She’s no Tony Hillerman but…
Writing a debut novel is a challenge no matter how you look at it. But when your firstborn is also the next installment of a beloved series, the standards are higher, the expectations greater.My book, Spider Woman’s Daughter, continues the mysteries that my father, author Tony Hillerman, began more than 40 years ago. Dad’s novels became the first “regional” mysteries to make national bestseller lists. He wrote 19 adventures featuring Navajo crime solvers Joe Leaphorn and Jim Chee.Beginning with The Blessingway in 1970, his stories took readers to real places on the vast and beautiful Navajo Nation and introduced them to Diné culture, sometimes contrasting Navajo life with that of the Hopi, Zuni, and other tribes of the American Southwest.
Dad’s books won every major prize for mystery fiction. He became a popular teacher and speaker and also developed a reputation for being a nice guy. His final novel, The Shape Shifter, hit the shelves in 2006.
I tried not to think about Dad’s reputation and his legion of fans as I wrote. I told myself to stay focused on creating the best book I could come up with. When a memory left me teary-eyed, I could hear his voice resonating with its soothing Oklahoma twang: “Oh, for heaven’s sake, honey. Get back to work.”
I loved my Dad and admired his work. Like many of his readers, I have favorite scenes, favorite locations, favorite openings, favorite resolutions. I grew up listening to Dad talk about Joe Leaphorn and Jim Chee as if they were members of our family. When he died at age 83 on October 26, 2008, he left a hole in my life and a huge literary legacy. When I decided to continue the stories, I knew I had big shoes to fill.
I imagined that when some readers saw the name Hillerman again on a new book cover, they would smile with relief. Perhaps, despite stories to the contrary, their favorite author did have a final story that his publisher uncovered in a locked desk drawer. I pictured their surprise a split second later when they realized the name next to Hillerman was Anne, not Tony. I hoped they would push skepticism aside, open the novel, and give my story a few pages to win their attention and, ultimately, their affection.
I didn’t want to disappoint Dad’s fans, but I’m not Tony Hillerman. I had to write my book. As much as I admired his work, I knew that for the series to return, I had to enliven it with my own ideas, voice, and spirit, and to do it with panache. After all, you only get one chance to make a first impression. Besides continuing the Leaphorn/Chee tradition, I wanted my book to work on its own. I envisioned it as an introduction to the series for new readers, people who had never picked up a Hillerman novel before.
One of my motivations for continuing the series was to give one of Dad’s supporting characters, Bernadette Manuelito, a chance to shine. Dad introduced Bernie in his twelfth Navajo mystery, The Fallen Man. (That book that also featured two of my favorite places on the Navajo Nation: Shiprock and Canyon de Chelly, sites I incorporate in Spider Woman’s Daughter.)
The reader’s first glimpse of Officer Manuelito is as a rookie trainee with the misfortune of getting her patrol car stuck on a wintry day. She calls her boss, Jim Chee, to rescue her. Dad used Bernie in all the subsequent novels. It takes Chee four novels, a serious bout of jealousy, and saving Bernie from vicious bad guys and a flash flood before he finally asks her to marry him.
Bernie grows as an officer and a character through the rest of the series. In Sinister Pig, she discovers crime and corruption in the Border Patrol. In Skeleton Man, the second to last of Dad’s books, she saves a woman in jeopardy, finds missing diamonds, and figures out who the villains are. But, in both of these novels, events conspire to confound her.
In my book, I promised myself, Bernie would solve the crime without a man’s coming to the rescue. She would have a chance to perform as the competent policewoman she was destined to be. I wanted Bernie’s first case to be a major challenge. I knew I had to start the story with a scene that would grab the readers’ attention and entice them to stay with me for 300 more pages.
I don’t want to give too much away here, but letters from fans and a place for Spider Woman’s Daughter on the bestsellers list tell me I succeeded.
Now that Spider Woman’s Daughter is launched, I am eagerly back to work on the second installment in this new Bernadette Manuelito series, reuniting her with her detective buddies, Chee and Leaphorn. My goal is to create an even better book this time. Stay tuned and wish me luck.