Ten questions for Anne Hillerman: The best-selling author and daughter of Tony Hillerman discusses his legacy and more

On Wednesday, Jan. 11, at 6 p.m. author Anne Hillerman will be speaking at the Cortez Public Library (202 N. Park St.) to kick off its 2017 Amazing Authors Tour.

Daughter of the late, legendary New Mexico novelist Tony Hillerman, Anne burnished her father’s literary legacy in 2013 with the publication of Spider Woman’s Daughter, the 19th entry in the wildly popular series of reservation-based mysteries featuring Navajo tribal police officers Joe Leaphorn, Jim Chee, and Bernadette Manuelito. A critical and commercial smash – it won a prestigious Spur Award from the Western Writers of America and was a New York Times bestseller – Spider Woman’s Daughter was followed by Rock With Wings in 2015, and will soon be joined by Anne’s third novel in the series, Song of the Lion, in April 2017.


Anne Hillerman

We sat down with Anne to discuss her work, her father’s influence, and what the future holds for some of America’s most beloved fictional characters.

With your background in journalism, you were always the natural choice to continue your father’s legacy. Describe for us that decision, and the work that went into making it a reality.

During what turned out to be Dad’s final years, my photographer husband Don Strel and I created a non-fiction book, Tony Hillerman’s Landscape: On the Road with Chee and Leaphorn which featured pictures of the places in Navajoland he had written about and quotes from his novels about the places we selected. I added some non-fiction descriptions of the places. Dad served as a consultant on that project but died before it was completed. When the book came out, we went on tour with Don’s slide show and my stories about growing up in the Hillerman household. Inevitably, one of the first questions from someone in the audience concerned the continuation of the series. Did Dad have any more mysteries at the printer, sequestered away in his computer, with an editor?

I had to say no, that Shapeshifter (2006) was Dad’s last novel. Each time I said that, I could see the disappointment on the questioner’s face, and I felt a pang of sadness. I was mourning the loss of my dad but, like his fans, I also was grieving the end of a series I had read and loved since my early college days. I had lived with Joe Leaphorn, Dad’s first Navajo crimesolver, for years before Dad introduced him to the reading public in The Blessing Way (1970) and with Jim Chee even before People of Darkness (1980). Those characters were like family.

Eventually, encouraged by some outspoken writer friends, I decided that, while I would always miss my Dad, I could try to write a novel to give Jim, Joe, and the other wonderful characters another chance at life. I spent about three years learning to craft a novel as I was writing the book that became Spider Woman’s Daughter. My mother, my Dad’s first and best editor, gave me her love and support. Carolyn Marino, the editor who worked with my Dad at Harper- Collins, took me under her literary wing. Readers responded with enthusiasm. I’m glad Dad never suggested that I continue the series. I would still be rewriting chapter one. Sometimes, things work out.

Bernadette Manuelito is a minor character in your father’s later books, but has moved to the foreground under your tutelage. Was that a premeditated decision, or did the character just speak to you?

Actually, both. I always liked Bernie and saw her as a character with more potential than Dad gave her. When I decided that I would attempt a novel in his footsteps I knew that I could not pretend to be him. I had to give the continuation of the series my voice, but stay true to the guidelines he had established.

Bernie had been Chee’s girlfriend and sidekick in several books and has a big role in both Sinister Pig and Skeleton Man – but was never a crime-solver herself. To elevate Bernie to prominence, I had to give her a big case to work. In Spiderwoman’s Daughter, she operates as the top dog, with Chee as her sidekick and Leaphorn, Dad’s most loved character, in a precarious position.

Bernie did speak to me clearly in the second novel, Rock with Wings. Originally, I had planned for her and Chee to work together. Bernie refused to cooperate, so I ended up with parallel stories with Bernie’s involving more danger and worse bad guys. I marveled at my Dad’s ability to keep things a little less complicated.

Speaking of your father, do you ever feel him looking over your shoulder and, if so, is that always a good thing?

Yes and yes. My Dad had a wonderful reputation in the Southwest for befriending would-be writers, giving free advice and cover blurbs. Besides being a fine writer he was a fine person and a wonderful father. I go back and read his books when I’m missing him. It helps.

Share with us, if you would, your writing process. Pen or computer? Plotter or pantser? Sharer or soloist?

I have learned that I have to write every day when I have a book in progress, even if it’s only an hour’s worth. Mornings are my best times, but when life gets in the way, I still try to squeeze in however many words I can muster. It’s tough when I’m on tour or visiting friends or family, but it’s worth the effort.

I write on the computer, an old desktop, in my office at home with a view of trees, a bird feeder, and the occasional visiting deer. I write on a laptop when I’m on the road.

My process falls somewhere between plotter and just-let-it-flow. I summarize the book in a letter to my editor, and I refer to that when I get stuck. When I start, I know the main setting, and I have an idea of the crime to be solved and some clues as to who the villain could be and the villain’s motivation.

I don’t do much sharing of unfinished work. I might invite a writer friend out for coffee with the hidden agenda of talking through a writing problem, but because my process is so fluid, it doesn’t make sense to show anyone anything until I feel that I have a solid first draft. Then I show it to my agent and a friend who is a skilled reader and content editor. By the time they are ready to talk about it, the manuscript has set for a while without my tinkering. I listen to their opinions and give the book a thorough re-read and re-writing, usually making far more substantive changes than either reader has suggested. I usually show the book to my agent again, mostly now to help with typos, redundancy and the like. Then my editor gets a crack at it. During both of these final steps I’m working on the next book while I await their verdicts.

So-called cultural appropriation – the use of borrowed elements from another, minority culture – has been a hot topic of late within the literary community. What are your thoughts on the subject?

I know this will sound naive, but I think the backbone of fiction is putting one’s self in someone else’s skin, time traveling, exploring new possibilities. Men write about women and vice versa. We write about the past and the future. We pretend to be animals and even God. Fiction needs to be fearless. I encourage people to tell their own stories and to use their research skills and imaginations to tell stories they make up, too. I think anyone writing about any culture needs to be respectful. The Navajo people used my Dad’s books to teach reading in reservation schools and many Native fans have told me they are happy that I am continuing the series, especially since the tradition of strong women is such a vital thread in the Navajo world.

For over a decade, you and Jean Schaumberg hosted the wonderful Tony Hillerman Writers Conference, first in Albuquerque, then later in Santa Fe. What are some of your fondest memories?

The early conferences in which my Dad was able to participate especially stand out in my memory. Dad and Wes Studi, the actor who played Joe Leaphorn in the movies Robert Redford made for WGBH and American Masterpiece Theater, had a lovely dialog about the transition from book to screen. Jonathan and Faye Kellerman joined us one year, and Jonathan mentioned how a review that Dad wrote for the New York Times of his first book helped launch his career.

In 2008, my Dad died on Oct. 26 and the conference was two weeks later. I was in shock, as were many of those in attendance. The other authors – you were there, Chuck! – asked me if we could create an improvised “memorial evening” to Tony, actually just an excuse to sit around and tell stories about him, share some memories over a beer or two. Lots of tears, lots of chuckles. It helped all of us deal with the loss and honor the man.

In think it was in 2006 that Craig Johnson – now a much-published New York Times best-selling author – won the Tony Hillerman Short Story contest that the conference sponsored. Craig and his wife Judy drove down from Ucross, Wyoming to Albuquerque in a blizzard to receive the award and, he said, to meet Tony who was one of the authors he admired. Johnson is a smart, generous man with the same wonderful, self-deprecating sense of humor as my Dad. I was thrilled that the award went to someone to whom it meant so much.

As part of the conference you also awarded the Tony Hillerman Prize, which launched quite a few writers’ careers. Looking back, who are some of your favorites?

All but one of the winners were able to come to the conference as our guests, so Jean and I got to meet them. They are wonderful people and fine writers: Christine Barber, Tricia Fields, John Fortunado, Andrew Hunt, and CB McKenzie. I also appreciated the wisdom of the judges in not awarding the prize in 2009 and 2012. Because the conference is now in hiatus, the prize has been shifted to Western Writers of America and, if the judges have found a manuscript to their liking, will be awarded this June. The prize is a $10,000 advance and publication with St. Martin’s Press.

You seem to have a soft spot for libraries. Where does that come from?

When I was a child, my mother and I went to the library at least once a week, coming home with a bag of books. I loved it. When I grew older, I walked to the Santa Fe Public Library almost every day after school to wait for my father to finish his work at the newspaper. I felt so at home there, thrilled to be surrounded by so many stories. My mother was an avid reader and a committed library patron, and I think her passion rubbed off on me.

Both of your novels became New York Times bestsellers, which must have been hugely gratifying. Has that changed your life?

Yes, in a lovely way. It has enabled me to become a full-time writer and to have a multi-book contract. Writing is demanding, so it’s nice to be able to focus on the stories without having to worry about freelancing, doing newsletters, or all the other jobs writers take to pay the bills. The recognition has brought me some lovely invitations including the opportunity to represent New Mexico at the Library of Congress Book Festival. I owe much of this to my dear Dad’s fans who were willing and eager to take a chance on the new kid.

Lastly, what does the future hold for Leaphorn, Chee, Manuelito, and, most importantly, Anne Hillerman?

That’s a great question. I’m currently working on the second book of the three-book contract. I’ve had some nibbles from producers interested in taking Bernie to the screen. The more I write, the more I come to treasure spending time with these characters.

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