Q & A with Luis Alberto Urrea
Award-winning novelist, writer, poet and Pulitzer Prize finalist from Naperville
Photo by Joe Mazza/Brave Lux
“A Literature of Witess” is how Luis Alberto Urrea describes his work as a writer, poet and novelist. Born in the border city of Tijuana to an American mother and Mexican father, the dual-culture experience pervades his writing. Among his many awards, Urrea was a Pulitzer Prize finalist for The Devil’s Highway, a non-fiction account of a group of migrants lost in the Arizona desert.
Urrea has served as a relief worker in Tijuana. He has worked as a columnist-editor-cartoonist for several publications. He has taught expository writing and fiction workshops at Harvard as well as at the University of Louisiana-Lafayette. Currently, he lives in Naperville and is a professor of creative writing at the University of Illinois-Chicago.
While Urrea is recognized as one of America’s most influential "border” writers, he is, he says, “more interested in bridges, not borders.” His latest novel, The House of Broken Angels, is the story of an American family, which happens to be from Mexico.
Were you always a storyteller?
I come from a long line of unreliable narrators. Everybody I knew on both sides of my family never tired of telling stories. Since my Mexican side has partially Irish roots, I may have a touch of the “blarney” in my genetics. I found out I wanted to write in high school and I haven’t stopped since. I was the kid with the journal, the kid writing poems to his girlfriend.
What moved you toward a career as a writer?
I went to college thinking I would study to become an actor. But that extended to writing plays and writing shows for my little theater troupe. I never stopped writing. After college, I spent many years as a relief worker, spending my days with people living in the Tijuana garbage dumps, begging on the streets of Tijuana, working as prostitutes, and prisoners in lockup. The experience taught me what God wanted from me: a literature of witness. It has been my driving focus ever since.
To what extent do you use personal memories in your books?
Every writer does this, even if they do not admit it. When you are representing human beings that are often belittled, diminished or outright attacked in public discourse, it becomes your duty to make them friends or family members of people who might otherwise disparage them. I’m not mythologizing my own family, I am creating families with my readers.
Empathy and humor are driving forces in your novels. Can you comment on how you’re able to make your readers understand the motivations of even the most unsympathetic characters?
If writing does not have empathy, it is of no value to me. I am not trying to do anything but tell a true story. Even Mark Twain knew that fiction is sometimes truer than nonfiction. As far as the humor in my work, people are funny. The U.S. Border Patrol has funny people in it. The coyotes smuggling people across the border can be very funny. The refugees seeking salvation in the United States — when they are not terrified or exhausted or heartbroken — are also looking to laugh. I bet if you and I had a beer tonight, we would be laughing. So I will share what I tell ALL my writing students every semester and at every workshop: Laughter is the virus that infects us with humanity. If we can laugh together, it makes it impossible for me to hate you. And if I can make you laugh or smile while reading, it makes the heartbreak that may be coming that much more crushing, right?
As you write on cultural issue, are you hoping to change the perceptions of your readers?
My first book came out in 1993 and it was about the people living along the Mexico-U.S. border. In a very real sense, I have been telling the same damn story since then. I know for a fact I change perceptions with my work because I changed my own and I hear from scores of readers that I have changed their perceptions, too. What I can’t seem to change is human nature. It is my greatest heartache that I — and now a new crop of writers — are still writing about these border issues. The best I can do is represent and leave the rest to you.
How do you approach a new writing project?
I usually know where I am going when I first start a project. Some of my novels are historical fiction, so the time line is preset. It depends on how you fill the gaps or embroider the framework. Nonfiction, too, is a form of reporting. Events happened, so you have a map. Fiction is more intuitive, but I always know I am heading towards a certain destination. If I were smarter, I would write mysteries. It’s my favorite genre to read. Otherwise, all writing is good. I would be just as happy writing some haiku as another 600-page historical epic.
How about characters — do you always know what you want to achieve through the people you create?
The characters I am writing, they surprise me always.
What would you most like people to take away from your work?
To quote Neal Cassady: Grace beats karma. Every time.
As a writer, do you have a typical workday or do you have to write whenever the creative spirit moves you?
If I wrote nine to five every day, I would quit. I have learned that I am seasonal. Though perhaps my family would say I am lazy! It is true that if there is a “Deadliest Catch” marathon on TV, I would rather watch that than sit at my computer. But you have to understand that writing, for me, is not my job. It is a calling. It is a way of seeing the world. So even if my pen is not on the paper or fingers not on the keyboard, I am almost always in some stage of writing. I tend to write draft after draft after draft, but mostly as I go along. And if I can surprise myself, I know I can surprise my reader. But I try to do it with no cheap tricks or shortcuts.
As an established novelist, what are the key skills or ideas you hope to pass along to your students at UIC?
Teaching is more than one might think. Yes, skills and ideas. But with my writing students at UIC, it is about hope, respect and love. I ask of them a generosity and fearlessness. We are loyal to each other. And I am proud to see them publish their work, though a couple are getting more famous than me! That is irritating (grin). One unwritten rule in my workshops is if you are not laughing every time we meet, I have failed. One of my personal rules for teaching that I try to sneak in on students — because they are often a little less starry-eyed than I am — is “fill your pen with love or don’t bother picking it up.”
What brought you to the Chicago area and why did you choose Naperville as a place to live?
I was hired at UIC to teach creative writing. We ended up in Naperville because my wife worked for a time as a reporter for the Sun newspapers and we felt it was a great place for our kids to grow up.
Where might our readers run into you in and around Naperville?
Walking around the Riverwalk with my daughter in the summer. Anderson’s Bookshop, of course, and Barnes & Noble. In the mornings, at the gym with my wife. We love going to the theater in the city — The Goodman, Steppenwolf, Chicago Shakespeare — and my wife drags me to the Lyric way too much.
Favorite places to go around the western suburbs?
The Arboretum. The Riverwalk. The Prairie Path. Any movie theater. Functional Effects gym.
Favorite area restaurants? Where do you go for Mexican food, in particular?
I LOVE the Mexican food at Invicto and at Taco Dále.
Q&A RAPID FIRE
Who has influenced your writing most? My wife, Cindy.
Other writers who inspire you? All of them! But I would start with Annie Dillard, Ursula K. Le Guin, Pablo Neruda, Thomas McGuane and James Lee Burke.
If not a writer, what would you be? Bass player in a suburban dad bar band. (I do not know how to play bass, but I would have learned!)
A place you would like to visit? The Holy Land.
An item always with you? A bracelet by Native American artist Vidal Aragon that represents my family to me. My wedding ring has the high peaks of Colorado, which represents my marriage to me.
What do you do for fun? Travel. See as much theater as possible. Visit. Read. Binge watch TV.
Best advice you’ve ever received? There is a God. And you ain’t it.Edit Module