Wyoming Arts Council

Craig Johnson remembers Tony Hillerman

This remembrance of Tony Hillerman comes from one of our own, mystery writer Craig Johnson of Ucross:

There was an owl on one of the teepee poles at my ranch last night and, if you’re lucky enough to live adjacent to Indian Country, you pay attention to such things. The Cheyenne see the owls as messengers from the other side, and I couldn’t help but wonder who it was that was sending something a little more than special delivery.

I always thought he looked a little like an owl, even before I met him. The way the tufts of hair perched up on his head and the pointed nose — but most of all it was the eyes; not so much the eyes of an eagle because those carry a self-concern, but more like the eyes that see past self-interest.

He was 83, and he lived in Albuquerque with, in his own words “now-and-then rhematic arthritis, in-remission cancer, a minor heart-attack, a mediocre eye, one tricky ankle and two unreliable knees.” He began teaching at the University of New Mexico in 1967 and, with a wife and six children, he struggled to make ends meet. The story goes that he was typing away in his office late one night and an associate enthused, “You must be the hardest working professor we have here at the University.”

He looked up with the twinkle his eyes always carried, his glasses perched at the end of his nose. “Actually, I’m writing a book.”

Undaunted, the woman remarked. “How wonderful, what’s it about?”

“It’s a mystery.”

She was crest-fallen. “With all your knowledge of Navajo art, culture, society and history-why are you wasting your time writing a mystery novel?”

His response, like the man, was eloquent and authentic. “Because I want someone to read the darned thing, that’s why.”

I was fortunate enough to win a short story award in combination with the writing conference that is named after him and Cowboys & Indians Magazine. He’d written seventeen books in his series when I met him, was a New York Times Best-selling fixture, and had won every award you can imagine. I’d written one novel and was facing the daunting task of trying to write my second, so I asked him how you keep it fresh. He smiled the small grin that reflected the admiration, adoration, and respect that everyone had for him. “At the risk of sounding like a bad sports analogy, you gotta write ’em one at a time-and just remember to tell a good story.” It is invaluable advice.

At a time when you usually have to beg most big-time authors to remember what it was like when they were climbing up the ladder, he wrote me a blurb for not only my first novel, but my second, because he said he’d enjoyed them so much. I still have the voice message on my answering machine where he read the jacket quote because his email was on the fritz. “Umm, Craig, I can’t get this email thingy to work, so I thought I’d just call you and tell you what to put on your book.”

One of the last times I saw him was when he was being feted at the Los Angeles Times. They gave him their Life Achievement Award, and the hall where he was interviewed was standing room only, and the line to have him sign his books was about a mile long. He was a storyteller whose owl-like eyes saw further than the genre and farther than himself.

Perhaps the best words to describe his legacy are those of his protagonist Jim Chee, “Everything is connected. The wing of the corn beetle effects the direction of the wind, the way the sand drifts, the way the light reflects into the eye of man beholding his reality. All is part of totality, and in this totality man finds his horzo, his way of walking in harmony, with beauty all around him.”

Tony Hillerman, 1925-2008

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