Kent Haruf

Haruf

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.

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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.

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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.

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Reaching Readers in Missouri

KS signing

There is no friend as loyal as a book.                      Ernest Hemingway

Last week I gave readings of Reach the Shining River at two different venues in St. Louis, Missouri: to staff and students at Fontbonne University, and to Saturday Writers, a writing group in St. Peters, Missouri, which is also a chapter of the Missouri Writers Guild. Both audiences were interested and well-informed, and both events reminded me how important it is for writers to leave the lonely confines of the desk on occasion and engage with others who love to read and write fiction.

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Of course, it was challenging to talk about my novel with people who know its setting much better than I do. Reach the Shining River is a Missouri novel, set in Kansas City, and though I have visited KC and St. Louis many times, I have to be careful not to assume I know as much about the state as a native. And admitting this was a good thing – it led to several lively discussions about sense of place, research, historical fiction, dialog, and other topics of intense interest to writers. Not bad discussions to be having during National Novel Writing Month.

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Writers who are starting out (as well as those who have written for years) want to know – how much research is enough? How important is historical accuracy? What makes good dialog? Once a novel is complete, how do you go about getting published? I don’t necessarily have the answers, but I have been writing for nearly forty years, and eight books of mine have managed to find publication in one form or another. So I shared what advice I could. But most importantly, meeting with other writers is energizing. I loved the enthusiasm of these St. Louisans and enjoyed hearing about their struggles and successes with the written word.

And I should extend thanks to the poet and Fontbonne professor Jason Sommer, who arranged and moderated both events (with help from Jennifer Hasheider in St. Peters) and who accompanied me to the top of the St. Louis Arch in spite of his fear of heights.

Stitched Panorama

 

My Literary Neighborhood

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There ought to be a room in every house to swear in.                                    Mark Twain

I live near Harvard Square in Cambridge, Mass, in a “Harlow buidling.” These beautiful brick structures were designed by Hamilton Harlow in the early decades of the twentieth century and were designed to blend in with the features of Harvard University buildings – red brick, elegant ironwork, and leaded glass windows.

It’s a cool neighborhood. A really cool neighborhood for a writer, partly because so many famous authors lived nearby. Two doors up from my building is where William Dean Howells lived in the 1870s, when he was editor of the Atlantic Monthly.

howells sign

There is a great story in Justin Kaplan’s biography of Mark Twain which details Twain’s visit to this house in April, 1876, and the ill-fated attempt of Howells and Twain to get to Concord by train for centennial celebrations presided over by President Grant. It is a comedy of errors worthy of a story by Twain himself, which ends with Twain chasing a packed carriage and falling in the mud.

Around the corner, in another Harlow building, Vladimir Nabokov lived at 8 Craigie Circle in the 1940s while working as a butterfly taxonomist at Harvard’s Museum of Comparative Zoology.

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In the introduction to Bend Sinister, the first novel he wrote in the US, Nabokov describes his time in this apartment, saying, “I slept at least four or five hours, the rest of the night walking pencil in hand about the dingy little flat…where I lodged under an old lady with feet of stone and above a young woman with hypersensitive hearing.”

When I walk past this building, I like to look up at the windows and guess which one VN stared out of at night while constructing sentences such as: “An oblong puddle inset in the coarse asphalt; like a fancy footprint filled to the brim with quicksilver; like a spatulate hole through which you can see the nether sky.”

craigie bldg

A decade later, VN had returned to Harvard to complete research for his translation of Pushkin’s Evgeny Onegin, and lived in another Harlow building on Chauncy Street, just two blocks away.

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Throughout this period, Robert Frost was also living in Cambridge, on Brewster Street, a stone’s throw from Craigie Circle:

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And maybe a few stones were thrown, as Frost and Nabokov apparently did not get along. In the forties, the two writers gave several poetry readings together, including an appearance at Wellesley College’s “Poets Reading” series in 1946 along with Archibald Macleish and T. S. Eliot. Though Nabokov found Frost rude, it did not stop him from briefly renting Frost’s house in 1952. He and his wife found it too cold to stay in (Nabokov later called it “the Jack Frost house”), and it troubled Nabokov that Frost had left the study in the house locked.

Eliot had a long relationship with Cambridge. In 1913 and 1914, when he was teaching at Harvard and revising “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock,” he lived on Ash Street:

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Alas, it is a nice but ordinary house, whereas next door is my favorite house in the city, an exotic, unique building with wonderful gardens and infinite charm:

ash st

Then again, if Eliot had lived in this house next door, he may have been too charmed to write “The Wasteland.”

There are many other writers who called Cambridge home, including e.e. cummings and Richard Wilbur and of course great nineteenth-century figures such as Henry Wadsworth Longfellow and James Russell Lowell and Richard Henry Dana. And there are those who came to rest here, like Bernard Malamud, the New Yorker who is buried in Mount Auburn Cemetery. I like to think that their ghosts still walk the streets of the city, inspiring readers and writers and all who value the written word.

Cities, Bars, and Crime

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These days, big cities go out of their way to proclaim their cleanliness and safety. New York, LA, London, Paris…the city fathers of each note regularly how, compared with a few decades ago, their metropolises are much better to visit and live in. Crime rates have fallen. The cops are friendly. The streets are litter-free. What vice there is is socially acceptable or decidely unseedy. And who’d have it any other way?

Well, readers of crime fiction, perhaps. Crime novels and cities go together like guns and ammo. And traditionally, dirty, unsafe streets with heavy fog and crumbling neighborhoods not only create atmosphere but plot opportunities as well.

But fiction moves with the times. And these days noir is as much a state of mind as a physical phenomenon. The twenty-first century urban landscape is slick and anonymous, at least in the developed world, and writers now look to these characteristics – while not forgetting the traditional bleaknesses – as they set to work their criminals and those who would chase them.

Consider this random sampling of recent, well-received novels and their settings:

City of Blood, by M.D. Villiers – Johannesburg

Natural Causes, by James Oswald – Edinburgh

Norwegian by Night, Derek B. Miller – Oslo

The Honey Guide, by Richard Crompton – Nairobi

Shovel Ready, by Adam Sternbergh – Manhattan

The Fatal Touch, by Conor Fitzgerald – Rome

You may not know the authors, but you know the locations. They can be seedy or exotic, shrouded in mist or bathed in sunshine, violent or sleepy, but they are (except for Manhattan) new and different. And there are nicknames to go with the genres they suggest – Tartan noir, Mediterranean noir, Nordic noir. And the appearance of African cities – so often crowded and violent and exotic – is a throwback to the traditional mode.

Because cities are where the action is. Cities have energy. They have diversity. And they have conflict.

These are the traits I found in 1930’s Kansas City when I came to write Reach the Shining River. Crime, of course, but also high commerce, complex politics, art and music, and different social groups not entirely happy with each other.

Oh, and bars. Always good to have a few bars.

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Lock and Load

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You would think I would know a lot about guns. After all, I grew up in Montana, which has some of the most permissive gun laws in the US, and where guns stamped “Made in Montana” are exempt from federal firearms regulations. The NRA was a strong presence and hunting was ubiquitous. Many of my friends owned multiple weapons from a young age.

But not me. My dad was a liberal college professor, anti-war and anti-gun, and our household was weapon-free. Even toy guns were discouraged. Once, at a friend’s house, I lifted his rifle to my shoulder and aimed away from him and his brother (“never point a gun at anyone,” my dad always said, though there never were any guns to point), and the boys laughed at me – “He doesn’t even know how to hold a rifle!”

So when I started writing Reach the Shining River, I had some research to do. Because a crime novel without guns is like playing baseball without a bat. And a historical crime novel doubles the research.

So among many other things, I had to find out: What handguns were in standard use in the US in the 1930s? What arms did Kansas City policeman carry at that time (Colt Official Police pistols)? What is the difference between a .357 Magnum and a .38 Special cartridge (different powder load, extended casing)? After a shooting, what is likely to be left at the scene of a crime? What will analysis of shell casings tell an investigator?

ShellCasings

Of course, the internet makes such research easy. There is a frightening amount of detail out there, with terminology that can make non-NRA folks like me quite uncomfortable – “stopping power”, “extra wound channels”, “force continuum”.

So I know a little more than I used to – as much as a novelist needs to suit his purpose (which, after all, is not that much). But I also have this increased sense that the issue over gun ownership and use is getting more polarized all the time. Last month, the Missouri legislature felt obliged to endorse a proposed amendment to the state Constitution which would define the right to bear arms as “unalienable”, require the state to defend against any “infringement” of that right. And the string of shootings in US schools (74 since the Newtown massacre) speaks for itself.

If only guns were confined to crime novels.

 

 

Memorial Day 2014, Cambridge, Mass.

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Even if wars didn’t keep coming like glaciers, there would still be plain old death.      Kurt Vonnegut

I spent this afternoon wandering around the Old Burying Ground near Harvard Square in Cambridge, Massachusetts, looking at the weathered headstones and thinking about those who have died in American wars. Opened in 1634, it is one of America’s oldest cemeteries. As the only cemetery in Cambridge for nearly two hundred years, it took in a cross-section of the population, from the destitute to the powerful. It also took in its share of soldiers.

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There are nineteen graves of Revolutionary soldiers, including two African-American slaves who served and died. The headstone above is for Joseph Taylor, who was wounded at the Battle of Bunker Hill in June 1775 and lingered for two months at a makeshift army hospital before dying. He was from Peterborough, New Hampshire. He was eighteen years old.

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The remains of six other Revolutionary soldiers from Cambridge were relocated here in 1870 after being rescued from a common grave by the Harvard professor Eben Horsford. There is at least one soldier from the War of 1812, but in the early nineteenth century the City of Cambridge opened a new cemetery in Cambridgeport, and regular burials ceased.

But the wars did not. Within sight of the Old Burying Ground is Harvard’s Sanders Theater, built as a memorial for the Civil War dead, and up Garden Street is a statue commemorating veterans of the Spanish-American War:

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And lest we forget that violence is visited only on those who go to war, a block away the First Church in Cambridge – founded in 1633, even earlier than the Old Burying Ground – has a moving tribute to 2014’s victims of gun violence in the Boston area:

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Whose Crime Is It, Anyway?

corpse

The corpse must shock not only because it is a corpse but also because, even for a corpse, it is shockingly out of place, as when a dog makes a mess on a drawing room carpet.                   W.H. Auden

I write crime fiction for the same reasons I like to read it – the suspense of whodunit, the procedural detail, the contrast between darkness and light, the challenge of a plot that is complex enough to compel but simple enough to charm. Sex and violence are also important, of course, not just for the tang of the illicit but for the physical drama of people engaged in the most extreme human situations.

Yet none of these features has full impact without the right setting. The drawing room carpet, as Auden says. And whether that setting is mild and correct, as in the work of Dorothy Sayers, or bleak and dehumanizing, as in Raymond Chandler’s novels, its critical characteristic is that it creates atmosphere. Because when the plot has unraveled and the mystery is solved, what is important is not whether readers have figured out who the killer is, but what feeling they are left with. Will they be moved or haunted when, in years to come, they think back on the novel?

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Plot is important, certainly, and must be plausible as well as dramatic. But setting is more important for feeling, especially when conveying a sense of menace or the psychological turmoil that accompanies crime and its investigation. This explains why many crime novelists list science fiction authors like Philip K. Dick and the Bothers Strugatsky as influences – nothing conveys alienation and bleakness as effectively as future dystopian landscapes. And what is more alienating than crime? More menacing than not knowing who has committed it?

But the feeling doesn’t need to be all negative. In the case of Reach the Shining River, the setting called to mind the worst kind of cultural suffering. The thought of being black in Jim Crow Missouri during the Depression naturally led to feelings of bleakness. And yet Kansas City in 1935 was the scene one of the greatest cultural flowerings in American history – Kansas City jazz: Bill Basie, Billie Holiday, Lester Young, Mary Lou Williams. Not to mention Negro Leagues baseball and Kansas City barbecue. Here was my “carpet”. And the dog’s mess was racism. So I came to see the generic features of crime fiction as a good way of showing the effects of racism on an African-American culture that, while it was ducking from the blows, at the same time was creating a legacy that every American should be proud of.

Bleakness? Certainly. After all, the novel opens with a corpse, and there’s lots of blues. But one of the greatest bands in Kansas City back then was The Clouds of Joy. I hope that when readers finish this book that that’s the feeling that stays with them.

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