Mystery author Anne Hillerman will discuss work at Bloomfield Public Library

Veteran novelist says stories come easier to her than they used to

Mike Easterling
Farmington Daily Times
  • Hillerman will discuss her work and sign copies of "Stargazer" at 6 p.m. Thursday, Nov. 5 at the Bloomfield Public Library.
  • Admission is free, and door prizes will be awarded.
  • Hillerman will publish her new novel "The Sacred Bridge" next year.

FARMINGTON — Writing mystery novels, author Anne Hillerman says, is largely an exercise in problem solving.

That's a skill Hillerman said she has honed considerably over the past several years as she has crafted a series of books based on characters created by her late father, the legendary New Mexico novelist Tony Hillerman.

Since publishing her first novel, "Spider Woman's Daughter," in 2013, Anne Hillerman has come into her own as a writer of fiction, developing her own audience and landing repeatedly on The New York Times bestseller list.

But that doesn't mean she doesn't get bogged down from time to time as she pieces her stories together. Hilllerman, who will be making an appearance this week at the Bloomfield Public Library, said she's a lot better at figuring out how to untangle those snags than she was when she began writing the series.

Mystery author Anne Hillerman will discuss her latest novel "Stargazer" during a Nov. 4 appearance at the Bloomfield Public Library.

"I am, and it's a good thing, because I still run into a lot of problems, and sometimes I think, 'How will I ever get out of this?'" she said.

Her most recent novel, "Stargazer," published earlier this year, is a good example, she said. Hillerman said she had written about three-quarters of the book when she was forced to make a significant adjustment.

"I woke up one morning and realized I had the wrong villain," she said, laughing. "I went, 'Holy smokes!'"

Hillerman's solution to that problem was straightforward.

"I told myself to buck up and go back to work," she said, explaining that her dissatisfaction with the first scenario she had written stemmed from the fact that she felt the villain was too obvious. As Hillerman went back and reworked the plot, she settled on pinning the blame on a secondary and less-obvious but much more interesting character — a decision that made "Stargazer" a much better book, she said.

It wasn't an easy decision to make, Hillerman said, noting that she was under deadline pressure to produce a finished manuscript for her publisher, HarperCollins. But by that point, she had been writing the series long enough to feel confident about making such a radical change.

In that respect, Hillerman said she has come to resemble the main character in the book, a female Navajo police officer named Bernadette Manuelito. Hillerman, who had spent her career as a newspaper reporter and editor, and author of nonfiction books, made the decision to follow in her father's footsteps as a novelist only after his 2008 death.

"The Sacred Bridge," a new novel by New Mexico's Anne Hillerman, is due out next year.

She wrote "Spider Woman's Daughter" in 2011, not at all sure about whether it was any good.

"I didn't know if anybody would read it except me and my mom," she said.

When Hillerman shared the manuscript with her father's editor at HarperCollins, she got the affirmation she was seeking in the offer of a book contract. Now, 10 years later, she has published six novels in the series and will release the next book, "The Sacred Bridge," in 2022.

Hillerman said she has been gratified by the reading public's response to her series, which continues to feature characters created by her father many years ago. But the younger Hillerman has chosen to focus largely on Manuelito, a character she affectionately refers to as "Bernie," in an effort to bring more of a female perspective to the series.

Originally, Bernie was presented essentially as a sidekick to Joe Leaphorn, one of the two Navajo detectives her father built his novels around, along with Jim Chee, she said. But Hillerman has chosen to make Bernie the main protagonist in her stories, and that had led to a necessary evolution in her personality.

"She's gotten a lot more confident because she's expanded her horizons," Hillerman said. " … And her relationship with Joe Leaphorn has evolved nicely. She's gone from being an apprentice to his all-knowing guru — gosh, I'm talking about them like they're real-life people — to listening to his advice, then running it through her own filter. I think, ultimately, that helps them come up with a solution that's better than what either of them could have come up with on their own."

Hillerman said Bernie is also a lot like her in that they both have a highly developed sense of curiosity.

"And we both have a basic belief in the goodness of people despite being exposed to a lot of bad things," she said.

That doesn't mean she and Bernie are soulmates, she said.

"There are a lot more things we don't have in common," she said. "She's in a different place in life than I am. And she's a lot more impulsive. … If she gets an idea and trusts it, she's ready to go with it. I'm more of the type to sleep on it first."

Hillerman has picked up the pace of her work in recent years, explaining that the stories seem to come easier to her than they used to. That has given her the luxury of concentrating more on her prose while spending less time on the mechanics of plot construction, she said.

"I've got more time to think about language and what's the best verb to use," she said. "I can think about whether there's too much talk and not enough action. I think I do more self-editing now than I did in my first book. But I'm always trying to make every book better than the last book. … In the earlier books, I was so eager to get the story on paper I wasn't as sensitive to the quality of the language — which is not to say I still don't have a ton to learn about all this."

Hillerman said her next book after "The Sacred Bridge" will complete her contract with HarperCollins, and she has some decisions to make about the direction of the series. The manuscript is due in July, and Hillerman indicated she is leaning toward a climactic plot that might bring to an end one aspect of the characters' story arc.

"It's possible that Bernie and Jim Chee might leave the Navajo Nation police force and go to work for another law enforcement agency or something else. And it's possible Joe Leaphorn, who has been working for 50 years, might fully retire," she said, laughing.

As she sorts out those particulars, Hillerman said she was very pleased about the recent announcement that the AMC network has announced its intention to produce a six-episode television series based on her father's work that will be set on the Navajo Nation. Hillerman noted that the producers also acquired the rights to her work in the contract, which means that if the series is extended past its initial year, some of her stories could wind up being adapted for television.

"If things go well, Bernie could have a bigger role," she said.

Hillerman will discuss her work and sign copies of "Stargazer" at 6 p.m. Thursday, Nov. 5 at the Bloomfield Public Library, 333 S. 1st St. Admission is free. Door prizes will be awarded. Call 505-632-8315 for more information.

Mike Easterling can be reached at 505-564-4610 or measterling@daily-times.com. Support local journalism with a digital subscription.