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What was it like to work with Tony Hillerman?

Like most authors, when Rosemary Herbert speaks at book events about the mystery fiction anthologies she edited with Tony Hillerman, A New Omnibus of Crime and The Oxford Book of American Detective Stories and about her own new first novel, Front Page Teaser: A Liz Higgins Mystery, she always makes sure that she allows plenty of opportunity to for people to ask her questions. Lots of times authors become tired of the questions they are most frequently asked, but that it not true for Herbert, especially when the question is, “What was it like to work with Tony Hillerman?” Today – the second anniversary of Hillerman’s death – she reflects on this question.

I just love it when people ask me what it was like to work with Tony Hillerman. That’s because I never tire of remembering and sharing moments spent in his company.  I always begin my answer to this question by keeping my promise to Tony. As he was reaching the end of his life, he told me two things. One was that he trusted me to make any future decisions about our two books. The other was that I should always remember to thank people who gather anywhere to hear me talk about our books. No matter how famous he became, Tony always appreciated each and every person who took an interest in his work. Hence, on behalf of Tony – and for my part, too – I thank readers of this piece for their interest in what I have to say here.

Two things leap to mind when I recall working with Tony Hillerman. The first is an image of this large, fatherly man standing in the doorway of his home near Albuquerque, New Mexico, greeting me warmly when I first arrived there to interview him for my 1994 book, The Fatal Art of Entertainment: Interviews with Mystery Writers. During an extended interview, Tony revealed much about his modest boyhood beginnings – and about his warm sense of humor – as he told me about the unusual manner in which he discovered the work of a writer who would exert a profound influence on his own work:

“Well, in Sacred Heart, Oklahoma, where I grew up, there was no library,” Tony told me. “The only way to get books was to order them from the mimeographed catalog of the state library. I’ve often said this was a guaranteed way to get a broad education. You would order all kinds of adventure stories, like Captain Blood and the Tom Swift stories, and Treasure Island. And then, weeks later, a package would arrive, and in it you would find exciting material like History of the Masonic Order in Oklahoma! But on rare occasions you would get something about the Foreign Legion or a novel about a half-breed, Australian aborigine policeman who solved crimes in the Outback. That was my introduction to Arthur Upfield.”

Just as Upfield’s sleuth, the half-aboriginal Detective Inspector Napolean Bonaparte is torn between the different worlds represented by his parentage — and uses his knowledge of both to advantage in solving crimes – Tony’s Navajo Tribal Policemen Joe Leaphorn and Jim Chee solve mysteries by understanding the uneasy intersection of contemporary American culture and traditional Indian ways.

Upfield also awoke in Tony an appreciation for how portrayal of a harsh and distinctive landscape can make a mystery novel unforgettable. As readers know, this became Tony’s forte. It may seem that his use of landscape was effortless, but one day, as Tony in typically trusting manner turned on his computer and revealed to me his then-current novel in progress, he told me about how he made sure to make his descriptions of landscape advance the plot, rather than serve as self-indulgent digressions.

“What I want to do here is develop the character of these of these two by what they stop to look at…They’re going to cross the Hopi reservation,” Tony said, describing the work in progress. “Okay, from this road there you can see literally miles of sagebrush on this great flat [expanse] and the hills roll away, and you can see San Francisco Peaks sixty, seventy miles away. Not a tree, not a bush, not a shrub! It’s really pure sagebrush country. And on the fence there, somebody’s painted a real neat sign that said, ‘Woodcutting Prohibited’ – which is just a huge joke and really there. And they’re going to notice the sign and they notice it’s been repainted. And by showing their reactions to it, I can illuminate the character of the two men and also say something about this incredible Navajo sense of humor. This Navajo would go to all that trouble to paint that just to underline the shortage of firewood for a hundred miles.”

Tony paused before saying, “Okay, and then I think, ‘A lot of my readers want me to get on with it. They know this man’s been killed and they’re wondering why.’ So I’m beginning to say, ‘Have I got enough tension built up in this book? Should I get on with the story?’ I deal with that all the time.”

Tony’s trusting revelations about his writing process, and his own standards for making certain that all aspects of his writing advance the plot, set the stage for our work together as co-editors of two anthologies of mystery fiction.  Although he was the big-name author for our projects, from start to finish Tony always treated me as a valued confidante and equal in all decisions. He also kept us vigilant about ensuring that our books would have solid entertainment value for readers. And we agreed that the entertainment value meant stirring a full range of emotions, from delight in humor, to tense excitement, to profound pity.

That vigilance about the entertainment value was important as we vetted a large number of stories to decide which to include in The Oxford Book of American Detective Stories and our most recent book, A New Omnibus of Crime. In both volumes, we took seriously our overarching mission to show developments in the mystery genre. This can be a tall order, and it can lead to strongly considering stories that do just that without delivering good reads in other regards. Thanks to Tony, we made sure that the stories we included in our books showcased genre developments while they were also page-turners.

For instance, in A New Omnibus of Crime we chose Dorothy Salisbury Davis’ memorably titled, 1963 story “By the Scruff of the Soul” not only as an early exemplar of the late twentieth-century explosion on the mystery scene of superlative regional fiction, but because this poignant story of a love-lorn traveling salesman who falls for a “wild at heart” country girl moves toward disaster with the inevitability of a Greek tragedy. In the same book, we knew we wanted to include a story that represented the popularity of pets in crime writing. Tony advised that we stay clear of cloying or cutesy portrayals of pets so we included Ed McBain’s 1999 humorous short-short story, “Barking at Butterflies.” Here McBain takes a mysogynist’s point of view as he describes a husband’s reaction to his wife’s insufferable pooch. We were pleased to note that “Barking at Butterflies” also exemplifies the burgeoning trend of using couples in mystery fiction.

Speaking of pairs, another unforgettable aspect of working with Tony Hillerman was visiting the home he shared with his wife, Marie, who always made me feel as if I were a member of the family when I worked with Tony at their place. There was no unrequited love in the Hillerman household. No noisy pooches. There was just a warm welcome. Good work to accomplish. And joy in the process.

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