Last Thursday’s high winds could not deter members of Murder Among Friends from coming to our meeting and talking with the talented and charming Anne Hillerman about her book, Spider Woman’s Daughter. With this novel, Anne continues the series begun by her father, the legendary Tony Hillerman. She has found a brilliant way to not only feature Joe Leaphorn and Jim Chee, but to focus on Chee’s Navajo Police officer wife, Bernie Manuelito. The story is told from Bernie’s point of view, and we get a chance to go deeper into her background and family.
We asked Anne to tell us the story of this story – what inspired her to write it. She told us about a mystery writers’ convention that her father and other Southwestern mystery writers still hold and two very specific ways it played a role in her decision to continue his series. First, she and her husband, who is a professional photographer, offered to do photographs of places that New Mexico author Michael McGarrity describes so well in his Santa Fe-based mysteries. These complimented the presentation he gave at the conference and were a big hit with attendees. All but one. After the presentation, Tony asked his daughter, “Why haven’t you done this for me?”
She and her husband immediately started reading and researching spots from the entire series, which became the manuscript for their book, Tony Hillerman’s Landscape: On the Road with Chee and Leaphorn. Sadly, her father died before the book came out, but during the book tour she & her husband did for the book, she started getting a steady stream of questions from fans asking whether there might not be even partial Leaphorn and Chee story tucked away in his office or on his computer. Anne told us that her father had “really been good about wrapping everything up” on his stories, but that started her ruminating about how she felt the loss of these characters as well as the loss of her dad. She had also hoped that he had taken a suggestion from her to give Bernie more to do as a detective, but it never happened.
She realized that if she focused on Bernie is would give her the chance to let Bernie do real police work. “Poor Bernie needed a chance to rise up and be a real policeman.” As a non-fiction writer, she found the second advantage she’d had with working on her father’s mystery con: the opportunity to learn the basics of plotting, dialog, etc. from professional working authors in the genre. She found tackling these elements to be fascinating – and a chance to have fun. She also found and conquered one of the biggest challenges any fiction writer faces: continuing to keep at it, and to make it “something more that my mom and I would read”. She also knew that she would be facing a lot of attention that generally speaking, first-time writers do not: “And I wanted it to be good attention”. She also knew she needed “to bring the characters to a good conclusion.”
She made concerted efforts to make sure the her portrayal of the three main character, Leaphorn, Chee, and Bernie, were consistent with what readers would already know about them from her father’s books. She’s been very pleased that people have specifically picked up on the characters & allusions to Tony’s book, A Thief of Time. She maintains the tension between Chee and Leaphorn, while exploring what they really mean to each other. She found her base for Leaphorn’s relationship with Bernie in her father’s book, The Wailing Wind, in which he reassures her, and acts like a good mentor. Anne also found her key to Leaphorn’s real relationship with Chee: liking Jim, even though he sometimes gets on Joe’s nerves! We asked her about other feedback the readers have given, and learned that one male book group in Canada thought she should add more "sizzle" to Bernie and Chee's relationship ("after all, they're married!"). Anne laughed and said that while she could appreciate their point of view, she again, wants the books to be consistent with those of her father, so -- no sizzle!
Along with the tradition of weaving that Bernie’s mama is noted for, we learn that Bernie’s grandfather was a Navajo Code Talker during WWII. Anne told us she’d found this fascinating and plans to include more on this aspect of Bernie’s heritage in future stories. She also told us that the Navajo culture is a very patriotic one, and that the Code Talkers “are at the top of the list” and held in high esteem and pride.
We asked about the Museum of Indian Arts & Culture, and whether or not it was the museum the story’s American Indian Resource Center (AIRC) was based on. Anne said that in part it did, but that she was also influenced by the School for Advanced Research in Santa Fe’s Indian Arts Research Center. We commented on how her descriptions of the special Navajo rug, and the beauty of the area were two of our favorite aspects to the novel.
We also talked about the great weaver and chanter, Hosteen Klah, and how we’d learned that he was considered “nádleeh”, a gender status in Navajo culture. We were impressed that such an ancient culture had a way to accept the men who did what was regarded as women’s work. Weaving has traditionally been considered women’s work. I’ve heard the term used for female warriors as well. There were places in the tribe for both.
Other great spots that Anne shared with us for learning more about Indian culture, arts, and history included the Heard Museum in Phoenix, and the Wheelright Museum of the American Indian. Both have things made by Klah, but due to their age, and tribal concerns for those considered religious artifacts, they may not be on exhibit. When we asked about current issues for those living on reservations, she mentioned that along with poverty, and alcoholism, there’s been rising concern about gangs. Young people are having to deal with finding jobs outside the reservation that are still within reasonable distance to maintain their ties to the reservation.
Other quick points from our talk with Anne:
- We’re hoping for better things for Bernie’s younger sister. (We understand more troubles brew in the next book, Rock with Wings, and Anne assured us that in the current book she’s working on, Darleen catches a break!
- One of our favorite characters, Mrs. Benally does have an encore appearance in Rock with Wings. (We’re hoping she’s in it for the long-term too – she’s so much fun!)
- What has happened to The Cat?! We told Anne how much we liked this feline red herring, and she’s taken note – and may bring the cat back!
- I asked the totally unfair but always interesting question: could she name a few of her favorites from her father’s books. Clarifying that these are just her current favorites, Anne gamely answered with:
Dance Hall of the Dead
And of course, A Thief of Time
Our thanks to Anne Hillerman for a delightful, informative, and very fun time! You have our standing invitation to come to Lisle whenever it may be feasible.