By Muncie Hansen, Executive Director
I recently had a wonderful experience. I had lost my debit card and called to cancel it and order a new one. However, I couldn’t answer the security questions, so I decided to talk to a human being at the bank. After a 10 minute wait, I was greeted by a smiling employee. I told him my plight. He continued to grin as he logged the information into the computer. Then he said, “Mrs. Hansen, you look very familiar. Where do you work?” I told him ReadWest Adult Literacy Program. We help adults who struggle with reading or need to learn to speak English. (This is my standard answer.) His grin got bigger. “I used to go to classes at ReadWest to learn English!” Then, I remembered him.
Abel came from Puerto Rico to live with a relative in Rio Rancho, New Mexico. He told me how much he liked his ReadWest tutor and the group classes he attended with people from all over the world. He said he was grateful the program was free because he had so little money when he first arrived. After 6 months in the program, Abel spoke well enough to get a job as a shoe salesman. The new job meant he had much less time to meet one-to-one with his tutor. Before exiting the program, his tutor helped him buy some books to continue studying English on his own. Four short years later, here he is, helping this English speaker solve her banking crisis. The last time we met across a desk like this, I was assessing his English speaking and understanding. It was a full circle moment for both of us. He told me he often had clients who speak little English, so I gave him a stack of my business cards to refer them to our program. I agreed to refer my students to him if they needed to open an account. He got me a new bank card and we concluded my business. We shook hands. I told him it made my day to meet someone who had participated in our program and remembered me.
When I got in the car, I burst into tears. My heart was so full of joy and gratitude to witness the difference the little nonprofit I work for had made in this individual’s life. I feel so blessed to have a job that connects people who want to help to people who need help.
You have a history with the ReadWest Adult Literacy Program, correct? Can you tell us a little bit about that?
My very first event as a speaker attempting to follow in my Dad’s footsteps was with ReadWest. The venue was a hotel in Rio Rancho. I hadn’t done much public speaking at the time, and I remember sitting in the car in the parking lot giving myself a pep talk. Of course, the audience was warm and receptive. ReadWest has had a special place in my heart ever since.
How important has the ability to read been in your life?
It’s vital. Reading is like breathing to me.
Many of us at ReadWest are avid readers and some have a hankering to write as well. So, of course, we are curious, where do you get your ideas for a story?
Ideas come from everywhere, from conversations; from things I read in the newspaper or watch on TV; from observing people as they interact; from road trips to the reservation; from things that happened to me as a child or a teenager. I get ideas from my many years as a newspaper reporter and editor, and from growing up in a large family with five siblings, all of us very different. For me, the tricky thing is deciding which ideas have enough substance to become part of a longer story.
How do you build a story into a full book?
That’s an excellent question. I build it word-by-word, scene by scene, with a lot of hard work and concentration. I add subplots, cultural elements, descriptions of our beautiful Southwestern landscape, and perhaps some history of the real places that I write about. Then I trim it back so the plot moves forward.
How did your dad being an author influence you?
I grew up surrounded by stories and observing my Dad’s tremendous passion for his work. He and my mother were constant readers and talked about the books they loved. They both encouraged me to read and to write. They were my fans, the same way parents with children who love sports support them.
Your latest book is Cave of Bones. Can you share what your biggest challenge was in writing this book?
My biggest challenge was the Jim Chee character. After a draft of the book was finished, I decided that Chee didn’t have enough to do, so I retrofitted a more complicated subplot. Making that flow with the rest of the story kept my brain busy for a while.
Were there any surprises?
Yes, always. For me, that’s what makes writing novels so much fun. In addition to the new subplot, the character of Franklin popped up and grew into a major player, luring my main crime solver out into a blizzard to search for him. Later, Franklin gets involved in a hostage situation. I love surprises like this. People who write from outlines probably have fewer of these unexpected developments.
Audiobooks are becoming more and more popular; do you feel it’s an effective way to hear a story?
I hear from many “readers”: who are actually listeners and they tell me they enjoy the stories. My daughter has vision problems, which makes it hard for her to read a printed book so she absorbs the stories with her ears. I think audiobooks are great.
Of course, we had to ask, do you prefer traditional books or e-books for your own reading?
Normally I read paper books because I spend so much of my day staring at a screen for work. When I’m traveling I like ebooks because I can take a whole library with me.
One of our volunteers has a saying, “Writers need readers.” What are some ways that writers could be more involved with literacy?
Volunteering with programs like yours is a great way. Writers can help in schools, summer reading programs, with kids in detention facilities and with adult prisoners. There are programs that use writing to help people with dementia, PTSD, you name it. We can also help by saying yes to fundraising events that help to grow more readers.
Is there anything else you’d like to share?
Thanks for the opportunity to answer your questions and for all the good work ReadWest does. Teaching someone how to read is the best gift of all.
Anne Hillerman continues the mystery series her father, the best-selling author Tony Hillerman, created beginning in 1970. Anne’s debut novel, Spider Woman’s Daughter, follows the further adventures of the characters Tony Hillerman made famous: Jim Chee, Joe Leaphorn and Bernadette Manuelito. The book received the Spur Award from Western Writers of America for Best First Novel.
Her other mysteries in the series followed: Rock with Wings ( 2015), Song of the Lion, (2016), and Cave of Bones (2018). The next installment, The Tale Teller, is due for release in April, 2019. All of her books have been New York Times top-ten best sellers.
Anne belongs to many writers’ organizations and serves on the board of Western Writers of America. In 2015, she was deeply honored to be invited by the University of New Mexico to present the annual Rudolfo and Patricia Anaya Lecture on the Literature of the Southwest. She is a frequent presenter at the Tucson Festival of the Book and represented New Mexico at the National Book Festival hosted by the Library of Congress.
She lives and works in Santa Fe with frequent trips to the Navajo Nation.
Note from the ReadWest Executive Director, Muncie Hansen: For the last ten years, if ReadWest was celebrating, Anne Hillerman was there. She has been a champion for literacy and a real friend to ReadWest. At our 20th anniversary, Anne and her photographer husband, Don Strel, debuted their book, Tony Hillerman’s Landscape: On the Road with Leaphorn and Chee. Then at our 25th Anniversary, Anne had just published, The Spider Woman’s Daugther. In the historic San Ysidro chapel in Corrales, she shared the challenges of continuing the characters her father, Tony Hillerman, had created. As big fans, we celebrate her success as an award-winning western writer. She has a special place in our hearts too.
If you decide to purchase Anne’s latest book Cave of Bones, be sure to select ReadWest as your AmazonSmile charity.
Rowena Nichols, long time ReadWest Volunteer Tutor, passed away March 14, 2018. She was 90 years old. She tutored English as a Second Language and Basic Literacy Adult Students. She tutored a dozen adult students during her years at ReadWest. After a stroke confined her to a wheelchair, she continued to write newsletter articles for ReadWest on Tutoring Adult Ideas called, “Rowena’s Corner.”
“The substantial relationship between parent involvement for the school and reading comprehension levels of fourth-grade classrooms is obvious, according to the U.S. Department of Education.7 Where parent involvement is low, the classroom mean average (reading score) is 46 points below the national average. Where involvement is high, classrooms score 28 points above the national average – a gap of 74 points. Even after controlling for other attributes of communities, schools, principals, classes, and students, that might confound this relationship, the gap is 44 points.”