Tony Hillerman’s daughter, Anne, talks about the Tribal Police mysteries her dad became famous for, taking up the series where he left off, and Wes Studi as both Lt. Leaphorn and standup guy in real life.
Wes Studi has had many a rewarding role in his decades in the business. One of his great pleasures was playing Navajo Lt. Joe Leaphorn, the popular Tribal Police protagonist of three of bestselling writer Tony Hillerman’s Navajo mystery novels. Studi brought the gung-ho lieutenant to life in the Robert Redford-produced PBS television movies Coyote Waits (2003), A Thief of Time (2004), and Skinwalkers (2006).
C&I had the pleasure of meeting Tony Hillerman’s daughter, Anne, for sunset cocktails at the La Fonda Bell Tower rooftop bar in Santa Fe to talk about her award-winning father and the award-winning actor who inhabited one of Hillerman’s great character creations.
As a writer, Tony Hillerman was known for his deftness at conveying the cultural details of his characters. With Lt. Joe Leaphorn, he portrayed a man in constant conflict over his loyalty to his wife and his people and his need to live in the city. For his part, Studi enjoyed the role as it and the character evolved over the course of three stories: “It was interesting to explore how he lived his life in this particular career, while dealing with his wife’s illness and getting older.”
Anne’s father “was very pleased with the way the movies turned out,” she says. “He understood that books and movies are not the same animal and he was pleased with the sense of integrity with which the movies handled his books.”
After Tony’s death in 2008, Anne decided to continue writing the further adventures of the characters her dad made famous: Lt. Joe Leaphorn, Jim Chee, and Bernadette Manuelito.
“Joe Leaphorn was my father’s favorite character of all the characters he invented,” Anne says. “He started out with Joe Leaphorn in his very first book, The Blessing Way. And except for a couple of non-series novels, and several books that were embroiled in legal complications because my father had given away the rights to the Leaphorn character to a movie producer who never made the movie, Dad wrote about the Navajo policeman for his whole career as a novelist.”
When Anne decided to see if she could take over the series, she knew that Joe Leaphorn would have to have a big role moving forward. “But,” she says, “I also had to establish my own voice, knowing however hard I tried, I’d never be Tony Hillerman.”
While Leaphorn would remain a major force, Anne also knew she wanted to bring in a strong woman’s voice: Bernadette Manuelito as a crime solver.
The result, Anne’s first novel after taking up the reins of her dad’s legacy, was called Spider Woman’s Daughter. It debuted in October 2013 and became a New York Times bestseller in its first week on the shelves. “Readers have really responded to Manuelito very well,” Anne says with a smile.
She has just published her second Native tribal mystery, Rock With Wings, which also zoomed to the top of the bestseller list. “Hillerman uses the Southwestern setting as effectively as her late father did while skillfully combining Native American lore with present-day social issues,” Publisher’s Weekly praised.
In the novel, an aging Leaphorn acts more as an adviser and mentor to policeman Chee and Manuelito. “He’s had some physical setbacks,” Ann says, “but he gets healthier as the book progresses, and as the series goes on I think that Joe is going to get back to operating at full speed.”
That’s certainly good news for fans of Leaphorn. As for whether Studi will reprise his role of the legendary lieutenant as written by Anne, one can only hope.
Anne’s a Studi fan and thinks he’s a standup guy in real life. “He’s remarkably generous,” she says. “He agreed to attend one of our mystery conferences and to do a Q&A with my dad about the movies. They were a smash hit, needless to say.
“Afterward, we took him out to dinner and passed a down-and-out sort on the way to the restaurant. The man recognized Wes. Instead of ignoring him and walking on by, Wes went over, spoke with him, and shook his hand. I was touched.”