At the first Wordstock Book Festival in 2005, I was Kent Haruf’s chauffeur. As a writer in the schools, I’d heard that the festival organizers needed drivers, and so when someone told me that the author of Plainsong was coming to town, I signed up for duty.
I showed up at the airport in my Honda Civic. Mister Haruf was impressed, I’m sure, but he didn’t say anything. I decided to drive him to his downtown hotel via the scenic route: 82nd Avenue to Sandy Boulevard, then through lower northeast Portland and over the Broadway Bridge. Mister Haruf rolled down his window, rested his elbow in the warm breeze, and asked some questions about the city and then about my writing life. He asked if I’d read any Larry Brown, and when I said no, he told me that Brown’s novel Joe was a masterpiece of crisp, vivid, gritty writing. He said that Brown had taken the long road as a writer.
In the hotel lobby after check-in I said, “Mr. Haruf, what time would you like me to be out front tonight? The reading starts at seven-thirty.”
He looked me in the eye and shook my hand. “Kent,” he said. “Let’s say seven. And thanks for the ride, that was good to see that part of Portland. I might not have seen it otherwise.”
The following day I picked up Kent at the hotel again and drove back across town to the convention center, where he was scheduled to make another appearance. He told me that his stomach was off, something at breakfast wasn’t agreeing with him, so we might have to leave early, he would keep me posted.
At the event, as he was on stage with his editor talking about their collaboration, I noticed that he looked a bit pale, but to each topic in the discussion he gave his attention, and to each question from the many audience members he gave calm, thoughtful answers.
When the talk ended, Kent came up to me and said that he needed to get back to his hotel, and so we started out of the ballroom. I saw that his forehead had a sheen of sweat on it. Ten steps out of the ballroom, however, a middle aged woman hurried up to him, a copy of Plainsong in one hand, a photo album in the other.
Kent stopped and said hello, and then he signed the woman’s copy. When she opened the album and began to show him photos of her farm in the Willamette Valley, and of her horses, he remained there and looked, occasionally commenting. “Oh, isn’t that something … Well, look at that.” Paler now, he took a couple more minutes to listen to the woman, then shook her hand when she offered it.
In the elevator down to the parking garage, he closed his eyes for a moment and held the railing. He said he appreciated the ride very much. For the remainder of the day he stayed at his hotel, recovering.
On the ride to the airport the next morning, there was a long clear view of Mount Hood, and I mentioned that my grandparents lived up near there, in Brightwood. Kent asked about them, he was interested when I told a little about my grandpa, a World War II vet and retired lineman for the phone company who now spent time each day in his beloved wood shop making cat-shaped doorstops and bookends.
As we pulled into the airport, Kent was still listening, and at the drop-off area when I pulled his bag from the trunk, he came over on the crowded sidewalk and gave me a hug.
That was the only time that I was in the man’s presence, though in his letters over the following years he always brought the same genuine, understated, slightly mischievous style.
Kent died in November of 2014, and in the years since, I’ve reread Plainsong a couple of times. Last month I read his final novel, Our Souls at Night, for the third time. What an ear for language he had. What a devotion to clarity, and to knowing when to leave spaces for the reader. He aimed for truth in each sentence and scene and worked hard to get that on the page. Kent did not show off, in his writing or in person.
At Wordstock, I attended the one class that he taught, and when he stood before the large gathering of writers, his fingers tucked in the front pockets of his jeans, and spoke about his writing life, there was an intensity there. A touch of fierceness even, at times. Writing, he said, was his religion. Not in any orthodox sense. It was his way of being in the world. It required discipline and faith and steady work. There was no way around that.
I’ve met several people over the past few years who knew Kent or met him at a reading, and each one has remarked about what a good man he was. He looked you in the eye. He took that extra bit of time more often than not. He honored your dignity.
I’m honored that he found value in my writing, but I’m more honored that he took the time to encourage a young writer when he didn’t need to do that. Plainsong had made him a literary star, and that’s right around when I met him. Yet he lived in a way, carried himself in a way, that struck me and so many others. Hanging out with him, or writing letters back and forth, it made you want to be better at fully inhabiting the moments of your life, at living in a more authentic, kind, simple and true way.
I thank Kent Haruf for his example of how to be in the world, and for his example of how to write well. I think of him often.