PW: You grew up in a small Oklahoma town with Indians as neighbors and later served in the infantry in World War II, where you were severely wounded.
Tony Hillerman: That's right. I got blown up, spent six months in an Army hospital, then got shipped home. I was still wearing an eye patch and walking with a cane.
PW: When did you decide you wanted to write?
TH: After I was home, I ran into a newspaper reporter. I'd gotten some decorations, and she did a feature story about me—my mother had let her read my letters. She told me that I should be a writer. I went to see my cousin in the Navy hospital in Oklahoma. I said, "Why don't we just go to journalism school and be writers?" So that's what we did.
PW: What inspired your first Chee/Leaphorn book, The Blessing Way?
TH: During World War II, there was nobody home—everybody was off fighting the war. Got a job driving a truck out to the Navajo reservation, one of those crucial moments I blundered into. Got to see a Navajo curing ceremonial, an Enemy Way—a couple of Marines were just back. It made a tremendous impression on me.
PW: And what about your latest, The Sinister Pig?
TH: The idea came from a woman who works for the United States Customs Service who said, "Your Navajo policewoman [Bernie Manuelito]—why don't you have her join the Border Patrol? They're recruiting something called Shadow Wolves as trackers." So I thought, well, why not? I'll look into it. And then a friend of this same lady, who'd been with the Treasury Department, told me about a committee she was on about abandoned pipelines. That got me thinking. My brother had been a well logger, a petroleum geologist. I knew a little bit about the oil business—we grew up at the edge of the oil patch in Oklahoma. I decided to get Bernie Manuelito involved.
PW: Do you outline your plots beforehand?
TH: I've never been able to outline a book. Common sense says you should if it's going to have a plot, but I've tried.
PW: One signature trait of your books is the trouble all the overlapping agencies, including the FBI, create for the reservations.
TH: Quite a few policemen read these books of mine. I'll say, "You're a policeman. What do you think? Am I too rough on the FBI?" None of them yet have said I was. But many say, "Man, you haven't scratched the surface." I know a lot of FBI agents. There are a lot of good men in it. But at the top, it's pure politics. And so Homeland Security just added another thick layer of political patronage to deal with.
PW: Are you at work on a new book?
TH: Last night I almost finished the first chapter, but I've decided on a better way to do it, so I'm going to go back and do some carpentry work on it. The title, so far, is "next book." The plot involves an incident in 1956. Two airplanes took off from LAX in Los Angeles headed for Chicago. They weren't together—two different airlines. But they both flew over the Grand Canyon and one of them seems to have banked to give his passengers a better look at the canyon. They collided, and it became the worst airplane crash in the history of aviation.
PW: How's your health holding up?
TH: I've got arthritis. My banged-up ankle and leg bother me some—from World War II. But I'm in good shape for the shape I'm in.
PW: Aside from writing, what keeps you busy?
TH: I claim to be a fisherman—a trout fisherman—but I'm not very good at it. So if I'm not writing, I don't know what to do with myself.