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Tony Hillerman

     ... writer. Past president of the Mystery Writers of America, Mr. Hillerman has received its Edgar and Grand Master Awards. The Wailing Wind is Mr. Hillerman's 18th Joe Leaphorn/Jim Chee mystery, The Sinister Pig his latest. Mr. Hillerman is a former journalist and English professor who also writes non-fiction. His honors include The Center for the American Indian Ambassador Award, the Silver Spur Award for the Best Novel Set in the West and the Navajo Tribeâs Special Friend Award. He called his memoir Seldom Disappointed.  Tony Hillerman died in late October, 2008 at the age of 83.


Native American cultures and religions are worth taking seriously. Tony Hillerman is convinced they're just too important to let fade away. He's written nearly 20 mystery novels set in the American Southwest, half a dozen non-fiction books and scores of articles to give regular people access to information once buried in monographs and museum archives. Mr. Hillerman has a genius for giving garden-variety Americans a glimpse of worlds once hidden within spectacular landscapes that embody their own mysteries. But Mr. Hillerman wants more -- he also wants young Indians to see their culture taken seriously by white people

These cultures and religions are as different from each other as they are from mainstream America, he assures us. And Mr. Hillerman has a bounty of stories with which to make his points. Consider, he suggests, how different the concept of time is for the Navajo and the Hopi. He's never known a Navajo who could tell him a word for "late" or "early." Not so the Hopi. When the two nations schedule a meeting to negotiate an issue, the Hopi are enraged when the Navajo fail to appear at the appointed time.

But the differences between all Native Americans and the larger culture are even more pronounced. Consider farmers in the midst of a drought. When Tony was a youngster in Dust Bowl Oklahoma, farmers prayed for rain. That would never occur to the Hopi or the Navajo, Mr. Hillerman reports. Instead of intruding on cosmic plans, the Indians pray to be in tune with the drought, in harmony with the weather. They trust nature, of which they know themselves to be a part.

Using what he calls his "bag lady' approach to writing, Mr. Hillerman has incorporated a lifetime of experience to speak to broad themes -- from the Biblical to Shakespeare, from the destruction he sees consumerism heaping on Western culture to the folly of military adventures and top-heavy bureaucracies. Readers can't get enough of it, as Tony Hillerman's fame and best-seller status continue to grow.

Then there is the great SouthWest itself. The land and sky not only play a vital role in many a Hillerman plot, they also shape the culture and religion of the peoples who fascinate Mr. Hillerman. He is quick to disavow the role of authority, but twice now, Native American organizations have honored him for his significant role in getting the larger culture to pay respectful attention.

Tony Hillerman is not so different from the rest of us -- a nice Catholic boy from Oklahoma who came back from a great World War to marry a lovely straight-A student, put in his time as a reporter and teacher while making a home for a houseful of kids who needed love. But there the similarity ends. Tony Hillerman has put his unique ragbag full of life experiences to work. In so doing so, he has revealed vast spiritual, culture and physical worlds once invisible to those of us who otherwise would have been just passing through.

[This Program was recorded June 14, 2002, in Atlanta, Georgia, US.]

Conversation 1

Tony Hillerman tells Paula Gordon and Bill Russell about the variety of people attracted to the American Southwest where his fiction unfolds and the fun he has writing about both. He compares his experience farming to that of the the Hopi.


Conversation 2

Mr. Hillerman describes how deeply he plumbs his many research resources in order to understand the Native American cultures about which he writes. He gives an example about skinwalkers. Mr. Hillerman describes how regularly New Mexico is misunderstood, the land that enchants him and a certain attitude it takes to enjoy that land. He describes Skeleton Man and explains the deep importance of this story.

Conversation 1 RealAudio10:53


Conversation 3

With self-effacing caveats, Mr. Hillerman gives vivid examples of how different Native American cultures and religions are from each other and from mainstream America. He describes farming Hopis who do not pray to change the weather but rather to be ãin harmonyä with it, then offers anecdotes about what ãto be in harmonyä means. He starts with a murder mystery and ends with origin stories. He admires the Native American awareness of humanity as part of a vast organism


Conversation 4

Mr. Hillerman describes his "bag-lady" approach to writing fiction. He uses The Wailing Wind as an example of Shakespearean and Biblical themes helping him address his concerns about modern consumerist society, the foolhardiness of the proposed "Star Wars" military program, the drawbacks of bureaucracy and more. Mr. Hillerman describes how he creates fiction from real events and what policemen think of how he treats the FBI.

Conversation 1 RealAudio11:22


Conversation 5

The fun of writing his mystery novels is when he solves the problem, Mr. Hillerman says, with examples of how books can change in midcourse and what happens when ideas do not work out. He credits his wife for her significant contributions. Arguing against "hyphenated Americans," Mr. Hillerman recalls his own childhood family's unwillingness to identify with European origins. One cannot generalize about Indian cultures, Mr. Hillerman asserts, with examples. He describes the value of having grown up with a conglomeration of different kinds of people. Religion's powerful role among Native Americans impresses Mr. Hillerman.


Conversation 6

His lack of credentials coupled with on-going learning help him tell his stories, Mr. Hillerman contends. He speculates about the double benefit he thinks he offers his readers. He offers an uplifting perspective on his own religion and summarizes what he tries to accomplish with his novels.


Mr. Hillerman's visit to Atlanta came at a particularly busy time. We appreciate the help of Jennifer Suitor at HarperCollins as well as the very able "BookAtlanta" staff in making sure this program happened.

We also thank Mrs. Hillerman for her patience as we enjoyed our Conversation with her delightful husband.

We have read practically everything Tony Hillerman has ever written, so it was a particular joy to welcome Mr. Hillerman for this program. We are grateful for the mighty service Mr. Hillerman has provided, giving the rest of us access to the wonderous world of Native Americans.

Mr. Hillerman's death in 2008 leaves a void unlikely to be filled.  We'll miss those late-night, page-turning immersions in his wonderful, enlightening storytelling.

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The Wailing Wind, The Sinister Pig, other Leaphorn/Chee mysteries and Mr. Hillerman's autobiogaphy, Seldom Disappointed, are published by HarperCollins.

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