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Southwest Novelist Describes The Impact of Landscape On Characters' Development

MYSTERY writer Tony Hillerman's territory has primarily been a dusty, dry one: the mesas and sagebrush of Navajo reservations in the Southwest. Nine of his 18 books have been set there.

His newest, "Finding Moon" (HarperCollins, $24), is a radical leap to the steamy jungles and teeming cities of Southeast Asia. In "Finding Moon," a journalist is drawn first to Manila, then to Vietnam during the fall of Saigon, searching for his late brother's child.

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Mr. Hillerman spoke with the Monitor by phone from a hotel in New York, while on a tour promoting the book.

What part does landscape play in your work?

Really a lot, even in "Finding Moon," although in the Navajo tribal-police stories, it's central. I need [the desert] for all sorts of reasons.

It imposes a sense of isolation on the murder scene, it gives me a way to work in Navajo myths and religion, because so much of that is tied to sacred places - certain things happened in this mountain, other things in that canyon.

It's important in "Finding Moon," too, because of the Mekong River.

My stories are set in places where there are geographical barriers in space. The river is a barrier to what he [Moon] has to do.

What does landscape do to psychological states of character?

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What I do is imagine myself into the landscape - a grimy street in Manila, into this brown, dirty river-scape, and I'm there psychologically, so to speak. So the landscape has the same effect on my character, since I'm ... looking out of his imagination.

It's funny how it works, I can still close my eyes and see those scenes.

Why Vietnam?

I've wanted to write this kind of story since back in the '50s when I was a journalist working for UPI. Colonial empires were breaking up after World War II. The Belgians left behind a bloody situation in the Belgian Congo. I thought at the time it would make a great situation for a story. And I wanted to write a story about a normal fellow who deals with it, and how his character develops through dealing with it.

It wasn't good enough. I set it aside and took it up again in the mid '80s. This time it was set in Vietnam, because by then everyone had forgotten the Belgian Congo. So I set it in the period when the Khmer Rouge took over Cambodia and the North Vietnamese captured Saigon.

In 1986, I went to the Philippines [to do research]. You couldn't get a visa to Vietnam or Cambodia. I spent time in the Philippines, because a lot of the book was going to happen there.

I got a feel for tropical climate and the looks of things, even though I couldn't get to the Mekong. I found veterans of Mekong fighting. One was a railroad man who had been in the Brown-Water Navy, little boats looking for Viet Cong. And my son was in the Brown-Water Navy. I got advice from them, had them read it and point out things I'd left out.

Were you tired of your traditional characters Jim Chee and Joe Leaphorn, or did the Vietnam story just push its way forward?

It pushed. I had already begun a new novel with both Leaphorn and Chee, and set it aside to get this thing done. It's about the finding of a skeleton of a mountain-climber who is never reported missing.

How did you get started writing mysteries?

I wanted to be a novelist. I wanted to write a big, important book - "War and Peace in Yoknapatawpha County." As a journalist, I was used to writing short.

I thought, I'd better get ready by writing short, a mystery on the order of Raymond Chandler, Graham Greene, and Eric Ambler - writers who do something more than just detective stories.

I thought I was pretty good at describing setting. And I felt good at moving narrative along but didn't know if I'd be good at moving plot along.

What attracted you to the Navajo culture?

I thought they were interesting, and would make interesting background. In my first book, I thought I didn't do a very good job. I wanted to go back and do it right, and kept trying to get it right for years.

Have you run into much resentment from Navajos for being a white man writing about their culture?

Actually, I was given a Special Friend Award for accurately depicting Navajo culture, which I am very proud of.

In 25 years, I've encountered resentment only three times; two were young women, both urban Navajos, living in cities. The third was a young man born on the reservation, a well-educated guy. He felt I was violating their religious secrets. There is nothing secret that I write about. Their religion is not a secret one.

I've gotten very little static. I think they can tell I respect them. My respect runs deep and true in all my books.

Who do you read?

I read more nonfiction than fiction: Joan Didion, her essays and stuff, E. B. White, John McFee. People who you love the way they string words together.

How do you write ?

I write in spurts. I spend a lot of time thinking my way through a chapter or a scene, during which I'm not writing a thing. I get my ducks in line, go to the computer, then I write.

When I actually write, I do a bit midmorning, then I do an hour in the afternoon, then in the evening I write extensively.

I got in the habit of that when I was a working stiff and the only time I could find time was late at night. When I finish stuff I turn off the computer, then I think through the next bit.

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