Sunday, September 1, 1996

Q&A Tony Hillerman


Originally appeared in the Boston Book Review.
Tony Hillerman: Sheep Camp Navajo

He was beginning to suspect that she didn’t really want to marry him. Or, at least he wasn’t sure she was willing to marry Jim Chee as he currently existed — a just-plain cop and a genuine sheep-camp Navajo as opposed to the more romantic and politically correct indigenous Person.
     The Fallen Man

TH: I see that The Boston Book Review  is a literary magazine. You want to talk about creativity and all that stuff?

HB: Sure, I’m interested in that. But I was thinking of asking you first of all about place. Your work is so rooted in place, in the American West.

TH: It is indeed. I have two neckties, one striped, the other not. If you go west, you leave your necktie home. But if you go east, well, the further east you go, the more likely you are to bring a necktie.
For example, we had a public television station at the University of New Mexico, and the FCC said all licensees had to be represented at a meeting. I was the guy tapped to make the symbolic appearance in Washington. I get there: huge room, big table surrounded by guys, each one representing a television station. Forty-eight guys. Forty-six neckties.

I think, who would it be? Texas would have a necktie on, ‘cause Texas is getting pretty chic.

HB: California.

TH: Uh uh. They’d have a necktie on. Montana? No. Montana is getting an influx of civilization. Laramie Wyoming, I thought. That’s it, there’s about seven neckties in all of Wyoming. Just to see if I’m right I walk up to these guys without the neckties and say, “What kind of weather are you having in Laramie this year?”

And they say, “Good.”

HB: So you’ve got some of Joe Leaphorn’s detective skills in you.

TH: Or vice versa.

HB: Besides dress, food stands out in your books. It’s hard not to notice the amount of Twinkies your characters consume.

TH: They are part of the food chain on the Navajo Reservation. Twinkies, orange soda pop, and mutton are the basis of nutritional life. And Spam — the Navajo Reservation is the Spam capital of the country. The Navajo’s  even have a word for white people’s complexion that relates to Spam. Pinkish.

HB: The Navajo Reservation is housed within the continental United States, and English is spoken there, but you make it feel like another country.

TH: I kind of feel that way, too, when I go back there. I used to take the train to  California. It runs down to the river and then climbs this ridge out of the Rio Grande and all of a sudden you’re at the top. And all of a sudden, man, the world falls away. You can see seven million acres of mountains and mesas and tanned gray silver grasslands. Empty. No sign that any body’s ever walked on it, no sign of buildings.

It just does something to you. Your spirit soars. On your right you see Mt. Taylor, one of the sacred mountains. Over to your left there are the Buttes, all these places tied up with mythology. A different world.

One time, I’m sitting there and three guys are sitting next to me in the observation car. One got on, as I recall, in Hartford. Two are from Chicago. They were talking about business machines, faxes, and I’ve been eavesdropping on them, listening.

HB: Is eavesdropping a professional responsibility?

TH: It is; I’m thinking, pick up something. The conversation drops dead. The guy from Hartford said, “My God! Why would anybody live out here?”

And it doesn’t look like it’s made for human occupancy. It looks like it was designed for something different. Those mesas are too steep to climb. There’s no water. Green grass means money, but this color grass means kangaroo rats and snakes.

HB: And Navajos without faxes. What brought you to that part of country initially?

TH: It was August, ‘45. I was back from the War. Anybody breathing could get a job.  I got a job driving oil field equipment north of Crown Point, New Mexico, the Checkerboard Reservation. I’d never been out there before; I was tremendously impressed by the landscape.

And I saw two Navajos back from the Marine corps having a curing ceremony, an Enemy Way. I’m driving this truck and here come these ceremonially dressed Indians on horseback. I was really impressed. I grew with Potawatomi Indians and with Seminoles. They were just like us. When we played cowboy and Indian, they wanted to be the cowboys. They were smart enough to know who won.

I asked the Navajo if could go to the ceremony. They said, sure, if I stayed sober and behaved myself. I went back there and watched some of it. I liked the notion, I liked what I was seeing. There wasn’t anybody organizing the clans to bring me home.

And I thought, this is interesting. I have to come back here.

HB: Did you come back with the intention of writing about it?

TH: I came back as a UP political reporter, transferred to Sante Fe. I had no intention of being a mystery writer or writing about that locale. I was going to write the great American novel, and it was going to be based on what happened in the Belgian Congo. The Belgians had just left the place in total chaos. There were three tribal factions fighting for it. Paratroopers were dropping in. Mercenaries were being hired. Stanleyville was burning.

I wanted to write a story about Joe Pilgrim, a bookkeeper or something, a pretty nice guy but no hero.

HB: Very Conradian

TH: There you go, I was in my early twenties and I’d been reading Conrad. I wanted to send Joe over there to straighten out the books for one of these companies. He gets caught in the chaos, and I write a great novel about it.

I tried and found I wasn’t anywhere near it, so I quit. I decided that since I wasn’t good enough to write that book, I’d write something much shorter with a structure that didn’t depend so much on character development. I’d been reading Graham Greene, Raymond Chandler — mystery writers who really write novels instead of tales — and Eric Ambler, who we don’t think of as literature but who writes a hell of a good story.

I thought, I’ll bet I can write one of these. I’m good at descriptive writing, and I know I can write narrative. I don’t know if I can write character. So I’ll pick a fascinating setting. If everything else bombs the setting can carry it. By then I was more and more fascinated with the Navajo, and felt if I was fascinated by them, everybody would be.

I was wrong about that.

My agent said, don’t write a novel; everybody’s trying to write novels and they’re not selling. And when I finally gave it to her, she said, bad book, she couldn’t sell it. I’m not sure she even sent it out.

HB: There’s nothing like having your agent on your side.

TH: Well, I think she was really; I liked her. She was giving me good honest opinion. I said, “What’s wrong with it?” She said, “The book falls between two stools.”

I said, “what should I do?” She said, “Dump it. Go back to writing nonfiction.” This was 1970. I didn’t dump it. I sent it to Harper and Row.

HB: You’ve talked about a series of books you read as a kid, saying that the “grotesque, empty landscape was important as any character.” As an adult, you remembered the author of those books was the Australian writer, Arthur Upfield.  I’ve always thought of you and Upfield as connected.

TH: The outback.

HB: And aboriginal culture.

TH: The Bone is Pointed,  Death of a Lake, The Will of the Tribe. The ones focused on aborigines and landscape were great.

HB: His detective, Bonaparte, was half aborigine. And there were wild camels, rabbits dying en masse.

TH: Remember the drought, the dying lake.

HB: Also the witchcraft, the chanting, the gathering forces of sorcery.

TH: And the way he handled it. You didn’t have to believe in anything. All you had to  believe was that the aborigines believed. Then you see how you can make a guy like Joe Leaphorn work. Does he believe in witchcraft?

HB: Leaphorn is a good mask for you. He’s inside Navajo culture but questions it.

TH: When people ask which of the two, Jim Chee or Joe Leaphorn,  I identify with, I don’t hesitate. It’s Leaphorn. Though I like Chee. He’s a combination of all those idealistic, romantic, anti-War students that I taught during the Vietnam period. They were tough to teach and made for some delightful years in normally dead-from-the-neck-up academia. They read Herman Hesse, for god’s sake.

HB: And tended to idolize Indians. In Leaphorn you can feel the divide between Navajo and non-Navajo culture. Chee is over on the other side, completely Navajo identified.

TH: Oddly enough, the younger generation is more traditional; they know the language better. Their daddies were taken out of Navaho life and put in boarding school and told to speak only English.  They weren’t in the hogan at home hearing the winter stories. And, of course, there was capitalism in Farmington, Gallup, and the Indian boarding schools on the border country — you fall in love with pickup trucks and televisions.

HB: You’ve said that the Navajo were, “Poor but not letting it bother them much, generous, deeply religious, hospitable — all those valuable little things not on the agenda of the silver spoon set.”

TH: I’m seventy-one so I grew up in the tail end of the depression. I didn’t have a goddamn idea we were poor folks. We didn’t have indoor plumbing until I was fourteen. I made my first telephone call when I was twenty-one back from overseas. I didn’t know anybody that had a telephone. Who would I call? Hell, I had a happy childhood.
HB:     In  The Fallen Man  you've got Jim Chee encountering a Navajo who runs an accounting firm in Flagstaff. Chee tells the man he seems to be doing very well, and the man replies, "No, I will be a poor man all my life." When Chee asks what he means, the man says, "Nobody ever taught me any songs."

Are you romanticizing Navajo culture?

TH: I’ve been accused, with some justice, of romanticizing the Navajo. But so many people have written about the border town, the guys ground up by friction between the two cultures, the drunks staggering down Interstate 40. I like to write about the people in the middle of the reservation who don’t drink,  who disapprove of drinking, who try to stick to their religion, who make compromises to make a living but still hold to their faith in the Navajo way.

Most Navajos are affected by their culture even though maybe you couldn’t tell them from a loan shark, even though they’re working in Los Alamos in the lab. Down deep they’re conscious of it and affected by it in some way. And a lot of Navajos are still traditional. “Sheep camp Navajos.” Some sheep camp Navajos live in cities but are still religious.

How can I illustrate this? As far as I know no Navajo has actually run any trading post. Here you’ve got seventeen cases of Spam, all this good stuff. . .

HB: Twinkies.

TH: The Twinkies, the gasoline, the orange soda pop. And here comes some members of their clan, or maybe just strangers, and hell, if they’re going to be halfway decent Navajos they give it to ‘em; they say, we’ve got more than we need here.

HB: Your discussion of the culture clash as it plays out within Leaphorn and between Jim Chee and his lovers is one of the strongest things in the books.

TH: The first time I tried to do it was in a book called People of Darkness.  Chee met this Wisconsin gal, this schoolteacher, Mary Langdon. They’re having coffee  and she introduces herself by saying who she is, what she does. Now it’s his turn. He says, “I’m the son of . . . “ and names his family. She accuses him of not playing fair. Then he explains. It finally gets down to her saying, “You wouldn’t even tell your name?”

And he says, we don’t use the name of a person in their presence. It’s kind of a code word to tell other people who we are talking about but if they are there we don’t use the name. Then he tells her about having the war name that somebody in your maternal clan gives you when you are little. She more or less asks what his secret name is and he changes the subject.
HB:     In "The Fallen Man " you have Chee thinking about Mary's attempt to teach Navajo children:  "That first month or two in class I was always saying: 'Look at me when I talk to you,' and the kids simply wouldn't do it . . . And finally one of the other teachers told me it was a cultural thing. They should warn us about things like that. Odd things. It makes the children seem evasive, deceptive."
         Chee thinks of this as he is  having his own face closely scrutinized by Janet Pete. He reflects that this is rude behavior: "No wonder Navajos rated it as bad manners. It invaded the individual's privacy."

TH: There are so many things about the culture I like. The sense of what’s valuable: having a lot of stuff doesn’t have anything to do with value. It might indicate you were selfish. Then there’s the pressure to avoid excess; if you’re lazy, that’s bad too. You want to get the golden man.

A friend of mine is a hotshot rodeo bronc buster. I asked him if he was going to ride in the Navajo rodeo, and he said, he might but he didn’t think he’d win. When I asked what he meant he said he’d won three times now and that’s too much.

HB: It’s interesting reading your books to realize that right in the United States there’s a culture that espouses values totally opposite to what we think of the as American way.

TH: I’m a Christian. I think the good lord taught us how to have a happy life, and so did Buddha, and so did Mohammed. Don’t be selfish, is what it boils down to. Despite the “In God We Trust” on our currency, that makes America just about the most pagan country on the planet. And there’s a little island in this pagan country where you have the teachings of Buddha, Christ and Mohammed being acted upon. Don’t be selfish. Don’t value material things. Value people. Respect women. Respect to children.

If I’m making them sound like a bunch of prefixed Mennonites [PLEASE CHECK SPELLING] out there, they’re not. They’re human beings like we are. We’ve had child abuse; we’ve had three Navajo cops killed in the last thirteen months.

HB: The dark side, as you portray it, is coyote. Coyote is the agent of evil. Your books make it seem  that a lot of Navajo culture is organized the way it is precisely in order to contain coyote.

TH: Absolutely.

HB: Witchcraft is powerful and pervasive.

TH: The taboo system is a system of fear.

HB: Coyote gets a lot of favorable press these days. Gary Snyder, among others, talks about coyote as the trickster spirit, the spirit of innovation. You say, wait a minute,  coyote is not about entertainment. He’s about death and dirtiness.

TH: We’re both right. The Plains Indians didn’t raise sheep. They hunted buffalo. They saw coyote and said, ah, we both hunt buffalo, and here’s one sonofabitch of a predator. To them, he’s funny, heroic, smart. Navajos try to make a living raising sheep and turkeys, all the things coyote likes to eat. To them, coyote is not benign; he getting ready to eat their flock. 

HB: In Talking God one of the characters tries to restore the material housed in museums to the indigenous people it came from. What is your take on that?

TH: Some of the stuff is sacred. For example, the Zuni lost one of their important religious objects, and spotted it up in the Denver Museum. They told the Denver Museum it was theirs and that it had to be stolen. The Denver Museum told them to bug off. They generated some publicity and the Denver Museum shifted to a more appropriate position.

In Talking God   the guy who wants to be an Indian goes and digs up the bones of the museum’s curator to show her what it’s like to have an ancestor’s bones displayed. I have the feeling that had a good effect on museum directors; more and more directors now call the local tribes to say, come and look at our collection, have we got any stuff stolen from you guys?

HB: What led you to write your Vietnam book, Finding Moon?

TH: Let’s get back to Stanleyville, and the Belgian Congo. I kept trying to write that book for years and never could make it work. And everybody had forgotten Stanleyville. Then I was watching television and saw those images of helicopters evacuating Saigon, poor bastards trying to get through the fence. Forget Stanleyville. This was the chaos I needed. So in 1980, I finally got around to it. And then my editor told me nobody’s buying books about Vietnam. Which of course they weren’t. But some said, by god, that’s the best book you ever wrote.

HB: You’ve said you’re going to avoid the trap that so many writers of series fall into, of repeating yourself, of “getting steadily worse, just to keep the books coming out on schedule.” You said, “Sure, the readers will keep buying them for a while, but I’m not going to do that.”

TH: Probably will do it, but don’t want to. It’s the same reason I quit teaching. It dawned on me one day I’m not doing this as well as I used to.

HB: It doesn’t sound like you’ve run out of interest in Navajo life or that it’s about to turn into reruns. I feel as if every book gives me an aspect of Navajo life but I never see the totality, I always feel like there’s more.

TH: If you can’t make it germane to the plot, you’ve got to leave it out. I’m working on one now. It hasn’t come alive yet. It takes awhile. All of a sudden you think of a name for it. Then you know you’ve got the theme, and it takes on it’s own personality. It quits being “the next book.”

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