Salukis remember Kent Haruf

By Austin Miller

A former professor crafted an entire city in his head, knowing exactly where the fictional train station, general store and tavern were located. Now, visiting his imaginary town may be the best way to pay respect to the now deceased author.

Kent Haruf, the author of several books, including “Plainsong” and “Eventide,”died Sunday at the age of 71 of interstitial lung disease.

Beth Lordan, professor of English, joined the SIU faculty along with Haruf in 1991. She said Haruf was deeply committed to his students while he taught at SIU. She said he would often tell her they were here to help those students who struggled and showed a love for writing.

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“He was utterly committed to fiction itself,” said Lordan, co-director of the creative writing department. “He would tell students that fiction was his religion and they shouldn’t mess on the altar.”

She said she remembers him stopping by her office in the morning and asking, “What’s the good news?” As well as keeping several photos from parties the two attended.

While writing “Plainsong,” which was a finalist for the National Book Award in 1999 and a best seller, he settled in the cellar of his house with just a typewriter, chair and lamp. Lordan said while typing with his favorite yellow paper, he would wear a ski mask that covered his face.

“He didn’t want to self-edit while writing,” she said. “He wanted everything to just come to him.”

In an interview with the New York Times in 1999, he said it forced him to tell stories, not polish them.

“It takes away the terror when you’re blind and you can’t go back and rewrite a sentence,” he said.

Mike Rosenwald, staff writer for the Washington Post, said those idiosyncrasies created a love for the common man.

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Rosenwald, who graduated from SIU in 1996, first had Haruf as a professor for an introductory creative writing class in 1994. He said Haruf would always change the subject away from himself, preferring to listen other people.

He liked having breakfast at Mary Lou’s and eavesdropping on the people, Rosenwald said. He enjoyed talking to the normal people that lived in small towns and would carry around a small notebook in the front pocket of his flannel shirt to jot down the interesting things people said.

Rosenwald said as weird as it sounds, seeing Haruf do this helped Rosenwald become a better writer.

“He loved ordinariness,” he said. “He loved the small details that many people do not notice. He taught beauty with simplicity”

He loved to attend SIU football games, and Rosenwald said he would occasionally accompany him.

Rosenwald said Haruf loved his time in Carbondale, which aided his writing of “Plainsong.”

Haruf left SIU after the popularity of “Plainsong” in 2000, and wrote three more books.

“Our Souls at Night,” his seventh book received its final revisions this year and will be published posthumously in 2015.

All six of Haruf’s novels take place in the fictional town of Holt, Col., which was similar to the small towns he grew up and lived in. Haruf was born in Pueblo, Col. in 1943.

To remember Haruf’s work, Colorado Gov. John Hickenlooper told the Denver Post “I thought ‘Plainsong’ and ‘Eventide’ were two of the best books ever written about Colorado.”

In a memoir with Granta Magazine earlier this year, he wrote about being born with a cleft lip. Churches in Colorado collected money to cover his medical expenses at Children’s Hospital in Denver.

As he grew up, Haruf said he became embarrassed by the scar on his lip.

“I wouldn’t show anyone anything of myself,” he said in his memoir . “I never told anyone anything. The last thing I wanted was to draw attention to myself.”

Besides improving his writing, Rosenwald said he became a better person from his time spent with Haruf.

“There were no little people to Kent,” he said. “Everyone was big to him. He was interested in just being a good person.”

To honor Haruf, Lordan said she hopes a scholarship can be created in his name for undergraduates studying creative writing.

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