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An Interview with Peter Brown and Kent Haruf

I recently spoke to Peter Brown and Kent Haruf when they were in Denver for the premier of the theater adaptation of Haruf’s novel Plainsong and a gallery opening for Brown’s photographs. West of Last Chance is their award-winning collaboration, mingling Brown’s photos of the Great Plains with Kent Haruf’s short pieces about life on the prairie. They capture the land’s sweep and sky and its unique people, buildings, and signs in a way that is affectionate yet frank about the difficulty of life in the region. Haruf and Brown will appear at the Tattered Cover in LoDo tonight, March 7, at 7:30 p.m., and at the Boulder Book Store on Monday, March 10 at 7:30 p.m. A shorter Q&A runs in the Rocky Mountain News Books section today. Read on for an extended version of our conversation.

NewWest: Can you explain to me the themes of each of the sections in West of Last Chance?

Kent Haruf: There’s a narrative arc to this book, we think. It begins with the land and the landscape, and I write, “You have to know how to look at this country. You have to slow down. It isn’t pretty, but it’s beautiful.”

NW: Every article I’ve read about this book has quoted that line.

KH: Well, it’s true. You can’t see it unless you slow down. You have to change the way you look at the land. If you’re expecting to see aspen or Longs Peak or something, that’s not what this book is about. The book is about slowing down and finding what is of value and significance once you’ve done that. So it begins with the land, then it moves into Native Americans. And we start with the Massacre at Sand Creek and the beautiful photographs give a kind of modern uptake on that. Then it goes to this beautiful photograph, one of my favorites, of people on a reservation in South Dakota, up at Wounded Knee.

NW: What did you tell the people you were photographing?

Peter Brown: There are a variety of different time frames on this. These [the photographs at Wounded Knee] actually were taken back in the ’80s. I’ve been photographing the plains for 25 years now. I just talked to them about the fact that I was working on a book on the high plains, and obviously Native American life was a very important aspect of that. I began to talk to them about what had happened at Wounded Knee. There was a guy who was actually there, when the second wave of horror happened. He let me photograph a Sun Dance that they had put together. And then various people came up and I began to photograph them. This family was interested in this photograph for a Christmas card, so I sent them back the photo.

But generally I just show up with this big camera. This is an old, wooden Deardorf camera made in 1951, which is an attraction in itself. So they’re interested in that, and I just talk to them about what I’m up to, and it follows from there.

NW: Does this camera take larger negatives, so that you don’t have to enlarge them as much?

PB: Right, it’s a 4 by 5 inch negative, a big negative. Also, the camera works so that you can move the lens in relationship to the film. So you can have great clarity, you can distort things if you want to. But the size of the negative means you have incredible clarity and detail, and you can make very, very large prints, which I’ve done for shows. Those really become windows and particularly when you’re dealing with plains life, it’s great to have something of great size.

NW: So after the section on Native Americans, where does the trail of the book lead?

KH: Then it goes to pioneers, people who came out to this country to settle it. Then it begins to branch away from that to talk about some individuals. It touches on some of the devastation that has been done to the land, and also then there’s a sort of lyrical entry into towns. It’s as if we’re coming from outside of the town into town, showing what that looks like from a distance. Then we have a whole range of photographs of buildings in towns and people in towns. Then it pulls away from that, it goes back into some individuals, and it closes by going to church, talking about church suppers. We thought it would be too soft and sentimental to end in church, so it pulls away from that and ends back on the land. There’s an arc, but there’s also kind of a circle.

NW: Why did you decide to not make that explicit?

KH: We wanted to see if people like you would figure it out. We had talked about having an introduction, but we gave up that idea because we decided it was unnecessary and intrusive.

PB: We really wanted to leave it up to the reader.

NW: Why did you decide to list the locations in the back of the book, rather than under each picture?

PB: We thought it was distracting, and that the flow of the narrative from image to image and from text to image would be disrupted by people thinking, “Oh, that’s in Abernathy, Texas.” But we did want to include the places in the back.

NW: How did you choose where to go?

PB: I’ve been photographing the plains for 25 years now, and a lot of it was going to places either that I had not been to before, or that I wanted to return to again. This book is primarily about the central high plains. There’s also some Texas Panhandle photography, and there’s a lot of eastern Colorado. I respond to the Sand Hills in western Nebraska in a really visceral way, and the high plains of Texas, the Llano Estacado, and eastern Colorado. Those are the three places I have responded to the most strongly.

NW: When you go to an area to photograph, do you have a plan?

PB: A lot of it is intuitive. That’s one of the things I like best about photography, that it’s a process of discovery. Also, when I meet people, I usually ask them if there’s some place or some thing that would be interesting to photograph. I arrive at a little town or someplace in the plains, and someone will come up and start talking, and they will direct me. Half of the time I won’t be able to find wherever it is that they are suggesting, but in that process I will find something else. Once I’ve got all this work, I worked with Kent and tried to put the photographs and the text together. While I was photographing I also had Kent’s texts quite often in the back of my mind.

KH: Let me just say one other thing about Peter’s intuitive sense about photography. This is of course informed by all these years of experience and skill. It’s not as if a novelist is going out there to photograph the plains. It’s someone who has worked at photography all his adult life, so what he sees is something that he knows will make a compelling picture. It’s not somebody who strolled out of graduate school who thinks he wants to take some pictures of the plains, if I’m making myself clear. It’s intuitive, informed by experience and skill, and that’s not insignificant.

PB: I’ve just been sort of obsessed with the plains for whatever reason since I was in my mid-teens. It’s been a constant interest in my life.

NW: So you have done several books about the plains?

PB: I’ve done two. The first was On the Plains, and it came out in 1999, and then this one. There’s a project on the Llano Estacado that I’m working on with five other photographers. The Llano Estacado is this vast, high plains area of the Texas Panhandle, and it verges into eastern Mexico as well. It’s absolutely gigantic, and the six of us have been photographing it in our individual ways for the last six years. It’s been in a couple of exhibitions already, and the book aspect of it seems to be moving along. It’s funded by the southwest collection of Texas Tech University. That’s been an interesting collaboration too, with people who are equally as obsessed and interested and passionate about high plains and small town life.

NW: Do you plan to continue photographing the plains?

PB: I keep thinking I’m done. But Kent and I are talking about doing another book. I keep thinking that’s it, and I keep getting sucked back. A lot of that has to do with just loving to be out there, with all that space, those colors, that light, these wonderful little towns and very interesting people.

NW: It must have been fun to write these pieces—they’re so free.

KH: I don’t know if I’d use the word fun, but they were a very different kind of writing than what I normally do when I’m writing a novel. I would get up in the morning sometimes in a pre-waking state, and some of these images and thoughts would come to me and I would write them down. A few of them came that way. Others I did in a more deliberate way. But I guess I’d have to say it was an easier kind of writing for me to do than to write concentrated fiction, something that resembles literature. I want to think that these pieces of writing have some merit in themselves, but it’s a different kind of writing.

NW: Do you keep a writer’s notebook?

KH: Yeah, I keep a journal. It’s not really a literary journal by any means, but things that I’ve observed or people I’ve seen and thought about, I make very brief notations of in the journal. A few of these did come out of those journals.

NW: I loved the signs that you photographed in the book. Are you always on the lookout for signs?

PB: Oh yeah, sure, always. Most of the signs were handmade, and they say something about the people.

NW: I love the sign for the Western Motel that says it’s “reasonable.”

PB: “Reasonable,” yes. With “refrigerated air.” That’s an old one. That black key [a huge black key dangling from a pole by the side of a field in one photo] was one of the most mystifying things I’ve ever found on the planet. It’s so strange.

NW: There’s an empty feel to a lot of what you depict—many of the buildings on main streets are shuttered. Is that what you perceived, or are there places where the population is coming back in?

PB: My sense of the plains is that there are towns that will continue to do well, but most of those little towns are fairly shuttered up and the population is moving away. I think there are people who are coming in, but it’s a hard life out there, there’s no question about it.

NW: What do you think will happen to these little towns?

KH: I don’t know if I can make a generalization about that, but I know that some towns are decreasing in population because the farms are getting larger, and so it requires fewer people to farm them…Also, if a community loses its high school, that town is going to dry up pretty quickly. High schools are what keep these communities going. They rally around their high schools, and that’s part of why athletics are so important in these little towns.

In this book there is a section about a football game, and that’s not by accident. That’s an attempt on our part to suggest the importance of high schools and athletics to small towns. It’s very easy to be cynical about that, but on the other hand, ifsomething brings a community together and unites them in any fashion that’s not destructive or violent, that’s a good thing, that’s a virtue. And that’s what happens in these little towns.

What’s also happening in agriculture generally, and is certainly true in eastern Colorado, is big feed lots are being developed, big dairies,huge confined hog operations. Those are not, in my view, healthy changes.

Working in those places, like confined hog operations–that job is incredibly awful. The stench to begin with, the working conditions, what you’re doing to animals. All those things are horrific. Most Caucasian Americans don’t want to do that kind ofwork. So that’s attracted a number of people from Mexico, some of them legal, some of them not. I’m not saying immigration is bad, I feel just the opposite. But it’s still horrific to think that anybody is going to have to work in those kind of conditions…

Also Gasahol is now is a big deal out there. It’s increased the depletion of the aquifer out there because it takes water to grow corn to make Gasahol. So there are these kinds of environmental and ecological changes occurring on the plains that are not helping, in my view.

Of course, in the ’30s, we encouraged so many people to come out and turn the grassland over to plant wheat. The Dust Bowl was the result of that. That was a terrifically stupid decision on the part of our government to encourage people to do that. That land will never be restored. Some of it has been, but it will never be like it was. It’s the biggest, most wonderful grassland in the world, and it was much depleted by that.

NW: Do you plan to use any of these ideas in your fiction?

KH: I’m not really interested in that in terms of fiction. All these comments I’ve just made sound as if I’m an expert–I am not. I’m certainly not a sociologist. But I care about it. But I’m not interested in some sort of sociological depiction of that in fiction in a grander way. I’m more interested in private lives.

NW: How did you choose among all the photographs that you’ve taken, what to put in this book?

PB: It really had mostly to do with those would work with Kent’s writing, because I do have a backlog because I have been photographing so long. There were a good number of photographs that didn’t work in my first plains book, On The Plains, which was a pure visual narrative. It was beginning in open country, moving to a very small town, onto a larger town, and back out onto the plains again. There were things that just didn’t get worked in that narration of eighty-plus photographs. But I loved the pictures, and in some cases they worked perfectly with what Kent and I were trying to do. So the choice really is informed by the writing in a lot of cases.

NW: Can you tell me about this lady? I love her. [I point to a picture of a woman leaning on her elbow at the diner she runs in Venago, Nebraka.]

PB: Oh, she was terrific.

KH: Isn’t that a great photo?

PB: That’s the Tin Can Diner in Venago, Nebraska. I have her name written down and I’m going to send her a copy of the book. She was terrific. She was the owner of the diner, and she had a wonderfully crusty cook in the back who didn’t want to be photographed at all.

NW: Did she choose how she was going to pose?

PB: Well, I was taking the photograph with a wide-angle lens, and I’m not certain that she knew she was going to be in the picture, but I absolutely loved seeing that. I remember looking in the loop at the back of the camera and there she was with that kind of “show me” look. She was really a sweetie.

KH: That’s the perfect posture for her to be in.

NW: Could you ever write a photo based on a story like this?

KH: Well, I think you could enter into it. You can get drawn into that and begin to imagine what their lives are like. You can begin to imagine what people who come in and sit on the diner’s stools are like. This photograph is being exhibited in the Carson Gallery, and it’s larger. I stood there last night in front of that photograph just marveling at the lighting and all the details that are in this. One thing I had never seen until last night is that this fan is blowing. For writing fiction, you could not put all of those details in. For writing a story, trying to describe this place, you’d have to pick out four or five details to put in.

PB: My first book was called Seasons of Light, and it was people in these kind of interiors. It was a very different book—much more kind of abstract photographs. But I love that, the relationship of seeing an interior space and extrapolating from that in your mind and being a detective and figuring out what might have happened there.

NW: Your photographs have been featured on the covers of several novels besides Kent Haruf’s. How did that come about?

PB: It’s usually somebody from Random House or Scribner’s calls and says they’ve seen the work and ask to use it for a cover. The experience I had with Kent for Eventide was unique—we went out onto the plains, and the two of us worked on that photograph together. Kent had a very clear idea of what he wanted for that picture. And the two of us went out in the freezing weather late in the fall, and watched these incredible sunsets, getting the light just right. That was the beginning of this collaboration. We became friends and we had a lot in common. My sense from reading Plainsong was that Kent was dealing with the country that I am really in love with.

NW: Did you run into any bad weather while you were working on the book?

PB: Well, the cover photograph—it’s not a tornado, but it’s walking rain. That thing knocked my camera over. I was very excited, and I kept running back and forth, and must have shot ten, twelve sheets of film just down that road, watching that storm roll through.

Kent and I had one incredible late October snowstorm in eastern Colorado. It was just beautiful.

NW: Is it that whiteout photo?

PB: Yes. I’ve been influenced by painters a lot as well, and I was thinking of Robert Ryman when I took that—a guy who has painted white for all of his life.

NW: Have you two influenced each other’s art?

PB: I don’t presume to influence Kent. He is one of the most visual novelists—it’s just incredible. I don’t read anyone any more slowly than I do Kent. I savor every word, and each phrase sparks up a more complex set of visions.

KH: For me, the visual details are the most important. So I recognized immediately the quality of Peter’s photographs, and the clarity and absence of sentimentality that I see too often in photographs. We certainly didn’t want it to be clichés about landscape. We didn’t want beautiful aspens or a depiction of Longs Peak. What we wanted to do, and what Peter has done in his photographs, pictures like this, with sky and the details of this landscape, those are absolutely critical and essential in my thinking about the high plains. In the afterword I tried to suggest, in that brief account of our getting together, that I was so taken by the book that he gave me by those qualities I’ve just mentioned, that I knew that I wanted to have one of his photographs on the cover of my next book. I don’t know if we’ve been influential to each other or not, but I certainly admire the quality of his photographs.

PB: I’ve been reading Kent’s books and reading other fiction as well about the plains so that I’m informed. I’m not from this country—I grew up in New York and Massachusetts and California. I’ve spent a lot of time out here, but I just don’t know it that well in a lived in, visceral kind of way. So I have learned a lot from Kent and his novels, and it’s certainly influenced the way I see this country.

NW: How is collaborating on a project different than working alone?

PB: Well, it’s more fun. You have someone else to talk with about it. Usually if it’s a writer, they bring an entire discipline and different set of concerns to the table. My view is that it expands the set of ideas that are at play and it expands the beauty of the work.

My second book, On The Plains has an introduction by Kathleen Norris. My father is a Presbyterian minister and Kent’s father is a Methodist minister, and Kathleen is obviously someone who has been on an extended spiritual quest. Her book Dakota: A Spiritual Geography approached my sense of the plains on a variety of different levels, including the politics of small town life and depictions of the beauty of the plains, the tenacity of the people, and the spiritual aspect of being out there in that space and in that light–I really respond to as well.

One of the reasons I’ve done this for so many years is that I simply like being out there, in an odd, kind of a schmaltzy way that it just does connect me with the rest of the cosmos in a way that nothing else does. So I’ve also collaborated with Denise Levertov, who is a political but also a spiritual kind of a poet. And Kent has his spiritual side, and Kathleen has it in spades. I think the fact that Kent comes from a background of church life and I do too, and neither of us is a churchgoer now, but that does influence the work.

NW: What are you working on now?

PB: I’ve really been working on this book. It’s been a big push getting this thing done. The next collaboration [with Haruf] is pretty tentative at this point. I don’t know if we want to talk about it yet.

KH: No.

NW: I read that you don’t like to talk about what you’re working on. But I had to ask.

KH: I’m working on another novel—I’ll tell you that.

NW: A few years ago you said you might work on a collection of short stories. Did anything come of that?

KH: No. The stories that occur to me keep turning out to be novel length. I wrote some stories in my early years, but I published very few, maybe six or so. But I’m not writing short stories currently, I’m writing a novel.

Haruf and Brown will appear at the Tattered Cover in LoDo tonight, March 7, at 7:30 p.m., and at the Boulder Book Store on Monday, March 10 at 7:30 p.m.

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