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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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.