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Continuing a Legacy

March 28, 2017

Originally a journalist, Anne Hillerman detailed her journey to becoming a best-selling western author as the featured speaker for ASU’s 21st Annual Writers Conference in Honor of Elmer Kelton this spring.

Anne Hillerman Anne Hillerman Hillerman’s father, Tony Hillerman, created the popular Navajo Mystery Series featuring Lt. Joe Leaphorn and Navajo tribal cop Jim Chee, which consisted of 18 novels at the time of his death in 2008. Determined to continue his legacy and inspired by his love of words, Anne Hillerman put her journalism career on hold and worked with her husband to publish the nonfiction book, “Tony Hillerman’s Landscape: On the Road with Chee and Leaphorn.”

“My husband and I went on a book tour,” Hillerman said, “and on that tour, every talk somebody would ask, ‘Are there any more stories in the series? Did your dad have something at the publisher?’ And I would say no, and I could see how disappointed they were.”

Those comments inspired Hillerman to actually revive Leaphorn and Chee, as well as bring a supporting character, Bernadette “Bernie” Manuelito, to the forefront of the story. Her first book in the Navajo Mystery Series, “Spider Woman’s Daughter,” debuted in 2013 on the New York Times best-seller list. Her second, “Rock with Wings,” followed in 2015.

“I heard lots of stories about how my dad’s books changed peoples’ lives,” she continued. “After I got over the worst of missing my dad, I thought, I miss those characters, too. That was part of my motivation to continue the series.”

“One thing I like to say is don’t be discouraged. It is hard work, but anything worthwhile has a challenge.”

Anne Hillerman

Hillerman gave two public lectures during the Writers Conference. The first lecture was a question-and-answer session facilitated by English faculty member Dr. Nicole Dilts that focused mainly on her writing style and featured queries from both Dilts and students in the audience.

“I knew I could never be my dad,” Hillerman said. “But I think his voice was strongly in my head, which was a good thing. I wanted my books to have some continuity with the books he had written.”

In her second lecture, Hillerman shared excerpts from all of her books, including “Song of the Lion,” the latest book in the Navajo Mystery Series to be released in early April. Noting she was terrified to attempt to continue such a popular series, she offered encouragement to writers young and old, encouraging them to keep writing and develop discipline.

“One thing I like to say is don’t be discouraged,” Hillerman said. “It is hard work, but anything worthwhile has a challenge. The more you stand it, the better your writing will be, and you will be a better person for it.”

“You have to give it priority,” she continued. “It’s just as important as doing your laundry, or getting your oil changed.”

In addition to Hillerman’s presentations, the two-day conference included nine sessions featuring an array of Texas authors and poets who read from their various works. The guest writers included three Texas Poets Laureate and four winners of the Western Writers of America’s prestigious Spur Award. These types of presentations, accordingly to Hillerman, are the perks of writers’ conferences.

Anne Hillerman answering a question from an audience member at the 21st Annual Writers Conference in Honor of Elmer Kelton. Anne Hillerman answering a question from an audience member at the 21st Annual Writers Conference in Honor of Elmer Kelton.

“So much of writing is solitary,” she said. “It’s nice to be with real people and to see something different. I always tell students to go to writers’ conferences, and when you go, don’t be too shy. Don’t be afraid to ask questions. And don’t be afraid to go up to somebody who’s writing you like and say, ‘I love your writing,’ and more specifically, ‘I loved this book.’”

“The next thing you know,” she continued, “you’re having a conversation with someone who has always been your idol.”