Tony Hillerman Interview, plus links to author biography, book summaries, excerpts and reviews

Tony Hillerman
Photo credit: Kelly Campbell

Tony Hillerman

An interview with Tony Hillerman

Tony Hillerman discusses many aspects of his work, including the genesis of his characters, Leaphorn and Chee, and his nonfiction collection, The Great Taos Bank Robbery.

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 Robbery.
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.

Unless otherwise stated, this interview was conducted at the time the book was first published, and is reproduced with permission of the publisher. This interview may not be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the copyright holder.

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