HAVE YOU READ THE HOUSE OF BROKEN ANGELS, OUR BOOK SELECTION OF 2019? Stay tuned for the announcement of our 2020 pick!
House of Broken Angels is a “New York Times” Notable Book and one of the best books of 2018 for NPR, Kirkus Reviews, and the New York Public Library. A professor of creative writing at the University of Illinois, Chicago, Urrea is best known for the non-fiction “The Devil’s Highway,” which was a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize, and “Hummingbird’s Daughter,”an historical novel. He also won an American Book Award for his memoir “Nobody’s Son: Notes From an American Life.”
An Interview with Luis Alberto Urrea
In anticipation of this year’s event with Luis Alberto Urrea, Fort Collins Reads sent him some questions about his newest book, the topics it covers, and the writing process. Check out our interview below and don’t forget to get your tickets to his talk at the Hilton Fort Collins on November 3rd.
Q. You write fiction, non-fiction, and poetry. Which is the most demanding genre for you and why?
A. Poetry. It is where I come closest to the world of the invisible. I also view it with the most reverence of all the literary genres. It is where I feel least secure, but most compelled. It’s like trying to do brain surgery while flying a jet plane.
Q. The House of Broken Angels has a large cast of characters. What were your challenges in making this disparate group of people come so alive on the pages? Which character was the most difficult to develop?
A. Some of them were inspired by actual family members. Some of them were not. The challenge was two-fold: first, how do you base a character on someone who really existed without betraying the model or taking shortcuts with the fictional character and secondly, whether you have the ability to make the entirely fictional characters as full of life as the ones based on flesh and blood. Big Angel was probably the most difficult. It takes real hubris to tell the story of your own brother’s death while turning it into a fictional drama. Are you lying? Or are you telling the truth? Or is that even an issue? And what is the ramification of this for his children and wife? And, of course, there is the issue of how much pain you, the author, are prepared to feel.
Q. The topic of immigration is in the news every day. What is the most important message about immigration that you wanted to get across in this book?
A. I’ve grown weary of this question because I am weary of the entire “immigration” meme. It is astounding to me that it seems revolutionary to suggest that Mexicans are human beings, but there it is. This was never intended as an immigration story. If you think so, you have mis-read it. This is a post-immigration story. This is about people who have been in the United States for 50, 60 years. This is an American story, about Americans who might speak Spanish, who might believe in the Virgen of Guadalupe, but who have feelings just like yours.
Q. There are multiple, diverse points of view in the book, as various characters tell stories about their lives. How did you go about deciding on this format?
A. If you’ve ever been around a big bustling family full of interesting people and interesting stories, this is what happens. I like the challenge of writing a complex narrative because all of us are complex, a mix of comedy and tragedy, love stories both successful and thwarted. I have often called this book the Mexican Finnegan’s Wake and I think you will find it is as much an Irish novel as an Italian novel as a busy American family saga. That was my hope. It’s about the ties that bind and the ripples we make.
Q. This is a book about all families. What are the issues that make them so complicated and messy?
A. If I could answer this glibly, I would be the next Dr.Phil. But the issues seem to be universal, even if the paint jobs are different. Parents want for their children, children think parents don’t understand, the patriarch wants to impose his will, the matriarch wrings her hands over everyone’s fate, somebody has addiction issues, somebody else has fatally bad taste in romance, everyone has faced a crisis or a heartbreak, everyone is mortal and will have to deal with that eventuality. It’s all about being people, trying to find out how to get through life. Ultimately, I think what people don’t catch about this book is that, for me, it is a bit of a religious text. It’s all about grace.
Q. You did an outstanding job narrating the audio book. Why did you choose to do the narration yourself?
A. Not my choice. If you look back over my books, the publisher has asked me to narrate all of them (except Into the Beautiful North – I would have felt ridiculous acting out a mob of 19 year old young women). This all may have to do with cost-cutting by my publisher OR with me being a hambone … but of all my books, I would have narrated this one because it is a book of all of my shadows. It was truly the last thing I could do to honor my brother. And who wouldn’t want to do The Satanic Hispanic’s Cookie Monster heavy metal voice?
Q. Describe the experience of writing this book.
A. Painful. A few scenes were so hard for me to write I just dictated them to my wife, who typed them in for me because I was crying and couldn’t see the keyboard. Perhaps that explains why most of the book is quite funny. Both things happen at a funeral. On a less emotional level, it is the first time I was writing to an overarching compositional template. If you are a classical music fan, you will find the shifts in energy and tone inspired by Respighi’s The Fountains of Rome. That piece of music gave me the profound gift of the coda at the end, which resolves many tensions.
Q. What kinds of books do you like to read, and who are a couple of your favorite authors?
A. I always go back to poetry. I love nature writing. I fuel the reactor with haiku and late at night, I usually have my nose buried in a good mystery. I am a big fan of James Lee Burke, Annie Dillard, Mary Oliver, Rudolfo Anaya so many others. My son accuses me of being a book hoarder. I point out to him it is called a LIBRARY.
Q. Do you have another book in the works? What is your process for moving from one book to the next? Where do you get your inspiration?
A. I always have books in the works. When I don’t, I am perfectly happy to watch trash TV until something shows up. But if you write in multiple genres, like I do, there is always something. If you enjoy the dew on the face of a sunflower, at the very least, bam, you have a haiku. For example: I am working on a book that I hope will pay honor to the experiences of my American mother. The times in which she lived, the experiences she had, demanded a new voice and a new rhythm, while maintaining those things that make my writing mine. I found myself, after visiting the house where he died, engaged in a kind of Ernest Hemingway self-imposed workshop. He has been a bracing teacher, but also a peek into my mother’s artistic and cultural ambience. You always have to be ready to evolve and being a student again has been extremely rewarding and a lot of fun.