Kent Haruf © Michael Lionstar
In our Biographies We Need series, Signature writers look at the lives of some extraordinary individuals and ask the nagging question: Where's their definitive biography?
Often when we read biographies of writers, especially literary fiction writers, there is a sense of preordination to their success. Even if commercial popularity eluded them for the first portion of their careers, their talent was recognized early: a professor championed them; an esteemed literary magazine published their stories; an editor encouraged them to finish that first novel. Someone, somewhere said yes, and that yes led, inevitably, to greatness. What gets written about less, in recounting the lives of writers, are all the no’s leading to that crucial yes. If there is an anecdote about an editor turning down the manuscript that would become the writer’s most enduring work, it is told at the expense of the editor, to show the caprice of the publishing industry in failing to recognize talent.
But no is an interesting story, one that doesn’t get told often enough. Writers’ lives are filled with failure and rejection, and not just because editors are blind to their genius. For every Great Gatsby that gets tossed back on the slush pile, there are thousands of manuscripts rejected because they simply aren’t that good. And when a writer faces that rejection, not just once, but for decades, and finds the combination of humility and confidence to keep working on his craft, keep believing he was meant to be a writer -- that’s a story we all could learn something from.
Which is why we need a biography of Kent Haruf. The writer, who died last year at the age of seventy-one, published just six novels, the last of which, Our Souls at Night, he finished months before his death, and is being released this week. His third novel, 1999’s Plainsong, was a critically-acclaimed bestseller, a National Book Award nominee that was made into a TV movie. His next two novels, Eventide and Benediction, completed a trilogy with many of the same characters in Plainsong. But the fame and respect that came with the success of his novels only happened near the end of his life (Plainsong was published when Haruf was fifty-six). Before that, not only could the writer not get a book published, it took him years to even get someone to agree to teach him how to write one.
Haruf was born in Colorado, spent a year in Turkey with the Peace Corps, and applied to the Writers’ Workshop at the University of Iowa while in his twenties. They said no. He sent stories to magazines. They said no. He sent novels to publishers. They also said no. He tried the Writers’ Workshop again. They still said no. In an act of desperation, foolishness, or supreme self-belief, he moved his family to Iowa City in the middle of winter and got a job as a janitor, to prove to the university his seriousness of intent to attend their program. They said yes.
Success remained elusive. It would be more than another decade before he published his work. His first two novels, The Tie That Binds and Where You Once Belonged, went largely unnoticed. He kept writing, teaching to support his family, spending six years on Plainsong, the interlocking stories of two aged farmers, a pregnant teenager, and two young boys in rural Colorado. The book changed his life, forever linking him with the fictional small-town Western farming community he would return to for the remainder of his career. In his last book, characters discuss the plausibility of some of the events in his previous novels, in a metafictional nod to the impact of his work.
Throughout, Haruf worked in a disciplined, unfussy manner, typing each day with a hat over his eyes so he couldn’t read what he had just written, and could only go forward. To the end, he maintained his eventual success was the result not of his talent finally being appreciated, but of his ability to endure in the face of rejection and failure. "It doesn't seem to me there's a scarcity of talent among students who want to write," he told a radio host in 2004. "But what there is a lack of is a talent for work, that it's so difficult to write and it takes so long to learn how to write well that most people give it up before they get good enough." The story of how he held onto his talent for work, and kept at it until he got good enough, is a biography we need.