness; a young girl moves in with her grandmother after her mother’s untimely death; and an opinionated preacher, newly arrived from Denver, alienates his congregation and family, with consequences for his teenage son that are almost tragic.
Benediction started out as a very different book, Haruf says during a weekend visit to Denver, 150 miles north of his home in the small town of Salida, Colo., where he lives with Cathy, his wife of 17 years. “It was a story about a young woman with a young child driving across Colorado; she ended up stranded in Holt,” he explains. “The story was going to be about what happens when someone’s dependent on the charity of strangers. I got about 100 pages in and then realized I’d already written that story.”
Haruf says he then became interested in two minor characters who had appeared in earlier drafts of the book, “an old couple who lived on the edge of town.” Says Haruf: “The more I thought about them, the more they became the heart of Benediction.”
This is how Haruf conceptualizes all of his creative writing, he says. He muses upon the novel’s primary characters, their lives, and how they contend with their problems because “a main character always has to have problems.” He then builds communities of people around those characters.
“Once I knew about Dad Lewis and his wife, Mary, then I had to think about what kind of family they’d have, who would be their neighbors, their friends in this little town.” Haruf says. “This old man’s dying. The people around him, caring for him, and, of course, the kinds of feelings he had as he knew he was dying—those ideas became the heart of the story.”
Perhaps this ability of Haruf to adeptly move into the heads of the different characters he creates and weave stories about their lives comes from all the living he’s done. After graduating from Nebraska Wesleyan University in 1965, Haruf spent the next two years serving with the Peace Corps in Turkey. Since then, he’s worked in rural areas and big cities throughout the Rocky Mountain region and in the Midwest, holding jobs at a chicken ranch, construction site, and railroad, and in hospitals, schools, universities, and an orphanage. He also spent two years at the University of Iowa’s Writers’ Workshop, receiving an M.F.A. in 1973.
Even though Haruf has set all five of his novels in eastern Colorado, he adamantly rejects the notion that his writings are in any way regional.
“I want to believe there’s something universal about these stories,” he says. “In some ways, what happens in Holt happens in Denver, in Minneapolis, everywhere. Death is a fact of life, no matter where you live. Taking care of the dying is a necessity everywhere. Those are not conditions exclusive to small towns.”