Anthony Hillerman was born in Sacred Heart, Oklahoma, on May 27, 1925,
at the dawn of the Dust Bowl. The youngest of August and Lucy Grove
Hillerman's three children, Tony and his older brother and sister helped
his parents run a general store and work the family farm.
Author Tony Hillerman
From 1930 to 1938, he became one of several farm boys to attend St.
Mary's Academy, a boarding school for Native American girls.
Pottawatomie Indians were his compatriots in baseball and cotton
chopping -- ordinary farm kids just like him. Not until he was home on
leave from World War II did he come across Native Americans who seemed
at all different. Driving a truck cross country to earn money, he
encountered Navajos (the Dineh), who were engaged in a ritual curing
ceremony on the reservation in northwestern New Mexico. Hillerman was
fascinated. The experience created a lasting impression of a generous,
deeply religious, and hospitable people whose approach to life he
After completing his stint as a combat soldier in the Army, during which
he earned the Silver Star, the Bronze Star with Oak Leaf Cluster, and
the Purple Heart, Hillerman returned to his home state to attend the
University of Oklahoma, receiving a Bachelor's degree in 1948. That same
year he married Marie Unzner, with whom he reared five children.
His first job out of college was writing advertising copy for Cain's
Age-Dated Coffee and Purina Pig Chow. A week into the job, he received a
call from Tommy Steph, editor of the Borger News-Herald, and his career
as a journalist was launched. From 1948 to 1962, he covered crime and
politics for newspapers in Texas, Oklahoma, and New Mexico, eventually
working his way up to the editorship of the Santa Fe New Mexican.
Between editing a daily paper and being the father of five, however,
Hillerman couldn't find time to do what he really wanted to do -- write
"In Santa Fe," Hillerman writes in his memoir Seldom Disappointed, "my
yen to become a novelist grew stronger. The UP bureau was just up the
street from where Territorial Governor Lew Wallace had written Ben Hur.
Across the parking lot in the newsroom of the New Mexican, Oliver La
Farge, whose Laughing Boy had won the Pulitzer Prize, was a columnist.
The book review editor's Scrimshaw had won the National Book Award for
poetry. A reporter who regularly sold his short stories to The New
Yorker had just left. ... All things seemed possible. I started writing
short stories, collecting those painful rejection slips, and dreaming
about writing the Great American Novel."
Fittingly, it was a news story about a murderer condemned to die in New
Mexico's new gas chamber that jump-started his career in fiction. After
talking to the death row inmate, who hoped Hillerman's story might alert
his long-lost mother to his death, "a notion implanted in my brain,"
says Hillerman. "It was the thought that fiction can sometimes tell the
truth better than facts." (The convict would later turn up in
Hillerman's novel People of Darkness and in the short story "First Lead
Encouraged by his wife to pursue writing, Hillerman enrolled for a
Master's degree in English at the University of New Mexico. There he
encountered writing professor Morris Friedman, who encouraged him to
write in the first person (a taboo for reporters) and introduced
Hillerman to his agent, Ann Elmo. She was soon at work, selling his
essays to magazines until Hillerman was ready to move from freelancing
to fiction. From 1967 to 1970 he worked nights and weekends to complete
his first novel, The Blessing Way, featuring Lieutenant Joe Leaphorn.
Upon reading the draft, Elmo famously counseled Hillerman to "get rid of
the Indian stuff." But Hillerman felt the Navajo Nation and culture were
the most worthwhile parts of the manuscript, so he sent the book off to
Harper & Row editor Joan Kahn, who'd been quoted in Writer magazine
saying that she liked mysteries more involved with character and
culture. True to her word, she liked the book enough to publish it in
As his writing career was taking off, Hillerman taught at the University
of Mexico and went on to chair the journalism department for more than
20 years. He retired in 1985, but the books kept coming, more than 20 at
last count, including 15 in his legendary mystery series featuring
Lieutenant Joe Leaphorn and Officer Jim Chee. While the "rez" is only
about the size of West Virginia, Hillerman's two Navajo cops have found
plenty to keep them busy over the past 30 years. Laced with references
to Native religion and culture, each book reveals a different aspect of
life in high desert Indian Country, where Native culture and mainstream
American society intersect. Throw a murder into the mix, and you've got
the makings of one of the most successful mystery careers in America.
Although the tribe has named him a Special Friend of the Dineh for his
accurate portrayals of Navajo life, Hillerman still worries about
getting it wrong. He reads copiously and runs his manuscripts by Navajo
friends to check not only for accuracy, but for believability as well.
He even had a Navajo English class in Shiprock consider a subplot he was
planning to see if it would work. When the students said no, he junked
"For me, studying the [Navajo] has been absolutely fascinating,"
Hillerman told Publishers Weekly, "and I think it's important to show
[my readers that] aspects of ancient Indian ways are still very much
alive and are highly germane."
In addition to his mystery novels, Hillerman has written numerous
nonfiction works that explore the geography and history of the
Southwest. Most recently, his memoir, Seldom Disappointed, earned
both the 2002 Malice Domestic Lifetime Achievement Award and the Agatha
Award for Best Nonfiction Book. These awards take their place on a shelf
already filled with Edgar and Grand Master Awards from Mystery Writers
of America, the Golden Spur from Western Writers of America, and a
Public Services Award of the Department of the Interior, among others.
Hillerman's stories are both accessible and authentic. With minimal
fuss, he captures the full sense of the lonely Southwestern landscape,
scaling it down to a human level without diminishing its power. As
anthropologist, journalist, and storyteller, Hillerman captures the
endless highways, sly humor, and enduring spirit of Indian Country
better than anyone else does.