One of my favorite authors, Kent Haruf, died this week. He received so many awards in his lifetime, as well as the admiration of a lot of people, me included.
When I was first reading his book Plainsong, I remember thinking, “Wow. This is exactly right. The author must have lived somewhere near where I grew up.” His details about rural ranchers and farmers were spot on, and the characters were so much like people I had grown up with. I loved it.
It turns out I was right about his background. He was born not far from where I grew up, and he lived and taught high school for a time on the plains of eastern Colorado.
A few years ago Plainsong was chosen as our library sponsored city-wide book to read, and Haruf spoke at a local theater. He told about how, when he had finished his most recent book, he read it aloud to his wife as they drove to California. When they arrived, he knew he had to start over. As I remember it, it was because his writing didn’t have the simplicity and clarity he strived for. I loved hearing that, as I know that nothing is harder, when it comes to words, than making them simple and crystal clear. Complicated is easy. Simple is not.
I also remember him saying that he hated the Hallmark television movie made of Plainsong. For one thing, he didn’t like the way the movie portrayed the two farmers as hicks and didn’t respect them. Putting a farmer in a backwards-facing baseball cap was the last straw for him. “No eastern Colorado farmer or rancher would ever wear a backwards baseball cap,” he said. He got that right. Even the thought of my dad or brother or any other farmer I know dressing like that is absurd. For one thing, a baseball cap—frontward or backward—isn’t going to provide the protection a farmer needs from the blistering sun on the plains. Also, anyone dressed like that would be hooted out of the local Co-op by the farmers there having coffee.
But one of the best things about his talk was when a women in the audience mentioned that she had been in one of his high school classes. He recognized her immediately and went on to tell a story about her to the whole crowd. I knew then that he had to have been a good teacher as well as a wonderful writer.
It was nice to see the human side of the man behind the books I love.