Luis Alberto Urrea is the author of 13 books, all of them critically acclaimed. The Devil’s Highway, his 2004 nonfiction account of a group of Mexican immigrants lost in the Arizona desert, won the Lannan Literary Award and was a finalist for the Pulitzer and the Pacific Rim Kiriyama Prizes. He also won a 1999 American Book Award for his memoir, Nobody’s Son: Notes from an American Life. In 2000, he was voted into the Latino Literature Hall of Fame following the publication of Vatos. Urrea currently lives with his family in Naperville, IL, where he is a professor of creative writing at the University of Illinois-Chicago. More at http://www.luisurrea.com/.
UF Review: You’re quite successful in writing across genres. How do you decide which genre to use at any given moment?
Urrea: The genre picks me. Is that too cosmic? It’s bizarre but true. For example, a haiku makes a different entrance than a 600 page blockbuster novel. The haiku is quite pleasant and wears sandals and slouches a little. The novel is more like a gangster. ”All right, asshole,” it bellows, “you’re MINE.” Oh no, I think, the kidnappers have found me again. Non-fiction knows it’s non-fiction, especially because it is sometimes assigned by your editor.
UF Review: Is there a genre that brings you most joy as a writer? How about as a reader?
Urrea: I love it all. I’m a reading slut and a writing tramp. Don’t you?
I love to write poems — I started out, I think, trying to be a poet. Writing The Hummingbird’s Daughter I and II (just finished the second book…like, yesterday) were not fun, though I feel that they are the best books ever written by anybody past, present or future. Yes! But I didn’t enjoy writing them. As for reading, I enjoy wrestling magazines as much as I enjoy Basho. I love Mysteries. I love poetry. I love serious novels and horror and travel essays. You name it.
UF Review: What are some of your favorite books and authors?
Urrea: Can I take up your entire issue? Are you serious? I bet if you sat down to answer that, you’d be as stymied as I am. That goes for your readers, too. Look, we’re here in a LIT journal. We’re not reading porn or Mad Magazine. Right? We’re here because we’re addicts. Oh, Lord — I could not answer you simply.
Where’d I start? Mark Twain. Ray Bradbury. Science fiction. Ambrose Bierce. Stephen Crane. When I got to high school, I went insane for a certain wild voice, a certain mysterious anarchy: Richard Brautigan, Kurt Vonnegut, Richard Farina, Donald Barthelme. But here is where the narrative gets sticky. Because I was a rocker. So Cal, man. Music was a text as much as writing. No, wait — I fancied myself an artist in the surrealist mode. So visual arts were a text as well. I was voted the best actor in my high school, too. Oh, man — plays and theater. Do you see? The WORLD was text for me, and I was in a mad study of all arcane voices and occult rituals of life and art, which were the same thing. Add: SEX. Holy cow! Art was orgasm, brother — I was after it like a rabbit.
So my favorite authors were also Dali and Jim Morrison, Leonard Cohen and Mad’s Don Martin, Neil Young and John Lennon and Bob Dylan and Shawn Phillips and Yves Tanguy and Steve McQueen and Funkadelic and Gustav Dore and Carlos Santana and later, Joan Manuel Serrat and Facundo Cabral. I did not need drugs because it was all my drug and I was stoned on words and the voluptuous velvet of sensation.
Along this timeline, I discovered Charles Bukowski at the same time I discovered that Jim Morrison and Bob Dylan and John Lennon and Leonard Cohen wrote books. It was a land mine. In college, I discovered two new regions: Latin America and the world of women. Diane Wakoski. Doris Lessing, Ursula le Guin, Patti Smith, Gabriela Mustral, Alfonsina Storni. They wrestled in my mind with Nerdua, Garcia Marquez, Horacio Quiroga, Borges, Fuentes, Paz, Unamuno. My head was exploding.
Lately, I can name you 100 authors that motivate me. Thomas McGuane was a big discovery for me. And… and… and…
UF Review: On a related note, what are your influences? One of my favorite books of yours, By the Lake of Sleeping Children, seems to draw upon experience and knowledge of a location that serves as an influence in itself. Am I onto something? I guess this could speak to one of my favorite questions to ask: does writing inform your life or does life inform your writing?
Urrea: This answer barely touches your question, but paradoxically it answers the next one. I am a shaman! Watch out for my mysterious ways. I feel that writing is a spiritual pursuit more than a career. In China, there is an ancient text called Wen-Fu. I’m there. I’m more of a haiku monk like Issa and Buson than I am a Stephen King. Life informs writing — writing delineates the frontiers of life. Life reacts to writing, if writing is your personal discipline. Does that make sense? By the way, By the Lake and Across the Wire are deeply based in the stink and blood of experience and place.
UF Review: What keeps you going? Why have you dedicated yourself to writing?
Urrea: Writing isn’t what you do — it is what you are.
UF Review: You’re pretty consistent in releasing work; I think the term prolific may apply to you. What does it feel like after you’ve completed a project? How long is it before you start a new one? How do you keep your creativity and vigor alive?
Urrea: I have a black belt in Wen-Fu. Practice, practice, practice. Bruce Lee said that the least effort involved gives you the greatest power. So I don’t waste time thinking about good spots to write in, good pens or new computers, nice chairs or silence and awe. Make it funky! Write like James Brown! Be ready, rehearsed, have your moves down, and git on the good foot. It helps to yell “YOW!” a lot when you’re typing.
I just finished the sequel to Hummingbird, as I mentioned. I am stunned and exhausted. The whole saga has taken me 26 years. Can you believe that? Don’t come whining to me, students, about term papers. This is my first “work” since I finished that epic…yesterday. Have fun. Make it fun. The suffering as all wrapped up in that matrix — don’t worry about suffering. You’ll have it in spades. And, as per Mr. Brown: ”Whatsoever it is…you go to make it funky.”
UF Review: What’s easy about the act of writing? What’s difficult?
Urrea: Easy? Hmm. Difficult? Putting your ass in the chair. Revision, revision, revision, revision. Revise yesterday’s before you start today’s. Then the editors get hold of it and… revise, revise, revise.
UF Review: Is it important to draw upon research as a writer? For you, what’s the relationship between direct fact and creative improvisation?
Urrea: Research is a pain, but everything is research. If you write, the world is your library, lab and playhouse. It’s also church, but I won’t get into that. Too mystical for our purposes.
The relationship between fact and fiction is an intimate dance that moves quickly to kissing and hugging. In Hummingbird, for example, the editors started to cut out the “magical realism” aspects of the book, thinking it an historical novel. Fine, that’s finer — except the miracles and Indigenous magic WERE the historical details! Witnessed and written down! The fiction was the “real” stuff. I didn’t know what kinds of pants and skirts they wore! I didn’t know what color their house was or what they ate for breakfast! One of the favorite characters in the novel is completely fictional. But the reality of the story was so deeply ingrained in me after decades of research that I knew it more profoundly than I could footnote.
Finally, that story requires a trance state for the readers. You have to be dreaming while awake. That’s a line I stole from my favorite Goth band, Fields of the Nephilim. Dream while you’re awake and you will have second-sight. Only a novel can take you there. Or Fields of the Nephilim.
UF Review: Do you have any projects currently in progress? Anything on the way?
Urrea: Projects. Oh yes. I have two books of poetry ready to go. Two novels veering into view. A collection of stories growing. Several movies happening. Just did a graphic novel. Yeah, baby —I am a chorizo factory.
UF Review: A huge congratulations on being inducted into the Latino Literature Hall of Fame. What does that kind of success feel like? Is it inspiring, a call to keep going? Does it freak you out a little bit; do you feel like you have expectations to continue to live up to?
Urrea: I don’t think about honors. The honors game will curdle your blood. I have so many awards that I am embarrassed when people start to mention them. But the perversity of the human heart is such that you think, “Oh yeah? If I’m so great where’s my [FILL IN THE BLANK] award?” No. You can’t think about it. That being said, I accidentally won an Edgar Award for best mystery story, and that made me giddy with joy. Except now editors think I am smart enough to write mysteries, and I am not.
UF Review: What’s your definition of success in the life of letters?
Urrea: Success? I am far more gentle with others than I am with myself. Look, just writing down anything is a miracle. You took little meaningless squiggles that look like crushed ants, and you somehow made them represent ancient tribal rituals of dance, dreaming, story-telling, prayer, song and sacred incantations. Then you put them in order, somehow, on a page of paper. Or a computer screen. Both of them the most daunting things ever created by man: each of them is a perfect anodyne of infinity. Good luck, Jack, with filling that. But you do, don’t you? You write a note, or a letter, or a poem, or an essay, or a story, or a novel. How did you do that? How did that happen? Your crushed ants can make another human being cry, or smile, or FEEL. You have already triumphed. It’s all about your mind and soul. But if your beauty makes you then make it about mine, too.
UF Review: How important is it to establish community? So often we hear about writers who pursue their craft in solitude, and it seems like there’s a place for that kind of work. But you appear to straddle this private writing life and your public work, whether it be attending workshops, delivering public readings, or teaching. Does teaching help you as a reader? As a writer? How do you like reading your work to others?
Urrea: Like dying, you must write alone. If you’ve read my books, you’ll know that this is not a negative thing I’m saying. Living in solitude can break your heart, though. Duh — that’s why we write. Dude, we’re lonesome! I’m sending love-notes to you all the time. I don’t want to sound like Sting, but every story is a message in a bottle.
Teaching drains my brain and sometimes makes leaks in my soul. However, when you get wonderful students, like I have right now, you feel lifted and wise. They let you teach them. It’s quite a gift. I also teach outside of school — you can find me lurking around Bread Loaf or Squaw Valley or Fishtrap. I like it. Sometimes I’m tired from my Perpetual Book Tour, and I complain a lot. But it’s my American right to bitch and moan.
My job, aside from writing, is to go all over the world and receive love and enthusiasm from strangers. I used to scrub feces off the walls of public toilets for a living. This beats that.
UF Review: What’s been your most exciting moment as a writer?
Urrea: How many can I recount? Perhaps this, which sounds like I’m kidding, but I’m not. Something holy happened here that made me know it was real. When I was in high school, I wrote obsessively in record book. $1.49 from the drug store. My girlfriend, the legendary Colette, went to school across town. She would take my books when they were full and read them, mostly because they consisted of 120 pages of me babbling about…Colette.
What I didn’t know was that she lost one of them. She left it under her desk in math class. She returned it and never said a word, so I didn’t find this story out till later.
So I’m at a Born Again Christian Event. You know those — those Maranatha! deals where 3,000 kids jam some theater and speak in tongues and prophesy. A Holy Spirit Hoedown! And as we’re leaving, a friend stops me and tells me to sit on the bench and wait. Just wait. ”Louie, you’ll thank me later!” he says. (They called me Louie, figuring I must be French or something…surely not a Beaner.) So he brings out this very cute young lady and stands her before me. I’m looking up and she’s looking down and we’re both bemused, and the guy says, “This is Louie.” Okay? She cries out and jumps into my lap and kisses me!
It turns out that she was the one who found the book. She had been wondering who I was for ages. And there we were.
Very, very, exciting.
Decades later, she survived cancer. We hadn’t seen each other for years. She came to me to show me her mastectomy scars to see if anyone would desire her again. She trusted me, perhaps because of those silly old poems.
It’s beyond me.
UF Review: What’s been your most exciting moment as a reader?
Urrea: As a reader, I have to say my career as a writer. I am more of a fan than a pro. So I have somehow snuck into this club and get to hang with my heroes.
UF Review: When did you realize you could write so well? How much of “writing well” is talent and potential? How much of it is work ethic?
Urrea: Writing well. I don’t know what writing well means. I try to be true at all times. I will not put anything out that I don’t believe in. I never waver from my concerns for justice and witness. Aside from that, I can’t tell you. I thought I was pretty damned cool when that gal jumped in my lap!
UF Review: If you had to pen a life motto, what would it be?
Urrea: Break on through to the other side.
UF Review: Please share anything else you would like to say.
Urrea: I cannot believe I have come from silence, from a dirt street in the hills of Tijuana, into family, into art, into joy. Misery is easy — joy requires discipline. Choose joy, my friends. Every single minute of every single day is your birthday. I’m trying to live now in gratitude. Especially when I’m watching a Timothy Olyphant movie. Zen Master James Brown said, ”Jump back! Kiss myself!” Kiss yourself once in a while.