Sunday, November 02, 2008

Role Models

Way back when I was a fledgling writer, I used to look at other writers' careers and think about whose I would like mine to emulate.

Hands down, it was always Tony Hillerman.

The talented, hard-working, steady, insightful gentleman who was, in my estimation, not only a wonderful, memorable novelist and essayist, but even more a genuinely fine human being, died a week ago at the age of 83.

His mysteries featuring Lt Joe Leaphorn and Sgt Jim Chee of the Navajo Tribal Police brought the reservation and its people to the attention of readers the world over.

His evocation of the American southwest -- its stark landscape, its disparate cultures and peoples, its religions and superstitions, its beauty and its violence -- has been celebrated for over a quarter of a century.

I read all his books as soon as they came out. They brought back childhood memories of frequent treks across the Navajo reservation en route from California to Colorado. They humanized the landscape for me. They peopled it with men and women who might have grown up in a different culture from mine, but who in very fundamental ways weren't alien at all.

That was one of the talents of Tony Hillerman. Through his work, he brought people together. He created characters you came to love as you came to know them. And I will always be glad that he gave Jim Chee a woman to love him and a potential happy ending in his last book.

If he had done no more than write wonderful books that stayed on the shelves year after year after year (something all writers aspire to), his would have been an admirable career.

But he did far more than just write. He was a generous man -- with his time and with his knowledge. He worked tirelessly for his fellow mystery writers, and even those of us in completely different genres were the beneficiaries of his wisdom and concern.

Twenty years ago I wrote a book called Gifts of the Spirit. The hero, who had been in several earlier books, was a half-Navajo, half-Anglo journalist called Chase Whitelaw. The story I wanted to tell about Chase and his family was going to take him to the reservation as an adult, to discover a part of his heritage he'd never really known.

I know about mixed blood heritage. I didn't know very much about Navajo culture. I needed a resource, a person who understood what a writer needed, and who understood the Navajo culture.

I needed Tony.

I didn't know him personally. But I contacted him, asked if he'd be willing to talk to me. Next thing I knew we were discussing my book at length on the phone. He listened to my story, made suggestions about what Chase's family would think, pointed me in the direction of the most useful books he thought I'd need.

We talked an hour. Maybe more.

When we hung up, he said, "Call me whenever you have more questions."

I said I didn't want to bother him. He said, "No bother. Writers help other writers."

They do. He did. We talked again later in the book.

And right before I sent Chase off to the publisher, I called Tony one last time and thanked him. He was glad to know it had worked out, happy that his books and suggestions had helped.

They had. It would not have been as good a book without his help. I would not be the writer I am without his guidance -- and his example.

I doubt very much that I'll have the writing career Tony Hillerman had. But if I can be half the human being he was, I'll be very well pleased.

Thank you, Tony, for wonderful books, for your wisdom and your time and your generosity. God speed.

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Anonymous Sophie Weston said...

Anne, how very sad. I came to his books late and have still not read all of them, but he is certainly a powerful story teller and the master of astmosphere, as it used to be called.

What a great epitaph: writers help other writers!


02 November, 2008  
Blogger Anne McAllister said...

He was a master of atmosphere, indeed, Sophie. It's interesting that I, who have no interest in books that describe landscape for the sake of doing just that, never tired of his landscape. It was such an integral part of the story that you just absorbed the setting as if you were breathing it in.

03 November, 2008  
Blogger Teagan Oliver said...

Thank you for sharing.It reminds us all taht just a bit of kindness in a crazy day is what we should all be offering.

Teagan Oliver

07 November, 2008  
Blogger Anne McAllister said...

Yes, we could use that reminder every day, I think, Teagan.

07 November, 2008  
Blogger maryciao said...

Loved your comments and personal stories of Tony Hillerman. He was a treasure. I left a book club once because they were snooty that I'd chosen one of his books-- thought it was beneath them.

Glad your new book is going well. best wishes, Mary

10 November, 2008  
Blogger Anne McAllister said...

Mary, I would do exactly the same thing and leave any book group that thought Tony's books were 'beneath' them. How ridiculous. More of a commentary on them than on his books. He was indeed a treasure -- and an inspiration.

10 November, 2008  

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