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Living the Legacy

Author Anne Hillerman carries on her father’s work and makes it her own.

Anne Hillerman has been a newspaper reporter, editor, and columnist; a food critic; and author of books on the food and gardens of Santa Fe. The almost-native of New Mexico also is the daughter of the Southwest mystery writer Tony Hillerman and has carried on her father’s vision with a series of novels that have kept fan-favorite fictional characters alive after the senior Hillerman’s death, and she will be in Colorado Springs April 20 to receive the Friends of the Pikes Peak Library District’s annual Frank Waters Award, given for literary excellence.

After earning a journalism degree from the University of New Mexico, she was hired by news wire service UPI to cover the New Mexico legislature. That led to a job with the Santa Fe New Mexican as a copy editor and later as a reporter, mostly covering arts and education. When the paper started an arts magazine, she was its first editor.

After her son was born, she says, “I decided not to work 60 hours a week anymore,” and took a less demanding job with the Albuquerque Journal as arts editor and columnist. In addition, she took her education as a journalist and wrote books on food and gardening: Santa Fe Flavors and Gardens of Santa Fe. She’s also written travel guides to her city. “I had learned how to meet deadlines and how to work with editors,” she says, “I learned to not consider each word as precious and…that every writer needs a good editor.” Hillerman also provided the text for the award-winning coffee-table topper Tony Hillerman’s Landscape: On the Road with Chee and Leaphorn, created with her husband, photographer Don Strel.

But even after all her work with words, she says, “I was not ever expecting to become a novelist.” During book signings or writing workshops, fans would sometimes suggest to her, “You know, your father isn’t going to be around forever. Maybe you should collaborate with him on a book.”

But they never talked about it, she says. “The idea of me stepping into his shoes while he was still alive, it was too much,” she says. Her continuation of the Joe Leaphorn and Jim Chee mysteries came about several years after her father’s death in 2008. It was only then, when she heard his fans tell her how they were rereading all his old books, did she realize there was a real desire for more stories starring his beloved characters.

She decided to give it a shot, but she had to make the books her own. She took a minor character, Bernadette Manuelito, and elevated her to a main character. And she soon discovered that she wasn’t doing it out of any obligation to her dad. She says, “I just loved doing it!” And even though most fans have had a positive response to her soon-to-be five (her fifth Navajo mystery comes out in April) mystery novels, she’s sure there are some who don’t like them, “but are too polite to say so.”

Working with a new character and keeping in the old ones gave her a chance to create new story lines. “I knew I could never be my dad. I knew if I tried to be, it wouldn’t work,” she says. “So I was glad he had created the character of Bernie but had never used her as main character. I knew I had to give it a different twist.”

Meet Anne Hillerman

Hillerman will be honored at the annual Friends of the Pikes Peak Library District luncheon at noon on April 20 at the Antlers Hotel. She will be the keynote speaker and will sign copies of her books at the event. For details, or to sign up, visit https://bpt.me/4074865

The Essential Hillerman

Five Must-Reads from this prolific literary family.

• The Blessing Way (1970) Tony Hillerman’s iconic mystery novel introduced the world to Navajo Tribal Police Lieutenant Joe Leaphorn. (It will be a decade before we meet Officer Jim Chee in 1980’s People of Darkness.)

• Santa Fe Flavors (2009) Cook like a native with Anne Hillerman’s exploration of the best dishes and restaurants in northern New Mexico.

• Tony Hillerman’s Landscape: On the Road with Chee and Leaphorn (2009) Hillerman’s husband, photographer Don Strel, documents the stunning vistas traversed by Hillerman’s characters throughout Arizona and New Mexico.

• Spider Woman’s Daughter (2013) In Anne Hillerman’s first foray into the fictional milieu created by her father, Joe Leaphorn is retired, and Jim Chee is married to Officer Bernadette “Bernie” Manuelito, who we first came to know in The Fallen Man in 1996. Bernie emerges as the lead character, allowing Anne Hillerman to continue the story while making it her own.

• The Tale Teller (2019) In the latest novel in the series (on shelves in April) Joe Leaphorn, retired from the police but working as a private investigator, again takes center stage in this new mystery although his intriguing case soon intersects with one involving Bernie Manuelito and Jim Chee.