Anne Hillerman: Why I Decided to Continue Tony Hillerman's Chee/Leaphorn Series
When Dad died in 2008, he left big shoes to fill. I loved to sit in his home office, surrounded by the books and maps he used as part of his research, and listen as he read just-finished passages he was especially proud of. (Despite living in New Mexico for more than fifty years, Dad never lost his Oklahoma twang.) Jim Chee and Joe Leaphorn seemed like my uncles, part of our family. With millions of others of Dad’s fans, I would wait restlessly for the latest installment of their adventures. When Dad received a box of first editions of the newest book from HarperCollins, he never forgot to autograph one for me. I have these in my living room, my most treasured possessions.
Dad and I and my husband Don Strel worked together for several years on a non-fiction book, Tony Hillerman’s Landscape: On the Road with Chee and Leaphorn. As part of my research, I had the pleasure of re-reading each Leaphorn Chee book and of talking to Dad about how he developed the plot, themes and settings. The research gave me precious insights into my dad as an author and admirer of the Navajo people and their sacred landscape.
As part of our conversations, Dad and I discusssed Bernadette Manuelito, the Navajo police officer whom he used in several books. In his final novel, The Shape Shifter, she has progressed from Chee’s girlfriend to his wife and is doing research for Leaphorn. I suggested that Dad might have fun creating a story in which Bernie actually got to solve the crime instead of working as sidekick. “That’s an interesting idea,” I remember him saying.”If I were energetic enough to write a few more of these, I might do it.”
Dad died in October 27, 2008. The book we worked on together came out the following year. As Don and I toured the country talking about Tony Hillerman’s Landscape, the question people asked me most often was “Did Tony have another novel to continue the series?” The answer was “no.” Nothing squirreled away in a file cabinet or saved on his computer. His fans didn’t like that response. Neither did I, but it was the undeniable truth.
When I emerged from the worst of my grief after Dad’s death, I realized that I was also mourning the end of his mystery series. I missed those detectives, and I especially regretted that Bernadette Manuelito would never get a book that put her in the spotlight. And then I thought: I could try writing Bernie’s book myself. If I didn’t like it, I could hit the delete key. In addition to Hillerman’s Landscape, I had written several other books, so I knew part of the challenge that faced me. I jotted down some ideas as a rough outline and got to work.
Because Dad’s books were fresh in my mind, I decided to use some of his favorite settings for what became Spider Woman’s Daughter. These included Gallup, N.M., Window Rock, Az., the imaginary Navajo Inn, and the very real and mysterious Chaco Canyon. Because I live in Santa Fe, I thought it would be fun to devise a reason to bring Dad’s famous detectives to my home town. I developed the plot by trial and error, frequently asking myself how Dad would handle things. I missed him fiercely as I wrote but sometimes felt as if he was looking over my shoulder.
After I’d written enough to hope that my ideas might be of interest to someone other than me, I spoke to my mother, my father’s first and best editor for every book he wrote. She brainstormed with me, sharing her vast knowledge of Dad’s work and her sterling memory of characters and settings. With her blessing, I contacted Dad’s editor, Carolyn Marino at HarperCollins, to make sure there weren’t any copyright issues or other hurdles. Marino not only reassured me, she offered to take a look at whatever I came up with when I felt ready.
I worked on Spider Woman’s Daughter for three years with encouragement from my writer friends and help from law enforcement experts, Navajos, archaeologists and more. I think my Dad, who firmly believed in Heaven, sent along some inspiration.
One of Dad’s skills was the ability to start his books with a scene that whetted the reader’s appetite for more. I knew that getting off on the right foot would be crucial for my book. Here’s a brief excerpt from my opening scene. Bernadette Manuelito has just left a meeting at the Navajo Inn to take a phone call from her husband, fellow officer Jim Chee. Joe Leaphorn heads out too, planning to drive home.
Through the lobby window, Bernie saw someone climb out of the blue sedan backed in next to Leaphorn’s white truck. She watched Leaphorn walk toward the truck, extract the keys from his pants pocket.
“You still grumpy?” Chee asked. “I got off to a bad start this morning.”
The person extended an arm toward the lieutenant. Bernie saw a gun. Heard the unmistakable crack of the shot. Saw Leaphorn stagger back, falling against his picku0. Crumple to the asphalt.
She dropped her phone as if it were on fire, Chee still talking, and ran. Pushing the restaurant’s heavy glass doors open, she raced toward Leaphorn, reaching for her gun. She watched the shooter scramble into the car and heard the sedan’s tires on the asphalt as it sped away, keeping the car in her peripheral vision as she reached the lieutenant. Squatting down, Bernie pressed her fingers beneath his jaw, feeling for the thread of a pulse against her fingertips.
I think Dad would have liked Spider Woman’s Daughter. I’m pleased with it and I hope that his readers will be too.