The age-old advice for novelists sounds simple although it isn’t: Write about what you know. Others like me, who stick to nonfiction, often wish that we could explore deeper areas of life that go beyond the factual limits where we are permitted.
Too often, though, great fiction written by a writer in the West is ignored by the East’s publishers and readers. Westerns novelists may be describing a different scene and speaking in a different way, but their words are as worth reading as are those from New York.
Kent Haruf is one of the few from the West who is being recognized east of the Hudson River. Eureka!
Haruf’s most recent novel, “Benediction,” has received the attention it deserves. It had a review a few days ago in the New York Times Book Review section, and a previous Haruf title, “Plainsong,” also published in New York by Knopf, was a finalist for the National Book Award and received other prestigious recognitions.
The author lives in Salida, just over Poncha Pass in the Upper Arkansas River Valley. He was born in Pueblo and grew up in eastern Colorado in the kind of places which he calls Holt in his stories.
Holt feels a lot like a town you or I might live in. Haruf, a “P K,” the preacher’s kid, knows firsthand about life in a small town, even an imaginary one with its conflicts, its changes, its resistance to them – good or bad, and all the simmering emotions, even if they are not apparent to outsiders.
Biographical information tells us that Haruf’s career took him far beyond our small towns, though. He left Colorado to attend universities in Nebraska and Kansas and the distinguished Iowa Writers Workshop. Teaching led him to Turkey and to Southern Illinois University at Carbondale, from which he retired.
Many classics of literature about the West have been written by authors who had day jobs in classrooms supporting their writing. Haruf’s name has a good likelihood of being listed one day among these great literary figures.
Among such teacher/writers with careers in academia have been Wallace Stegner (“Angle of Repose”) Walter Van Tilburg Clark (“The Oxbow Incident”), Norman Maclean (“A River Runs through It”), Tony Hillerman (“Coyote Waits”), A. B. Guthrie (“The Big Sky”), N. Scott Momaday (“The House Made of Dawn”), Rudolfo A. Anaya (“Bless Me Ultima”). And there also were many writers of the West who were not teachers but whose books are greatly respected as fine literature.
We are fortunate that Adams State College (now University) has had a strong program in creative writing for years, with faculty members who themselves are accomplished writers of poetry and fiction. In these classes and workshops, students have prepared for future careers in fiction, poetry, technical writing, communications, or teaching, or they simply might be seekers, sharing a valuable (though expensive these days) experience while hoping for success one day as an author.
Besides the college, public libraries also play an important role in keeping local writers writing and readers reading. This summer the Alamosa Public Library through the Friends of the Library will be offering its fifth annual edition of “Messages from the Hidden Lake,” with literary and artistic work by residents of all ages.
Such interest in writing often has germinated in the home or in a school in the lower grades, continuing through high school, high-school level online programs, and college. The growth continues with the support of venues like Community Partnerships, bookstores, museums, and other outlets that display books produced locally or beyond the Valley.
Whatever our special interests are as writers or readers, Kent Haruf’s fiction stands out as a singularly high achievement that we will want to celebrate with our neighbor in Salida.