Out of all the National Book Award nominees, his novel, Plainsong, has been the most publicized, with readings on NPR and reviews in every paper. The publicity department made sure I had a copy of the book in hand, and not only set up an interview but e-mailed me three times to confirm.
The strength of the team's publicity push serves as a fine stage mother, compensation for Haruf's own humble and occasionally self-deprecating presentation. Despite the novel's steady and expressive rhythm, when asked about writing, Haruf insists he has "no lyrical gift." With Plainsong's strong and clear sentences, he says he was only interested in "getting the sound of the book right." I asked Haruf why they chose to send his editor, Gary Fiskejohn, along with him on tour. He said, "Because they think I'm too much of a mumbler, I guess."
I suspect the truth is that Fiskejohn is an attraction in his own right, with 30 years experience editing the work of a wide range of authors.
Fiskejohn claims he did little in editing Plainsong, that the book was essentially complete as submitted. Haruf grants Fiskejohn more influence, saying he helped "bring all parts of the book up to the quality of the strongest parts."
In the book's first pages, the term "plainsong" is defined as "the unisonous vocal music used in the Christian church from the earliest times; any simple and unadorned melody or air." This definition sets the tone for the novel as a whole; Plainsong is an evenhanded, relatively unadorned delivery of three intertwined stories which reaches not so much a dramatic conclusion as what Haruf calls "a resting place" for his characters.
There's an integrity of delivery throughout the novel, a confident, consistent linear development and a sincerity in handling. While so many novelists, from Sherwood Anderson to Michael Hornburg, have used small-town settings to illuminate a dark, David Lynchian underbelly, Haruf states, "I have no desire whatsoever to present a cynical view of that part of the country." He sets his novel in a small town and aims for carefully observed human nature -- men and women working and drinking and hoping to have healthy sex once in a while; kids who take short cuts home and occasionally find that life gets a little more mysterious and scary than they expected. Haruf sees his characters as living in a place of no consolation, "without hope and without despair."
In this novel, the darker moments never grow as dark as they might. When I asked Haruf why he didn't feel a need to push some of these moments further, he said, "Too many people think stories are about big things -- shooting, murder, who did what -- when that really isn't the kind of material 95 percent of us experience in our lifetime."
One potential problem with this material -- a gentle, rural hardship among earnest, hardworking people -- can be a tendency to sentimentalize a bleakness; quiet suffering that never amounts to more than character-building and atmosphere. At times, chapters of Plainsong close on sweet, summary passages that lean toward a sentimentality. More often, however, the novel stays true to a depiction of very believable and engaging characters, struggling through the details of their lives.
The basis of the book is from a memory Haruf has retained for more than 50 years, of two old bachelor farmers he encountered as a child. Something about the bachelor brothers stayed with Haruf throughout his years. Of this, he says, "I write out of some deep emotion. I don't know what it is, don't even care to identify it; I don't want to be that analytical about it."
There seems to be a patience and determination to Haruf's working process that matches the slow, careful cadence of his writing. He started writing at age 25 and received his first publication at 41, with a short story printed in the journal Puerto del Sol. Later, in 1984, he published his first novel, and then a second in 1990. Plainsong is the third, though the first to receive the level of acclaim that leads to a National Book Award nomination.
When I asked Haruf how he'd kept writing through the years without commercial success, and this while teaching at a high school and later at the university level, he answered only that it was all part of the process. He said, "If you're serious about being a writer, you need to be in it for the long haul."
It is, most likely, as a result of this patience that Haruf has crafted a novel which successfully handles characters of three generations, all making their quiet way forward in an unsteady world.