Going in Beauty: An Interview with Tony Hillerman

Do you go on forays to find settings to write from memory? The imagery stuck in my mind. And there’s supposed to be a movie, but you’ve been out here, you know. I like to write. It’s kind of like asking a parent about his children because you can see what’s wrong with each one of them. They’re rural. I think it’s a lovely form for anybody who wants to write a novel. And why did I change, is sort of a corollary question. I hadn’t developed him as I would if I’d known he was going to be an important character. ¤
TONY HILLERMAN: The reason I feel comfortable with Navajos and am attracted to them is that, in many ways, they are the same kind of people I am. I always go to where I’m gonna write about, get a feeling for it, kind of memorize things, so I feel comfortable. Well, if you’ll think back, you’ll realize that you see the Hopi and the Zuni through the eyes of a Navajo. Tough for me to do. While Chee’s method is largely intuitive, his intuitions are both visible and believable. It had a little post office, a little crossroads post office. It’s mostly that it can’t be depicted visually. I haven’t used him for three books. No. He thought he was going to die in a muddy field near Niefern, Germany, and was hospitalized in France for five months. My parents apparently didn’t think much of it, and they, and several other parents around there, got the Sisters to let us guys go to school there. Hillerman was already well known, having received the Mystery Writers of America’s prestigious Edgar Allan Poe Award in 1973, for the best mystery novel of the year: Dance Hall of the Dead. He has to interpret the tracks to determine what happened. I’ve got a contract from them, and at least I’ll get a kill fee. I’d read either serialized novels or short stories — I didn’t know who had written them, but they’d been written about Australian aborigines. But the mystery has so many advantages now that it has broken out of that silly classical detection tradition. Hillerman left for Albuquerque in 1963 and taught journalism at the University of New Mexico from 1966 to 1987. In People of Darkness and Listening Woman, for example, I wasn’t so happy with the way the plot worked. I had a patch over one eye, and I walked with a cane. They put a monastery in there and worked out a deal with the Potawatomis. Got to United Press. Had you always had that desire? So, I decided I wouldn’t start right off with War and Peace. I mean, he knew everything about the white culture. I read The Fly on the Wall first. The state capitol bureau manager got sick. One of the books was optioned, and in a carelessly written contract, I lost characterization rights. Oh really. I write all kinds of crap. ¤
Hillerman didn’t mention that he rose to become executive editor of The New Mexican in Santa Fe, where poet-critic Winfield Townley Scott served as book editor. I thought it would be better if I could run this against a background that would be interesting. Leaphorn was started kind of as an accident. I bought him back. You can see their failures and shortcomings. You can do anything you want with it. His first three Navajo novels featured Joe Leaphorn; the novels that followed featured Jim Chee, with occasional appearances by Leaphorn. In the Leaphorn books, you get that “multiple worlds effect” in much more pure form, but Chee is clearly a more interesting character. It wasn’t anything …
It’s not so much a problem as a read. After those, which I enjoyed tremendously, I couldn’t bring myself to read the Joe Leaphorn books for some time. It no longer exists. It doesn’t bother me. They were really interesting, I thought. ¤
In a letter postmarked March 4, 1985, Hillerman wrote to me: “Have a plot in mind which would use both Chee and Leaphorn — Chee on the immediate scene of a single crime, Leaphorn back in the bureaucracy at Window Rock looking at an emerging pattern of which Chee’s case seems to be a small bit. It was this precise relationship of landscape, character, plot, and culture that was so remarkable about Arthur Upfield’s mysteries — the way that Napoleon Bonaparte, Upfield’s half-aboriginal detective, would read subtle signs in the outback. Seventy-five then. Hillerman had creative reasons to swap detectives, but as he revealed in this interview, there was also a practical reason: he had lost the rights to Leaphorn’s character when he allowed an earlier novel to be optioned for television. I had a convalescent furlough. I can’t tell. But you just think, look at this idiot formula. Chee is a patient man, not a superhero — accustomed to watching and waiting. Leaphorn doesn’t have the inherent interest of Chee. Thank God for Chandler and Hammett and [Arthur] Upfield and those guys. The Benedictines were educating boys. You have two Navajo detectives, and they have basically the same problem of a large tract of land to patrol. Meanwhile, I’d become very enamored of Leaphorn as a character, so I not only wrote a new last chapter, which was not a hell of a lot better than the first one, but I also expanded his role in the book. I figure such things take care of themselves. Mary’s Academy. People were crying for anybody to do anything. But it’s kind of a problem as a read, too, I think. The war wasn’t quite over, so you could get a job. I don’t know. We exchanged letters several times over the following two years. That’s the first time I’d run into them. I understand that when you played cowboys and Indians as children you had to bribe the Indians to be Indians in the game. The Sisters of Mercy had come in there after the Benedictines and established a boarding school for Indian girls. But I was really much more interested in Navajos, and it seemed to me they offered much more opportunity. It was just a learning process. Give him some company. I’m trying to sell something now to Reader’s Digest, for God’s sake. Well, I don’t think I’m good enough yet to write something important. Everybody wanted to be a cowboy. Both are officers in the Navajo Tribal Police. That was 1945, I guess. I’m very conscious that he buys my book to be entertained and that he’s got a limited amount of tolerance for me to screw around with. They’re like the average Kiwanian, the average guy you’d run into on the street. So you wanted to move to another character. Not just what’s gonna happen, but the way the wind’s blowin’ and what time of day it is, and where the light’s coming from and the cloud formations and what you’re smelling and how hot it is, and what mood the characters in a book are in. The more you write, you learn that some of these things are just too damn difficult, and they turn out to be boring when a guy’s just inside his head a lot. So, I tend to try to write them with the thought in mind that I don’t want him to say, “Aw, the hell with it,” get bored, put it down, and walk away from it. Yeah. Almost anything — speeches, you name it. Some people it does bother — people who want to write literature and then find it in the Mysteries section, and it bugs them. They’re poorly educated — exactly my background again. But all of the Navajo books are under movie option. But he also studies Navajo rituals with his uncle, seeking to become a yataali — a shaman who performs the ceremonies of blessing and purification that enable the Navajo people to “go in beauty.”
A stronger spiritual dimension emerged in the Jim Chee mysteries, largely because Chee’s greater flexibility as a character allowed Hillerman to utilize more subtle perceptions. I had meanwhile gone to the University of Oklahoma, got a degree in journalism, got a job as a police reporter in Texas, and moved around. Then, when I managed to get transferred to New Mexico in 1952, I picked it up. I interviewed Hillerman, a big, friendly, modest man nearing 60, at his hotel; we then had dinner before he gave his talk. I really don’t feel they’d like each other very well. I’m challenged by something that’s tough to do. Why not? [Laughs.] I guess so …
I believe that we’ve just witnessed the “grass is greener” phenomenon. I was so loyal to Chee that I wasn’t prepared to switch detectives. Give ’em an apple. They’re very friendly people. The one I think, on balance, that I like best is the last one, The Dark Wind, because I think I finally learned how to make an intricate plot work well. I began to read the first of her three novels with trepidation and ended up pleased. Yeah. I went to St. I don’t know what it is. It appeared to him that the tracks had been made by someone in a hurry. So, you end up wasting a lot of time with stuff you don’t care about once you’ve done it. But in the back of my mind, I always wanted to try my hand at fiction. You know how it is. My playmates, my best friends, were the Delonies, who were Potawatomis, and the Harjos, who were Seminoles. For example, in Listening Woman, the second chapter — when I first wrote it, Leaphorn’s alone in the police car, and I go back and arrest a kid and stick him in there with him. They’re a more complicated culture, and there are more of them, so I decided on the Navajos, thinking I would try my hand at a mystery and then, if I could go the distance, then I would write something important. And I like to try it. But it’s also interwoven with the plot details. But you could pick your own job, and that looked interesting. When I got it back from Harper & Row, they said they’d publish it if I gave them a decent last chapter. DECEMBER 6, 2017

THE MYSTERY NOVELS of Tony Hillerman (1925–2008) focus on culture and landscape. Chapter 12 is titled, “How to Get a Bronze Star Without Knowing Why.” He wrote that he was awarded the Silver Star “for my one-shot, one-grenade defense of the road outside Sessenheim.”
Hillerman was awarded a Purple Heart after he was seriously injured in a landmine explosion. We raised apples and we’d bribe the Delonies to be Indians so my brother and I could be cowboys. You were also a better writer by the time you wrote the Chee books. Your books show that you have a deep understanding not only of Navajo culture and the thinking processes of Leaphorn and Chee but also of the Hopi and the Zuni. I have a lot of Navajo friends. ¤
When did you move into writing fiction? Are Leaphorn and Chee ever going to combine forces? So, you think, I ought to be able to write a good, intricate plot, even though I’d rather describe clouds. Most decide they can’t possibly adapt them because the thought process of your detectives is so internalized. I know screenwriters who read your books looking for properties to adapt. It was a curricular prelude to the Transcendentalists and always evoked pleasant memories of my time with Hillerman years earlier. They place a high value on humor, on telling stories. And I was intrigued. They are superb trackers, and their understanding of how people respond to the imperatives of environment is essential in getting to the bottom of otherwise incomprehensible crimes. ALAN WARHAFTIG: What was the population? I know a hell of a lot more about the Navajo culture than most Navajos do. I’d start off with something short, and it seemed to me that mysteries have a kind of form I liked to read. In Seldom Disappointed, his 2001 memoir, Hillerman wrote about the Helleresque absurdities of the Army, but he toughed out challenging winter conditions as comrades were wounded and dying all around him in engagements with the SS. Because Navajos don’t even have a word for hurry, Leaphorn decided that the man he was tracking was a Navajo who had left The Way. Most Navajos are the same way. They needed somebody; they offered it to me, and I jumped at it. But I still had given him a non-Navajo name, and I was very careless. Then you got hooked on mysteries? So, there were about 10 or 12, maybe 14 boys, who went to that girls’ school. You know, it’s interesting. I’m glad to hear you say that. He’s an interested outsider to those cultures, and he doesn’t know a thing more about them than I do, see. But in People of Darkness you opened it up by giving Jim Chee a sidekick, Mary Landon, to whom he could explain what was going on. If I write something that’s clearly literature, somebody will notice it, and they’ll go back to my other books, and they’ll say, “Well, this is literature, too.” Maybe. He’s an outsider, just as I am. So, I grew up knowing Indians just like everybody else. At the time, I’d been reading Eric Ambler, and I’d been reading Graham Greene and a couple of people like that. Your sense of the landscape is special. I’m not sure, in my own mind, that I’m making any progress, and to hear another writer say that is important to me. But in the remaining three-10ths of a percent, the cultural, the Potawatomis and Seminoles had pretty well lost their culture. What’s the difference, in your mind, between Joe Leaphorn and Jim Chee? Is there a similarity between the Indians in that part of Oklahoma and …
None, totally different. Maybe I will write it.” This is essentially the plot of Skinwalkers, the first novel to utilize both Leaphorn and Chee, which Hillerman published in 1986. I reread People of Darkness the other day, and I had forgotten about the hit man. There was a cotton gin there, see. I knew I could do that. Besides, I was attracted to the truck owner’s daughter at the time. It was a learning process. You know, I still can’t write short stories very well. I got a job driving an oilfield truck, hauling drilling equipment from Oklahoma City to the Navajo Reservation. And they use the same techniques — both their knowledge of Indian cultures and also traditional detection techniques. Pulitzer Prize–winning novelist Oliver La Farge, author of Laughing Boy (1929), wrote a weekly column on manners and morals. I write kind of in scenes, and I’ll spend a lot of time with my feet up, thinking about what’s gonna happen in a chapter. I would have done it anyway, but that gave me a good reason. Now you had meanwhile become a journalist …
Yeah. After the book came out, some reviewer or other referred to Upfield, and I thought, “By God, I wonder if that’s the guy from my childhood.” I went out to the library, found the Upfield book, and while I’ve never to this day found the stuff that I remember, it’s obviously the same man. Except the most important common denominator is that we’re all members of the same species. I’m very conscious of the impatience of my reader. Covered politics, got transferred to Santa Fe. When I got to be in my late 30s … I’d written a few short stories and sent them off and got the usual rejection slips. A lot of them try to scratch out a living raising sheep or cattle, or farming in small ways, which was exactly my background. A lot of the people around there were Potawatomi, some Seminoles. I want very badly to keep becoming a better writer. Maybe it’d help me sell it. In the back of my mind, I always thought, someday, I’m going to write the Great American Novel. Anyway, given that, knowing that they’re just like you are, then you go down to New Mexico, as I did right after World War II, and I began seeing Indians who had maintained their culture. Therefore, in 99.7 percent of the ways, we’re exactly identical. They were Indians anyway, of course. How do you get those landscapes? So, I was kind of stuck with some things about him, and as I kept writing I became encumbered by the fact that he was too old, too sophisticated, too savvy. For what I’m trying to do, I know they’re wrong. We farmed, and my dad ran the filling station/store there. This interview would have remained in its file folder but for an email from James McGrath Morris, who is working on a Hillerman biography and who had come across the transcript in Hillerman’s archives. Even if they don’t, usually. You don’t find them in Fiction or Literature. Some girls, too, who weren’t Potawatomi. Tony Hillerman was in Los Angeles on October 30, 1984, to speak to a UCLA class at the invitation of fellow mystery novelist John Ball, best known for In the Heat of the Night. It is, as I’m sure you know, a really impoverished country. The Sisters stayed behind and ran a boarding school for girls. His method is to seek to achieve harmony with the crime, the place where it occurred, the victims, and the perpetrators. Well, the advantage to Leaphorn is that you get more of the reasoning, more of the landscape and cultural detail because the story hasn’t opened up — there aren’t other characters to absorb, and you haven’t gotten into intricate plotting. And the detective with a foot in two different worlds, needing the methodologies of both to solve the crime. I’d totally forgotten who had planted those images in my mind. When I wrote The Blessing Way, I hadn’t read Upfield since I was a child. I feel comfortable with the Navajo. And it occurred to me that I probably wouldn’t be very good at plotting, but I knew I was a good descriptive writer. Frankly, at the same time I was deciding to do this, I temporarily lost television rights to Leaphorn. Your books are always in the Mysteries section. I’ve thought about it. Even then it amused me. I didn’t know how good I’d be at any other thing. How do you feel about the genre division? Hillerman and his wife, Marie, raised six children, five of them adopted. When I do get to the — now — word processor, I’ve got that scene … All I’m doing really is reporting what I’ve seen in my imagination. He detailed the encounters for which the Silver and Bronze Stars were awarded, and did not see, in either instance, why he deserved a medal — or why he was singled out when others were equally or more deserving. The Benedictines went their way, moved off — starved out I guess. Are you going to drop Leaphorn? It gives you a story line that holds your readers’ interest, I think, while you’re doing whatever you want to do with it. How did you learn so much about their ceremonials? ¤
Alan Warhaftig   taught English   at LAUSD’s Fairfax High School   for 24 years and served as co-coordinator of the   Fairfax   Magnet Center for Visual Arts for 18 years. I needed a young guy who was very interested and curious about the white culture. ¤
Which books are your favorites? ¤
I taught Hillerman’s 1982 novel The Dark Wind to high school juniors for more than 20 years, figuring it was valuable for urban teenagers to be exposed to desert landscapes and the worldviews of Navajos and Hopis. I don’t think I’m ever gonna get it sold. That’s funny. But to skip to me, I was born in a little, tiny, drying-up crossroads town in Oklahoma called Sacred Heart, founded by the Benedictines when it was Indian Territory. Chee, who is younger than Leaphorn, is a University of New Mexico graduate with deeper roots in Navajo culture. I look forward to the fourth. I could not have written the Hopi or the Zuni book, either one of them, from the viewpoint of a Hopi or a Zuni. I’d never driven a truck. I’m delighted. Because what had struck me about your books was the combination of the Indian cultures and the landscapes. Leaphorn, in The Blessing Way, examined tire tracks going up and down a mountain. I didn’t intend him to be an important character in that first book. A lot of readers tell me, “I still prefer Leaphorn.” They say, “Why don’t you go back to Leaphorn?” I think they’re wrong. I ought to be smart enough to whip that. Now I’ve got Leaphorn. At first, I thought I’d use Apaches. Yes, I’d just gotten back from World War II. He lost sight in both eyes for two weeks and lived the rest of his life with “useful vision in only one eye.”
Interestingly, his first exposure to Navajo culture occurred when he returned stateside and met two Navajo Marines who had fought in the war in the Pacific, and for whom an Enemy Way ceremony was performed “to return them to harmony with their people.”
Were you in the service? That gave me an opportunity not just to fix it, but to fix it for the first time in my life knowing that somebody would publish it. Writing, for me, has always been a kind of solution to a problem. ¤
I was not aware of Hillerman’s military record when we met, and he didn’t speak of it during the interview, but he was a participant in the D-Day landing and received the Silver Star and Bronze Star as a teenaged infantryman during World War II. Ask him about his religion and he’ll refer you to a preacher. Thus, Chee is able to determine what happened accidentally and what intentionally, and whether certain actions are appropriately or wrongly attributed to a particular suspect. I write for National Geographic, which is a hard thing to write for. Was that a conscious choice, to open up the dramatic possibilities? The public school was a two-room school with one teacher. Hillerman may not have written The Great American Novel, but he created wonderfully unselfconscious American literature — a memorable series of mystery novels reflecting life in one of America’s most fascinating places. Daughter Anne decided to continue the Jim Chee stories, promoting Officer Bernadette Manuelito of the Navajo Tribal Police, previously a minor character, to a co-starring role. And he didn’t particularly approve of it, but he wasn’t surprised by anything or particularly curious about the white culture. Most of the people who can write for Reader’s Digest would kill to be able to write mysteries like you. And I don’t have an awful lot of time to be at the actual places because I teach full-time, and I like to do other things. Then I got into the Chee books. He doesn’t. I guess maybe so. The plot of the second novel was seriously flawed, but the third was back on track. You can also see the charming things about them, if they’ve got any. He allows the truth of the matter to emerge gradually, facts and atmosphere playing off his keen inner sounding board. The two things worked together. He is of two minds about whether to remain on the Reservation and considers applying to the FBI, which would take him away from Dinétah, the traditional homeland of his people. But the elements that make your books special could be contained in any number of fiction forms.