By Carol Potenza, guest writer
During late March of 2017, I received a call from an unknown New York area code. I answered with a wary hello and a woman introduced herself as an editor for St. Martin’s Press. She asked me if I’d remembered entering my manuscript into the Tony Hillerman Prize earlier that year. Then she asked me if I was sitting down. My book had won the prize over seventy-five other submissions.
Hearts of the Missing was released on December 4, and is the first of what I hope will be a series of mysteries with sleuth and protagonist, Sgt. Nicky Matthews, a law enforcement officer on the fictional Tsiba’ashi D’yini Pueblo in central New Mexico. Winning this prize has changed my life, but I’m actually not here to discuss that because it’s a given. I want to talk about what the Tony Hillerman Prize is and why it should be a top priority for writers unpublished in the mystery genre.
Tony Hillerman (1925-2008) was the author of 18 mysteries set in the Southwest. The first of these books, The Blessing Way, was published in 1972, and the final book, The Shape Shifter, in 2006. So popular were his books and beloved his characters, that for years after his death people would ask his daughter, Anne Hillerman, if there was just one more manuscript—maybe in a drawer somewhere—he’d left to be published posthumously. What a legacy. Hillerman’s mysteries feature Navajo police officers Lt. Joe Leaphorn and Sgt. Jim Chee with the Navajo Nation as his setting. Hillerman’s books have won or been nominated for awards like the Edgar (Dance Hall of the Dead, 1974), the National Book Award (Listening Woman, 1980), the Spur Award (Skinwalkers, 1987), and a Nero (Coyote Waits, 1990). Many of his books have been adapted into movies and for TV.
The Tony Hillerman Prize for the Best First Mystery set in the Southwest is sponsored by Macmillan Publishing and the Western Writers of America and honors the spirit of the Hillerman mysteries. Full-length manuscript submissions are due early in January every year (for 2019, January 2). The winner receives a single book publishing contract with an advance of $10,000, no agent necessary. Two major stipulations need to be followed. (1) The story’s primary setting must be in the Southwest and include one or more of the following states: Arizona, California, Colorado, Nevada, New Mexico, Oklahoma, Texas and/or Utah. (2) The winner can’t have published in the mystery genre. Since first awarded in 2007, eight prizes have been given and eight novels bearing the Tony Hillerman Prize seal have been published. To maintain a high standard of quality, some years the prize is not awarded.
Tony Hillerman Prize Winners
Christine Barber: The Replacement Child (2007)
Roy Chaney: The Ragged End of Nowhere (2008)
Tricia Field: The Territory (2010)
Andrew Hunt: City of Saints (2011)
CB McKenzie: Bad Country (2013)
John Fortunato: Dark Reservations (2014)
Kevin Wolf: The Homeplace (2015)
Carol Potenza: Hearts of the Missing (2017)
So mystery writers, polish up your best novel set in the Southwest and submit to the Hillerman Prize. Most of the winners have gone on to publish more books. That’s what I hope for my future.
Hearts of the Missing is Carol Potenza’s debut novel. She teaches biochemistry at New Mexico State University in Las Cruces. Before teaching became a full-time position, she conducted plant genetic engineering research, also at NMSU, and worked briefly on the Jornada Experimental Range north of town and at a drug-testing lab.
She loves the desert Southwest and the beauty of New Mexico is the inspiration for her books. She and her husband whose family has lived in the state for generations have traveled throughout New Mexico from the ancient pueblos of Bandelier National Monument to the Lincoln County Courthouse where Billy the Kid escaped by murdering two deputies, from the Plaza in Santa Fe to the depths of Carlsbad Caverns.