ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. — When Tony Hillerman showed “The Blessing Way” to his agent, she told him to “get rid of all the Indian stuff.”
She also said he’d better stick to nonfiction.
The late author would go on to create the New York Times best-selling mystery series of 18 books, two children’s books, screenplays and five nonfiction books capturing the people and natural splendor of New Mexico. He died in 2008.
In honor of what would have been his 90th birthday, the Hillerman Group and the city of Albuquerque are sponsoring the Tony Hillerman Literary Landscape Writer’s Series at the South Broadway Cultural Center.
The event is the first of its kind in the city since 2008. The series will kick off with a birthday celebration at the Tony Hillerman Library on Saturday, May 23. Scribes can attend lectures on crime writing, screenwriting and history through October.
It all started in 2002 in Santa Fe when Hillerman’s daughter Anne “twisted his arm” to appear at her one-day writing workshop on fiction and spirituality.
“That one sold out in 24 hours,” she said. “People came from all over the country. Mostly they just came to see my dad.”
Anne and her business partner Jean Schaumberg decided Tony should be a regular guest at the Santa Fe event.
“He said, ‘It’s OK as long as I don’t have to do any of the work,'” she said with a laugh.
The elder Hillerman would go on to speak at the annual writing workshop every year until his death. Tony Hillerman edited the Santa Fe New Mexican until he moved to Albuquerque to teach at the University of New Mexico in 1962.
His fascination with and appreciation for Navajo tribal life coalesced when he stumbled upon an Enemy Way ceremony while visiting New Mexico. This was post-World War II, decades before the realization that many veterans suffered from post-traumatic stress disorder.
“Dad had seen a lot of the horrific things they had seen,” Anne said. “He saw how wise the Navajo culture was in recognizing that these men were going to need some special handling.”
The Oklahoma-born writer was awed by the rugged mountains and mesas of the Four Corners.
He began “The Blessing Way” while still working as an editor.
“Like so many journalists, he thought he should write a novel,” Anne said. “And he liked mysteries.”
Finally published in 1970, “The Blessing Way” tanked; Harper & Row printed just 5,000 copies of the book and limited its promotion to New Mexico and Arizona. Then Rupert Murdoch bought the publishing house. The media magnate chose a handful of regional writers to promote for national marketing campaigns. Tony Hillerman made the list.
Today his books have been translated into eight languages, including French, Danish and Japanese.
In 1974 “Dance Hall of the Dead” won the Mystery Writers of America-sponsored Edgar Award for best novel.
In 1987 he received the Grand Prix de Littérature Policié for the same book.
In 1991 the Navajo Nation gave him the Navajo Special Friends of the Dineh Award. His books culminated in three Robert Redford-produced PBS mysteries: “Skinwalkers,” “Coyote Waits” and “A Thief of Time.”
Hillerman was known for his generosity to fellow writers. He was readily willing to offer advice and book-cover blurbs.
“Some of it might have been his Catholic background,” Anne said of her father’s eagerness to help. “It was kind of the essence of love your brother like yourself. And he felt lucky in having the opportunities he had.”