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No mystery to Tony Hillerman's success as a best-selling author

Saturday, October 31, 1998

By Bob Hoover, Post-Gazette Book Editor

Ideas are not Tony Hillerman's hang-up. "I've been a newspaperman most of my life. I don't have to look for ideas. I've heard most of them," he said.

But his best idea probably came from his wife.

Between editing The New Mexican, a Santa Fe daily, and being the father of five, Hillerman couldn't find the time to do what he really wanted to do - write a book.

"You've always wanted to write a novel. Why don't you quit your job and give it a try?" Hillerman's wife told him.

He took her up on the offer and today, at 73, he is one of the most successful crime fiction authors in the country. Seven years ago, he was awarded a "Grand Master" title from the Mystery Writers of America.

His success comes from his series of mysteries featuring the Indian police officers Jim Chee and Joe Leaphorn on the huge Navajo reservation that covers parts of Arizona and New Mexico. Hillerman says the "rez" is about the size of West Virginia.

Although the tribe named him an official "Friend of the Navajo" for his accurate portrayals of Indian life, he insists on carefully researching every book.

"I am always worried about getting it wrong," he said while being interviewed by phone from his Albuquerque home. "I read everything I can find and I try to run my writing past my Navajo friends, but I still make mistakes."

His 14th and latest novel, "The First Eagle" (HarperCollins, $25) is another best seller. It pits the tribal detectives against an age-old killer, a deadly virus that visits the reservation every few years.

A point of pride with Hillerman is his determination to portray the "real" Navajo, not the "border" Indians in Flagstaff or Gallup, the "drunks and the druggies," as he calls them.

"Alcohol is prohibited on the reservation," Hillerman pointed out. "That's not something very many people know. The Navajo are originals. As a people, they have always impressed me."

Hillerman's first novel, "The Blessing Way," was published in 1971. But by that time, he had gone from unemployed newspaperman to chairman of the journalism department at the University of New Mexico, a job he held for more than 20 years.

"I got to love teaching, but I finally burned out," he said. Hillerman retired in 1985, but the novels continued.

"I never intended to write 'The Great American Novel.' I wanted to write books that told stories," he said.

Tony Hillerman speaks Monday at 7:30 p.m. for the Three Rivers Lecture Series at Carnegie Music Hall, Oakland. For tickets, call 412-622-8866.

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