March 01, 2018

Luis Alberto Urrea

On his late brother, the power of the American novel and the “awful lighthouse beam”
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Author Omar El Akkad talks with Luis Alberto Urrea via email about The House of Broken Angels, the BookPage Top Pick in Fiction for March 2018.

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Author Omar El Akkad talks with Luis Alberto Urrea via email about The House of Broken Angels, the BookPage Top Pick in Fiction for March 2018.


Dear Luis,

Thank you so much for writing this beautiful book. It is wondrous, overflowing with life, and though I grew up on the other side of the planet from its characters, I felt a kinship with them and reflection of my own memories of family and home.

Below are a few questions. I apologize in advance for their long-windedness, and if they miss the point of the novel entirely. I wish you the best of luck with this amazing work, and I hope we get to meet in person one day.

Take care,

Omar


The House of Broken Angels is centered on a single sprawling family, but in many ways the novel is concerned with the ways in which we mourn and measure a life nearing the end. Did writing this book change your outlook on what constitutes a well-lived life?
As I enter my 60s, I think about this topic often. I think one of the gists of this book is exactly that—taking stock, appreciating and accepting what has gone before. It’s about the ripples: how one person’s life sends ripples out from the center of the pond and those ripples move across the surface until they reach the shore, sending smaller ripples back towards the center. Everything is touched, everything is changed, even if just a small bit. Maybe it is my version of It’s a Wonderful Life. We sell ourselves short and think our lives are too small, maybe meaningless. How lovely would it be to see all the good we have done before we have to say goodbye?

How difficult is it to produce a work of fiction when it’s modeled so closely on your own personal experience, especially when that experience is of a sibling’s death?
Not to be dramatic, but there are a couple of levels of difficulty. Certainly the pain factor is high. However, as a craftsman, I must honor the novel. It is not, after all, a memoir. That being said, my brother was a tremendous character, and at times, it seemed like he was co-writing it. I think we all, to some extent, mine personal experience in our writing. Whether it be people, events or places that we know, our lives color our writing.

I honestly didn’t see how this could be a book at first. Maybe a poem. But other people saw it. Everything transformed for me when I saw Jim Harrison a few weeks after the funeral, and he asked me to tell him the story of my brother’s death. He listened intently and then said, “Sometimes God hands you a novel. You’d better write it.” Still, it could not be a story until it could stop being the story of my own family and move into more imaginary realms.

You mentioned The Godfather as a book that influenced you greatly. What is it about the family epic that makes it so well suited to accurately describing the American experience? What do you hope readers whose cultural background might differ from yours will take away from your own family epic?
It seems to me that America as a nation has certain tropes that are sacred, like the concept of “home” and “family.” What is the melting pot but a mythological cry for us all to be some extended family? I think our task is always to show each other that we are human. Rudolfo Anaya told me when I was much younger that if I could make my grandmother in Tijuana the grandmother of a reader in Iowa through my work, I would have committed the greatest political and religious act of my life. I believed him.

The House of Broken Angels is being published during what feels like a particularly dangerous moment in American history, a moment where the scapegoating of immigrants seems even more shrill than usual. How much did the current political situation factor into your thinking when you were writing this book?
I believe there is no “them,” there is only “us.” I know it’s true because the very thought seems to cause rage in some people. The book evolved over time from an intimate novella to a wilder beast. Once the discourse was of “bad hombres,” rapists, walls, I knew immediately this was not going to be the end of it. I thought, “You are talking about my family.” And my family has been insulted enough. It was time to fight, and my weapon is words. And I had faith in my words because I knew them to be true. I spend many days now talking to Latino kids. Try it sometime, if you want to see what political damage looks like. They don’t know our country once had the same attitude toward Italians, toward the Irish. I tell them, “Just wait, they are going to get tired of attacking you, and you will grow in strength. One day, you’ll be amazed when they start complaining about those damn Norwegians.” The awful lighthouse beam will cycle around.

Finally, the last thing I wanted this book to be about was “immigration.” We, as artists, set the agenda. It’s part of our job. So what if “a Mexican-American novel” is an AMERICAN novel about AMERICANS, who happen to be of Mexican origin? Who happen to be Chicano? What then? It seems funny to me that some people still can’t get their heads around that idea.

I was struck by the deep reverence with which your prose treats the sensory experience of life. So much of the novel revolves around small miracles of taste, scent, touch. Was this something you intended to highlight before you started the book, or did it come about naturally as you were writing?
Thank you for noting that. You honestly hit on the mainstay of all of my writing. My students will either laugh when they see this question or groan in misery because I am always pushing them to find these very things in their work. It’s all about grace in my work.

Big Angel, the patriarch of the de la Cruz family, is in almost all respects a large man for the majority of his life, but is finally hobbled and brought to physical smallness by disease. There is, in his story, the potential for sadness to overwhelm all else, but the novel never retreats to that place. How did you go about celebrating as well as lamenting the space where memory and mortality intersect?
Oddly, all of my books are sad comedies. The paradox of Big Angel is that he grows larger and larger as he approaches the vanishing point. I had never been intimately involved in someone’s physical diminishment like I was with my brother’s, and my experience was nothing compared to the experience of those who dealt with his affliction on a daily basis. Even in the darkest hour in the hospital, he was utterly, grandly himself. We are all, in this family, blessed with spectacular egos, but his grip on his own myth was powerful for all of us because his personal myth extended outward into the fate of his family. This example radiated all through the fictional attempts to make sense of what you are asking. I have known many elders who surrendered to defeat. It was so moving to see a man who absolutely refused. And don’t forget that people are funny. My brother never forgot, and Big Angel doesn’t forget. So the comedy and the tragedy constantly rub against each other and throw sparks. It’s all about shadow and light. Memory and mortality.

Was it cathartic, writing this book?
Yes, it was. I would happily avoid catharsis from now on, but I think I am doomed to plumb personal soul mines. There were places I actually could not write, and my wife typed what I had to say out loud. But those scenes will just be my secret. Ultimately, writing this book brought me comfort, and I hope that it brings comfort to others as well.


ALSO IN BOOKPAGE: Read our review of The House of Broken Angels.

Photo credit Joe Mazza, Brave-Lux

Get the Book

The House of Broken Angels

The House of Broken Angels

By Luis Alberto Urrea
Little, Brown
ISBN 9780316154888

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