Colorado novelist Kent Haruf dies at 71

Photo: Kent Haruf
Kent Haruf, the award-winning novelist, has died.

Award-winning novelist Kent Haruf, whose writing was often set on Colorado's eastern plains, has died. He was 71.

Haruf's editor at Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group confirmed Haruf's death on Sunday. Knopf spokesman Paul Bogaards says Haruf, the author of "Plainsong" and "Eventide," had been battling lung disease.

Haruf's personality came shining through in his work, said Cathy Langer, the lead buyer at the Tattered Cover book store in Denver.

"Kent was a very quiet man, not given to talking about himself," said Langer, who had known Haruf since 1999. "If you knew Kent, you could see him and hear him in every sentence that he wrote.

"He was always trying to say that life was precious. Friendships are important. Family is crucial. Pay attention to the world around you. And above all else, be kind and loving. That was really his mantra."

Many of Haruf's novels were set in the fictional small town of Holt, Colorado, a composite of the three Colorado towns where the author grew up.

His latest, "Benediction," was no exception. The dynamic of a small town, where everyone knows everyone, allowed Haruf to bring his characters alive in a special way, Langer said.

"When things happen to his characters, you feel their pain, you feel their happiness," Langer said. "A lot of his characters have been integrated into me, and I think a lot of his readers feel the same way."

The protagonist of the "Benediction," like Haruf himself, was dying of cancer. The story centered around Dad Lewis, a hardware store owner, and his gay son Frank.

The acceptance of gay people is a theme throughout the book. Haruf told "Colorado Matters" in 2013 that he wanted to illustrate how gay issues are present everywhere.

"I'm not trying to preach anything," Haruf said. "These issues still reach out into eastern Colorado, certainly, as they do all over the world."

Haruf told "Colorado Matters" last year that his own regrets inspired Dad Lewis.

"Things I've done, things I've not done with my children -- I wasn't as attentive as I wish I had been," Haruf said.

Haruf attended Nebraska Wesleyan University, spent two years in the Peace Corps in Turkey and returned to the United States to fine-tune his fiction at the University of Iowa's Writers Workshop. He lived in Salida, Colorado before his death.

"The Tie That Binds," his first novel, was published in 1984, winning a Whiting Writers' Prize and finishing as a runner-up for the PEN/Hemingway award for first fiction. His next book, "Where You Once Belonged," came out six years later.

A production of "Benediction" will open on Jan. 30 at the Stage Theatre in Denver. Haruf’s last novel, “Our Souls at Night,” will be published next year, his editor told The Washington Post.

The Associated Press contributed to this report.

**Editor's note: An earlier version of this story misstated Haruf's illness. Haruf was battling lung disease. We regret the error.