three flamenco dancers in purple dresses perform on stage

UNM AlumNA Anne Hillerman ( ’72 BA) extends her father’s literary legacy

Anne Hillerman Carries On A Family Tradition

Jun 14, 2023 | Feature, Spring 2023

By Leslie Linthicum

Winding down his writing career, author Tony Hillerman talked a time or two with his eldest daughter, Anne, about the next book he had in mind for his series of detective stories featuring Navajo police Lt. Joe Leaphorn and Sgt. Jim Chee. It would have mercury poisoning as a subplot and, with his energy flagging due to age and illness, he raised the possibility of her doing some research for him.

But “The Shape Shifter,” published in 2006, would be his last novel. Hillerman died in 2008 of Lou Gehrig’s disease and with him his popular Chee-Leaphorn series which had run for 36 years and included 18 titles, leaving legions of fans to mourn.

Anne Hillerman, a journalist like her father, had several nonfiction books to her credit, but it hadn’t occurred to her that she might carry on the Hillerman franchise.

“He and I never talked about it. He never said, ‘Why don’t you and I do some books together.’ And I never brought it up,” she says. “I thought that, you know, was his territory.”

In the last years of his life, father and daughter and her husband, photographer Don Strel, collaborated on a project to photograph the landscapes of the Southwest and Indian Country that played such a major role in his mystery stories. To find passages to accompany the photos, she reread each of her father’s novels, then she and her husband traveled through New Mexico and Arizona.

As she toured the Southwest promoting “Tony Hillerman’s Landscape: On the Road with Chee and Leaphorn,” which was published the year after her father died, she talked to legions of her father’s fans and began to realize the hole his death had left.

“I had thought, ‘You know, nobody lives forever and that was the end of it,’” Hillerman says. “But then when he wasn’t around to do it, I thought, well, it’s just a shame for the stories to end.”

We’re talking around the kitchen table in the home she lives in outside of Santa Fe. Coffee is brewing, a storm is threatening and the Ortiz Mountains look like they’re going to get some snow.

The nearly 15 years since her father died have brought more loss. Hillerman’s mother, Marie, died in 2015 at age 87. Two of her brothers died in 2017 and 2022. Hillerman’s husband died in 2020 of acute myeloma and dementia.

Harris Smith headshot

Anne Hillerman

“I figured all I could do was the best I could do.”

Artist rendering of the new Art Building on Central Avenue

But Hillerman, who has a wide smile and a ready laugh, has kept Chee and Leaphorn alive. As she talked to her father’s fans and felt herself missing the fictitious world he had created, she began to inch toward the idea of continuing the series.

“With great trepidation,” she says. “I had never written a novel. And I think when most people write a first novel, your family reads it, maybe a few friends. I had the possibility of embarrassing myself in front of a lot of people.”

But Hillerman had written a lot of words in her career. Having seen her father happy in his career with the United Press International and The Santa Fe New Mexican, Hillerman graduated from UNM with a major in journalism. (At the time her father, also a UNM alum, was a professor and chair of the Journalism Department and she took two of his classes.) She also briefly worked for UPI and wore many hats at The New Mexican and the Albuquerque Journal.

So she started to map out a story and sat down to write.

“I figured all I could do was the best I could do,” she says.

Hillerman didn’t want to channel her father; she wanted her books to be her own. She brought Chee and Leaphorn back, but put Leaphorn in the hospital gravely wounded in the first chapter and developed one of her father’s minor characters, Chee’s wife, Police Officer Bernadette Manuelito, into the star of the book.

When she was finished writing “Spider Woman’s Daughter,” Hillerman printed out the book and gave it to her mother over the Thanksgiving holiday. Marie Hillerman was Tony’s first reader and a careful editor.

“My mom was very wise and a very good editor, and also very gentle,” Hillerman says. “So if there was anything she said that was less than supportive, I would know that the book just stank.”

Her mother called her the day after Thanksgiving and said, “Well, I read your book.”

“What did you think of it?”

“I think your dad would be proud.”

Hillerman puts her hand on her heart and tears form at the memory.

“It doesn’t matter how old you are, those are magic words,” she says.

Her mother had some notes, which Hillerman took on board and then she sent the manuscript to her dad’s former editor at HarperCollins.

Film students collaborating on a project in front of a green screen
Quickly, she had an agent, a two-book contract and a title on the New York Times best-seller list.

“Yeah, who knew?” she says laughing. “I think some of the fans, some of the diehard fans, were curious enough that when they saw the name Hillerman they thought they’d take a chance.”

Since “Spider Woman’s Daughter,” Leaphorn has continued his recovery from a brain injury while Manuelito has continued to take center stage and develop as a full character. In Hillerman’s second book, “Rock with Wings,” Manuelito struggles with work-life balance – juggling an investigation following a puzzling traffic stop with taking care of her aging mother and troubled younger sister.

It’s obvious that Hillerman is a different author from her father, bringing the concerns and sensibilities of her gender to the series.

Hillerman, 73, said she broached the idea of writing Manuelito as a more skilled officer in 2006, when his “Skeleton Man” was published.

“I said to Dad, ‘I think readers would enjoy seeing Bernie take the next step and be on the same level as Jim Chee and Joe Leaphorn.’ I thought he’d say, ‘Oh, honey, what a good idea.’ No, what he said was, ‘What an interesting idea.’

“But in the end, I was glad he didn’t do it,” she says. “Because that gave me a chance to continue the series, but to give it a different voice and my own perspective – a female perspective – by giving Bernie not only a job but also giving her what every working woman has, which is a lot of complications.”

“Rock with Wings” also found a place on the New York Times bestseller list and so did each of her following novels – “Song of the Lion” (2017), “Cave of Bones” (2018), “The Tale Teller” (2019), “Stargazer” (2021) and “The Sacred Bridge” (2022). “The Way of the Bear” is due out in April 2023
By now, Hillerman is a bona fide franchise, but she doesn’t wear her success. She lives in a beautiful but modest adobe house with her partner, Dave Tedlock (’73 BA), and accepts just about every speaking engagement she is offered – traveling to the smallest New Mexico rural libraries to engage with her fans.

Jean Schaumberg, Hillerman’s longtime friend and business partner in a series of writers’ workshops, including the annual Tony Hillerman Writers Conference, has watched as Hillerman made the transition from working journalist to first-time novelist to big-time author.

“Her star has really risen,” Schaumberg says. “But she’s just like her dad. Her dad was a humble man and she is down to earth. She doesn’t put on airs. I think her dad would be really pleased – or is pleased in heaven – that she has taken his characters and done so well with them.”

With each novel, Hillerman begins with a setting and a topic – anything from medical marijuana to paleontology to Navajo astronomy.

“After I choose the setting, which really is like a character in my stories, then I think, what crime would be appropriate in this setting?”

Once she has the crime and the setting, Hillerman skips the common practice of outlining her plot and chapters.

“Usually I write a letter to myself, and I say, what is the point of this book? Why are you going to spend a year doing this? What do you want to accomplish?” she says. “And usually in that letter, I deal with what happened in the last book that I was not exactly satisfied with, that I could do better in this book. And then I just kind of start writing.”

Artist rendering of the new Art Building on Central Avenue

She writes in the morning, seven days a week, in a cozy room with views on all sides. After she’s finished at the keyboard for the morning, there’s lunch, dogs to walk and things to attend to on the business side of being a novelist.

But her book is never far from her mind.

“Even if I’m not consciously thinking about it, I realize some part of my brain is working on it,” she says.

Once her first draft is roughed out, Hillerman goes back and begins writing the book her readers will eventually hold in their hands.

“Once I’m done with the first draft, then the flow really hits because then I can see the shape. Then I can work on refining the language and the nuance of the characters and their situations and all that stuff.”

“Some days, it is really a struggle,” she says. “Like I’m kind of falling asleep. It’s really hard to stay focused. And some days I’ll be sitting there and the next thing I know, two hours have gone by and I realize I had to go to the dentist at 10 and now it’s five till.”

Hillerman fell into the mystery genre because that is what her father did. She finds comfort in its restrictions.

“You have the box, the mystery genre, and you know what has to go into the box and the readers do too,” she says. “I find it kind of a relief to have everything wrapped up at the end of the book. Maybe some of your subplot strains move forward, but basically the crime is solved, your detectives are still alive, justice is served.”

But a good mystery novel doesn’t just kill off bad guys and wrap up the loose ends by the last page. Hillerman, like her father, brings poetry to the page.

Bernie Manuelito returns to the trailer home she shares with Jim Chee: “She could hear the rhythmic chuckling of the San Juan River and a symphony of crickets through the open windows.”

Jim Chee on an interrupted personal retreat at Lake Powell: “Over the past few days, Chee had hiked for miles, slept beneath a million shimmering stars, seen hawks, coyotes, rabbits, deer, ravens, several kinds of lizards, and enough rattlesnakes to fill a cowboy hat.”

Hillerman plans to write two more Chee/Leaphorn/Manuelito books.

“After that, I don’t know,” she says. “There might be something else I would like to do before going back to them.”

Hillerman is also is an executive producer of the AMC television series “Dark Winds,” now in its second season and filming at Camel Rock Studios on Tesuque Pueblo. The series, created with fellow executive producers Robert Redford and George R.R. Martin, is based on the Hillerman characters and she approved their use.

“I was nervous about how they would be portrayed,” she says. “It’s kind of like sending your child off to high school. I was hoping for the best, but you never know.”

She has been delighted with the series and with how the cast has taken to the material.

“After the premiere, all of the main people in the cast came up to me and they said they were really honored to have those roles because they were such positive roles for Native people, and that they were, you know, really grateful to me and to my dad.”

Hillerman has been thinking about a couple of her minor characters that might want to carry their own book.

“So, I don’t know,” she says. I think it’s always good to reinvent yourself.”

Spring 2023 Mirage Magazine Features


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