Luis Alberto Urrea on Writing “The Mexican Finnegans Wake”
One might think after publishing seventeen books, racking up awards from the Lannan Foundation and the Academy of American Arts and Letters, and being a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize, writing another novel would be a walk in the park for Luis Alberto Urrea. But Urrea’s newest book, The House of Broken Angels, was one of his most challenging projects to date. “It was a harrowing process for me: at the same time absolutely delightful and agonizingly painful.”
That’s perhaps no wonder: it’s a work that draws deeply on the writer’s close relationship with his eldest brother, Juan, and his untimely death from cancer several years ago. The novel visits the home of Big Angel, the bombastic patriarch of the de La Cruz family, on one epic weekend as he and the rest of the clan gather to first bury his mother and then celebrate his birthday. Angel, himself dying of cancer, struggles to reconcile his relationships to his early life in Mexico, his ailing body, and the many family members he has at turns endeared himself to and alienated throughout his life. Widely praised by critics, the novel turns its familial saga into a powerful meditation on the literal and metaphorical borders that we must cross to love one another.
I spoke with Urrea, in the middle of his most successful book tour to date, about the difficulties of fictionalizing family, the importance of nuanced representations of Mexican Americans, and how to honor the dead. —Amy Gall
The Barnes & Noble Review: You mention in the author’s note that your brother died only a month after burying his own mother and was the model for the protagonist of this book, Big Angel. Can you say more about how he inspired The House of Broken Angels?
Luis Alberto Urrea: My brother Juan really was partially responsible for me being a writer in the first place. He was my half brother — my dad was a playa, and he had a couple of setups out there — but he was the eldest, and he was the patriarch, and he would send his old paperbacks to me through our father, which helped foster my reading mania.
When Juan got sick with cancer, he called me and told me he was ill, and I didn’t know what I could do, but I said, “I’m on this crazy thing called Facebook, and people sometimes pray for people who are sick on there, do you want me to mention it?” He loved the thought of 100 gringos praying for him. So I posted about it. He went through three terrible rounds of cancer and, to their great credit, my readers would pile up more and more to pray for him: Catholics, Evangelicals, Wiccans, atheists sending positive “thoughts.” Each time they would pray, he would go into remission. So being from a Mexican family it was like, “Uncle Luis made a miracle!”
But the last round, my brother’s body was just giving up, and he decided to have this one last birthday party, which was a brilliant way for him to be alive for his own wake and listen to everyone tell him how awesome he was. I went with my wife and my daughter, and we were confronted by this mad swirl of family all at once, everyone vying for a moment with my brother or with each other and my brother presiding over all of it, which was something amazing to see. And my wife kept telling me, “This is a book.” And I thought, “It’s not a book. It’s just my family hanging out and preparing to bury this man.”
BNR: Why do you think you were so resistant to writing the book?
LAU: I didn’t know how to write it. I was in the middle of a World War II novel and I was like, “I’m in Europe, I don’t want to go back to Tijuana!” I was also worried about how I would represent my family and Mexican Americans. How would I fictionalize this in a way that made it a novel and wasn’t just stealing little bits of my brother’s life? But then everything started happening with Trump’s campaign, and I thought, “You can’t talk about us this way.” I wanted to call the book “Bad Hombres,” but I also thought, I’m not going to give Trump that satisfaction.
BNR: Did you end up changing anything about this book when Trump won?
LAU: As I was revising with my editor, this stuff [with Trump] started growing. None of it is a surprise to us, but the savagery of it and his rhetoric was making me angrier and angrier. And I saw how people were responding with more aggression and license to what he was saying. So I thought, this should be a running theme in the book. When Trump won, I thought, suddenly, the entire existence of the novel, even if there weren’t direct mentions of the election, was a strange protest to what was going on. So I made the anti-immigrant, anti-Mexican sentiment more explicit. I dropped in these “Make America Great” people assaults as surprises, because the whole point was the family in this book are Americans going about their day, and even when they are doing something as benign as buying a cake, someone reminds them, you’re not welcome and we’re gonna get you.
BNR: Why did you decide to write this book as fiction as opposed to nonfiction?
LAU: When I started the book, I was thinking a lot about Truman Capote and A Christmas Memory and A Thanksgiving Memory: these miniature, jewel-like books about his memories of the older women in his family. I loved those books when I was a kid, so, at first I considered following that format and keeping it as nonfiction. Then I thought, this might make an interesting novella, because there was something beyond our family’s story, something more universal that I could only get at through fiction. I wrote a 110-page manuscript and sent it to Little, Brown, and they were very sweet but they said, “This is not a book yet.” My reaction was, “No, this is a very small book. I know what I’m doing, my friends, this my seventeenth book, damn it.” But they said I was dealing with issues that needed a lot more attention and space than I was giving them, and they were right.
BNR: Did you feel your brother’s presence when you were working on the book?
LAU: Not be too Mexican, but, yeah. One of my nieces was a big sounding board for the novel, because she cared for my brother a lot. I’d be writing a scene, and I would send her a message saying, “This is what I’m writing,” and she would freak out and say, “How do you know that? Mom just told me about that moment!” So the meta-message my family got was that Juan co-wrote the book with me, which is great. Maybe he did.
BNR: You successfully shift between nearly a dozen different family members’ perspectives throughout the course of the book. How did you decide on that structure?
LAU: It came from being there at my brother’s wake/ birthday party where everyone in my family was talking over everyone else, some in Spanish, some in English, some in a mix of the two. I told my students this book is the Mexican Finnegans Wake. All of these voices are overlapping. and the best you can do is try to parse it out. Whenever I’m writing about Mexicans or Mexican-American families, part of my self-imposed job is to make everybody see things that they don’t expect, to realize things about “the other” — even though I don’t think there really is an “other” — that are surprising in their relatability, and having so many varied perspectives coming from one family in this book was a great way to do that.
BNR: Who were your favorite characters, and who were the most challenging to write?
LAU: Sometimes the peripheral characters were actually the hardest to write but also the most satisfying. There was this really small part in the book where Little Angel meets this trailer park girl and she says, “My name is Keychain, because my teeth are like a can opener.” That was a direct quote from this girl I actually met in New Hampshire. She broke my heart because I don’t think she had any idea how tragic that was, that all the guys in her high school called her Keychain, that her teeth were the only thing about her that made her worthwhile. When Little Angel fell in love with her, that was really me, I was in love with her. I wanted to tell her so many things and give her my books and I realized, if I did, she would just look at me like, “What?” She might have even told me, “Build a wall.” But when I’m around someone with a story and they don’t even know it and they’re yearning, I want to reach out to them. You can’t help everyone, but I thought, I want to recognize her and honor her by having her live on the page.
BNR: There is a real struggle in this book between memory and presence. Has writing this book changed your relationship to presence, especially in regard to your family?
LAU: The past and present are so intertwined — I think I came to accept that more over the course of writing this book. My brother was not a really communicative guy. He never said, “I love you” to anyone, except maybe his wife, and I didn’t have the chance to tell him what it would be like for all of us without him because that wasn’t the format available. Although, during his party/wake, just like in the book, we really did get in bed together and talk all day. But writing the book allowed me to say some of the things I hadn’t been able to say to Juan, and to summarize and reflect on our relationship.
It was also frightening to write a novel based on incidents that were so known in the family without making them feel like I was just watching them and using them. My wife can tell you, I fretted every day of this writing experience to make sure that no one felt misrepresented or mocked. It took several drafts to take the steps back from real life into the fictionalized world that the book is now. But so far, the response in my family has been really positive.
BNR: The jump between the past and the present also created this psychological border. The family was moving back and forth through time, just as they were physically moving back and forth from one side of the Mexican/American border to the other.
LAU: I’m always trying to suggest to people that the border has nothing to do with Tijuana, it’s everywhere. All you have to do is take a look at what’s happening in the country. At the simplest and stupidest level: conservative and progressive, black and white, gay and straight, trans and cis. Even here in New York City, with Latin folks it’s like, “Are you Mexican, Puerto Rican or, Dominican?” There are serious barriers between those communities. I say to my students all the time, “The Mexican border is just a metaphor for what separates you and me from each other.” And now, borders, whether people want them to or not, are starting to crumble. I’m so moved that people of color and women are taking the lead in this breakdown. Change is here and is coming from people who have been put down, and God, that is so exciting to me.
I think there comes a moment where you have to say, “Okay, we’re not perfect, we’re not the same, but either we’re together or we’re not, and maybe it’s best to be together. Because some bastard is always waiting to take it away from us.”
BNR: Besides your family, were there books or authors that you drew on for inspiration for this book?
LAU: I was working without a net, because I couldn’t really find books about Mexican-American families like mine, which is part of why I wrote this book. I mention reading Mario Puzo and The Godfather as a teen in my author’s note, because that was the first time I saw an example of any kind of multicultural family structure.
I was looking to poetry a lot. I’m always reading Asian poetry. I’m a real haiku fan, sometimes when my mind can’t take it anymore, I think, “Seventeen syllables, I got this.” And I always have Pablo Neruda and Mary Oliver hanging around. The last few years I’ve been addicted to Jane Hirshfield‘s work. She has this great essay about liminal space that has become my gospel because it basically says that all writers are border dwellers. It’s true. We, as writers, have to be drawn to the spaces that are right on the edge of things. It’s where we have to write from: the edge.