NAW Interview with Anne Hillerman

Anne Hillerman

Anne Hillerman’s bestselling first novel Spider Woman’s Daughter (HarperCollins) became a New York Times Bestseller in its first week on shelves! The book follows the trail of the Navajo detectives her father Tony Hillerman created. The book went on to win the prestigeous 2014 Spur Award for the Best First Mystery. Anne Hillerman has published eight non-fiction books and won awards for nearly all of them. A longtime journalist, Anne writes weekly restaurant reviews for theAlbuquerque Journal.

NAW- Tell us about your book, ‘Spider Woman’s Daughter.’ How did you get the idea for it? How long did it take to finish the book? What is it about?

Spider Woman’s Daughter is a mystery set on the Navajo Indian reservation in the American Southwest. The story opens with what looks like a random shooting of a police officer. The case turns into a complicated situation that includes long-delayed vengeance and secret resentments.

I got the idea in part from another book I wrote, a non-fiction work called “Tony Hillerman’s Landscape: On the Road with Chee and Leaphorn.” In the process of researching that book, I re-read all of my father’s mysteries featuring the detectives Joe Leaphorn and Jim Chee, and fell in love with the characters, the settings and the themes.  I’ve always found inspiration at Chaco Canyon, a major archaeological site occupied by the ancestors of the modern Pueblo Indians, so I decided that would be a good setting. Because so many artefacts have been removed from those ruins and sold, the idea of focusing on archaeology as part of the story came to me.  I live in Santa Fe, New Mexico–a center for research on Indians in the American Southwest–so I thought it would be fun and appropriate to bring my characters there as well.

It took about three years for me to write the book.

NAW- Why did you choose to take forward your father’s legacy? Were you apprehensive how much justice you’d be able to do with the project?

Why? I guess I can credit my Dad’s loyal fans. “Tony Hillerman’s Landscape” was published after my father died in 2008.  I went on an extensive book tour. During the tour, many, many of my Dad’s readers told me how much they loved his Navajo mystery series and how they would miss the characters and the settings and how they wished the series could continue. That, and the fact that I was missing those stories, too, gave me the impetus to write my first novel.

I was a little apprehensive, because I knew Dad’s fans would have high expectations of any book with the “Hillerman” name, and that many of them knew the characters very well. However, I had at least three things in my favor: I understood the series very well; I had already written and published several non-fiction books; and Dad had created a minor character whom I could develop into my protagonist, giving the series a new twist. A woman officer, Bernadette Manuelito, appears as a rookie cop, girl friend, and then an assistant crime solver. I thought it would be interesting to move her into the role of a full-fledged, competent officer. Dad had left much uncharted territory with Bernie, and that made my job easier.

 I think apprehension and humility are good for writers: they encourage us to push ourselves to do our best.

NAW- Tell us about your other works.

Before Spider Woman’s Daughter, I published several non-fiction books. In addition to Tony Hillerman’s Landscape, I wrote Gardens of Santa Fe, both with photographer Don Strel. Don’s beautiful pictures make those books special. I also wrote a restaurant guide/recipe book, several guide books about Santa Fe, a book of solar energy projects for children, and a book about the first balloon flight from North America to Africa.

SpiderWomansDaughterbook cover

NAW- Do you carry out any research for developing your characters and your stories? How do you go about it?

Research? Of course. Even though I am now writing fiction, it is crucial to get the details correct. As part of Spider Woman’s Daughter, I had to learn about police procedures, so I took a course that included our local police department, the county sheriff’s department, and the state police. It was tremendously helpful. I also consulted with individuals in the FBI and the U.S. Marshall service who helped me.

In terms of process, I try to research obvious things I know I will need for a book before I start writing. Then, once I am at work, I keep the momentum flowing, not stopping for on-the-spot research, but marking areas where I know I will need to do research to return to later.

NAW- Which authors have influenced you?

I have always been a reader, so it’s hard to say who has influenced me. So many find writers. I guess every well-written book left me with some inspiration.

Tony Hillerman, of course, was my biggest influence. I thank my lucky stars every day that I had an opportunity to grow up with him, to listen to him talk about both the joy and the challenges of his work. I could see that it was not always easy–even though, like all good writers, he made the final product look effortless. Through his example, I came to understand the commitment, hard work and frustration that being a writer entailed and also the great joy and satisfaction that come from sharing stories and from getting a scene, a character, a section of dialog just right.

NAW- Tell us about yourself. What do you do when you are not writing?

I started as a journalist and enjoyed that career very much. I still write weekly restaurant reviews for the Albuquerque Journal, New Mexico’s largest newspaper. I love to cook and to try new food. I also enjoy gardening. I like walking with my dog, skiing in the winter, and travelling to places I might write about and to places very, very different from our beautiful Southwest. I also love to read, and wish I could add an extra hour each day just for that!

NAW- How important are names of characters in your books? How do you name the characters?

The name sets the tone for the character, so getting it right is crucial. I want each name to be unique enough that the reader will remember it as the story unfolds. It’s important for readers to be able to keep the characters straight easily, and to me that means no Roberts and Robbies and Robertos in the same book–unless I’m doing it purposely. I want the readers to save their energy for figuring out who did it!

Names just come to me. Sometimes for minor characters, I may consult a list of most popular names for people born in a  certain year. In the Navajo tradition, and this is probably true for other American Indian groups as well, people have many names including sacred names and nicknames which may change during their lives. I incorporate this in my book, too.

NAW- Did you face any struggles early on? How did your first book get published?

My first book, a book of projects for elementary school children to teach them about solar energy, was suggested by a friend who worked as an editor for a small publishing company. I followed his ideas and added some of my own and, luckily, he liked the results. For me, the biggest struggles have come with the process of writing, getting it just right. Writing well is hard work, and worth every minute spent at it.

NAW- Name you five favorite authors.

In addition to Tony Hillerman, whom I’ve already talked about, and many others, I especially enjoy the work of:

Craig Johnson

Hampton Sides

Margaret Coel

David Morrell

J. Michael Orenduff

NAW- What are your upcoming projects?

I am finishing the second book in my new Bernadette Manuelito series.  I am honored to be invited to attend the National Festival of the Book in Washington, D.C., on August 30. The festival is free to the public and draws attendees from across the U.S. and around the world. It features 100 selected authors from throughout the United States writing in a wide variety of genres. In November, I coordinate and participate in the Tony Hillerman’s Writers conference, a three-day event for writers offering programs on the craft and business of writing ( Among the faculty are mystery writer John Sandford, thriller author David Morrell,  Luci Tapahonso, Poet Laureate Navajo Nation, and many others. The program, now in its 10th year, focuses on both the craft and the business of writing.


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