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Bob Levey
Bob Levey
(Barbara Tyroler)
Levey Live Archive
Column: Bob Levey
Metro Section
Talk: Metro message boards
Live Online Transcripts

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Q&A With Bob Levey
Washington Post Columnist
Tuesday, May 6, 2003; Noon ET

"Levey Live" appears Tuesdays at noon ET. Your host is Washington Post columnist Bob Levey. This hour is your chance to talk directly to key Washington Post reporters and editors, local officials and people in the news.

Today, Bob's guest is mystery author Tony Hillerman.

Tony Hillerman
Tony Hillerman

Hillerman is the author of more than 20 books, including 15 entries in his Leaphorn and Chee series. The 16th entry in the series, "The Sinister Pig," will be published this month. Hillerman's autobiography, "Seldom Disappointed," was published in 2001 and won the Agatha Award for best non-fiction book.

Hillerman was born in 1925 in the tiny farm community of Sacred Heart, Okla., where most of the population were Potawatomie, Seminole, or Sac and Fox Indians. He attended grade school at St. Mary's Academy, a boarding school for Indian girls, which admitted local farm boys as day students, and Konawa High School, where he did his first writing as class historian.

He earned a journalism degree from the University of Oklahoma, spent 17 years as a reporter and newspaper editor, then earned a Master's degree in English at the University of New Mexico where he subsequently spent 20 years as a journalism professor before his retirement.

Hillerman and his wife, Marie, have six children and 10 grandchildren. They live in Albuquerque, N.M.

The transcript follows.

Editor's Note: Washingtonpost.com moderators retain editorial control over Live Online discussions and choose the most relevant questions for guests and hosts; guests and hosts can decline to answer questions.

Bob Levey: Good afternoon, Mr. Hillerman, and thanks for joining us today on "Levey Live." You've certainly carved out a reputation that few writers can approach. Your fiction is about very different people in less-travelled America. Is it meant to be political--to educate people in the rest of the country about Native-American issues?

Tony Hillerman: I hope it educates people and makes them aware of very interesting cultures out there. I like to write. And I like to tell stories. And I suspect there should be some interest in these people. Therefore, I'm interested in them, and I think everybody else should.

Silver Spring, Md.: Wow, Bob! Tony Hillerman. A great guest and awesome author.

I would like to know more about how you got your in depth knowledge of the Native culture. Your books seem so authentic.

Thank you.

Tony Hillerman: I grew up among the Citizen Band Potawatonies, and Seminole Indians and Sac Fox and went to school with them and played with them. So I grew up knowing that we're all the same species. They're just like we are, in other words. Therefore, that's a hard thing for people to learn. I grew up knowing it as a child. Therefore, when I ran into Navajos, after World War II. I was home and ran into the Navajos and got to attend a healing ceremony, an enemy way ceremony to restore these two marine guys to harmony with their people after being at war. And I was fascinated. When I decided I wanted to write a novel. I thought it'd be a wonderful setting on the Navajo reservation.

Bob Levey: You spent many years as a working journalist and a journalism professor. Did it teach you the tricks of the writing trade, as every city editor in history always claims?

Tony Hillerman: Yes, it did. For example, turning in a 800-word epic, and having the city editor hand it back and say cut this back to 200 words. More important than that, being a reporter, gives you an opportunity to be there and see things and be where the excitement is, where interesting things are happening. So you get a head full of experiences.

Columbia, Md.: I love your books and am excited to hear a new one is coming out soon. One of my favorites is A Fly on the Wall and I wonder if you have plans to write any other non-series stories in the future? Thanks for the hours of enjoyment your writing has given me over the years!!!

Tony Hillerman: I doubt if I will go back to that sort of a story. I'll be 78 in a day or two. You begin feeling your age. And I have two stories I'm writing right now. I'm writing another story about the Navajo police. And I have another in mind. And that should run me into my 80s. I personally think my best book was a non-Navajo book, "Finding Moon." It didn't sell as well as most of my books. But I have a personal love affair with it.

Bob Levey: I was surprised to see that you were once president of Mystery Writers of America, because I see your fiction as so much more intricate and socially aware than the usual mystery. Comments?

Tony Hillerman: The mystery story has been sort of downgraded by academia. But Raymond Chandler stepped into it, it's risen above the story of crime. Writers grind their axis and get involved in social issues and politics and they move beyond just the pure entertainment.

Sacramento, Calif.: Hi Tony,

Who was the better writer -- Chandler or Macdonald?

Tony Hillerman: Which MacDonald?

Ross MacDonald was a master of metaphor. But the original John D. Macdonald was a better story teller. I like them both.

Bob Levey: What's your view of the surge in gambling on Native American reservations? Is this really progress?

Tony Hillerman: I have mixed emotions about it, about gambling anywhere. We just had a district attorney investigator shot by the police after robbing a couple banks to cover her gambling debts.

However, I get a certain perverse satisfaction in thinking that the tribes around Albuquerque seem to be improving the lives and social conditions of a heck of indian people. They're building needed facilities on their reservations.

Even gold courses. But most of them are too smart to waste their time playing golf.

Livonia, Mich.: Mr. Hillerman,

In many of your books you have portrayed federal law enforcement as annoying or a nuisance. In "Hunting Badger" though, you seemed to be angry at the FBI. Any thoughts on homeland security and the increasing federalization of public safety?

Your novels have given me many hours of pleasure, especially when away from the Southwest; thanks for writing them. You and Howard Berkis can make a guy homesick.

Tony Hillerman: The problem with the FBI is not with the agents at work, on the ground level. It's with the politically motivated, political patronage bureaucracy that they have to fight through to get their jobs done. Homeland security caused a huge groan of despair of among the law enforcement people I know, who seem to be in universal agreement that this is going to make it one level worse. The problem with federal law enforcement in a local community is the federal cop is a stranger in the community. Doesn't know the culture. Doesn't know the lay of the land. He has this horrible disadvantage. Therefore, a lot of the local cops I know say, in effect, we can get this crime solved if the federal government doesn't get involved. I know one FBI office, in which part of the officers work in that building answer to their boss in Albuquerque and another part answer to a boss in Phoenix. You can imagine the kind of efficiency that provokes.

Virginia: Which is harder, writing the book or getting it published?

Tony Hillerman: If it's a first novel, getting it published is generally hard, very hard, even for good books. If you want to write, you have to write because you love to write, not because you think you might be rich or famous. I was lucky in finding an editor who shared my opinion that people were or should be interested in Native American cultures.

Bob Levey: I have a vision of Tony Hillerman getting ready to write another book. To "feel" the scenes, he disappears for three weeks, into the high country of Northwestern New Mexico, in a battered red pickup truck, with a large dog and a larger bag of doughnuts. Am I right? Am I close?

Tony Hillerman: You would have been close 20 years ago. Now the dog has wandered off one windy night and never came home. And we don't have a dog. And when I go wandering off, I hope I can confuse the trout enough so I can catch one. You begin to feel your age. And I've got a gimpy leg that makes it hard to do the kind of fishing I like to do.

Long Beach, Calif.: Did you, as a kid, ever hear stories about the Indians in Oklahoma who struck oil? I've heard they would drive a Cadillac until it ran out of gas, and go back to get another one. Thanks.

Tony Hillerman: I have heard that story. We lived right next to the Seminole oil patch. And my friends happened to be mostly Potawatonie and Sac Foxand. We were kind of uneasy about the Seminoles. The us-and-them syndrome operates wherever you are.

Washington, D.C.: I just wanted to say "thank you" to Mr. Hillerman for the many hours of pleasure his books have given me, as well as their insight into a culture and place different from my own on the east coast. I'm interested in knowing how the Navajo view your work?

Tony Hillerman: I worried about that for the first two or three books. After about my fifth book, I got an invitation from somebody in the tribal counsel. When I got there, they had a horse they wanted me to ride in the tribal parade. And they gave me an award, that declared me a special friend of the Navajo, because of the my accurate and respectful representation of the dine people. That's my favorite decoration on my wall. And they use them in their schools.

I asked a boy once if he'd ever read any of my books. He said, "Mr. Hillerman, we've got to read your books or drop out of school."

Bob Levey: Leaphorn and Chee are known in the trade as "continuing characters." That means they recur and recur, from book to book. Are you still learning about these characters? Do surprises still lurk inside them?

Tony Hillerman: I still am. I have a book coming out tomorrow, which heavily involves Bernie Manuelito. And the next book will also include Chee and Leephorn and the old gang, if I can ever get it finished.

Bob Levey: President Bill Clinton was a huge (and very public) fan of your work. Were you a huge (and very public) fan of his?

Tony Hillerman: Well, let me put it this way, I'm a democrat. But I'm more of a Harry Truman democrat.

Bob Levey: Have any Native Americans ever argued that you're getting rich from your fiction, and they're not?

Tony Hillerman: I have only had three people in all of these years bring that up with me. And, most of them, were wanna-be indians as well call them. They've never lived in a sheep camp or anything like that. They yearn for the mystery of it. They're the kind of people who respect the idea, but have a more romantic idea of what it's all about.

When we got this new director of the indian museum, they had a meeting out here to introduce him to people. Representative from several tribes were on the panel. Someone in the audience asked the director what indians prefer to be called? He said well, let the indians on the panel answer.

One said he'd prefer to be called by the name of his tribe or call us indians, he said.

Another said we're just happy Columbus wasn't looking for turkey instead of indians.

Another said or the Virgin Islands.

And another said don't call us indigenous people. We know there were no primates in the Americas. What do you think we descended from owls or coyotes, or what? We consider being called indigenous people an insult.

And, by the way, a good many indians are having great success as fiction writers.

Woodbridge, Va.: Thank you for your novels. I have enjoyed them for many years. I particularly enjoy the way the physical environment is conveyed in a few brief details -- weather, the cup of coffee in a roadside restaurant, the isolated locations.

When I first read your novels I wasn't aware of any other current mystery series with a regional orientation. Were you something of a pioneer in this, or was this genre already established? Now, of course, there are many.

Tony Hillerman: Sherlock Homes had a sort of a series going with his character and Watson. I'd like to take credit in arousing people's interest in the Navajo culture, which I'm very fond. And if I had any effect on it, I'm pleased that I did.

As far as continuing characters are concerned, I don't think I am anywhere near a ground-breaker in that area.

Bob Levey: Very few Americans know that crimes on Indian reservations are the responsibility of the FBI. But can an agent with blond hair from Minnesota really solve a murder in the Navajo nation?

Tony Hillerman: He can if he's smart enough and he knows the people and the territory and if his boss back in Washington doesn't have a political fix on it. The agents I've known tend to be very bright people. The problem is, they're not people who work the streets and know the territory and know who they can call on to help them out. And local cops, of course, live there and grew up there and know the roads and know if you're going to rob the bank where the dead-end canyons are.

Bob Levey: You're fond of pointing out that your first book was rejected by an agent who said, "Get rid of the Indian stuff." Has that agent ever come hat in hand to apologize?

Tony Hillerman: No she hasn't. As a matter of fact, she was a really good agent, and she was giving me really good advice. And she said no one is reading Indian stuff. The dealers won't know where to put it, which was good advice. It just so happened that the editor Harper & Row had written an article in a writer's magazine about what she liked in books. She liked different kinds of books. So I sent it to her. And they published it. They changed the name of it, but they published it.

In fact, my first agent and I were really good friends after that. I didn't expect an apology.

Waldorf, Md.: Will Joe marry the professor? Will Jim finally find the right girl of his dreams? You can't stop until you resolve those issues! (Love your books.)

Tony Hillerman: They are, in a way, resolved in "The Sinister Pig," which will be published today.

Alexandria, Va.: I have I think just about every book you've ever written. One of my favorites is "The Great Taos Bank Robbery." I've rarely laughed out loud as much as I did while reading that! Have you written any other humorous books?

I'm so glad you're on this chat.

Tony Hillerman: That "Great Taos Bank Robbery" was my graduate thesis. That was my only attempt at humor writing. I had a committee chairman who realized I had six children and a part-time job. We worked out a scheme that was for a commercial audience, in other words, not academic sounding stuff I could sell to a magazine.

Bob Levey: Many thanks to the one and only Tony Hillerman. Be sure to join us next Tuesday when our guest on "Levey Live" will be Rep. Elijah Cummings (D-Md.), the chairman of the Congressional Black Caucus. Our discussion with Rep. Cummings will begin at noon Eastern time on May 13.

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