Wednesday, May 5, 2021

Anne Hillerman

Anne Hillerman continues the Navajo detective stories her father Tony Hillerman made popular. Her debut novel, Spider Woman’s Daughter, received the Western Writers Spur Award as best first novel. That book and the four novels that followed were all New York Times best sellers. Her newly released sixth mystery is Stargazer. When she’s not working, Hillerman likes to read, cook, ski and travel. She lives in Santa Fe with frequent trips to the Navajo Nation.

My Q&A with the author:
How much work does your title do to take readers into the story?

Stargazer is a one-word work horse. It describes the victim, an astronomer whose murder drives the mystery. It also speaks to at least two of the main subplots---one that concerns aviation and a second that involves planning for the future, seeing ahead, and the like—metaphorically studying the stars to see what they hold. Because the story concerns both the murder of an astronomer, fear of flying, and at least two of the major characters’ struggle with how to shape their destinies, I love this title.

Titles usually arrive in my brain around the time I’ve finished the first draft. That was true for Stargazer and I am especially fond of it.

Do you find it harder to write beginnings or endings? Which do you change more?

I find both beginnings and endings to be challenging and both get a lot of massaging before I let them be. In Stargazer, I added a new beginning to my original first chapter a few days before I declared the first draft finished. It’s the only place in the book that offers the reader a chance to meet the dead man. That mattered to me because his death drives the story. I wrote this scene as a literary snapshot, which meant leaving out details that could have spoiled the reader’s fun in figuring out who did it. I found it a delightful challenge.

In a traditional mystery both the writer and the reader understand that the crime must be solved by the end of the book. It’s reassuring to work in this template as the story races to its conclusion. In Stargazer, as is usual for me, I did a lot of tightening to enhance the action and deepen the tension. The result put Bernie Manuelito, my police officer protagonist, in greater danger more quickly. After the climactic scene where she confronts the villain with the news that the gig is up, I add a brief wrap- up chapter to deal with loose ends. I changed that, too.

Do you see much of yourself in your characters? Do they have any connection to your personality, or are they a world apart?

I see a bit of myself, both strengths and faults, in all the major characters even though, as the question suggests, we are a world apart.

Part of the joy of writing a mystery fiction series is the freedom the genre gives an author to explore issues that arise in human relationships, be they professional, social, or of the heart. Besides their jobs as crime solvers, each of my main characters negotiates the sometimes stormy territory of personal relationships in different ways. Bernie, my main crime solver, juggles a job, a marriage, a sibling relationship, and an aging parent--- as I did for many years. Her husband, Sgt. Jim Chee, works at a job he loves and wonders what’s next in his career--- the same position I was in when I switched from writing non-fiction to fiction. And Joe Leaphorn, like many people I know, failed retirement and enjoys the mental stimulation and the social connection of continuing his involvement in the world of law enforcement where he once made a living.

What non-literary inspirations have influenced your writing?

I love writing about real places, such as the Alamo Navajo community and the Very Large Array astronomy center that are featured in Stargazer. Not only does this result in two less things to pull from my imagination, it also gives me a solid base for information.

The amazing scenery of the American Southwest is one of my main inspirations. The expansive vistas lead to big thoughts, and give ideas plenty of room to grow. If I ever get stuck on a story, a trip to the landscape where the fictional action unfolds usually shakes the words free.

Some of my inspiration comes from driving through this vast, largely empty, amazing country, usually with little traffic and time to quietly focus on the conflicts and joys of the book in progress.

My years as a food writer also provide some magic to the stories. When in doubt, my characters often review cases over a meal. I enjoy switching from evil to endive for a few paragraphs.
Learn more about the book and author at Anne Hillerman's website.

My Book, The Movie: Spider Woman's Daughter.

The Page 69 Test: Spider Woman's Daughter.

The Page 69 Test: Song of the Lion.

The Page 69 Test: The Tale Teller.

--Marshal Zeringue