A Q&A With Kent Haruf, Author of March’s #1 Indie Next List Pick

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To kick off a new monthly feature on #1 Indie Next List Great Reads, Bookselling This Week recently spoke to Kent Haruf, author of Benediction (Knopf), independent booksellers’ #1 pick for the March 2013 Indie Next List.

Haruf is the author of five novels and his honors include a Whiting Foundation Award and a Hemingway Foundation/PEN citation. For nearly two decades, he has captured the beauty of the Colorado plains through his writing, and has introduced readers to a wide array of characters, each unique in their perspective.

At the start of Benediction, Dad Lewis discovers he has terminal cancer. His wife and daughter stay near, working together to comfort him in his final days. Meanwhile, a young girl moves in with her grandmother next door and is visited by memories of her own mother’s death. The new preacher in town attempts to mend his relationships with his family, while balancing the needs of his congregation. And throughout, an elderly neighbor and her daughter attempt to ease their friends’ pain.

BTW: In Benediction, a novel that centers around a dying man, your characters are often put in painful situations that they handle with grace instead of hysteria. What do you think is the effect of presenting grieving people in an understated, matter-of-fact way?

Kent Haruf: I do hope that they face their pain with grace — that was certainly my intention. There’s an idea in writing fiction — and one that I’m familiar with — that in order to heighten the emotion for the reader, it’s better to understate the situation. If you provide all the information on the page, there’s not much left for the reader to do.

Also, it seems to me these particular people are not hysterical people, so to present them in that way would mean they were acting out of their own characters.

By the end, of course, Mary and Lorraine have to show emotion, it would be unnatural and inappropriate if they didn’t. But even then, it’s tempered. They don’t pull their hair out or go running into the streets, because that’s not who they are.

BTW: All of your characters — as well as their motivations, desires, and fears — are fully realized and seamlessly interconnected to one another. What is your process of developing each facet of a character’s story and how they eventually come together?

KH: I hope I have done that — you’re kind in your questions. When I think of a story, I always begin with the characters. I daydream and brood and imagine that character for nearly a year and, of course, they all have to have problems, so I think about their problems. Then I begin to imagine and daydream about the people that would be in their lives, and their problems. It’s my biggest effort to figure out how to bring them together in a way that would move the story forward — not necessarily predictably but certainly inevitably.

In Benediction, an old man is dying, so it was logical to bring his wife and daughter into it. And since he’s lived there a long time, the neighbor woman is part of the story. In a small town like this one, it seemed natural for the preacher to call on him. Those all seem to be inevitable, natural connections, so I’m not forcing anything.

It seems to me in regard to reading about fictional characters, we come to know them better than we know our family or friends. Fiction gives us the sense that we know those people, so we often feel lost or bereft at the end of the novel. Fiction has a special kind of power that way, I think.

BTW: Though all of your books take place in the same fictional town of Holt, Colorado, the issues each character faces are universal. Why did you choose to keep them in Holt? Are any of the people or places you write about based on your own experiences growing up in a Colorado town?

KH: Well, to answer your last question first: no, they’re not based on my experiences. I lived in two northeastern Colorado towns, and later I taught school out there. Part of it worked in terms of landscape. I know it well, and it makes me feel the particular emotions that I wanted most to write about. And once I did, it just seemed natural and important for me to stay there. Once I invented that town’s landscape, it was easy to go back.

And geographically, on the plains, everything is visible, nothing is isolated. That appeals to me a great deal, these people being so visible, as if they’re seen in a spotlight.

BTW: Why do you think the situations presented in Benediction have resonated with so many readers?

KH: This would be a better question to pose to the reader, but I think I can make some guesses. This book is not about suspense. We know from the first page that Dad Lewis is going to die. It’s about what he does in that circumstance, and it might make readers wonder what a person is thinking about in their last hours. I think of him as a sympathetic man. I think he’s made some mistakes and he knows that, and he wants to reconcile, which is a normal feeling.

My wife, Cathy, has been deeply involved with hospice for many years. I have been involved, though on a much smaller scale. I volunteered for a while, and out of my observations and experiences I found some truths. I wanted to make this process as realistic as I possibly could.

I do hope these characters are universal, as you said earlier. They’re dealing with situations that are elemental. Every one of us is going to die. It’s a condition that people everywhere can connect with.

BTW: In addition to being chosen the #1 Indie Next List Pick for March, Benediction was featured in a full-page ad in last Sunday’s New York Times Book Review that included words of praise from several independent booksellers. What has the support of indies meant to you, and how do you think it has contributed to the success of your books?

KH: They’ve been crucial. I was in Boulder last week and got to see just how hard they work, while I had the pleasure of speaking to two full houses. It was a terrific experience and very much fun.

They work extraordinarily hard handselling books, and it’s not just a job for them, it’s their passion. It’s a very different experience walking into an independent bookstore. To me, that’s what a bookstore looks and feels like. I am extremely grateful for everything they’ve done. I have many friends among independent booksellers.