Anne Hillerman’s sixth book in the popular series of book created by her father, Tony, was just released in April of 2021. In honor of Stargazer, we share an interview with Anne from when the previous book in the series, The Tale Teller, was published. Since the interview, her beloved husband, Don Strel, passed away.
Generations of readers have been fans of Tony Hillerman’s mystery books set on the Navajo Nation, featuring his beloved characters, Navajo Tribal Police Officers Joe Leaphorn and Jim Chee. After Tony passed away, his daughter Anne Hillerman took up the baton and continued the series, each one landing on the New York Times Bestseller list. As she has developed her mystery writing skills, she also enhanced the role of character Bernadette Manuelito. Her fifth book, The Tale Teller, was released April 9. I met with Anne at the Santa Fe home she shares with her husband, photographer Don Strel, and dog, Sally, as we talked about her life and her writing.
Cheryl Fallstead: What was your family life like growing up?
Anne Hillerman: It was always active and full of adventure. I’m the oldest of six kids and my siblings were all adopted. Our family started in Oklahoma, that was my mom and dad’s roots, then my dad had a chance to come to Santa Fe to be the United Press International bureau chief. Then he went to work for the Santa Fe New Mexican, working six and a half days a week. I guess it was a typical family life with the kids going to school and doing science projects and writing papers. When he went to work for the University of New Mexico, his schedule was a little more reasonable and we would do weekend trips. Maybe we would go to Canyon de Chelly or Window Rock, some of the places he was thinking about as he was working on his novels.
CF: Your dad was very well respected by the Navajo people. I think you have inherited that respect as well as earning it in your own right.
AH: Dad was named a special friend of the Navajo People. They invited him to be the grand marshal of the big parade at the Navajo Fair in September. They taught his books in a lot of schools where there are predominately Navajo kids. I did inherit a lot of that. I’ve also been making my own connections, because the world has changed. His first book, The Blessing Way, came out in 1970. I’ve been working with my own Navajo connections. When a book comes out and I give a talk in Farmington or Gallup or Aztec, communities that are on the edge of the reservation, there will be a bunch of Navajo people there and often they will come up to me and say, “I read your dad’s books when I was in junior high.” The women will come up to me — and often it will be the mom, the grandmother, and a daughter — and they’ll say, “Can we have our picture taken with you?” It’s really dear. Often they will say that they’re so glad that there’s finally a strong woman in these stories.
CF: As you read your dad’s books, was there a character you related to the most?
AH: I loved all the characters, but in Skeleton Man, Chee and Cowboy Dashee, who is the Hopi law enforcement guy, and Bernadette Manuelito are going to hike down to the bottom of the Grand Canyon because there’s some foul play down there. They’re about three-quarters of the way down and the guys basically say to Bernie, “OK, honey, you stay here and see if somebody’s coming down the trail or if the bad guys show up and we’re going to go down and solve the crime.” Bernie does not stay there. Bernie finds the woman who has been kidnapped. She finds the bad guys. She finds the stolen diamonds. She basically has the crime wrapped up. But then, because my dad loved Jim Chee, there is a flash flood and Jim Chee comes to the rescue, saves Bernie and the endangered captive woman, arrests the bad guys, gets everything wrapped up, which Bernie had pretty much already done. So, I said to Dad, “You know, I really love the way you gave Bernie a more active role in this book. I think your readers would enjoy seeing her take the next step and actually become a crime solver.” And he gave me that sweet little look that fathers give their daughters and said, “Oh, honey, what an interesting idea.” But in retrospect, I’m glad he didn’t do that because that scene and that character of Bernadette Manuelito really stayed in my mind and I thought, if I’m going to continue this series, that would be the place to start. I could never be Tony Hillerman, but to have a character who hasn’t been fully developed emerge as a crime solver would give the series a new look and it would enable me to give it my own voice.
CF: So he set the stage for you to take Bernie to the next level.
AH: I think so. Unknowingly perhaps because we never talked about my continuing the series.
CF: What was the impetus for you to take over the series?
AH: The real push was going on the book tour with Tony Hillerman’s Landscape (Note: her non-fiction book with photographs by Don of locations in Tony’s stories) and talking about Dad. The book came out a year after he died and I was still pretty overwhelmed with grief. I was talking about his stories, his places, and then asking if people had questions. Inevitably, the second or third question would be if there was another book at the publisher, is there another book in the works, is there going to be another Jim Chee/Joe Leaphorn novel. Dad did not have any unpublished or unfinished books, and I’d have to say that. People told me they felt like these characters were part of their families and I could really read their disappointment. After a while, it dawned on me that I was just like those people, that besides missing my dad, I really was missing those stories, too. That was part of it, thinking that if I were to write a story, there might be an audience for it besides me and my mom. The second part was, as I said, thinking about Bernie Manuelito and thinking it’s a shame for series to end with her forever pigeon-holed as the one who brings the coffee, the sweet young thing who has to be rescued by her boyfriend, the gal who drives Jim Chee around when he has a broken foot, all those things. This isn’t true for women in law enforcement, and it particularly isn’t true for Navajo women. It isn’t in the whole spirit of Navajo culture, which celebrates strong women. So, it was a combination of those things, sensing Dad’s readers’ desire for the series to continue and my own itch to have the series not end with Bernie as the young woman who has to be
CF: What is one of the biggest challenges being faced by your characters in your new book?
AH: The title of the new book is The Tale Teller and a lot of it has to do with lying. Part of the challenge is figuring out who is telling the truth, how much of it is the truth, what part of the truth are they leaving out, and what part is clearly not the truth at all. My characters are trained police officers, so they’re used to people lying to them, but some of the people in The Tale Teller are really good liars!
One thing that really propelled me in The Tale Teller is that while people know about The Trail of Tears, most people don’t know about the Navajo Long Walk. The Navajo were the very first native tribe to be allowed to return to their native homeland. I think it’s a really important story and it says a lot of about the resilience and the ultimate success of the Navajo tribe. About 6,000 Navajo returned from Bosque Redondo in 1868 and now there are 350,000. They are one of the most successful Indian groups anywhere. They took that tragic experience and used the resilience of their ancestors as a beginning point, basically starting over from scratch. It is a very important story.
Interview and photography by Cheryl Fallstead
Originally published in Neighbors magazine