I was gripped by the saga of Jim Chee and Joe Leaphorn as they investigated the disappearance of an anthropologist and stumbled upon the work of pot poachers as I read my first Tony Hillerman mystery –Thief of Time. The story not only captured me with its exciting plot, I gained insight and appreciation into the Navajo culture. I wasn’t a New Mexico resident at the time. My sister gave me the book to read as I traveled back to Seattle from a visit to Albuquerque. By time I had finished the book I was hooked, and sought another mystery from my local bookstore. For the next year I devoured the prior six books and then, like all Tony Hillerman fans, anxiously awaited each new mystery.
I was thrilled to listen to Hillerman talk about his writing career at a University of New Mexico Continuing Education lecture. It was clear that he is a natural born story teller. As he weaved his way through the evolution of his life as a writer, he would digress periodically with a story that came to mind.
After being severely injured in World War II, he began to ponder what he could do to support himself. As he sat recuperating on the porch of the hospital, he began to envision stories in his mind. After the war, he typed up one of the stories, but no one was interested. It was his vivid descriptions and penchant for storytelling in his letters home during the war that started him on a journalism career. A local reporter who interviewed him and read the letters strongly encouraged him to return to college and study journalism.
He is also gutsy and a risk taker. He did a myriad of jobs to put himself through school. If offered a job doing something he had not done, he would say, “Sure, I can do that,” even though he had no clue. One of those jobs took him to the Four Corners area where he had the opportunity to observe a Blessing Way for returning soldiers. He was so impressed with community response to the soldier’s reintegration that The Blessing Way became the subject and title of his first book.
However, it would take almost 15 years before the book would be published. His original agent liked the plot, but wanted him to “take out the Indian stuff.”
Each book focuses on some aspect of Navajo culture. His original research was done at the University of New Mexico library’s special collection on Native American history and issues. Because most of these documents were based on the work of anthropologists, he befriended Navajo professors to check out the facts. Because he work has been respected by the Navajo and Zuni communities, he has many close friends from these nations.
He greatly admires the Navajo sense of humor. He digressed into a story to illustrate this point. “My Navajo name means ‘afraid of his horse.’ I was asked to ride in a local parade, but didn’t want to get on a horse. They were quite amused and bestowed me with a Navajo name to reflect my skittishness with horses,” he chuckled.
“Do you have the story developed before you begin?” someone in the audience inquired.
“I have the plot and location in mind when I begin a new novel,” he responded to one of the audience questions. “However, the story and the characters develop as I begin to write the story.”
“Things happen in the story that I don‘t expect,” he continued. “For example, I never expected that Joe Leaphorn would get married. It just happened.”
At age 81, he still has stories developing. Because he is not in good health, he could not promise another book, but has the plot in mind.
Summarizing his career, he said, “Writing is fun, but it is also hard work.”
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Two years after this talk, he passed away at 83.