My Fiction Writing class was blessed last week to share our time with Anne Hillerman. Anne talked about her own literary life, and her father, best-selling mystery writer, Tony Hillerman. Author of eight books, Anne’s latest work, Spider Woman’s Daughter follows the adventures of Joe Leaphorn, Jim Chee, and Bernadette Manuelito as they track a would-be cop killer, travel to Chaco Canyon on the trail of a murderer, and discover intrigue in the world of ancient Indian art and artifacts.
You can understand why we were all thrilled to share our time together. With incredible warmth, insight, and humor, Anne shared some of the lens through which she experiences her literary world.
Anne began by reading two scenes involving the same character, Bernadette Manuelito – one from her father’s The Sinister Pig and another scene from her Spider Woman’s Daughter. The difference in Bernadette’s response and experiences highlights one of the aspects Anne found rewarding about writing this novel, “What was fun about writing Spider Woman’s Daughter is these two characters, Bernie and Jim, who had always been in Joe’s shadow, now step fully into their own right. Rather than side-kicks, they are multi-dimensional characters who bring out whole other potential in the series and stories.”
Anne shared more about her dad’s relationship with Native Americans.
“My dad had a special relationship with the Native American people. He grew up in a small town in Oklahoma and his family was one of the few Catholic families in town. Those boys were allowed to go to an all-girls Native American Catholic school. This experience had a profound influence on him. He was the only non-Indian and the only boy. As a non-Indian and one of the few boys, it taught him what it was like to be different. He later said that his classmates would forgive him for not being an Indian, but not for being a boy. He served in WWII and watched the different treatment that the Native American veterans received from their tribes when they came home. We didn’t have the language for Post Traumatic Stress Syndrome back then and overall, it was expected that veterans take care of this themselves. Dad watched as tribes received the young men and tried to bring them back into balance, into wholeness, the Navajo idea of hózhǫ́ beauty, harmony, and interconnectedness with the natural world. He won lots of awards, but he said the one that meant the most to him was the Navajo Tribe’s Special Friends of the Dineh Award.
The land was such a part of my dad’s books. Often, reviewers would be negative about scenes where all of this action was happening and we were about ready to catch the killer and then—everybody had to watch the sunset. These were always reviewers from New York City or Boston or somewhere in the East Coast, places where they couldn’t imagine our skies and our sunsets that literally stop you in your tracks.”
What is your writing schedule? asked a student.
“I have a golden retriver, and she is my alarm clock. First thing in the morning, we walk and then come home and I have a cup of coffee with my husband, Don. I start writing at 9:00 and I try to write until noon. Even if it’s awful. I try to keep the that morning time sacred. If things are going well, I will try to work well. It’s especially important if things aren’t going well, to be in the presence of those characters where something can happen.
Do you do very much research, and if so, what are your methods?
I love research. Sometimes it is so much easier than writing. It’s so easy to be distracted. I am writing the next book and in the part that I’m working on now something bad has happened and they found a necklace. I start to research silver smiths of Navajo silver and then I get pulled into reading about Turkish silver and before I know it, I’m deep into the history of the Ottoman Empire. When there is something that I need to research, I highlight it and leave it alone to keep writing. Then, on those days when things are not going well, I go back to it. The internet is great, but I find there is a lot more juice in actually talking with people. Research is good, but it’s just so tempting. I try to stick with the story and find where the holes are and stick with those.
Could you go over your revising process?
Actually, I love revising. When I start, I re-read the previous two pages. I learned from my dad that the first chapter always changed, as the story evolved, things changed. So, I try to to get stuck on that first chapters. Some people spend twenty years on the first chapter! Just write it and keep going. When I’m done with a piece, I share it with my writing partners, other professional writers who can tell me the truth. They can say, “What were you thinking?” or “You’ve got it.” Each writer has their own quirks. They don’t focus on that. My writing partners focus, for example, on a character who is not fully-developed. Even bad characters need to have something about them that we can connect with somehow. Then, I let it sit for six weeks. And that is so hard! It’s worth it when I go back to it, though, as now I can tell where the writing works and where it is soft.
My dad did a lot of writing in his head. He knew the start he knew the end, he knew the main points. He would think about it a lot, and then sit in front of his typewriter and write what he heard. He would sit playing spider solitaire. Mom would say to me, “Don’t bother your dad, he’s working.” The part of his brain involved in the details of solitaire, playing with plot.
In terms of your own writing, what was it like living with a writer, your dad?
We moved to Santa Fe when I was a young child. When I remember our conversations at the dinner table, it had to do with what he was reading or what my mom was reading, that words are important. He was a journalist then and didn’t have much time. Even though he didn’t have a lot of time, he was already working on his first novel The Blessing Way. I was always interested in writing, but because my dad was so successful, I was determined not to go into the same field. So I took many classes at the University of New Mexico and I had loads credits in all kinds of areas, and I finally needed to decide what was going to be my major. At that point, I decided that even though my dad was a writer, writing is what I really loved to do and I decided to study journalism. Journalism, so I can make a living as a writer. It gives you an excuse to learn about a lot of other things.
Do you enjoy reading what you’ve written?
If it’s good! Sometimes I’m really surprised, and sometimes I just want to crawl in a hole.
What surprised you about writing Spider Woman’s Daughter?
The humor. I didn’t realize this book would have so much humor.
How do you push through those bad writing days?
It’s a special product called butt glue. I tell myself that what I’m writing are only impulses on the screen. It’s only words. I just have to do it. One thing journalism teaches you, you can’t wait for inspiration.
Please tell us more about the Tony Hillerman Writers Conference.
The Tony Hillerman Writers Conference happens this year November 7-9, 2013. The conference celebrates both the art and craft of writing, as well as all that goes with a publishing life. There will be editors, publishers, and agents. One of the highlights is Friday evening’s “Writing with the Stars.” Writers submit the first page of their manuscripts and an author and agent read on-the-spot and share their thoughts. Dawn will be there presenting.
(Yes, I will. I’m presenting, “Will this Book Ever be Published?” I’m thrilled to contribute to the conference. I may make a pin out of this faculty badge and wear it as a brooch.)
A final question, Do Joe Leaphorn and Bernadette Manuelito stop to watch the sunsets?
Yes, they do.
~ ~ ~
As someone who loves Southwestern sunsets, I breathe a sigh of relief. Thank you, Anne, for taking the time to share your insight, experiences, wisdom, and spirit. A blessed day for us all.
* * *
To subscribe and receive Dewdrops in your email, please enter your email address in the box under “Follow this blog via email” or click on the ‘Follow’ icon in lower right-hand corner of the blog’s screen and ‘Confirm Follow’ in the email you receive. To return to website: www.dawnwink.com