Whether it's Thomas Wolfe scribbling on top of a refrigerator or Jack Kerouac typing a book on a continuous roll of paper, fiction writers often resort to some curious practices to get the words flowing. For his third novel, Plainsong, Kent Haruf devised what may be the most curious yet. Sitting at his typewriter, Haruf would remove his glasses and cover his eyes with a stocking cap. For an hour or so, he would type blind, sometimes but not often running past the bottom of a page, trying to achieve freshness and spontaneity without being distracted by the sight of words on paper.
In the process, Haruf may have come upon the magic m.o. for fiction writing. As the author of two previous (and conventionally composed) novels, Haruf didn't have any high commercial expectations for Plainsong, anticipating the customary respectful reviews and minuscule sales. But Haruf hadn't reckoned on the magnetic power of the book or the marketing clout of his latest publisher, Knopf. By all indications, Haruf's novel may be on its way to becoming the sleeper of the fall season, with a reception akin to that of All the Pretty Horses and Cold Mountain. Shortly before pub date, Newsweek issued this forecast: "Watch for fireworks over the plains."
The fireworks -- in the form of glowing reviews, publicity and a National Book Award nomination for fiction -- have already started by the time PW connects with Haruf at his modest bungalow in Murphysboro, Ill., a few miles west of the Southern Illinois University campus in Carbondale, where he teaches fiction writing. The author is surprised, humbled and gratified by the attention being showered on his novel, but he's admittedly dismayed by all the personal attention it's bringing him. "I've done what I can in writing the book," Haruf says. "I'm willing to do my small part in promoting it -- I don't mind giving readings and I can fumble my way through interviews -- but I'd much rather leave myself out of it.... I prefer to be anonymous."
As much by circumstance as choice, Haruf got his wish with his first two novels, The Tie That Binds (Holt, Rinehart & Winston, 1984) and Where You Once Belonged (Summit, 1990), which were published with little fanfare or residual fallout. But as he's quickly discovering, Plainsong is a dramatically different story. Midway through his interview with PW, he takes a call from an SIU colleague, who congratulates him on the Newsweek article and suggests that Haruf is on the brink of becoming a "famous author." The presumption annoys Haruf. "This country's crazy in terms of fame and what people think it means," he complains, after hanging up. "They expect a writer to be something between a Hollywood starlet and the village idiot."
Despite the momentary gruffness, Haruf is affable and forthcoming about his life and work. Sitting in a rocking chair in his family room, dressed in a blue-checked shirt, jeans and running sh s, he seems casually professorial, if somewhat wary and ill at ease. He has a round, friendly face, round glasses, pale eyes, a mustache and grayish sandy hair -- perfectly ordinary features, in other words, that under ordinary circumstances would assure him of all the anonymity he wants.
If Plainsong d s turn out to be his "breakout" novel, Haruf is relieved that it came later in his career rather than sooner, now that he's older and wiser about the capricious ways of publishing and literary celebrity. "I'm 56," says the novelist, "and I've been around long enough to know that this is in part a matter of luck. I don't think it's turned my head. Fame is very seductive and can be very dangerous if you're trying to get your work done."
For Haruf, great literature has proved to be far more seductive, as he found when he was introduced to Hemingway and Faulkner during his sophomore year at Nebraska Wesleyan University. "I was just stunned by the quality and richness of their writing," he recalls. "It changed my life. I fell in love with literature, and with writing, and it became like a religion to me."
Once he started writing fiction himself, Haruf followed Faulkner's example by staking out his own "little postage stamp of native soil." Like his two earlier novels, Plainsong takes place in and around Holt, a hamlet in the flatlands of northeastern Colorado, nearer to the Kansas and Nebraska borders than to Denver or the Rockies. Along with its surrounding farms and homesteads, Holt has proved as fertile -- and will perhaps be as inexhaustible -- a source for Haruf's fiction as the apocryphal Yoknapatawpha County was for Faulkner's. "I have something like a holy connection to that part of the world," Haruf says of the Great Plains.
That part of the world is where Haruf was born and spent his most impressionable years, through high school, college and beyond. The son of a Methodist preacher, Haruf was a "ministry brat," migrating with his family from one small Colorado town to the next, as his father was assigned to a succession of churches. "Growing up in those little towns was a great advantage for a writer," Haruf says. "You know everybody who lives there -- the town mayor, the town drunk.... All this gave me a real sense of the community, its dynamics and its history."
Haruf's feeling for the dynamics of smalltown life is especially evident in Plainsong. As the title and introductory note suggest, the novel is a "simple and unadorned melody" for half a dozen or so voices -- people whose lives are complicated but enlarged and enriched as they intersect with one other: Guthrie, a high school teacher, is abandoned by his disturbed wife, leaving him to care for two young sons; Victoria, a pregnant and unmarried student in one of Guthrie's classes, is "adopted" by two elderly brothers, bachelor farmers who need Victoria as much as she needs them. "You're going to die someday without ever having had enough trouble in your life," a friend tells them. "Not of the right kind anyway."
"That's a fond notion of mine," Haruf says, talking about how adversity and sacrifice can bring healing, strength and wisdom, "assuming you survive and come through without being maimed in some way. These two old guys know how to deal with cattle and ranch life. But they need trouble of another kind to fully mature."
Though his ambitions centered on being a writer, Haruf took a slow and circuitous route toward that goal. After graduating from Nebraska Wesleyan in 1965, he joined the Peace Corps and spent two years teaching English in Turkey. He was briefly a grad student at the University of Kansas, dropping out when he found "they were not talking about books the way I wanted to." A conscientious objector during the Vietnam War, he spent another two years working in hospitals and an orphanage, "in lieu of military service."
"All that time I was writing," says Haruf, "or learning how to write." He was so determined to get into the University of Iowa's Writers' Workshop, he recalls, that he moved his wife and infant daughter to Iowa City. "I kept submitting and resubmitting work, and finally they let me in, on probation, I think. My first stories were meager -- autobiographical, derivative of Hemingway, predictable, not distinguished in any way. But I must have made progress pretty fast because they gave me a fellowship my second year, one of only four, and that was a big boost."
At Iowa, Haruf was not only learning to write, he was learning from some eminent writers who were teaching there at the time -- John Irving, Seymour Krim, Dan Wakefield and Vance Bourjaily, among them. Haruf's masters thesis at Iowa was a novel, which was optioned by Harper & Row on the basis of four chapters. But Harper rejected the finished book, as did a number of other publishers -- and rightly so, says Haruf. "In retrospect, it's pretty clear that it didn't deserve to be published."
After graduating from Iowa, Haruf worked construction and shelved library books in Colorado, then taught high school English, including a four-year sojourn in Madison, Wis. He was 41 before he made his first appearance in print, with a short story in a literary magazine, Puerto del Sol, and he finished yet another novel, written during his summer vacations from teaching. When Harper & Row passed on it, Haruf contacted John Irving, who put him in touch with his agent, Peter Matson. "He warned me that he'd sent 50 other writers to Matson, and he'd taken none of the others. But Matson liked the book, and it didn't take him long to sell it" (to what was then Holt, Rinehart & Winston).
The Tie That Binds has had a "fortunate life," Haruf says, including two (soon to be three) paperback reprints. More fortunately, it brought him a $25,000 Whiting Award, a PEN/Hemingway citation, and a job teaching freshman composition at Nebraska Wesleyan. When Where You Once Belonged was published six years later, by Summit Books, it got equally good reviews, but sold disappointingly, fewer copies than his first novel. "I was really in despair when I finished that book," Haruf says. "I had three daughters by then, all in school, all hungry. I was teaching a lot, and I was under pressure to get it done. There are good things in it, but I wanted it to be better than it turned out to be."
Largely on the strength of those two novels, Haruf says, he did secure a more prestigious teaching position, eight years ago, at Southern Illinois University, where he became the latest in a distinguished roster of novelists-in-residence, following John Gardner, Richard Russo and Philip Graham. Better yet, it brought him a significantly lighter academic load, which allowed him to teach fiction writing in the afternoons and devote his mornings to his own fiction.
Haruf had early hints that Plainsong was going to have a bigger impact, both critically and commercially, than his previous novels. First, it was readily accepted by Knopf's Gary Fisketjon, an editor with an all-star list headed by Raymond Carver, Richard Ford, Tobias Wolff and Cormac McCarthy, all writers Haruf greatly admires. Next, he learned the first printing was 70,000 copies, "a huge leap from my first books." Once the reviews started appearing -- typified by the paean in the New York Times, calling it "a novel so foursquare, so delicate and lovely, that it has the power to exalt the reader" -- it was obvious that Plainsong wasn't simply on its way -- it had arrived, with the force of a small meteorite.
As cautious as he is unassuming, Haruf says it's still much too early to tell if Plainsong will live up to its blockbuster expectations. To give it a push, the novelist agreed to a 15-city tour, the first he's made on behalf of a book. Once the promotional carousel stops, however, Haruf says he'll gladly hop off and return to the slow lane. The author is building a vacation cabin in Colorado, the southwestern part of the state, rather than the northeastern, he says, because his second wife, Cathy, prefers the mountains.
It seems safe to assume that Haruf will be back in the Great Plains with his next novel, perhaps picking up some of the characters whose lives were still in limbo at the conclusion of Plainsong. If that is his plan, Haruf politely declines to discuss it, explaining: "I'm very superstitious about that. Once you begin talking about what you're working on, you define the book in ways that are limiting."
If he refuses to divulge what the book will be about, Haruf doesn't make a secret of how the first draft will be written -- with a stocking cap over his face. Judging by the results he got with Plainsong, he'd be foolish to abandon the practice. He may be writing fiction with his eyes shut, but his mind's eyes are wide open.
Blades is a former book editor of the Chicago Tribune and author of the 1992 novel Small Game.