This can be seen in the lives of almost all my characters – each has to find his or her way within the presence and shadow of death. Kent Haruf
I was very saddened to hear this morning that Kent Haruf died on Sunday night, age 71. One of America’s finest writers, he turned the fictional high-plains town of Holt, Colorado, into a contemporary landscape of compelling naturalism and mythic depth in five novels published over the last thirty years. Last year’s Benediction was perhaps his best book to date: it tells the story of Dad Lewis, a husband and father and hardware-store proprietor dying of cancer, who reviews his life with a breadth of human reference not unlike the open skies and wide vistas of its setting.
I first read Haruf fifteen years ago, when his novel Plainsong was nominated for a National Book Award. I was moved enough to write him a fan letter. He responded graciously, and as we continued to correspond I learned over time that he was as fine a man as he was a writer – humane, considerate, generous-minded, and modest in a way rare in any human being, never mind one as accomplished as he was. He read my novel Song for Katya and said lovely things about it, referred me to his agent, and generally offered writing and publishing advice that was valuable and considered.
We maintained this epistolary relationship over the years, culminating in my interview with him published last year in the Dublin Review of Books. As he did with everything, he put much time and effort into the exchange, exploring questions of art and craft that have helped me, and others I hope, face the challenges of writing meaningful fiction in an age full of meaningless distractions. Perhaps his greatest lesson (apart from his belief in hard work) was his illustration in all his stories of the centrality of what he called “the precious ordinary.” This phrase sums up perfectly the balance of naturalism and religious depth in his fiction.
His publishers have reported that Haruf completed his sixth novel, Our Souls at Night, also set in Holt, before he died. The new book, out in spring of next year, will be welcomed, but will do little to temper the pain of losing him.