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Tony Hillerman, 1993

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Tony Hillerman

Author Speaks at Friends Banquet

This story originally appeared in the Spring 1993 Perspectives

Tony Hillerman is such a pleasant, easygoing person that it's hard to believe he spends his time dreaming of ways for people to die.

In his next book, "Sacred Clowns," which he finished before leaving Albuquerque to speak at the Friends of the OSU Library Annual Banquet, the mystery surrounds a hit-and-run victim. Although Hillerman writes best-selling mystery novels, he says his principal characters, two Navaho tribal police officers, are not all that interested in solving crimes.

"For example, the murderer in this new book has apologized anonymously, and, because traditional Navahos attach no value on vengeance beyond restitution, there is no real need to solve the murder. The Navaho way assumes the person who committed the crime is out of harmony and needs a ceremonial cure. It's this contrast between justice and harmony that holds my attention as a writer."

Hillerman, a former journalist, didn't set out to become a mystery writer. "I was wanting to write fiction, but I wanted to write the Great American Novel. However, I chose the mystery genre because it depends more on narrative action, which I thought I could do, and less on character development. Also, I thought I would use the Southwest desert as a backdrop, so if it was a lousy play, at least the setting would look great." But if he had listened to his first agent in 1970 after he finished his first mystery novel, he may not have been published at all. "She told me'The Blessing Way' was a lousy book and that I should take out that Indian stuff."

But Hillerman's love affair with Native Americans goes back a long way. Born and raised in Pottowatamie County, Oklahoma, he attended a Catholic school for Pottowatamie girls. "I was neither Pottowatamie nor a girl; I know what is to be a minority." He writes about Navahos because "they are an open, friendly, humorous people-country people, like me."

And being a country boy is part of what makes Hillerman tick. He recalls that "town boys were the ones who knew how to make telephone calls, wore trousers and low cut shoes instead of bib overalls and farm boots."

At age 68, the award-winning novelist says he is still class conscious. "I have a chip on my shoulder about silver-spoon people. If you have noticed all the bad guys go to Dartmouth and Yale," he says with a grin.

Hillerman began his own higher education career at Oklahoma A&M College in 1942. He planned to study engineering, but with four part-time jobs, he didn't do well in his classes. His English teacher at the time, however, thought he had a talent for writing and forced him to improve his spelling and punctuation skills.

"This has been a sentimental homecoming for me," he says of his visit to Stillwater in nearly 50 years. In fact, he has plans to complete a book set at his old college. "It's a poor-boy's version of 'The Catcher in the Rye' about a bunch on red-necks during the Depression trying to go to school, living on birds and squirrels from Theta Pond."

After a year of college, he was drafted and sent to Germany. When he returned, he enrolled at the University of Oklahoma to study journalism, and had a brief career writing for the Purina Pig Chow company before becoming a UPI correspondent for the Oklahoma Congress. He eventually used that background for a political novel called "The Fly on the Wall."

"You're a legend to us. Everyone still talks about you," a reporter who currently covers Hillerman's old beat says to him. During the next several interviews with reporters, he spends as much time answering questions as he does discussing the tricks of the journalism trade. One piece of advice he offered to them was: "You always try to let your readers think you know more than you do. If you report your subject ties his shoes in a double knot, it implies a greater intimacy than you may actually have."

And this eye for detail is an important part of novels, too. He says he spends a great deal of time researching,"more than you would think," and he doesn't like to make mistakes.

At the beginning of "Listening Women," he tells that he had a blind women in a canyong, and her escort had just been killed. "I couldn't think of anyway to get her out of that canyon. So I thought, I have a real good editor; he will figure out a way to get her out of the canyon. When the proof came back, and no one caught it. I never did get that woman out of the canyon."

But that one little mistake doesn't seem to bother of any his fans.

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