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The Case of Tony Hillerman: An Interview

From: Journal of the Southwest
Volume 50, Number 4, Winter 2008
pp. 447-457 | 10.1353/jsw.2008.0017

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The Case of Tony Hillerman: An Interview Mario Materassi This interview with Tony Hillerman took place in December 1990, in our old home in Albuquerque. It was the first time we met. After that I often visited him in his beautiful new home in North Valley. We became friends. I taught his work at the University of Florence, supervised graduation theses on his novels and their critical reception, reviewed his translations into Italian, and wrote and lectured on his role in the development of American mystery writing. We often talked of having him and his wife, Marie, come visit us in Florence—a plan that regretfully never materialized. The last time I saw him, on November 30, 2007, we discussed the possibility of my translating his memoirs of World War II into Italian. In the course of later phone calls, he sadly admitted that, due to his failing health, he was having increasing difficulties in working on this as well as other projects. I will always bitterly regret that, for some stupid reason, on October 25, 2008, I postponed calling him until the next day. For the next day Tony was no more. This interview—the first of many conversations we had in almost two decades of friendship—has never appeared in English. I offer it in its original form and in its entirety, as a belated adieu to an extraordinary storyteller and a marvelous man. Materassi: Mr. Hillerman, How did you become a mystery writer? Hillerman: I really intended to become a novelist, not a writer of mystery stories. I had been a newspaperman, a journalist, for seventeen years. I decided that I would try to write something book-length, and it would be simpler to try to write a mystery because they are shorter and they have a sort of skeleton, a form. And if I could do that, then I would move to the next step and try to write a novel of character. That’s how I became a mystery writer: trying to learn how to write. Mario Materassi taught American literature at the University of Florence, Italy, and is an editorial advisor for Journal of the Southwest. Journal of the Southwest 50, 4 (Winter 2008) : 447–458 448  ✜  Journal of the Southwest Materassi: Before going into journalism, did you intend to become a writer? Hillerman: Yes, I guess so. I always liked to read. Unfortunately, there seems to be a lack of other skills in a lot of writers. I’m bad at mathematics , I’m very poor at fixing things—making tape recorders or computers work, or things like that. And I think you’re sort of forced into the business by the inability to do anything else! Well, I might also add, I grew up in a circumstance that valued storytelling—a tiny town, Sacred Heart, Oklahoma, a village of about sixty or seventy people, in the Depression between World War I and World War II. A community built around a Benedictine monastery and a cotton gin. Very few people lived there. Most of the people around there were Potawatomi Indians. We had a farm. My mother was a good storyteller and my dad ran a little crossroads store, and people would come and sit on the front porch and tell stories. And you noticed that people who did it well were admired. Materassi: Were you good at storytelling? Hillerman: Even as a child I had a good imagination. I was always daydreaming. Materassi: What prompted the choice of the Southwest as the locale for your fiction? Hillerman: Well, I grew up in Oklahoma, which is, of course, east of here but also rural and thinly populated, relatively speaking. I wrote about the Navajo reservation and the Navajo people because I had the feeling that while I might not be very good at plotting, I thought I was good at describing. And I thought that the Navajos and the Navajo reservation were so interesting that even if my plots weren’t very good, the background would be interesting. Materassi: Did you conceive of your novels as a sort of saga, or did it just so happen? Hillerman: I intended to write one mystery...

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