Mr. Hillerman

An evening to remember

By Brian Doyle | February 7, 2014


I had the pleasure, some years ago, of having dinner with the late Tony Hillerman, of New Mexico, and that long gentle vernal evening comes back to me now in cheerful memory, for not only was he the most genial and attentive and unarrogant of famous authors, but his wife, Marie, was even cooler, as is so very often the case with writers of the male persuasion. Some hours of riveting and fascinating conversation passed, in which the Hillermans were astounded by my alluring bride, and we were delighted by the wry genuine honest unadorned brains of the Hillermans, and as Mr. Hillerman said, it was a good thing that he did not have to stand and deliver remarks, for he would much prefer to sit comfortably and have a second beer and continue to talk about books and deserts and the Dineh people of the southwestern United States and his days as a Catholic schoolboy in Oklahoma and his service in the war. He had been an infantryman, he said, a regular old grunt; only some days later did I discover that he had won two medals for courage under fire, and a Purple Heart for incurring damages, and that his knees and eye didn’t work right because he had been blown up by the Nazis.

He talked about his love for newspapers (he had worked for papers and wire services in Texas and Oklahoma and then been editor of the Santa Fe New Mexican). He talked about teaching at the University of New Mexico, which he did for a long time. He and Marie talked with great high glee about their children. He talked about how she was way smarter than he was, and she talked about how she had helped him become a novelist by saying do it and this was when they had six little kids and hardly a penny.

We talked about how the essay might be the coolest form of all and how he loved writing essays but hardly ever made the time, to his regret, and how novels grow on their own once you have written enough for the characters to take over. We talked about other American writers we admired, most of all Twain and Willa Cather, who if all she ever wrote was Death Comes for the Archbishop, that would have been masterpieces enough for one writer, said Mr. Hillerman.

We talked about how history is stories, and research is asking questions about stories and how novels are really collections of stories about the same characters. We talked about how you can always be leaner in your writing and the first rule is indeed slay your darlings. We talked about the Navajo, and he said you could spend 10 lifetimes listening to stories from the Dineh and never hear but a small percentage of all the Navajo stories there are. We talked about how a lot of writing is just trying to catch and share stories before the stories vanish for one reason or another. We talked about being Catholic and how the deepest way to be Catholic was to not take religion seriously but to take spirituality very seriously indeed. We talked about how writing was spiritual in nature when it was witness, and how witness was really the final gift and responsibility and accomplishment of the writer, once you realized that it wasn’t all about you.

Right about there Mrs. Hillerman said she thought that humility and mercy and kindness were the final frontiers for human beings to achieve, and Mr. Hillerman said see, this sort of remark was proof that Marie was smarter than he was, and then we talked about the joy and chaos and hilarity and tension of children, and then, the dinner being at the university where I work, other people began coming over to shake hands and have their photographs taken with Mr. Hillerman, and the cheerful intimacy of our dinner ended, but I have never forgotten how unarrogant that man was, how warm and friendly and unadorned, how unimpressed with fame and plaudits, how in love with his wife he was, how happy he was to be himself, unpretentious and unpretending. History will remember the wonderful writer, one of the best to sing the West; but I remember the man who, when I asked him his greatest feat, said, why, asking Marie to marry me!

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