He was rejected when he first applied to the Iowa Writers’ Workshop in his 20s, and when he sent early stories and novels to publishers. After several years he was accepted at the Writers’ Workshop; its overseers relented when they learned that he had moved his family to Iowa City, determined to enroll.
More rejection awaited, but he eventually broke through. He published his first novel, “The Tie That Binds,” about a woman who gives up her chance for love to care for her father, in 1984. Six years later he wrote “Where You Once Belonged,” about a football hero turned criminal.
His first two books brought critical respect but few readers. “Plainsong” brought both, settling in on best-seller lists in both hardcover and paperback and being named a finalist for the National Book Award. It was made into a television movie in 2004.
“Plainsong” earned Mr. Haruf enough money to allow him to retire from teaching at Southern Illinois. He continued to write blind. “It takes away the terror when you’re blind and you can’t go back and rewrite a sentence,” he told The New York Times in 1999. “It calls for storytelling, not polishing.”
In 2004 he published “Eventide,” which focused on some of the same characters as “Plainsong.” Reviewing the book in The New York Times, Michiko Kakutani said that it had “the whiff of the formulaic” but that “Mr. Haruf makes us care about these plain-spoken small-town folks without ever resorting to sentimentality or clichés.”
Nine years later he wrote “Benediction,” also set in Holt. It was a finalist for the inaugural Folio Prize, awarded by the Folio Society in Britain. In May 2015 his publisher, Knopf, is scheduled to release his novel “Our Souls at Night,” which Mr. Haruf finished this summer.
“I’m doing the copy editing on it right now,” his wife, Cathy Haruf, said this week after confirming his death, of complications of a lung disease. “I said, ‘Don’t you dare die before you finish it.’ ”
Alan Kent Haruf was born on Feb. 24, 1943, in Pueblo, Colo. He grew up in Wray, Holyoke and Yuma, all towns in the northeastern part of the state, before moving to Canon City for junior high and high school.
He attended Nebraska Wesleyan University in Lincoln and in 1965 moved to Turkey as a Peace Corps volunteer. He received conscientious-objector status during the Vietnam War, and worked in a hospital and an orphanage as part of his alternative service. He spent a decade teaching high school English in Colorado and Wisconsin before being hired as an assistant professor at Nebraska Wesleyan. He was 41 when he sold his first literary work, a short story, to the magazine Puerto del Sol.
In addition to his wife, he is survived by three daughters, Sorel Haruf, Whitney Haruf and Chaney Matsukis; five stepchildren, Amy Dempsey, Joel Dempsey, Jennifer Dempsey, Jason Dempsey and Jessica Hedayat; his brothers, Mark and Verne; a sister, Edith Russell; and many grandchildren. His first marriage ended in divorce.
After Mr. Haruf finished his first drafts, usually well before lunch, he would pull back his cap and take a look.
“He only got off home row a couple of times and typed gobbledygook,” Mrs. Haruf recalled. “That’s not bad for all those years.”
Correction: December 3, 2014
An earlier version of this obituary misstated the name of the university where Mr. Haruf taught while he was writing his novel “Plainsong.” It is Southern Illinois University, not the University of Southern Illinois.
American author Kent Haruf, whose most recent novel Benediction was shortlisted for the Folio prize, has died aged 71.
Pan Macmillan, Haruf’s UK publisher, said that the novelist died on Sunday 30 November, praising his “beautifully restrained, profoundly felt novels” which it said “reflected a man of integrity, honesty and deep thoughtfulness”.
Paul Baggaley at Pan Macmillan imprint Picador said that in Haruf’s “loose trilogy” of novels Plainsong, Eventide and Benediction he had written “one of the masterpieces of contemporary American fiction”. Set in the small town of Holt, Colorado, the novels were also praised by Ursula K Le Guin in the Guardian earlier this year. Le Guin wrote that Haruf’s “courage and achievement in exploring ordinary forms of love – the enduring frustration, the long cost of loyalty, the comfort of daily affection – are unsurpassed by anything I know in contemporary fiction”.
Haruf’s first novel, The Tie That Binds, tells of an 80-year-old woman from the American high plains who is charged with murder. Published in 1984, when he was 41, it won him a Whiting Foundation award.
An essay by Haruf in the autumn issue of Granta magazine, a memoir of his writing life, saw him explain how he had been “writing as hard as I could for almost 20 years” by the time his debut was published. “If I had learned anything over those years of work and persistence, it was that you had to believe in yourself even when no one else did. And later I often said something like that to my graduate students. You have to believe in yourself despite the evidence. I felt as though I had a little flame of talent, not a big talent, but a little pilot-light-sized flame of talent, and I had to tend to it regularly, religiously, with care and discipline, like a kind of monk or acolyte, and not to ever let the little flame go out,” he wrote.
Plainsong, published in 1999, won the Mountains & Plains Booksellers award and was a finalist for the National Book Award, the Los Angeles Times book prize, and the New Yorker book award, while 2013’s Benediction was shortlisted for the UK’s Folio prize.
“These novels, set in Holt, Colorado, form one of the major achievements of contemporary American fiction, rivalling the great works of Cormac McCarthy, Richard Ford, Jane Smiley and Annie Proulx in creating a mythical modern American landscape,” said Baggaley. “When he was chosen on the shortlist of the inaugural Folio prize, there could not have been more delight that wider recognition might come to such a great writer and great man.”
Haruf, who taught English for 30 years as well as writing fiction, completed his sixth novel, Our Souls at Night, before he died, and Picador will publish it in spring next year. “The quiet restraint of his writing belied his extraordinary ability to dissect the minutiae of relationships, no more so than in his heartbreakingly poignant final novel,” said Baggaley. “This is a bold, brave and original view of a relationship between a man and a woman in advanced age who defy convention and is a fitting last word from an eloquent and inspiring writer.”
Haruf’s Granta essay concludes: “I feel as if I’ve been very lucky in my life … over the years I have tried not to write too small, and I want to believe I have tried not to live too small, either.”
He is survived by his wife, Cathy, and three daughters.