Feel the Bern Anne Hiller­man on her crime-solv­ing hero­ine


INpictures, Anne Hiller­man dis­plays a bit of an imp­ish grin. She can ap­pear diminu­tive, but in per­son, she is tall and ath­letic, the kind of woman who can hike the back­coun­try with de­ter­mined grit — not un­like Ber­nadette Manuelito, a Navajo tribal po­lice of­fi­cer who was first in­vented in the mind of her fa­ther, Tony Hiller­man, for his best­selling Leaphorn and Chee se­ries of mys­tery nov­els. Mr. Hiller­man died in 2008, when “Bernie” was still a sup­port­ing char­ac­ter. She was smart and rugged, to be sure, but she was Chee’s girl­friend and not a crime-solver in her own right. When Hiller­man de­cided to con­tinue her fa­ther’s nov­els — be­gin­ning with Spi­der Woman’s Daugh­ter (HarperCollins) in 2014 — she moved Bernie into the role of pro­tag­o­nist. She gave her a back story that in­cludes a lov­ing mother, a trou­bled younger sis­ter, and an en­vi­ably un­flap­pable at­ti­tude about the dan­gers of her work.

The new­est en­try in the se­ries, Cave of Bones (also pub­lished by HarperCollins), takes place in the vol­canic land­scape of El Mal­pais, be­tween Acoma Pue­blo and the Ramah Navajo In­dian Reser­va­tion in western New Mex­ico, as well as in Santa Fe. The plot cen­ters on an out­door pro­gram for at-risk youth and a miss­ing Navajo fundraiser who knew the ter­ri­tory of El Mal­pais and should not have dis­ap­peared. Bernie takes on the case while Chee is in Santa Fe for a con­tin­u­ing-ed­u­ca­tion class and to check up on Bernie’s sis­ter, who is en­rolled in a week­long stu­dio pro­gram at the In­sti­tute of Amer­i­can In­dian Arts. Hiller­man, who — like her fa­ther — worked as a jour­nal­ist be­fore be­com­ing a nov­el­ist, tack­les many hot-but­ton sub­jects in Cave of Bones, in­clud­ing do­mes­tic vi­o­lence, sex­ual iden­tity, stolen Na­tive ar­ti­facts, drug deal­ing, and white sav­ior­ism, all of which arise nat­u­rally as part of the plot. As Bernie drives through snow­storms and ex­plores caves, we find Chee learn­ing that his in­stincts aren’t al­ways cor­rect and that peo­ple have more ca­pac­ity for change than he thought.

Hiller­man reads from her new book on Tues­day, April 3, at Col­lected Works Book­store. She sat down with Pasatiempo to dis­cuss the ad­ven­tures of Ber­nadette Manuelito and what it’s like to pick up where her fa­ther left off.

Pasatiempo: Did you al­ways know that you would fol­low in your fa­ther’s foot­steps as a writer and jour­nal­ist? Anne Hiller­man: I al­ways loved writ­ing. I didn’t re­ally think about it as fol­low­ing in his foot­steps, but I guess it was. He just had so much en­thu­si­asm for writ­ing and for read­ing. Pasa: Did you grow up vis­it­ing In­dian Coun­try, get­ting to know the land­scape of the Chee and Leaphorn nov­els? Hiller­man: When I was lit­tle we would take trips to Canyon de Chelly, the Grand Canyon, the Hub­ble

Trad­ing Post, Mon­u­ment Val­ley, and other iconic places. When I was in eighth grade we moved from Santa Fe to Al­bu­querque, and when I was in high school my dad was start­ing his new ca­reer as a univer­sity pro­fes­sor, so we didn’t go on as many trips be­cause he was go­ing to school and work­ing. What re­ally helped me was writ­ing the non­fic­tion book, Tony Hiller­man’s Land­scape: On the Road with Chee and Leaphorn [2009]. My hus­band and I worked on that book for at least two years, and we made dozens of trips out to Navajo land, look­ing for those spots where my dad set his sto­ries.

Pasa: Talk about why you de­vel­oped Bernie from a sup­port­ing char­ac­ter to a main char­ac­ter.

Hiller­man: When dad wrote Skele­ton Man [2004], his sec­ond-to-last book, he gave Bernie a pretty ac­tive role. But in the end, there’s a flash flood and Chee comes to the res­cue. He was, I guess, so in love with his male char­ac­ters that Bernie didn’t ac­tu­ally get to solve the crime. I told him that I thought his read­ers would re­ally like to see her be on the same level as Chee and Leaphorn and ac­tu­ally be a crime solver. I tried to be tact­ful. He lis­tened to me, but he never did it; he only had one book af­ter that. But it stuck in my mind when I started think­ing maybe I would take over this se­ries. I’m sure there are peo­ple who don’t un­der­stand why we need this woman de­tec­tive, and why didn’t I just stick with Chee and Joe Leaphorn — or peo­ple who don’t think I should have taken on th­ese iconic char­ac­ters. But mostly what I hear is that it was about time for a woman to rise to the fore­ground. Navajo cul­ture is tra­di­tion­ally ma­tri­ar­chal, and Bernie is very much in that tra­di­tion. Pasa: How much re­search do you do for each novel?

Hiller­man: Re­search is so se­duc­tive. How much is enough? For Cave of Bones there was the lava stuff, the plant stuff, and the Zuni and Acoma in­for­ma­tion. And of course the po­lice stuff. That’s part of the fun of writ­ing fic­tion. You get to learn so much that you didn’t know you didn’t know — or didn’t know you would ever need to know.

Pasa: When your fa­ther was first writ­ing th­ese nov­els, the fact that he was a white writer writ­ing about in­dige­nous cul­ture wasn’t con­sid­ered con­tro­ver­sial. In 2018, it could be. What makes you most ner­vous about get­ting it right? What are the chal­lenges?

Hiller­man: The chal­lenges are not to fall back on stereo­types, and to have a gen­eral view of Navajo spir­i­tu­al­ity with­out get­ting into any ar­eas where I’m bound to get it wrong or say some­thing that would be highly of­fen­sive to some­one. I also want to make sure I’m say­ing that this is a liv­ing cul­ture, that th­ese peo­ple are with us now, and be­sides be­ing Navajo they are also sci­en­tists, doc­tors, lawyers, and other things in our world.

Pasa: In what ways do you think your writ­ing is most sim­i­lar to your fa­ther’s? How is it dif­fer­ent?

Hiller­man: It is sim­i­lar in that I let a lot of the story tran­spire in dia­logue, and I think the pac­ing is sim­i­lar. We’re dif­fer­ent in that I fo­cus more on re­la­tion­ships than he did. He was more in­ter­ested in weapons and in the ac­tion un­fold­ing. I’m fo­cused on ac­tion, too, but I think that was more what drove his sto­ries.

Pasa: Is there any­thing about your fa­ther’s writ­ing that re­mains a mys­tery to you, that you wish you could achieve?

Hiller­man: When I look at his books, par­tic­u­larly Sk­in­walk­ers [1986] and A Thief of Time [1988], I just won­der if when he started those books, whether he knew how they were go­ing to un­fold. He al­ways said that plot­ting was hard for him. A lot of the early re­view­ers liked the am­biance and the Na­tive parts of the sto­ries, but said the plots needed a lit­tle work. In those two books, the plots are re­ally strong. I want to ask him just how he man­aged. Did he plant a seed here and know that it would come to fruition over here? Or when he got to the mid­dle, did he re­al­ize what he wanted to hap­pen and then go back? I wish that I could have an­other hour with him to ask him those writer ques­tions.

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