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An American MYSTERY! Special
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An interview with Tony Hillerman

  "I was signing books in California, and a woman said, 'Mr. Hillerman, why did you change the name of Leaphorn to Chee?' She couldn't tell them apart. I never forgot that... So I said I'll put both of them in one book."

See also: About the books
Author Tony Hillerman recently spoke to MYSTERY! about his interest in the Navajo, his writing career, and his thoughts about Skinwalkers the film.

How did you get started writing mysteries?

I was on a convalescent furlough after World War II and got a job driving a truckload of oil field equipment from Oklahoma City to an old oil well on the Checkerboard Reservation... I was driving across the country near Crown Point where I encountered a group of Navajos... After I unloaded the stuff, I asked a rancher what was going on. He told me a couple of the Navajo Marines were back from the Pacific, and they were having a curing ceremony for them. Would they mind if I went? They said "No, if you stay sober and behave yourself." I was tremendously impressed by it. I thought that's a great way to welcome your men back from the war. I never forgot. That was 1945.

When I decided I wanted to be a novelist, I had been a newspaperman for years. I didn't know whether I could develop a plot; I didn't know if I could develop a character. I knew I could describe. I thought, I'll set it on a Navajo reservation so I'll have a good background. If they don't like the story, they can look at the state setting, you know? That's how I got started. The more I knew about [the Navajo], the better I liked them.

Why is that?

Several things appealed to me... I liked their sense of values. They didn't judge people by how much money they had in the bank. To the contrary, if you were too wealthy, it was a pretty good sign you weren't a very good man, because you were surrounded by kith and kin who needed stuff, and if you were a really good man, you'd be sharing with them. That impressed me a lot, having kind of grown up among the people who needed a little help. Also the immense respect they pay families, and their respect for women. Their sense of humor. No one has who has been around Navajos very much hasn't been the butt of many practical jokes and been laughed at a lot. They're great for finding humor in things. Their sense of beauty. You're driving down the road with a Navajo man, and he'll slow up, and he'll say, "Notice how those cloud shadows are forming on those cliffs -- isn't that pretty?" Not many white men I know do that.

How did you come up with your main characters, Chee and Leaphorn?

Believe it or not, Joe Leaphorn was based on a Hutchinson County Texas sheriff that I met when I was a greenhorn police reporter in the Texas panhandle. I was very much impressed by this guy. He was smart, and he was humane. He knew where the law began and where common sense ended. I needed a Navajo policeman as a minor character in the first book I wrote. I intended him to be somebody that my main character would get information from, so I used this Texas sheriff, gave him a Navajo accent, and made him knowledgeable about Navajo ways, as much as I knew about them then. When I had to rewrite the book to get it published, I had kind of fallen in love with the guy, and I beefed up his role. Chee came along because I needed a young guy that wasn't as well educated and sophisticated as Leaphorn was. I had been teaching at the University of New Mexico, and I sort of melded together about 14 different young fellows and made Chee out of them.

What made you decide to bring them together?

I wrote three books with Leaphorn as the principal character and three with Chee as the principal character. Then a terrible thing happened to me. I was signing books in California, and a woman, a nice-looking lady, said, "Mr. Hillerman, why did you change the name of Leaphorn to Chee?" Anybody who is a writer knows that's a dagger right to the heart. She couldn't tell them apart. I never forgot that... So I said I'll put both of them in one book -- in fact, Skinwalkers happened to be the one -- to see if I could tell them apart, you know? I got them on the same page, and I satisfied myself they were completely different men... That woman did me a great favor. I should have put them together in a book before.

Could you tell us about your meeting with Robert Redford? When did he become interested in your work?

He called me... and said he was interested in optioning one of my books. Could he come down, we'd have dinner, and we'd talk about it? It would be tomorrow night, he said. I said, "Golly, I mean, I'm very interested in that, but I can't do it tomorrow night; I've got a poker game." He said, "Fine. How about the day after tomorrow night?" I thought that's great, you know? But [a friend] overheard that, and the word got around. What kind of a weirdo is this guy who would rather play in a Mickey Mouse little poker game than have dinner with Robert Redford and maybe option a movie? But I figured Redford would feel the same way I would about it. You've got people counting on you to play poker on Tuesday night, you don't say, "Golly, I can't. I've got to make some money." It's not an honorable thing to do, even if you need the money.

When you finally did meet, what was it like?

We went for a long drive.... He wanted to go out and see some location possibilities and look over the Navajo reservation... He had an idea that I thought was good. His idea was to make a sequence of maybe three books, make it kind of a series of movies. It seemed like a good idea to me. I was familiar with him, I think everybody is.... We stopped to get gasoline, and he went in to pay for it. These two Navajos had driven up in a truck while we were there, and they looked us all over. Coming back out, they stopped. I was chatting with him, and this guy says, "That fellow you're with, is that Robert Redford?" I said, "Yeah." He said, "I thought that looked like Redford." End of conversation. He gets in his truck and drives home. You couldn't imagine that happening on a street in urban America anywhere, him getting away without being bothered.

What input did you have into the screenplay?

[James Redford and I] spent quite a bit of time talking about it. I was trying to impress on him... that to make a movie out of a novel, you had to kind of kill the novel, so to speak, and take pieces out of it. It's such a different art form. He already knew that. We talked about how tough it was going to be. A lot of the stuff in my books is seen from the eyes of a character, internal monologue, what he's thinking. The scenery is wonderful. It's easy. It's great to show the scenery with the camera, but what's going on in a person's mind requires a very good actor, and even then some of it can't show. So we talked about that.

I must say it's hard... showing that on film without having somebody standing there telling you why it's important. For example, why is it important that Jim Chee notices that Janet Pete, a Navajo woman by name but actually a stylish New York woman raised off the reservation, interrupts him? Because you've got to tell the audience that Navajos, polite Navajos, don't interrupt, and so forth. Or the fact that she held her hand out for a handshake. Navajos, or traditional Navajos at least, are not much into shaking hands at all. Things like that, traditional things, there are a million of them, little cultural signposts.

What do you think of the changes to your story?

Anybody who tries to take anything bigger than a short story and make a movie out of it -- unless it's a very straightforward action film -- they're going to have to do drastic surgery on the book... to tell a story visually. The people who read the books and love them are going to be very indignant about it. But you can't make a movie without doing that, unless you make a seven-and-a-half-hour movie. And who wants to sit in a movie theater seven and a half hours, or even longer? You've just got to take something in the book and save some of the things you think are critical to the story. I've only written one screenplay, and, while I got paid for it, it never got produced. Even that little experience with it showed me how close to impossible it is. All you can do is try to make something entertaining and something that maintains the notion of the book. And the notion, when I started to write it, is here is a man -- who is a doctor in this case -- trying to do something good for his people. He is fiercely determined to help the Navajos, and he is willing to kill people to get it done. He is savvy, knows their culture, and, in effect, knows how to use them, too. Well, I don't want to give away the plot, but it would be unusually hard to make... a good script out of that book.

Yours is such a solitary profession. What do you think of the collaboration that is filmmaking?

...If I was in my 20s instead of 77, I would be really itching to tell a story with a camera. If I did get the job of directing a film, my first rule -- if I was basing it on a book, a novel -- would be that neither the author of the novel, nor anybody else who has got any ideas about this, is going to be allowed anywhere near this project, because it's going to be hard enough without people that don't understand the process interfering and trying to make a book with a camera.

Having worked with Jamie a bit on that first one, I'm confident that he did it as well as, or whoever had finally worked with him, did it as well as it could be done. My interest, of course, would be to maintain the original notion and original flavor of the Navajo culture. I hope this gives people a feeling of the kind of respect I feel for those people and their value system. Of course, I don't know how you're going to do that with a brief movie, but I hope it helps anyway.

Your stories do more than just entertain people. What do you hope people get out of them?

I'm trying to cast a little light on one of [the Navajos'] basic values, or on some part of their tradition... For example, Chee is looking for a guy... and he notices that the fellow had deliberately stepped over a little narrow patch of water trickle so he didn't disturb the pathway of the water -- the kind of thing a traditional Navajo would do to show his respect for the water. Okay, that tells Chee the guy is a Navajo.

Why do you make such an effort to reveal the Navajo way of thinking?

I'm doing two things. I'm trying to make the reader say, "Hey, this Hillerman really understands his culture." I'm also doing it so the reader will say, "Yeah, I see what you mean. He, the Navajo, has some respect for the world he lives in, for the culture, for the natural way."

What drives you to keep getting up in the morning and writing? You could ride off into the sunset and live happily ever after any time you wanted to.

Why does a person who is 77 and really doesn't need to write anymore, could be retired, keep writing? Right now I'm stuck in chapter six of a very tough book that I'm going to finish. I never stop writing. It's kind of an incurable disease, I think. You're obsessed by it. I know a lot of writers like that, who never quit. It's my hobby. I don't have any. I claim I'm a fly-fisherman, but the trout don't believe it. And now I'm too crippled up and clumsy to walk out on those greasy boulders with a fly rod in my hand. So when I don't have anything else to do, I'm in here writing. Or when I'm driving, I'm thinking about how to use what I'm seeing on the street in a plot. It's just incurable. It causes me to run red lights sometimes.

Do you write every day?

In a sense. I go long periods when I'm not sitting, typing at the keyboard. But right now, for example, I have, as we speak, Jim Chee is driving south from Shiprock. He's going down in the Boothill part of New Mexico. He's involved in a murder case that he believes involves Bernadette, the Navajo policewoman who has quit the Navajo police and joined the Border Patrol as a tracker. The Border Patrol has organized an all-Indian tracker group called Shadow Wolf, and he's going down there because he thinks she's running something very dangerous. Now I've got him driving, looking at the landscape, and I hadn't been down there for quite a while. So I've got to go down and look at it again. Then she's thinking about what he's going to say to her. So I'm writing, in a sense.

What is it going to be like to see your characters on TV? Are you going to watch the movie?

Absolutely I'm going to watch the movie. You know how I found out what Jim Chee looks like? There is a Navajo artist named Ernie Franklin who illustrates first editions of my books... Ernie made me a painting of Jim Chee, standing at this old filling station out in the Lukachukai Mountains, leaning on a wall, waiting for a policeman that is supposed to meet him. I looked at it, and I said, "Yeah, that's how Jim Chee looks. I didn't know how he looked before." The same way with Leaphorn. Franklin illustrated a book, and he drew a picture of Leaphorn. There he is, short haircut, the whole thing, overweight a little bit. They live in my mind, in their personalities, but I never really until then knew what they looked like.

How close can you really get to the Navajo culture?

It's a funny thing... I went to an Indian school as a boy, the first eight grades. Most of my playmates were Pottawatomie, some Seminoles. We were kind of scared of the Seminoles. They were smarter than we were, tougher than we were, we thought -- meaner than we were, certainly. So I grew up knowing that Indians are just fellow human beings. They were poor folks, you know? They rode the bus to school when they got a little older, and they carried their lunch in a sack instead of buying it at the school store. They wore bib overalls instead of belt pants....

I still remember the thing that made it most real to me. I pulled up to the Two Grayhills Trading Post, parked, and I looked. There were three people sitting on a bench in the porch in front of the trading post... They were looking at me, and I was looking at them. Then one of them said something. The other one grinned real big, and he said something. Then all four of them started laughing. I thought this just takes me directly back to the store in Sacred Heart, Oklahoma... Anybody who drove up, stranger or not, the same thing would happen: Somebody would make some wisecrack about him. It was just like going home.

After 77 years, do you think we're getting closer together or further apart?

Certainly there is a lot of evidence we're getting closer together. When I was playing football ... our best player was a Seminole Indian. Oklahoma had a law in those days saying it was against the law for black people to go to school with white people... Somebody came to the school board and said, "This guy is Seminole." Seminoles intermarried a lot with blacks in the South. Somebody said he was part black. Well, that meant he couldn't legally go to school at Kanawha High School. There wasn't any other school. What it meant to us was our star halfback, who we thought was going to help us win the conference for once, was no longer on the team. Well, you can see how bad it was then, and it's not perfect now, but it sure is a long way closer to perfect. I think, generally speaking, we all understand each other better and like each other better. I'll be happy when the day comes when we don't have a hyphenated America. We're all just Americans.

See also: About the books | Return to About Hillerman
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