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Hillerman Interweaves Mystery and Mysticism

Tony Hillerman author of The Fallen Man

By Valerie J. Macmillan

The age-old advice given to aspiring writers is to "write what you know." In one sense, New Mexican author Tony Hillerman has done that very well; his accuracy and skill in portraying the Navaho religion and culture in his best-selling mystery novels has won him the "Special Friend of the Dineh" award. But the name of the award is important: Hillerman is not of the Dineh, and in choosing a Navaho narrator, he enters a potential mine field the old adage is designed to avoid.

Hillerman, a World War Two veteran who has navigated some literal minefields and emerged with "unreliable" knees, is not fazed by this particular one. His sureness appears to spring from two sources: his personal fascination and identification with the Navaho culture and a willingness to leave some things undescribed.

Hillerman, who first met Navahos during a his wartime convalescence, says he felt an immediate cultural tie--most of culture, in his opinion, being economic in nature.

"First you sort it out and find out how racist you are," Hillerman says. 'And then you say, 'How much of culture is based on race?' If you're like me, you find out it doesn't matter that much."

What does matter, Hillerman says, is the common thread that being raised "poor, rural, immensely dependent on the weather, [and] in relative isolation," gives. It is this shared experience that makes him more comfortable at the Two Gray Hills Trading Post in northern New Mexico than at a faculty meeting at Albuquerque's University of New Mexico, where he taught journalism for several years.

However, Hillerman says that sharing a sense of cultural past brought on by economic circumstances does not always prepare him for covering religions that are not his own. Although he often double-checks his facts with Navaho friends and attempts to watch ceremonies he is going to describe, matters get especially tricky when he moves outside the Navaho and places his characters in settings where religion is an intensely private matter.

"I avoid writing about the kachina religion because they have a theology and philosophy that requires secrecy," Hillerman says. "Knowledge of the uninitiated ruins the power." When faced with a scene in which a character would participate in the ceremony, Hillerman finds an outside narrator. That narrator "doesn't see hardly any of it because I don't want to be wrong." But he admits, "even then you make a mistake." Describing a time when he placed a ceremony outdoors instead of inside a hogan, he approaches it philosophically, accepting the purist's criticism.

Luckily, the Navaho religion, which Hillerman repeatedly describes as "fascinating," does not demand absolute privacy: "the more you know, the better," Hillerman says. What he knows is part of the attraction for him; the emphasis on avoiding excesses and fulfilling familial responsibilities strike a chord in his own life.

"It is fascinating with the way [religion] continues to establish their values," he says, smiling and squinting a little in the afternoon sunlight, and pausing to elaborate on his deep belief in a world beyond everyday experience.

"You're among a lot of people whose reason tells you if I can't understand them, they don't exist," says Hillerman, a former professor with a mixed opinion of academia. His detective novels, which usually incorporate an element of the surreal that is both mystical and sacred, take life from his own deep belief in religion's ability to solve mysteries more complex than the ones at the heart of his novels.

This mystical edge might be unexpected in a writer who is a journalist by training and warns all interviewers that he has taught courses in interviewing. But Hillerman does not see the two types of writing as exclusive, and most of his advice about writing can be applied to any genre.

"Writing is writing. Each time you up the pen, you're confronting a problem," he says, slipping into his professorial mode long enough to explain that for him, every genre suffers from the same problem: how to convey your own vision of events, whether actual or fictional, to an audience. The individual nature of writing means that no two people choose to convey something the same way. More advice follows.

"Leave out the parts the readers skip," Hillerman says is the best advice he's ever received. "You'll have this great description--you distort the plot to get it in. Everyone tends to do it." And finally, he gives advice he assumes the Harvard students won't need: "Be connected."

Hillerman's latest novel in his Navaho mystery series, The Fallen Man, features both of his Navaho police detectives, Joe Leaphorn and Jim Chee. The Fallen Man is set on and about the 1,700 foot high Shiprock, a spiritual site for the Navaho in northern New Mexico.

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