Set in New Mexico, Potenza’s debut, Hearts of the Missing (Minotaur, Dec.), won the publisher’s 2017 Tony Hillerman prize.
How did Tony Hillerman’s work inspire you?
He’s iconic here in New Mexico. He’s the person who represents what the state is and looks like, that diversity of cultures. I am stunned when I sit down and read one line from Hillerman and realize I can actually see that picture of a sunset or a mesa or a desert. A lot of the way I approached writing Hearts of the Missing, the sparseness of it, like the sparseness of the desert, is the way he did this.
Is there a source for the visions your protagonist, Nicky Matthews, sees that sometimes help in her police work?
Those are true stories. My sister-in-law, who works as a police officer on a reservation, never saw visions until she started working out there. It made a huge impression on me. I gathered her stories over the years and started using them in my writing. I’ve also been doing some ride-alongs with the police and conservation officers at the pueblo, and they have all been telling me more of these vision stories. I’ve got some great ghost stories. They’re very willing and have been very helpful, and I think that’s because they see I’m trying to do a respectful job.
How did you develop a sense of authenticity for the culture of your fictional reservation?
I love going out to pueblos and talking to the people who live there. A lot of the different aspects that I put in the novel about the culture are absolutely true, such as the masks, which literally stay as a guest in some of the homes of the different tribal members and are given corn pollen and food. I would pick some of these things up from talking to my sister-in-law and pueblo members, and use them kind of generally to add authenticity. I think pueblo members feel like it’s very important that people have a positive look at the culture.
How does the theme of belonging figure into the book?
It’s about a woman who feels like she’s on the outside of a culture she loves, and I see my sister-in-law that way, too: the guard at the gate who faces out. That’s something I thought was very important to write about: feeling that warmth and maybe wanting some of that and realizing she can’t get it. The loneliness, the wanting to be accepted, is something I think we can all relate to.