Tracing His Steps
Anne Hillerman visits her father’s stomping grounds
Anne Hillerman, a dynamic woman with a quick smile, has lived in New Mexico her whole life and is one of Tony Hillerman’s six children. Anne attended the University of New Mexico in the ’70s and, after four years of taking whatever classes she felt like taking, found that she conveniently (and not surprisingly) had enough credits for a degree in journalism. After graduation, she returned to Santa Fe, where she’d spent her childhood, and met Don Strel who, at the time, was the director of the Museum of Fine Arts. Anne and Don married and have lived in Santa Fe ever since.
In addition to working as a journalist for more than two decades for the Albuquerque Journal and The Santa Fe New Mexican, Anne has published eight books over the years, including Santa Fe Flavors: Best Restaurants and Recipes, Done in the Sun, a children’s guide to solar energy, and Gardens of Santa Fe, forthcoming in 2010. Until now, all of her books have been decidedly journalistic.
She left her comfort zone to write Tony Hillerman’s Landscape: On the Road with Chee and Leaphorn (to be released on Oct. 27). The idea started as a photographic essay of the landscapes described in her father’s books, but evolved into Anne’s heartfelt memoir of life with her father.
Sitting in a café on a rainy fall day, Anne nods when asked if she was close with her father. “Yes,” she says, but the word is clipped by the tears that rise in her eyes. She doesn’t say anything more, but she keeps smiling.
SFR: Your father published his first novel in 1970, when you were in college. Was there one moment when it kind of hit you that he was a big deal?
AH: In 2005 I went with him to the Los Angeles book fair that the LA Times put on, and they gave him a lifetime achievement award. There were about 2,000 people in the audience—and that might have been when it really dawned on me that he was a national treasure. I mean, he was still just Dad to me, but it opened my eyes a bit.
Was there a difference between Tony Hillerman the father and Tony Hillerman the author?
With Dad, it was pretty seamless. Often I had the feeling that, even while he was observing us and nurturing us and acting as a dad, part of his brain was thinking, ‘This will be something good I can put in my book.’ And you know, his books have a few children in them, but not too many. I think that, because he was teaching at UNM, he was up to here with young adults and their assorted problems, and writing was a way he could create his own world and get away from that. But in [The] Ghostway, one of the pivotal points is where a girl runs away from St. Catherine’s, and maybe he modeled her after me. She was a real independent girl.
How did you conceive of your forthcoming book, Tony Hillerman’s Landscape: On the Road with Chee and Leaphorn?
I run a mystery conference that I started in 2003 in honor of my dad—the Tony Hillerman Writers Conference: Focus on Mystery—in Albuquerque every November. In 2005, our keynote speaker was Michael McGarrity. Michael was going to talk about the role of New Mexico in his books and how the landscape influenced his writing. My husband Don [who is a photographer] said, ‘Well, why don’t I get some pictures of the places where your stories are set? We can show the slides.’ Dad was there at that talk, and afterwards Dad said to Don, ‘Why don’t you do something like that for me?’
What went into putting it together?
I started with re-reading all the books because I was really looking for those beautiful poetic moments, where Jim Chee is driving in his car and he looks out and there’s the sunset behind Shiprock, or Leaphorn is at Canyon de Chelly and talking about the ravens and the water. Some of the places in Dad’s books I’d never been, so we figured we had to make some road trips. I kept trying to persuade Dad to go with us; I just think it would be so fun to have him in the car and to hear the stories—and I’m sure seeing the landscape would inspire even more stories. But at this point, his health was declining and he just wasn’t up for it. Don and I were chugging along, and meanwhile Dad’s health is declining and declining, so then in October , Dad died. To have the book come out for that anniversary is really appropriate.
What is the text of the book like?
The editor was more focused on the memoir aspect of the book. She really pushed me to be more personal, to have more anecdotes, to talk more about what the books meant to me or what they meant to Dad. It was my inclination to have a strict journalistic approach, since that was my background. I was thinking about Dad all the time anyway. It was hard, but it really made the book better.
In terms of your own writing, did you experience forming your own career in a shadow?
No. I think, if anything, it’s been an advantage because people recognize the name, and people always have nice things to say about my dad. But I think it might also be the reason that I haven’t been brave enough to publish any fiction yet. I have an idea that I’m working on now, though, that I’m really excited about.
What kind of personal connection have you developed to his work?
I think there’s a lot of my dad in the character of Joe Leaphorn. A lot of the relationship between my dad and my mom is in the relationship between Joe and Emma. And Jim Chee—maybe parts of him are my dad’s spiritual side. Throughout Dad’s life, he was always trying to balance doing work he loved and making a difference in the world.
Was your dad trying to make a difference with his writing?
Yes, I think he felt that his books did that. Particularly when he first started writing, there weren’t very many people who were using Indians other than just [as] a stereotype. And he was really proud—and justly so—of being able to take American Indian characters and turn them into real people and not have them be the bad guys—and usually have the bad guys be educated white people.
What do you think is the most important message of your father’s legacy?
Do what you’re born to do. With his books, he was able to not only write about characters and places, but also deal with themes that mattered to him—like government corruption, environmental degradation, a public health system that doesn’t work for Natives, the travesty of destruction to a lot of sacred Navajo sites—so he was able to use his talent and his passion to explore important causes. He would say, if there’s something that’s important to you, don’t let people tell you that you can’t do it.