Here is the complete transcript of DCPA Senior Arts Journalist John Moore’s interview with author Kent Haruf conducted on Nov. 24, 2014:
John Moore: Word is you have a new book in the works.
Kent Haruf: I do. At the beginning of May, I started to go out to my writer’s shed outside the house, and by the middle of June, I had written the first draft of a new novel. Since then I have been reworking it. (My wife) Cathy has typed it into the computer about five times now, and my editor at Knopf has edited it. I’ll get it back from the copy editor next week, and the book will be published on June 2.
John Moore: Do you have a title?
Kent Haruf: Our Souls at Night. You make whatever you want to of that.
John Moore: I’ll have to contemplate that for a bit. Is this novel a departure for you?
Kent Haruf: It is and it isn’t. It’s set in Holt; my usual place. It’s the story of an old man and an old woman – something I know something about. I’m an old man myself now.
John Moore: So does this mean we are going to have a fourth chapter in the Plainsong Trilogy?
Kent Haruf: Well, we’d have to come up with a new word for it: A quad-something. But really, no. I think this is completely separate. It has no connection with the previous books. These are entirely different characters. It goes off on a different tangent. It is set in absolutely contemporary times. And to me it has a different tone and suggestiveness to it.
John Moore: Can you say anything more about the story?
Kent Haruf: Well, I don’t like to give it away but it’s all set in 2014. And I will tell you there is a reference to the play Benediction in this new book. It’s something these two old people have a little comment about.
John Moore: That’s part of the fun of reading of your stories. Even in Benediction, which features all new characters, there are those small references that reward those people who have been with you from the beginning.
Kent Haruf: It does. And it was a chance for me to have a little fun. Exactly as you say, people who know these other stories will immediately recognize what I am talking about.
John Moore: But it’s still in Holt?
Kent Haruf: It is. But I will tell you, too, that I hear from people in Yuma, and it’s always a little annoying to me that people think these are Yuma stories. They’re not. I chose the look of that country as a specific place that I knew very well, and that I could use as the background setting for the stories I wanted to tell. But if you think about it, these stories could happen essentially anywhere. I mean, old men are dying everywhere. And people gather around and them take care of them. There are lonely old men everywhere who might very improbably take in somebody to enlarge their lives and do a good turn.
John Moore: I’m fascinated that you managed to make this happen while you have been undergoing this medical battle for the past year. After you got your diagnosis, why was it so important for you to get this story written?
Kent Haruf: That’s a good question. You know, I was doing worse in February and March, just after we got the news that this lung disease I’ve got is incurable and non-reversible. I felt sick and very downhearted spiritually and mentally. And then in April, I began to feel a little better, and I thought, ‘Well, I don’t want to just sit around waiting.’ So I thought I would write some short stories … but they didn’t go anywhere. And then the idea for this novel came to me.
John Moore: How did you set about to writing it?
Kent Haruf: The idea for the book has been floating around in my mind for quite a while. Now that I know I have, you know — a limited time — it was important to me to try to make good use of that time. So I went out there every day. Typically, I have always had a story pretty well plotted out before I start writing. This time I knew generally where the story was going, but I didn’t know very many of the details. So as it happened, I went out every day trusting myself to be able to add to the story each day. So I essentially wrote a new short chapter of the book every day. I’ve never had that experience before. I don’t want to get too fancy about it, but it was like something else was working to help me get this done. Call it a muse or spiritual guidance, I don’t know. All I know is that the trust I had in being able to write every day was helpful. I’ll tell you, one of my new heroes is Ulysses S. Grant. You may know that besides being the Northern general who finally pushed the war to its conclusion, he was also a very bad president. There was a lot of corruption in his administration. He also smoked eight or 10 cigars every day. And as he was dying of throat cancer, he wanted to leave some money for his wife and children. So he began to write his memoirs. There are pictures of him all wrapped up in blankets sitting there writing out on the veranda. And he got them finished, despite his cancer. I think he died two or three days afterward. Mark Twain had a publishing house then, and he published Grant’s memoirs. It became a national best-seller. So his efforts to help provide for his wife despite his condition seems to me to be maybe the bravest thing he ever did. Maybe even more so than anything he did on the battlefield. So that idea of trying to leave something was part of what was in my mind.
John Moore: When you get that kind of diagnosis, I imagine you have one of two choices. You can just sit down and say, ‘OK, it’s over for me.’ Or you can do what you did, which is to say, ‘I am going to get up every day, and I am going to write.’ I know you don’t want to get metaphysical about it, but deciding to get up out of bed and march out to your shed and write — that had to have come from somewhere.
Kent Haruf: It was metaphysical, and I don’t feel apologetic about that. It’s the way it was. At this point in my life, I have been trying to write fiction for 40 years. So part of what you draw upon is your experience, and the skill you have accumulated. And again, it’s set in Holt, so I didn’t have to invent a new place. It was all there for me. In some ways it felt as if that was what was keeping me alive. It was something significant for me to get up for every day. And then as it turns out, it was a great pleasure for Cathy and me.
John Moore: Help me to picture this writing shed of yours.
Kent Haruf: When we left our cabin up in the mountains, I had a guy bring it down and park it in the back of our house in the town of Salida, out there next to the alley. It’s just like a tool shed, but Cathy and I have converted it into a writing shed, so it has insulation inside and a big desk. You know, I write on a manual typewriter, so it’s a perfect space for me. Very private. Very quiet.
John Moore: Does it get cold?
Kent Haruf: Well, I have a heater out here that’s plugged into the house with an extension cord.
John Moore: Tell me about writing on a manual typewriter. My mom and dad were both writers, too, and my dad decided to retire from The Denver Post rather than give up his old Royal typewriter for a new portable computer.
Kent Haruf: It’s always worked for me. And then Cathy types them into the computer.
John Moore: I have a theory that authors who wrote on typewriters had to know pretty much what they were going to write from the time they sat down to type, because they had no delete key. Contemporary playwrights, specifically, often seem to be working it out as they go along on the computer, and I think it shows in the storytelling.
Kent Haruf: Well, that’s true to an extent. I always know the first sentence or two before I sit down. Once I have typed that, it’s a springboard to the rest of it. But the first sentence has to be one that sets the right tone for the story. There is a kind of momentum that first sentence or two generates, and that carries me through. And I don’t know if you know this, but I type all of this with my eyes shut. And I never allow myself to get up from the typewriter until I have written that whole scene. And it’s all single-spaced on one sheet of paper. It works well for me. I have just accepted that as my own discipline, and my own rule. So I am not going to answer the phone or do anything else but work. It doesn’t take that long to type up one sheet of paper, but it’s all intense concentration, so I am unaware of anything else except for that effort.
John Moore: Well you have proven over your entire career, and specifically over the past year, just how disciplined you must be about your writing routine. The playwright Matthew Lopez, who wrote The Legend of Georgia McBride and is spending the year in residence at the DCPA, says the difference between a writer and a hobbyist is the difference between one who writes and one who just talks about writing. He said you have to treat it like a daily job. What is your advice to aspiring writers?
Kent Haruf: The obvious thing is to read, read, read, read, read. Then write, write, write. There is no way around it. You have to do both of those things. But in terms of reading, I think you have to learn to read like a writer reads. That is, you are not reading for entertainment anymore. And you are not really even reading to see how a story plays out. What you are doing is reading to discover how somebody else has successfully done something on the page. So you are paying very close attention to what works, and what doesn’t work. And once you get to be a skillful reader, there is a different kind of pleasure in reading someone great. So no, I really don’t read much of anything except I go back over and over to Faulkner and Hemingway and, particularly, Chekhov. I never get tired of reading them. Every morning before I write, I read something from one of those writers, just to remind myself of what a sentence can be. I read every day. If I don’t, I feel it’s been an unsatisfactory day. I just don’t have time to read something that is not of the highest quality.
John Moore: So are you reading anything other than those three authors?
Kent Haruf: Oh yes. But what I am mostly reading right now is spiritual stuff, because I am trying to understand what is going on with me.
John Moore: You had just gotten your diagnosis when Benediction was being read at the Colorado New Play Summit last February. Do you mind my telling people what that exact diagnosis was?
Kent Haruf: I have interstitial lung disease, and the pulmonologist tells me there is no cure for that. What they prescribe for that is prednisone. That’s a steroid, and it makes you feel somewhat better, but it doesn’t fix anything. There is no reversal, obviously. So I have tried to concentrate instead upon thinking positively; upon thinking about things that I am grateful for. I feel enormously grateful for what I have had in my life. I feel very grateful to have this time to sort out my thoughts about religion and God and afterlife. Cathy and I have given ourselves a seminar course in spiritual thought about death and dying. We’ve read dozens of books about it, and I never would have done that had I not been forced to by these circumstances.
John Moore: If I might, have they told you how much time you should expect to have?
Kent Haruf: They didn’t give me any special number of days or anything. But one of the pulmonologists said, ‘You may just smolder on for a while … until you stop smoldering.’ At the time it seemed such a crazy figure of speech, but maybe it’s more accurate than I know. I’ve gone up and down. Right now, I don’t feel like death is right around the corner, but if it is, it’s a bigger corner than I thought it was.
John Moore: You said you never really thought much about death and dying before your diagnosis. But Benediction seems to be about exactly that. The journey Dad Lewis is on seems a precursor to what you are going through now. When you were writing Benediction, you had not yet been diagnosed. But you were thinking about yourself in any way?
Kent Haruf: Not really. Well, my own experience had to have some influence in forming that story. But I have been a hospice volunteer. My wife is still involved in hospice, and has been for 10 years or more now. So I have been around death, and I have had thoughts about dying. Writing about a man who was dying was an idea I was interested in, but I didn’t want to do what’s always been done so many times before. There is no question from the opening page of Benediction that he is dying. So that is not a surprise. It’s not a matter of suspense. What I hope that book is about is how he lives in his last months and days. The fact that he has these powerful, profound regrets that he would like to rectify but cannot — that’s the intent of those scenes at the end, when he is having these visions of people visiting him and talking to him. He has a vision of (his son) Frank coming back to see him. But even as badly as he wants that to happen, even in his hallucinatory vision, he cannot realistically see how he would ever be forgiven by his son for the terrible mistakes he has made earlier. And so that idea of people dying with regrets, without things becoming smoothed over; that’s a very interesting and powerful theme for me. The other thing I would say, of course, is that death draws in people around him — neighbors and friends, and of course in a small town it would be common for a preacher to visit somebody in the church who was dying. So it seemed natural for me to have those people gather around Dad Lewis as the center, and the reason for all of them to know each other.
John Moore: Is there anything you have learned over the past year that might have changed the way you wrote Dad Lewis in Benediction?
Kent Haruf: I think if I were to write that book now, I would write some things about his physical condition differently. I am finding this to be pretty physically challenging. I don’t know that I conveyed too much of that in his story. But I didn’t want to belabor that, either, because that gets pretty old to read about.
John Moore: So we know that you created Dad Lewis in your head, and you made him come to life on those pages, before you got your own terminal diagnosis. So has Dad Lewis in any way helped you in this part of your journey?
Kent Haruf: It’s a good question, but I am not sure that I would say he has. As much as I like Dad Lewis — he’s a character I love, really — but I don’t really identify with him in that way. My death, in its approach, seems to me to be very individual. At this point in my life, death seems like the main event, and that’s what I’m concentrated on. So my life has become very narrowly circumscribed. I don’t see very many people. I haven’t left the house in the past two months, so I am probably less social than Dad Lewis was.
John Moore: But unlike Dad Lewis, you have a large and loving family, a huge support system, and none of the same regrets.
Kent Haruf: That’s exactly right. My children and my stepchildren have been wonderful, and I have to tell you: I have received well-wishes from people all over the world. I used to deflect that, because I didn’t want to be egotistical about it. Now I believe those kinds of things really do have some actual, literal benefit to people.
John Moore: Oh, absolutely. I think if you have touched someone with your deeds or words, then giving people the opportunity to tell you that is a gift you are giving them.
Kent Haruf: I know exactly what you are saying, and it has taken me awhile to come to that view, John. I have been slow in understanding that. If somebody gives you something, and you don’t receive it, the gift is not completed in some way. It’s like sending a letter that never gets delivered. I have tried to learn in these last months how to be receptive. That’s not my nature. My nature is to be self-effacing. But it’s not selfishness to accept a gift from somebody. It’s taken me awhile to learn that.
John Moore: Can you tell me what it means to you, especially at this time of your life, that the DCPA Theatre Company has followed through on its commitment to create and complete this Plainsong Trilogy for live theatre audiences?
Kent Haruf: Oh, I think it is absolutely wonderful. It is a great honor to me. It feels as if it ties me into people in Denver and throughout the state, and I feel a great gratitude about that. I am always aware of how skillful Kent Thompson and Eric Schmiedl are, and Mike Hartman. I couldn’t be happier that Mike has been cast as Dad Lewis. They sent us the video of the public reading that was done at the 2014 Colorado New Play Summit this last February, and Mike was just superb in that.
John Moore: You’ve talked very openly about what is next for you and how you don’t know the timing — but you do know that the time is going to come. And so I think it’s a rare privilege and honor to ask someone in your situation: How do you want to be remembered?
Kent Haruf: Well, that’s a good question. You know, John, I don’t know that I have thought all that much about that. One thing that springs to mind in the October issue of the Granta literary magazine, I wrote a piece called The Making of a Writer. You might be interested in reading that before you write up this piece. Because in that essay, I tell how I think I became a writer. And I think it suggests some things that might live on past my own physical being. I do want to be remembered as someone who was loving and compassionate toward other people. And the older I have gotten, and the closer to death I have gotten, people have grown more and more dear to me. So that now I want to be completely present when I am with anybody. I can’t say that has always been true. It hasn’t been. And as a writer, I want to be thought of as somebody who had a very small talent but worked as best he could at using that talent. I want to think that I have written as close to the bone as I could. By that I mean that I was trying to get down to the fundamental, irreducible structure of life, and of our lives with one another.
John Moore: When Benediction opens in January, and people leave not only this story but this trilogy of stories behind, what do you hope they most will have gotten out of the lessons learned from the time they have spent in Holt?
Kent Haruf: What I hope is that they will see that this is a portrayal of life as it is. That in one house, an old man is dying without solving all of his problems, or being able to end his regrets. But in the very next house, there is this 8-year-old girl who is the representative of hope and promise and youth and joy. And so what I am wanting people to feel is that the beginning and the ending in all of our lives are set side-by-side. They are not distinct from one another. They are joined as neighbors.
John Moore: With the opening of Benediction coming up on Jan. 30, a lot of people want to know if you are going to be well enough to see it.
Kent Haruf: Well, I am going to make every effort, assuming I am still alive. We’ve bought a lot of tickets for family, and my agent and editor will come out from New York. I am going to go to Denver on the 5th of February. I am going to need a wheelchair, and we’ll stay at the Curtis Hotel. That will be handy. Someone will have to push me over there. I don’t know if I’ll still be around then or not, but if I am, I am sure going to work hard to be there.
John Moore: I am going to go with yes, you are going to be there.
Kent Haruf: Thanks, John. I’ll count on that.