Shortly before the beginning of this year’s National Novel Writing Month, the world lost one of its best writers, and up-and-coming writers lost one of their best role models.
My interactions with Tony Hillerman were brief, but they were meaningful. To see him and talk to him, you would never know that he was an internationally known author of best-selling mystery novels. He was just a regular guy, somewhat on the pudgy side, and he emanated a warm feeling, as of a teddy bear, with bright eyes that were always smiling. To journalism students at UNM, he was not so much a teddy bear as a journalist with an uncompromising sense of ethics – but with compassion underlying those ethics.
Once upon a time, a long time ago, I was taking some creative writing classes at the UNM branch campus in the small town where I lived. I liked reading mystery novels, and I had an idea that maybe I could write one. The instructor of the creative writing courses had a buddy at NMSU in Las Cruces who was putting together a writing conference, at which Hillerman was to be the guest of honor. I and one of the other students decided to drive down to Las Cruces to participate in the conference.
The opening night of the conference was to feature a reading by Tony Hillerman. My companion was somewhat disorganized, and we were late getting to the event. We looked around, and the only two empty seats in the place were two seats in the front row. We slipped into those seats as unobtrusively as we could. My companion sat to my right; to my left was this pudgy guy who hardly seemed to notice us; he was writing on a seriously scribbled-up yellow pad, making additional corrections to a manuscript that had already had a lot of corrections made to it. Ah, I thought as I sat down, a real writer. This is a real writers’ conference.
The master of ceremonies for the evening was a girl with her hair in a traditional Hopi style. She came to the lectern and introduced the evening’s main attraction, Tony Hillerman. Then the pudgy guy who had been sitting next to me got up and took his place. He put that yellow pad on the lectern, greeted the crowd, made a few comments, and then read from the yellow pad – if I remember correctly, it was the opening passage of The Dark Wind.
During the rest of that weekend, I went to several workshops, two of which were led by Hillerman. I remember most vividly the workshop on making good beginnings. He commented that his usual process was to start with Chapter One, write the book, and then throw out the original Chapter One and replace it with one that actually matches what takes place in the book. I have found that when I’m working with my students to improve their essays, this is one of the best pieces of advice ever.
My next experience with Hillerman came after I had transferred to UNM’s main campus in Albuquerque. I had been taking classes at the branch campus just for fun, but then I got a letter from UNM saying I had taken so many classes, I wouldn’t be allowed to take any more unless I declared a major. I looked at my transcript and discovered I was already halfway to a bachelor’s degree in English, with a concentration in professional writing and a minor in journalism.
The problem was that the courses that I needed to take in order to complete that course of study were in Albuquerque. So for the next couple of years, I had a 100-mile commute. I eased the pain of that by renting a garret in Huning Highlands to stay in during the middle of the week.
Then interest rates went down, and Pat and I bought a house in Albuquerque, which meant that he was now the one with the 100-mile commute. I became the news editor of the Daily Lobo, the UNM student newspaper. It was challenging, especially as Gerald was a toddler at the time, and it was nearly impossible to find reliable child care, especially late at night, as Pat was now the one spending mid-week nights away from home.
An anonymous source sent us details about the Lobo basketball team’s grades – most particularly that the team’s star player had a 0.0 grade point average for the previous semester (but because of NCAA regulations at the time, since he was a senior, that didn’t matter and he could still play). This same information had apparently been sent to all of the other news outlets in Albuquerque, but we had an inside informant who could confirm the validity of the information. We ran the story.
The next couple of weeks were hell. I and a whole lot of the rest of the Daily Lobo management and some of the staff were branded as being “anti-UNM,” “biting the hand that feeds you,” “How could you?!!” I even got a complaint from the local representative of the NAACP that this news was racist, since the players that were failing were all African-Americans. My response to that was that the university was profiting off of these athletes’ abilities and work, without providing the education that was supposed to be provided in exchange for that work, and that profiting off the work of others without compensating those who did the work used to be called slavery.
It was in the midst of that turmoil, when I was beginning to doubt the wisdom of what I had done, that Hillerman, then “emeritus,” which means mostly retired but still hanging around, came to the newsroom. “Don’t back down,” he said. “What you are doing is the best of journalism.” My mouth dropped open. “I mean it,” he said. “You have to say what needs to be said.” He came to my desk, and he shook my hand. He repeated, “This is the best of journalism. Keep it up.”
I had tears in my eyes. I had been battered, criticized, even condemned for what I had done, and here was someone whom I respected more than anyone else, telling me what I had done was right.
Tony Hillerman touched my life only briefly, but he touched it in a way that meant much. Vaya con dios, Antonio.