I had a chance to chat with the celebrated and prolific writer, Luis Alberto Urrea. Urrea has won many awards for his writing and is the critically-acclaimed and best-selling author of 13 books. His most recent novel, Into the Beautiful North, takes the reader to a small Mexican village where all of the men have immigrated North to find work. The women of the town are left behind to fend for themselves. When unsavory men threaten their beloved village, a small band of charismatic characters decides to head North and persuade some of the men to return home. This crossing is unlike the typical crossings we regularly see portrayed in the media: the group crosses the border not to stay in America, but to bring people back to Mexico.
Urrea writes beautifully, transporting his reader to another world. I found him to be much like his writing—powerful, fascinating, and poetic. He is one of the authors featured at Ragdale’s 2014 Novel Affair on September 26 and 27. I hope you enjoy our conversation as much as I did.
What inspired you to write Into the Beautiful North?
I am from the border region (Tijuana) and my family is from the region in Mexico where the novel originates. I worked with a missionary crew in the Tijuana garbage dumps, and the scenes in my novel are about real places and real people. One of the reasons I decided to write the novel was reading reports of neighborhoods left with no men and where the women were trying to figure out how to survive. Also, reading about the situation in Kankakee, Illinois where the town was trying to figure out how to incorporate this large undocumented population. I wove these stories into this novel.
What would you want an ideal reader to feel when they put down your novel?
All the books I write are about the soul’s journey. We are all looking for grace. The message is, if there is a message, to stop for a moment. Think about your assumptions about everything.
Sometimes when I read a novel, I can actually hear the characters in my head. Some authors have told me they are a conduit to their novel. It is written through them. Does that resonate with you? Yes, that happens a lot. It is almost like living in a haunted house. You kind of witness the characters carrying on around you and you jot it down. You think, “wait I wouldn’t do that, but I guess she’ll do what she wants to do.” Sometimes kids, especially high school kids argue with me, “wait a minute man, you wrote that book, you control the characters.” However, that isn’t exactly true: the characters take on an integrity of their own and I hear them speaking.
Your blog states that your background allows you to write about the cultural differences in how people experience love, loss, and triumph. Can you give me an example of how loss is experienced differently in the US and Mexico?
I can only look at my own experience. My experiences of loss have not in any way been genteel. The US has a way of making loss more gentle. My father was killed by the Mexican police and I had to buy his corpse from them in order to bury him. I was 20 years old and graduating from college. The ultimate irony of it was he died trying to get me money as a graduation gift. I had to spend that gift to buy his corpse. The loss was so brutal, vivid, and confounding to me that it drove a wedge between my American side and my Mexican side. There was no way to tell anyone what had just happened. Tijuana was five miles away, but it was like being on another planet. I was at a loss and didn’t know how to process it. You don’t know how to deal with it and many times you resort to art. It pushed me further into being a writer.
The first story I ever sold was about his death. In some ways it was a strange magical thing where my father sacrificed himself to give me my future. I always feel responsible to both my parents. My mother was a socialite from New York who was cast into ghetto living in Southern California and was miserable. She didn’t have anything, but she sacrificed everything she had to help me become a writer. They sacrificed it all to give me the American dream.