Kent Haruf Interview, plus links to author biography, book summaries, excerpts and reviews

Kent Haruf
© Cathy Haruf

Kent Haruf

An interview with Kent Haruf

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 or air.

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 elsewhere.

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 trouble."

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 right thing.

Would you agree that he matures with the evolution of his relationship to Maggie?

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 changes.

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.

Unless otherwise stated, this interview was conducted at the time the book was first published, and is reproduced with permission of the publisher. This interview may not be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the copyright holder.

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