Saturday, March 19, 2011

A Visit with C. M. Wendelboe

Curt Wendelboe was a lawman long before he wrote his first Berkley Prime Crime novel. The Wyoming resident was befriended by another Wyomingite and former lawman, Craig Johnson, who served as his mentor.

Curt, how did your friendship with author Craig Johnson come about? And how did he help your career?

I first met Craig while he was promoting his first book, Cold Dish. He was scheduled to give a talk at our local library, but I was an hour away investigating an accident and missed him. I e-mailed him later and we met in Buffalo. He offered me direction as to how to proceed with marketing once my novel was as good as it could be. Several years later, he asked that I go over the Vietnam sections in Another Man's Moccasins. He agreed to look at my manuscript after that and made suggestions for revisions. I polished it until it reflected moonlight, and he sent the book up the chain where it eventually landed on the Senior Editor’s desk at Berkley Prime Crime.

How long where you in law enforcement and do you plan to write about some of your experiences?

 I was in law enforcement for thirty-eight years. I guess you could say I was one of the last of the dinosaurs in that profession, being the last Professional Peace Officer in Wyoming that never attended a police academy. I started in South Dakota in 1972, and the academy wasn’t built until a couple years later. I was “grandfathered” and so never had to go. Many of my experiences, and most of my characters, come from places I’ve worked, people I’ve worked with, or arrested, and they lurk within the pages of my books just waiting for someone to turn the page and release them.

Tell us about your debut novel, Death Along the Spirit Road.

Death Along the Spirit Road forces Lakota FBI Agent Manny Tanno to return to his home in Pine Ridge to investigate the murder of a prominent Oglala land developer. He resents being ordered back to the Indian reservation he fled eighteen years ago, the place where he escaped the poverty and despair. Several attempts on his life throw boulders in his path. But his brother, ex-felon and American Indian Movement enforcer in the 1970s, manages to reconnect Manny with his roots. In the end, Manny established a relationship with a woman, makes a friend, and solves the crime, even if there was no prosecution. And he realizes positive things also roam the reservation.

I know that you wanted to write as a child, but when did you actually begin writing?

My first recollection of writing was in the 7th. grade after my teacher asked each person what they wanted to be. That was the first I thought of it, and the first I started writing. I read every journal and book on writing I could. But where I really learned to write is by reading. See, a writer reads differently than most folks. A writer slows down, analyzing how the writer sets his scenes, how plot twists add or take away from the story, how the author uses dialogue to advance the story or reveal character. Reading like a writer has allowed me to write short stories and numerous books, which Death Along the Spirit Road is my first published novel.

How did your protagonist, FBI agent Manny Tanno come into being? And why a Native American?

FBI Agent Manny Tanno was conceived when I started working law enforcement, though his nine-month developmental phase lasted a bit longer. In the 1970s and 1980s, I was policing in an off-reservation town in South Dakota. Tribal officers, BIA officers, and FBI agents working the reservation would come into town, and we’d talk shop over coffee. Manny’s a composite of many of those men plus a little of me thrown in.

I’ve had a fascination with Plains Indian culture all my life, and Manny naturally became a Lakota. As a member of the Oglala Sioux Tribe, Manny returns to work on what is arguably the Indian reservation in the west with the most history and controversy, Pine Ridge.

Who most influenced your own work and why?

As I kid I practically lived in the Carnegie Library, devouring every Gentlemen Jim Corbet adventure and Ken Robeson Doc Savage pulps. As I got older, I read Micky Spillane and John D. McDonald, both which got me hooked on mysteries. George Orwell’s 1984 and Animal Farm developed in me a certain cynicism, while John Steinbeck’s Of Mice and Men and Grapes of Wrath drug me into the Depression-era culture that I grew to love. And when I could sneak it, I read Erskine Caldwell’s Tobacco Road ‘cause good Christian boys didn’t read such things.

How do you research your books?

Being a career lawman all my life, I don’t have to research police procedure or forensics or the way law officers react in certain situations. If I describe a crime scene, for example, it’s accurate and believable because I’ve probably been directly involved investigating such a crime. The research that I do is into Indians in the last century and how they’ve evolved. I’m lucky to live close enough to several Indian reservations that I can drive to, researching contemporary issues, researching the paths my characters follow during their day. If they stumble and trip into a dry creek bed and, for example, I want to make certain that creek bed is there, dry and treacherous.

Advice to aspiring mystery writers of the West?

Read. Successful writers and those that are not so successful. Harry Steven Keeler was a mystery novelist in the 1940s and 1950s that wrote so badly that there are Harry Steven Keeler fan clubs around the country today trying to figure out how he could have possibly published so many novels writing like he did. Reading him, like reading many less-than-stellar writers, teaches how not to write.

And don’t be afraid to get dirty learning the craft. Western writers typically have dirt under the chipped nails, thumbs swollen black where they’ve missed fence staples, manure seeping past holes in their soles of their worn boots. Get dirty to get authentic.

Thanks, Curt. You can visit Curt at his website at:

Saturday, March 12, 2011

A Visit with Tony Hillerman's Daugher, Anne.

Anne is the author of the award-winning Tony Hillerman's Landscape: On the Road with Chee and Leaphorn as well as seven other books. Her newest book, a collaboration with photographer Don Strel, is Gardens of Santa Fe. She worked for more than twenty years as editorial page editor for the Albuquerque Journal North and the Santa Fe New Mexican, and as an arts editor for both papers. She's been the Santa Fe restaurant reviewer for the Albuquerque Journal since 2001 and works as a writing coach on fiction and nonfiction projects. In addition to working on a new book, she's a director of Wordharvest Writers' Workshops and the Tony Hillerman Writers' Conference: Focus on Mystery, both of which she helped to establish in 2001.

Anne, your father must have been pleased that you inherited his writing talent. Has being the daughter of Tony Hillerman helped you in your writing career?

As the eldest of Tony and Marie Hillerman's six children, and the only writer in the mix, I have been lucky to have received some of the residual good will my father built up over his long career as a journalist, teacher, writer and lover of the West. The name gives me a great ice-breaker at writers' conferences!

What does your book, Tony Hillerman’s Landscape entail and what prompted you to write it?

Tony Hillerman's Landscape is a visit to the country my father loved with selected quotes from his mysteries, photos of the places he uses as settings, and my own recollections. The idea came from Dad, with a tip of the cap to New Mexico mystery author Michael McGarrity. McGarrity was keynote speaker at one of our Tony Hillerman Writers Conferences. Photographer Don Strel (my husband!) suggested a slide show of the places McGarrity writes about and offered to take the photos. When Dad saw it he said, "Why don't you do something like that for me?" That suggestion led to the book.

You’ve written a number of award-winning books. Which was the most difficult to research and write, and which did you enjoy writing most?

Gosh, I've enjoyed them all. Each had its own challenges and its own pleasures. Tony Hillerman's Landscape was fascinating because it involved re-reading each Navajo detective novel, and visiting the Navajo reservation to find those places where Chee or Leaphorn had to pull over because the scenery is so stunning. I had to examine my own memories of time spent with Dad, and make the book personal as well as informative, something that my journalist self initially resisted. Gardens of Santa Fe, my newest book, involved deciding which of the beautiful gardens to include and then pruning my interviews with the wonderful, outspoken gardeners to stress the uniqueness of each.

Have you considered writing Western novels?

Well, sure. I've got a decent first draft of a historical novel set in Oklahoma, complete with horses and a family farm. My other experiment with fiction is a mystery in progress set in Arizona and New Mexico. It's not a "Western," but certainly flavored by the landscape and people of the Southwest.

Tell us about your Santa Fe-based Wordhavest Writers Workshops and the Tony Hillerman Writer’s Conference.

Wordharvest began as a way to celebrate New Mexico's writers. Instead of paying to hear out-of- state experts, why not use our own experts and let out-of-staters come to hear them? My business partners and I quickly expanded to draw on regional talent such as Margaret Coel and Sandi Ault (who live in Colorado but have family in New Mexico) and Arizona's J.A. Jance. Wordharvest 's first weekend program featured Tony Hillerman. When we decided to do a conference, Dad said we could name it after him (as long as we did the work). He also agreed to sit on a panel and be our first keynote speaker. The conference started with "Focus on Mystery" as its subtitle, but now we focus on good writing in general. The 2011 dates are November 10-12 in Santa Fe.

What prompted you to create the $10,000 Tony Hillerman Prize for best first mystery novel set in the Southwest?

We were looking for another way to promote our conference and to offer encouragement to writers. I went to the well-organized Pikes Peak (Colo.) Writers Conference to steal some of their ideas. We were thinking of adding a session with agents/editors and I wanted to see how their model worked. They had invited Peter Joseph of St. Martin's Press. I told him we'd like to work with St. Martin's and he suggested a writing prize. After more brainstorming, the Hillerman Prize was born.

You’ve received a number of honors, including “Outstanding Woman Author” by The New Mexico Chapter of Women in the Arts. Which means the most to you and why?

The honor that touched me most was being invited by the New Mexico Library Association to be their keynote speaker and present our slide show on Tony Hillerman's Landscape at their annual conference. Don Strel and I did a lot of benefits for libraries in New Mexico, Colorado, Arizona and California as part of our book launch. My Dad was a staunch supporter of libraries, as are Don and I. I was also thrilled and honored when the legendary Barbara Peters hosted us for our first Hillerman's Landscape signing at Poisoned Pen in Scotsdale.

Briefly tell us about your journalism background.

After several years of dillydallying, I earned a degree in journalism from the University of New Mexico. My dad was the head of department there--and he was tough on me! I worked in a variety of jobs, some in television and radio, but mostly for newspapers and magazines. I was the first woman to head the editorial page at the Santa Fe New Mexican, one of the oldest newspapers in the West and still an independent, family-owned operation. I also started the opinion page and wrote the editorials for the Albuquerque Journal's Northern New Mexico edition. I currently work as restaurant reviewer for the Journal. That job lead to my book Santa Fe Flavors: Best Restaurants and Recipes, which won the New Mexico Book Award.

What’s your fondest memory of you father?

That question is too hard! I think of my Dad every day and miss him tremendously. I'm grateful for his sense of humor, his curious mind, his gentle kindness, and his absolute passion for skillful writing and well-told stories. And that he had the good sense to find and marry my mother.

Advice to fledgling writers off the West.

Read voraciously. Keep writing. Do your best and don't stop because you can't yet live up to your own standards. Only you have your voice and your stories. Be brave.

Thanks, Ann, for your visit.

You can visit Anne at her website:

and her blog site:

© 2011 Jean Henry Mead