Going in Beauty: An Interview with Tony Hillerman

By Alan WarhaftigDecember 6, 2017

Going in Beauty: An Interview with Tony Hillerman
THE MYSTERY NOVELS of Tony Hillerman (1925–2008) focus on culture and landscape. His first three Navajo novels featured Joe Leaphorn; the novels that followed featured Jim Chee, with occasional appearances by Leaphorn. Both are officers in the Navajo Tribal Police. They are superb trackers, and their understanding of how people respond to the imperatives of environment is essential in getting to the bottom of otherwise incomprehensible crimes.

Chee, who is younger than Leaphorn, is a University of New Mexico graduate with deeper roots in Navajo culture. He is of two minds about whether to remain on the Reservation and considers applying to the FBI, which would take him away from Dinétah, the traditional homeland of his people. But he also studies Navajo rituals with his uncle, seeking to become a yataali — a shaman who performs the ceremonies of blessing and purification that enable the Navajo people to “go in beauty.”

A stronger spiritual dimension emerged in the Jim Chee mysteries, largely because Chee’s greater flexibility as a character allowed Hillerman to utilize more subtle perceptions. Chee is a patient man, not a superhero — accustomed to watching and waiting. His method is to seek to achieve harmony with the crime, the place where it occurred, the victims, and the perpetrators. He allows the truth of the matter to emerge gradually, facts and atmosphere playing off his keen inner sounding board. Thus, Chee is able to determine what happened accidentally and what intentionally, and whether certain actions are appropriately or wrongly attributed to a particular suspect. While Chee’s method is largely intuitive, his intuitions are both visible and believable.

Hillerman had creative reasons to swap detectives, but as he revealed in this interview, there was also a practical reason: he had lost the rights to Leaphorn’s character when he allowed an earlier novel to be optioned for television.

Tony Hillerman was in Los Angeles on October 30, 1984, to speak to a UCLA class at the invitation of fellow mystery novelist John Ball, best known for In the Heat of the Night. Hillerman was already well known, having received the Mystery Writers of America’s prestigious Edgar Allan Poe Award in 1973, for the best mystery novel of the year: Dance Hall of the Dead. I interviewed Hillerman, a big, friendly, modest man nearing 60, at his hotel; we then had dinner before he gave his talk. We exchanged letters several times over the following two years.

This interview would have remained in its file folder but for an email from James McGrath Morris, who is working on a Hillerman biography and who had come across the transcript in Hillerman’s archives.


TONY HILLERMAN: The reason I feel comfortable with Navajos and am attracted to them is that, in many ways, they are the same kind of people I am. It is, as I’m sure you know, a really impoverished country. They’re rural. A lot of them try to scratch out a living raising sheep or cattle, or farming in small ways, which was exactly my background. They’re poorly educated — exactly my background again. They’re very friendly people. They place a high value on humor, on telling stories. But to skip to me, I was born in a little, tiny, drying-up crossroads town in Oklahoma called Sacred Heart, founded by the Benedictines when it was Indian Territory. They put a monastery in there and worked out a deal with the Potawatomis. We farmed, and my dad ran the filling station/store there.

ALAN WARHAFTIG: What was the population?

Seventy-five then. It no longer exists. It had a little post office, a little crossroads post office. There was a cotton gin there, see. A lot of the people around there were Potawatomi, some Seminoles. My playmates, my best friends, were the Delonies, who were Potawatomis, and the Harjos, who were Seminoles. I went to St. Mary’s Academy. The Sisters of Mercy had come in there after the Benedictines and established a boarding school for Indian girls. The Benedictines were educating boys. The Benedictines went their way, moved off — starved out I guess. The Sisters stayed behind and ran a boarding school for girls. The public school was a two-room school with one teacher. My parents apparently didn’t think much of it, and they, and several other parents around there, got the Sisters to let us guys go to school there. So, there were about 10 or 12, maybe 14 boys, who went to that girls’ school. Some girls, too, who weren’t Potawatomi. So, I grew up knowing Indians just like everybody else.

Is there a similarity between the Indians in that part of Oklahoma and …

None, totally different. Except the most important common denominator is that we’re all members of the same species. Therefore, in 99.7 percent of the ways, we’re exactly identical. But in the remaining three-10ths of a percent, the cultural, the Potawatomis and Seminoles had pretty well lost their culture.

I understand that when you played cowboys and Indians as children you had to bribe the Indians to be Indians in the game.

Everybody wanted to be a cowboy. We raised apples and we’d bribe the Delonies to be Indians so my brother and I could be cowboys. Give ’em an apple. They were Indians anyway, of course. Even then it amused me. Anyway, given that, knowing that they’re just like you are, then you go down to New Mexico, as I did right after World War II, and I began seeing Indians who had maintained their culture. And I was intrigued. I got a job driving an oilfield truck, hauling drilling equipment from Oklahoma City to the Navajo Reservation. That’s the first time I’d run into them. That was 1945, I guess.


I was not aware of Hillerman’s military record when we met, and he didn’t speak of it during the interview, but he was a participant in the D-Day landing and received the Silver Star and Bronze Star as a teenaged infantryman during World War II. In Seldom Disappointed, his 2001 memoir, Hillerman wrote about the Helleresque absurdities of the Army, but he toughed out challenging winter conditions as comrades were wounded and dying all around him in engagements with the SS. He detailed the encounters for which the Silver and Bronze Stars were awarded, and did not see, in either instance, why he deserved a medal — or why he was singled out when others were equally or more deserving. Chapter 12 is titled, “How to Get a Bronze Star Without Knowing Why.” He wrote that he was awarded the Silver Star “for my one-shot, one-grenade defense of the road outside Sessenheim.”

Hillerman was awarded a Purple Heart after he was seriously injured in a landmine explosion. He thought he was going to die in a muddy field near Niefern, Germany, and was hospitalized in France for five months. He lost sight in both eyes for two weeks and lived the rest of his life with “useful vision in only one eye.”

Interestingly, his first exposure to Navajo culture occurred when he returned stateside and met two Navajo Marines who had fought in the war in the Pacific, and for whom an Enemy Way ceremony was performed “to return them to harmony with their people.”


Were you in the service?

Yes, I’d just gotten back from World War II. I had a convalescent furlough. The war wasn’t quite over, so you could get a job. People were crying for anybody to do anything. I’d never driven a truck. I had a patch over one eye, and I walked with a cane. But you could pick your own job, and that looked interesting. Besides, I was attracted to the truck owner’s daughter at the time. Then, when I managed to get transferred to New Mexico in 1952, I picked it up.

Now you had meanwhile become a journalist …

Yeah. I had meanwhile gone to the University of Oklahoma, got a degree in journalism, got a job as a police reporter in Texas, and moved around. Got to United Press. Covered politics, got transferred to Santa Fe. The state capitol bureau manager got sick. They needed somebody; they offered it to me, and I jumped at it.


Hillerman didn’t mention that he rose to become executive editor of The New Mexican in Santa Fe, where poet-critic Winfield Townley Scott served as book editor. Pulitzer Prize–winning novelist Oliver La Farge, author of Laughing Boy (1929), wrote a weekly column on manners and morals. Hillerman left for Albuquerque in 1963 and taught journalism at the University of New Mexico from 1966 to 1987.


When did you move into writing fiction? Had you always had that desire?

In the back of my mind, I always thought, someday, I’m going to write the Great American Novel. When I got to be in my late 30s … I’d written a few short stories and sent them off and got the usual rejection slips. You know, I still can’t write short stories very well. But in the back of my mind, I always wanted to try my hand at fiction. So, I decided I wouldn’t start right off with War and Peace. I’d start off with something short, and it seemed to me that mysteries have a kind of form I liked to read. At the time, I’d been reading Eric Ambler, and I’d been reading Graham Greene and a couple of people like that. I’d read either serialized novels or short stories — I didn’t know who had written them, but they’d been written about Australian aborigines. The imagery stuck in my mind. They were really interesting, I thought. And it occurred to me that I probably wouldn’t be very good at plotting, but I knew I was a good descriptive writer. I knew I could do that. I didn’t know how good I’d be at any other thing. I thought it would be better if I could run this against a background that would be interesting. Maybe it’d help me sell it. At first, I thought I’d use Apaches. But I was really much more interested in Navajos, and it seemed to me they offered much more opportunity. They’re a more complicated culture, and there are more of them, so I decided on the Navajos, thinking I would try my hand at a mystery and then, if I could go the distance, then I would write something important.

Then you got hooked on mysteries?

Well, I don’t think I’m good enough yet to write something important.

But the elements that make your books special could be contained in any number of fiction forms.

Yeah. But the mystery has so many advantages now that it has broken out of that silly classical detection tradition. Thank God for Chandler and Hammett and [Arthur] Upfield and those guys. You can do anything you want with it. It gives you a story line that holds your readers’ interest, I think, while you’re doing whatever you want to do with it. I think it’s a lovely form for anybody who wants to write a novel.

Your books show that you have a deep understanding not only of Navajo culture and the thinking processes of Leaphorn and Chee but also of the Hopi and the Zuni. How did you learn so much about their ceremonials?

Well, if you’ll think back, you’ll realize that you see the Hopi and the Zuni through the eyes of a Navajo. He’s an outsider, just as I am. He’s an interested outsider to those cultures, and he doesn’t know a thing more about them than I do, see. I could not have written the Hopi or the Zuni book, either one of them, from the viewpoint of a Hopi or a Zuni. I feel comfortable with the Navajo. I have a lot of Navajo friends. I know a hell of a lot more about the Navajo culture than most Navajos do. They’re like the average Kiwanian, the average guy you’d run into on the street. Ask him about his religion and he’ll refer you to a preacher. Most Navajos are the same way.

You have two Navajo detectives, and they have basically the same problem of a large tract of land to patrol. And they use the same techniques — both their knowledge of Indian cultures and also traditional detection techniques. What’s the difference, in your mind, between Joe Leaphorn and Jim Chee?

And why did I change, is sort of a corollary question. Leaphorn was started kind of as an accident. I didn’t intend him to be an important character in that first book. When I got it back from Harper & Row, they said they’d publish it if I gave them a decent last chapter. That gave me an opportunity not just to fix it, but to fix it for the first time in my life knowing that somebody would publish it. Meanwhile, I’d become very enamored of Leaphorn as a character, so I not only wrote a new last chapter, which was not a hell of a lot better than the first one, but I also expanded his role in the book. But I still had given him a non-Navajo name, and I was very careless. I hadn’t developed him as I would if I’d known he was going to be an important character. So, I was kind of stuck with some things about him, and as I kept writing I became encumbered by the fact that he was too old, too sophisticated, too savvy. I mean, he knew everything about the white culture. And he didn’t particularly approve of it, but he wasn’t surprised by anything or particularly curious about the white culture. I needed a young guy who was very interested and curious about the white culture.

Are you going to drop Leaphorn?

I haven’t used him for three books. Frankly, at the same time I was deciding to do this, I temporarily lost television rights to Leaphorn. One of the books was optioned, and in a carelessly written contract, I lost characterization rights.

So you wanted to move to another character.

Yeah. The two things worked together. I would have done it anyway, but that gave me a good reason. Now I’ve got Leaphorn. I bought him back. But all of the Navajo books are under movie option. And there’s supposed to be a movie, but you’ve been out here, you know. You know how it is.

I know screenwriters who read your books looking for properties to adapt. Most decide they can’t possibly adapt them because the thought process of your detectives is so internalized. But in People of Darkness you opened it up by giving Jim Chee a sidekick, Mary Landon, to whom he could explain what was going on. Was that a conscious choice, to open up the dramatic possibilities?

No. It was a learning process. The more you write, you learn that some of these things are just too damn difficult, and they turn out to be boring when a guy’s just inside his head a lot. For example, in Listening Woman, the second chapter — when I first wrote it, Leaphorn’s alone in the police car, and I go back and arrest a kid and stick him in there with him. Give him some company. It was just a learning process. It wasn’t anything …

It’s not so much a problem as a read. It’s mostly that it can’t be depicted visually.

But it’s kind of a problem as a read, too, I think. I’m very conscious of the impatience of my reader. I’m very conscious that he buys my book to be entertained and that he’s got a limited amount of tolerance for me to screw around with. So, I tend to try to write them with the thought in mind that I don’t want him to say, “Aw, the hell with it,” get bored, put it down, and walk away from it.

Are Leaphorn and Chee ever going to combine forces?

I don’t know. I’ve thought about it. I really don’t feel they’d like each other very well.


In a letter postmarked March 4, 1985, Hillerman wrote to me: “Have a plot in mind which would use both Chee and Leaphorn — Chee on the immediate scene of a single crime, Leaphorn back in the bureaucracy at Window Rock looking at an emerging pattern of which Chee’s case seems to be a small bit. Maybe I will write it.” This is essentially the plot of Skinwalkers, the first novel to utilize both Leaphorn and Chee, which Hillerman published in 1986.


Which books are your favorites?

It’s kind of like asking a parent about his children because you can see what’s wrong with each one of them. You can see their failures and shortcomings. You can also see the charming things about them, if they’ve got any. Even if they don’t, usually. The one I think, on balance, that I like best is the last one, The Dark Wind, because I think I finally learned how to make an intricate plot work well. In People of Darkness and Listening Woman, for example, I wasn’t so happy with the way the plot worked. Writing, for me, has always been a kind of solution to a problem. I like to write. Almost anything — speeches, you name it. I write all kinds of crap. I write for National Geographic, which is a hard thing to write for. I’m trying to sell something now to Reader’s Digest, for God’s sake. I don’t think I’m ever gonna get it sold. I’ve got a contract from them, and at least I’ll get a kill fee. But you just think, look at this idiot formula. I ought to be smart enough to whip that. So, you think, I ought to be able to write a good, intricate plot, even though I’d rather describe clouds.

That’s funny. Most of the people who can write for Reader’s Digest would kill to be able to write mysteries like you.

[Laughs.] I guess so …

I believe that we’ve just witnessed the “grass is greener” phenomenon.

I don’t know what it is. I’m challenged by something that’s tough to do. Tough for me to do. And I like to try it. So, you end up wasting a lot of time with stuff you don’t care about once you’ve done it.

You know, it’s interesting. I read The Fly on the Wall first. Then I got into the Chee books. After those, which I enjoyed tremendously, I couldn’t bring myself to read the Joe Leaphorn books for some time.

Oh really. Why not?

I was so loyal to Chee that I wasn’t prepared to switch detectives. Leaphorn doesn’t have the inherent interest of Chee.

He doesn’t. A lot of readers tell me, “I still prefer Leaphorn.” They say, “Why don’t you go back to Leaphorn?” I think they’re wrong. For what I’m trying to do, I know they’re wrong.

Well, the advantage to Leaphorn is that you get more of the reasoning, more of the landscape and cultural detail because the story hasn’t opened up — there aren’t other characters to absorb, and you haven’t gotten into intricate plotting.

I guess maybe so.

I reread People of Darkness the other day, and I had forgotten about the hit man. Because what had struck me about your books was the combination of the Indian cultures and the landscapes. And the detective with a foot in two different worlds, needing the methodologies of both to solve the crime. In the Leaphorn books, you get that “multiple worlds effect” in much more pure form, but Chee is clearly a more interesting character. You were also a better writer by the time you wrote the Chee books.

I’m glad to hear you say that. I can’t tell. I want very badly to keep becoming a better writer. I’m not sure, in my own mind, that I’m making any progress, and to hear another writer say that is important to me. I’m delighted.

Your sense of the landscape is special. How do you get those landscapes? Do you go on forays to find settings to write from memory?

I always go to where I’m gonna write about, get a feeling for it, kind of memorize things, so I feel comfortable. I write kind of in scenes, and I’ll spend a lot of time with my feet up, thinking about what’s gonna happen in a chapter. Not just what’s gonna happen, but the way the wind’s blowin’ and what time of day it is, and where the light’s coming from and the cloud formations and what you’re smelling and how hot it is, and what mood the characters in a book are in. And I don’t have an awful lot of time to be at the actual places because I teach full-time, and I like to do other things. When I do get to the — now — word processor, I’ve got that scene … All I’m doing really is reporting what I’ve seen in my imagination.

But it’s also interwoven with the plot details. Leaphorn, in The Blessing Way, examined tire tracks going up and down a mountain. He has to interpret the tracks to determine what happened. It appeared to him that the tracks had been made by someone in a hurry. Because Navajos don’t even have a word for hurry, Leaphorn decided that the man he was tracking was a Navajo who had left The Way. It was this precise relationship of landscape, character, plot, and culture that was so remarkable about Arthur Upfield’s mysteries — the way that Napoleon Bonaparte, Upfield’s half-aboriginal detective, would read subtle signs in the outback.

When I wrote The Blessing Way, I hadn’t read Upfield since I was a child. I’d totally forgotten who had planted those images in my mind. After the book came out, some reviewer or other referred to Upfield, and I thought, “By God, I wonder if that’s the guy from my childhood.” I went out to the library, found the Upfield book, and while I’ve never to this day found the stuff that I remember, it’s obviously the same man.

Your books are always in the Mysteries section. You don’t find them in Fiction or Literature. How do you feel about the genre division?

It doesn’t bother me. Some people it does bother — people who want to write literature and then find it in the Mysteries section, and it bugs them. I figure such things take care of themselves. If I write something that’s clearly literature, somebody will notice it, and they’ll go back to my other books, and they’ll say, “Well, this is literature, too.” Maybe.


I taught Hillerman’s 1982 novel The Dark Wind to high school juniors for more than 20 years, figuring it was valuable for urban teenagers to be exposed to desert landscapes and the worldviews of Navajos and Hopis. It was a curricular prelude to the Transcendentalists and always evoked pleasant memories of my time with Hillerman years earlier.

Hillerman may not have written The Great American Novel, but he created wonderfully unselfconscious American literature — a memorable series of mystery novels reflecting life in one of America’s most fascinating places.

Hillerman and his wife, Marie, raised six children, five of them adopted. Daughter Anne decided to continue the Jim Chee stories, promoting Officer Bernadette Manuelito of the Navajo Tribal Police, previously a minor character, to a co-starring role. I began to read the first of her three novels with trepidation and ended up pleased. The plot of the second novel was seriously flawed, but the third was back on track. I look forward to the fourth.


Alan Warhaftig taught English at LAUSD’s Fairfax High School for 24 years and served as co-coordinator of the Fairfax Magnet Center for Visual Arts for 18 years.

LARB Contributor

Alan Warhaftig taught in the Los Angeles Unified School District for 28 years. In retirement, he is pursuing his longtime interest in Caribbean studies.


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