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Western mystery authors come together at Tattered Cover

Sara Hoklotubbe, Anne Hillerman talk about life, craft of writing

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Two of the threads that weave the fabric of Western American literature were intertwined at the Tattered Cover bookstore on May 3, when novelists Sara Sue Hoklotubbe and Anne Hillerman sat side-by-side to discuss life and the craft of writing.

Hoklotubbe, a Cherokee from Oklahoma, recently published “Betrayal at the Buffalo Ranch,” the fourth installment in her Sadie Walela series of mysteries, about a Cherokee amateur sleuth in northeastern Oklahoma who finds herself drawn into a maze of deception and murder.

“Writing about Cherokees is second nature to me,” Hoklotubbe said. “I want to get good info out about the Cherokee people. There’s so much misinformation and so many misconceptions. I remember one time in Oklahoma a man came up and asked me where he could take his kids to see real Indians, riding horses and living in tipis. I had to explain that the Cherokee never even lived in tipis. We had houses — plantations even. He looked crushed.”

Hillerman, a journalist and novelist from Santa Fe, recently published “Cave of Bones,” her fourth novel, about a murder mystery set in the vast lava fields of northwestern New Mexico. Some of Hillerman’s characters are inherited from the novels of her father, legendary Western writer Tony Hillerman.

Taking over the characters from his novel made sense, Hillerman said, because after following their adventures for so many years, the characters felt like family.

“People still talked about them like they were alive,” Hillerman said. “I wanted them to survive and keep going.”

Both authors take great inspiration from their settings, they said, places where mystery and enchantment feel palpable.

Hillerman said she’s aware of the intricacies of being a white woman writing about Navajo life, but said her father’s immersion in the culture — he attended an Indian boarding school, she said — and her friendships and consultations with Navajo people help deepen her perspective.

“Yes, there might be things in my books that a Navajo might say aren’t quite right,” Hillerman said. “But I think you’d find the same thing if you asked 50 people how they celebrate Thanksgiving.”

Hoklotubbe said storytelling was always part of her life, as indigenous families have a lively oral history tradition to pass along the stories of ancestors.

Still, she said she was anxious when she published her first book, especially because it was about the community where she grew up.

“When I put my first book out there, it was like laying my guts on the road for people to run over,” Hoklotubbe said. “Not long after, though, one of the Cherokee elders in my church said everyone in her office either had or wanted a copy. I felt like I must have done something right.”

The authors have a big impact on their readers, and audience members were enraptured.

“I learn more about the Navajo Nation or the Cherokee of Oklahoma from your books than I ever could from a sociologist,” said Margret Korzus, said to the authors from the audience, before becoming briefly too choked up to speak.

“The setting is so special. I can’t tell you how much joy your writing brings to my life.”

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