Tony Hillerman: A Life | Biography by James McGrath Morris |
Writer James McGrath Morris

Biographer James McGrath Morris’s sixth nonfiction book will be published in October 2021 and for New Mexico mystery fans, the subject matter of this biography will be of great interest: Tony Hillerman. Tony wrote 18 novels set on the Navajo Nation. His main characters, Joe Leaphorn, Jim Chee, and Bernadette Manuelito, are still solving crimes 13 years after his death, thanks to Tony’s daughter Anne, who has penned six best-selling novels in the series. Learn more about three writers in this conversation with James McGrath Morris and Neighbors magazine publisher Cheryl Fallstead. 

You have written many biographies with subjects such as well-known people like Ernest Hemingway and Joseph Pulitzer, but also people whose names are not as well-known today, like journalist Ethel Payne and Charles Chapin, dubbed the Rose Man of Sing Sing. How do you select the subjects of your books? Cover of Tony Hillerman: A Life by James McGrath Morris

It’s a little bit like dating. You see a subject you think is meritorious and deserving of a biography, and who has the elements of being able to be written about, meaning that they kept their papers or there’s enough of a record. There are some people who are significant historically who left nothing, so you can’t write about them. Perhaps the most important, is it somebody you can live with 24/7 for a number of years? My wife describes living with me as being part of a ménage à trois, where the subject is the third member of our household. Once it passes those tests, then you have other issues, such as convincing your agent and getting an editor.

The great thing about writing about Tony Hillerman is that he was a very joyous,
wonderful person, whereas some of the people I’ve written about, like Joseph Pulitzer or Ernest Hemingway, even if they were fascinating, I wanted to take a shower at the end of the day! They weren’t particularly good people. Hillerman, I could never find anything hidden in a closet or that diminished him in my eyes.

You have long been friends with Tony’s daughter Anne Hillerman. What was it like writing about the family of a friend?

I explain this in the book because it’s an important thing for readers to know. Anne has the job of being the literary executor, so for me to write a book where I quote Tony or show pictures of Tony, I had to have permission from her. We worked out an agreement which is quite common in our business in which she was allowed to see the work before it was published. She was allowed to make corrections of factual mistakes, which of course, any of us want. The third thing was, if she found something she objected to, the publisher and I would take it under serious consideration, meaning we retained our editorial integrity. I know that Anne, being a journalist most of her life, completely understood this. In the end, she never found anything she objected to, even though there are some moments in the book where I talk about their complicated family life or her dad’s PTSD, that some daughters might have objected to. I think she realized that it made a fuller and more complete story. It was a lot of fun to do this work, and not just with Anne, but the other children.

I can’t pretend that I know more about their dad than they do, but there were a lot of things I knew about their dad they didn’t know, and it was great fun to share it with them. I spent time in Oklahoma researching his childhood and going to the house he grew up in. I went to military archives. I spent a week living in Texas. I spent time in Lawton where Anne was born. I saw him as an adult, an adult figure. They saw him as their father. So, most of the encounters I had with the family were quite delightful. I would tell them stories about their dad, which also helped them bring out material. They were all very cooperative after I won their trust.

Your books are rich with details that help place the reader into the story. How do you find these tidbits to incorporate into your story? How do you possibly organize everything you find during research to later use in the book?

The first is that I’m a compulsive researcher. I start writing the book the very first day I start a book. But I only write one percent of the time and I research 99 percent of the time. And over the course of three years, that relationship changes to where I’m writing 90 percent of the time and researching 10 percent of the time. Part of the reason is that you don’t know what you need to research until you start telling the story. I knew the war would be important, but I didn’t know how formative it would be. Once I realized that, it meant I needed to do more kinds of research into the archives to find accounts of what the regiment was like and what battle was like. Whereas, if it hadn’t been such a formative thing, I might not have done that. The research is driven by the story.

Secondly, narrative nonfiction, which is what I claim to be doing as a biographer, requires clay, it requires material. You don’t say somebody went out to lunch in Santa Fe. You describe how hot the chile was and what the tortillas were like. You want to use all the senses. You want the reader to be able to smell, to hear the sounds. When Hillerman gets to take his first shower in the war, I want the reader to know very clearly how stinky they all were. And that takes research and I’ve been doing it for years and loving it. And I think it animates the book. It also has to match the subject. Hillerman’s passages in his 18 Navajo novels are filled with moments where Leaphorn sits on the stump of a tree and looks at Mount Taylor and sees the clouds gathering and reflects on it. So, when I got Hillerman in places like that, I wanted to go there so I could describe what he was seeing. In fact, I wrote the opening sentences of the book on a dirt road where Hillerman had been in the summer of 1945. It’s the telling of the story that dictates what research you put in. But I also want people to find what we used to call “really cool facts,” meaning that a couple is reading in bed and one of them elbows the other and says, “Did you know this?” So, reading how Leaphorn was in many ways an accidental discovery and how Chee was created was one of those “elbow moments.” “Hey, honey. Did you know Tony Hillerman crossed out Leaphorn’s name and inserted Chee’s name and that’s how Chee came into existence?” And you can’t do that without the research.

In the book, you talk about Tony’s struggles with having his mysteries made into movies. It was recently announced that The Dark Wind will be made into an AMC television series produced by Robert Redford and George R.R. Martin, starring Zahn McClarnon and Kiowa Gordon as Leaphorn and Chee. What do you think Tony would have to say about this?

What he said the first time around was that he was going to be very skeptical. The first set of movies were problem ridden. Very few people get what Robert Redford [who produced the first movie based on The Dark Wind] is going to get, which is a second chance. Redford, by his own admission, knew the first try didn’t work, and now 20 years later, he’s got all the right elements in place, with cultural sensitivity to the point that the Navajo Nation has granted permission to film on the Nation.

What I think it testifies to, along with Hillerman’s continued popularity, is what he did right. Hillerman’s writing is a very good example of cross-cultural communication. He wrote about the Navajo in a very sensitive manner. Yes, he is Anglo. And, yes, he can’t inhabit their world, but the respectful manner in which he portrayed their spiritual life, driven by a need he had, is a very good example of how it can be done. Hillerman used the Navajo world and the Navajo spiritual world for his books, but he added value to it in the sense of creating a new work and blending the two of them.

A number of Navajos have said to me that Tony didn’t give back although he made millions of dollars. But he did give back. He gave back millions of dollars [to groups or schools serving the Navajo], but he was a firm believer that the world didn’t need to know about it.

The Navajo are perhaps the best understood tribe of American Indians around the world, not because of anthropological work, but because they were the backdrop to these compelling novels. Years ago, I had dinner with an anthropologist in Washington D.C. and she told me something about the Navajo. I expected her to tell me that this came from this three-volume series by doctor so-and-so, and I said, “Where did you learn that?” She leaned back and told me it was Tony Hillerman. [Read about the new show being filmed in New Mexico.]

What else do you want people to know about Tony Hillerman?

Tony Hillerman
Tony Hillerman at University of New Mexico. Photo courtesy UNM.

I’m not sure Hillerman’s fans and people who knew Hillerman realize how significant he was. Not only was he entertaining and wrote about a part of the world people didn’t know about, but he changed the world of mystery writing. That happened when he wrote Blessing Way and almost accidentally introduced a Navajo police officer — because as you may remember, in Blessing Way, the protagonist is actually a White anthropologist, not Leaphorn. Dance Hall of the Dead is the revolutionary book in some ways. Up until that point, we were talking about White men and some White women, particularly in British tea cozy novels, who were solving murders. He made a huge change in the genre of mysteries. I remind people that when those movies aired on PBS, although they weren’t the best movies made, that was the first time on a Sunday night that millions of Americans turned on the TV and saw somebody of a darker complexion solving a murder. I think that Hillerman’s great achievement was two-fold: to use the genre of mysteries, which is an unassuming entertainment craft, to explain and celebrate the culture of Navajos, and secondly in doing so, he broke some amazing barriers, making possible today what we see as commonplace, protagonists of all sorts in mysteries. Hillerman is great fun, highly entertaining, but unlike some other mystery writers, he also made a serious contribution to the betterment of society.

Interview by Cheryl Fallstead • Courtesy photos
Originally published in Neighbors magazine

This article was posted by Cheryl Fallstead

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