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 . 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 , 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  and A Thief of Time , 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.