Tony Hillerman, reclaimed

I moved to New Mexico in the 1970s and I remember seeing my first tumbleweed when I got off the plane and understanding that I was home. For me, the sight was a confirmation of so many things - and then one: the West, to which I had long been fleeing in my dreams, was real, and now I was part of it. How could I have ever been away? And what accident had led me to be born on the mostly frozen shores of Lake Erie?

In college I enrolled in journalism class and began writing for the school paper. I didn't really know what I was doing, yet somehow I was fulfilling another long-held desire - to become a writer. The newspaper's advisor was Tony Hillerman, and fortunately for me, he was also my journalism instructor.

At the time, he was just beginning his Joe Leaphorn novels. I was struck by how humbled he seemed at the large task he had set out for himself. He had planned an entire series, he said to his students. He didn't know if he could do it, he told us. He wasn't even sure he knew how to write a book. But there was a lot he wanted to say about Navajo culture, and he thought he might put it all together in a way that combined his reporting skills with his great love of the land. The first book in the series was The Blessing Way and sometimes he read parts of it to our class. We were charmed by his descriptions of the beautiful scapes that lay just beyond the classroom, and he was kind of shy when he read, boyish in fact, and we were all rooting for him.

For many years, I too had wanted to write about the land; for me it was a character I had been living with since I was a little girl, conjured up by my father's reading of the Edgar Allan Poe poem "Eldorado," providing solace and nurture when nothing else on the waterfront of Cleveland seemed to. To take me deeper into the land of gold, I had read others who traversed that terrain, and by the time I arrived in New Mexico, I felt that they were all with me on the path. But could I really write about my beloved West? Where would I start? And what could I say that hadn't already been said by writers whose works had saved me many times over?

I can't remember any one statement that Tony said to me that made me think I could do the thing I had always wanted to do, and in fact had been doing in my own half-baked way since I was a child. I don't think there was one (although it was okay with him if I skipped the five Ws in my newspaper leads). Rather, there was something about his spirit. It was big. Huge in fact. And he was big. Very big. It was always comforting to be around him; in fact, I had the distinct sense that he himself was a kind of land mass, not unlike the desert itself - always there if you needed him, ready to listen, a mirror of your own self, and your best and higher self at that. Around Tony, you knew what the heart of a story was; you just needed to figure out how to get there. If you couldn't get there right away, that was ok; deadlines were for sports reporters and somehow, he made you understand that stories unfold in their own time; like the land, I came to realize, they have seasons.

Then there was the fact that he was funny. In the way that open space is. His humor wasn't about guile or one-liners but rather it had to do with the big cosmic joke, skinwalkers that steal your voice and then your life, and shape-shifters that hang out on the mesas near Indian bingo. This was not funny peculiar kind of stuff, or even funny ha-ha. It was funny scary kind of stuff, the essence of great story-telling, the tales you hear around a campfire - and need to because they connect us to what cannot be known.

And so people tended to orbit around him. There was a circle of us in his classes. Among our group was Michael Blake, who went on to write "Dances with Wolves." There was a mutual friend who was another very gifted writer; years later she would die in a horrific murder-suicide after finally completing her novel. Back then there was so much promise, back then we were all heading out into the great wide open and Tony was a signpost on the trail, always letting us know with a generous but insightful comment if something we wrote was off somehow, helping us make a course correction. In my case, he made me feel confident enough to take on the land, and with his own work had shown me the way. For that, I am forever grateful.

A few years ago, I spoke with him at the LA Times book fair, about how much his classes meant to me, and also about our dear friend who had died in the murder-suicide. It was a difficult moment and we both teared up and then we spoke of one of his contemporaries, the western novelist Norman Zollinger, who through his own recommendation had been coaching our friend about her ongoing novel and had himself also recently died. "Everyone's going," Tony said. "And I don't feel so good myself. Email me next time you're in town and we'll have a beer and talk about this thing they call a writing life." I did. It was a few months ago. I was in Santa Fe for a reading of my new book and ever the big-hearted soul, he had given me a quote for the jacket, reading my lengthy manuscript even though his health was rapidly declining. He didn't respond to my email, which was unlike him, and I kept looking for a response in the following days; I couldn't accept that he was fading.

And now he's gone, shape-shifting like one of his characters, out there in the cottonwoods and the slot canyons and the seeps and the stars, out where the tumbleweeds blow by, whispering of matters urgent and mysterious. RIP Tony Hillerman, and thanks for crossing my path. I'll look for you next time I'm in town and I'll never forget your classes.

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