An Interview with Tony Hillerman
In your novels, how are elements of Navajo cultural lore
woven into the mystery plot?
I always have one or two, sometimes more,
Navajo (or other tribes') cultural elements in mind when I start a plot.
Sometimes some of them don't work or fade out. In Thief of Time, for
example, I wanted to make readers aware of Navajo attitude toward the dead,
respect for burial sites, etc.
What part does setting play?
I always try to make the setting fit the story I have in mind. In
Hunting Badger, for example, I needed an abandoned mine shaft on the
margins of the Navajo-Southern Ute territories because I wanted to revive
memories of the troubles between those two tribes and the legend of a Ute
warrior who raided the Navajos and how he was finally disposed of. I got a
lot of help from the U.S. Geological Survey on that one, and spent a lot of
time driving over very bad roads on the Arizona-Utah borders. I have always
felt that making the reader away of the vast emptiness of our high desert is
important to making the story work.
What are the origins of your beloved characters, Leaphorn and Chee?
Leaphorn began in my first novel effort (The Blessing Way) as a
minor character needed to pass along information to the protagonist. When
Harper & Row decided it would be worth publishing if I gave it a better
ending, I did some rewriting. By then I had become fond of Leaphorn and
expanded his role.
Chee was born because when I decided to put the third book of that series
over in the Checkerboard Reservation to involve the plot in the mixed up,
semi-homogenized cultures of that part of Navajo country, I found that
Leaphorn was too assimilated and sophisticated to be interest in what I
would have him seeing so I produced Chee, younger, less assimilated, less
sophisticated. The friction between the old assimilated cop, and rookie
deeply into his culture seemed natural and necessary. As time passed, in
future books their respect for one another grew.
What role do women play in the novels?
I try to make my books reflect humanity as I see it. Women are extremely
important in Navajo culture (as in most Native American cultures). It is a
matrilinear society, you are part of your mother's clan. Elderly women tend
to be the ultimate "gurus" of many clans. More important, in my 79.4 years
of living, I have learned that women are also extremely important shapers of
my own life and those of my friends.
Tell us about your nonfiction collection, The Great Taos Bank
The essays in The Great Taos Bank Robbery were my project to win a
Master of Arts degree in English when I quit being a newspaper editor and
went back to college. In a way they reflected the decision I had made (with
my wife Marie's encouragement) to see if someone like myself -- who loves to
write -- can reflect the life around him better if he escapes the narrow
bonds of writing inside the columns of a newspaper. The deal I made with my
Thesis Committee Chairman was that I would write for various sorts of
general audiences -- aiming at magazine publication. While I was writing
those essays, I was also writing The Blessing Way.
Would you comment on how your novels reflect current events, politics,
and environmental concerns.
My most recently published book (The Sinister Pig) grew out of
news stories of our so called War On Drugs, and accounts of pending
investigations and litigations concerning missing records and funny
accounting of mineral revenues collected from tribal lands. My brother
Barney, the photographer for our Hillerman Country book, was a petroleum
geologist and a "well logger" on exploratory oil wells and having grown up
as a boy in "oil patch" country in Oklahoma, I was fairly familiar with the
"pigs" who used to clean pipelines. I must add that having grown up in
Oklahoma when it was one of the last states which prohibited liquor, I grew
up with War On Drugs, where every teenager knew who the bootleggers were,
kept his distance from liquor still to avoid being shot at, and understood
why the sheriffs and police chief and politicians were so well provided
despite the general depression days poverty. The plot seemed a good way to
cast a bit of light on why our political leaders are so determined not to
cut off that huge supply of untaxed loot by legalizing the stuff, taxing it
heavily, using the funds to treat the victims, and forcing our various
senators, congressmen, governors, legislators, etc., to find some other way
to enrich themselves.
Reproduced with the permission of Harper Collins. May 2005.