Kent Haruf discusses Plainsong
This is from your frontispiece: Plainsong--the unisonous vocal music used
in the Christian church from the earliest times; any simple and unadorned melody
There's an obvious pun that this is kind of a song or an emblem for the Plains
or an anthem for the Plains. Sung in a plain style. These are regular, ordinary
sort of elemental characters and I think they're presented sort of directly and
I wanted the prose to be kind of simple and direct.
Even without elaboration the characters are very strong. They are people we
come to know and care about and the pages turn that way. In the shifting source
of narrative from chapter to chapter I didn't want to let go of the storyline
I'd just been in but I was very happy to get back and find out what's going on
Well, I had some misgivings about whether or not that form would put off
readers. It was the only thing I could think of doing regarding these characters
and how to tell their stories. In a way, the Plains have no excess. If you think
of places where it is rich in vegetation, it seems like there is so much of it
that you almost get lost in it. In the Plains, things are stripped down to the
essentials and that seems to fit what this story is about and that seemed to be
an obvious setting for this story.
It seems to me that the characters with chapter headings in their names are
coming of age into the various stages a life will present. Ella is the first
character to whom the boys speak of their mother's leaving and Ella herself will
soon be gone. The McPheron brothers are old and crusty and set in their ways but
also full of joy. They are very young old men and there are yet lessons to be
learned and life experiences to be had--they "can't die without a little bit of
I'm pleased that you see that in them. I certainly mean that to be there. They
haven't led a complete life and this is their opportunity.
Tom Guthrie is flexing his character in his roles as father and romantic
partner. He doesn't flinch to defend right from wrong. He's very strong.
He is, but he's also numb and it took someone like Maggie Jones to wake him up.
He has in some ways gone the path of least resistance. Judy, the high school
secretary, is attractive and attracted to him and that's not going to go
anywhere. But Maggie insists that if he's going to be with her he's going to
have be straight and responsible in ways that he hasn't been, at least with the
school secretary. In other ways he is an ethical man and he's trying to do the
Would you agree that he matures with the evolution of his relationship to
I do. I also think that he's a caring and attentive father but when the boys go
out to the McPheron's, he's shocked by their disappearance and that shakes him
up, too. He realizes that he's going to have to be an even better father than
he's been before because his boys have left home.
Maggie Jones is so important to this story because she carries everybody
together and brings these lives to fruition and enables all this growth and
seems so wise but we don't know much about her.
We never get her back-story but I hint at her in ways. The other schoolteacher
flirts with her physically. When she leaves the room the he turns to Tom and
insinuates that she has a reputation in town for attracting men and has had some
affairs and connections with men but we don't know anymore but that she's been
married before and nothing is made of that.
In my view she's a woman that probably changes the least of any characters in
the book. She is a full grown, healthy, mature woman from the beginning; as you
say, I think she is a sort of wise woman and that she does serve both as the
person to bring these other people together and as a catalyst to bring their
The characters' voices are as fully developed and consistent as the voices
one knows from one's own life.
I was conscious of trying to tell the story in a clear-telling way. I was trying
to deliberately not create the internal type of prose but to show what they are
thinking by an external presentation.
You are able to conjure the voice of children, specifically Ike and Bobby, in
a realistic, heartwarming and memory-stirring way. How did you find the access
to children's rhythm?
I remember my boyhood in this area and I wanted to portray these little boys
accurately without sentimentalism. I think that usually the risk in trying to
write children in fiction is the tendency to make them too cute or something. In
this case, these little boys are almost two halves of the same whole. They can
communicate with very few words there. They're close, always have been, but
they're both undergoing the same problems. In my view, what they're trying to do
is find some understanding or at least consolation for the first major problem
in their lives. Their mother has retreated into a really strong, deep depression
and leaves them, leaves the house, and so on. These boys are on an inarticulate
search for some kind of comfort or love and in their search they are thrown up
against all kinds of adult experiences. They are not old enough to understand
all they see or do, so by the end their only recourse, and again it's intuitive
rather than analytical, is to ride out to the McPheron brothers where they had
been well-treated once before and sensed that there was some solace there.
At seventeen, Victoria Robideaux is at the other end of childhood facing an
adult dilemma. Her life is very different from the boys'. They live just five
blocks from her but with their paper route and bicycles and horses and early
morning risings, they live a more rural existence. She lives right in town and
experiences a more contemporary version of this town's life. Her malaise is
presented in very contemporary tones.
I think your right about that. She's gotten herself caught up into events and
problems that she's not ready to deal with. She's pretty innocent and has to try
to find her way, and she obviously needs help doing that.
She dresses in a racy fashion but doesn't seem to have a lot of vices.
No, she's a fairly moral person within her own constraints. She dresses a little
racy in a way many teenage girls do but without really knowing what that implies
or means and so she has gotten herself into trouble and now needs help with it.
Ike and Bobby are responding to a situation in their life while she is
responding to an endemic aspect of her life, which is a lack of love.
That's right. Her mother kicks her out and her father disappeared long ago and
she's kind of a loner in town. She doesn't have many close friends. I had in
mind that part of the cause of that is her father is an American Indian and so
she's kind of an outcast in town. Her mother is taking out some of her feelings
for the father on the girl.
Food is one experience for the boys, such as the hot skillet full of eggs
soon to be spilling onto thick crockery plates with toast and jam when their
father introduces them to us. The first time we meet Victoria, she is wretching
her guts into the toilet with her mother standing above her in dishabille,
smoking a cigarette into her face while threatening to throw her out of the
house. That mother is echoed again in the convenience mart where Victoria buys
her first meal of the story, a bag of popcorn and a can of pop. She is harassed
by the counter lady with many of the same suspicions she faced from her mother,
though even this woman and her harsh tones are slightly more sympathetic. This
is the cold, hard Holt she knows. It is never safe for Victoria Robideaux until
she makes a meal herself and feeds the McPherons.
Thank you very much for noticing that. I did have something in mind in terms of
food in the communal use or consuming of it. It always seems to me that one of
the ways you show love is to prepare food for somebody. The father is doing that
at the beginning of the story. At the end, Victoria feels confident enough and
secure enough in her place out there so that she is the one who has begun to do
the cooking and she's the one who presents the food to the boys when they come
out to the McPheron's. At the very end of the book there is the suggestion that
soon they will all go in and eat supper together.
Interview by Catherine McWeeney. First published in Bold
Type 2000. Reproduced by permission of Random House publishing.