Luis Alberto Urrea on How ‘Team Urrea’ Help Him Craft His Novels
In Conversation with Mitzi Rapkin on the First Draft Podcast
First Draft: A Dialogue of Writing is a weekly show featuring in-depth interviews with fiction, nonfiction, essay writers, and poets, highlighting the voices of writers as they discuss their work, their craft, and the literary arts. Hosted by Mitzi Rapkin, First Draft celebrates creative writing and the individuals who are dedicated to bringing their carefully chosen words to print as well as the impact writers have on the world we live in.
In this episode, Mitzi talks to Luis Alberto Urrea about his new novel, Good Night, Irene.
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From the episode:
Mitzi Rapkin: You said that your agent, Julie, helped you greatly to suss out what you were really trying to write about. She helped you figure out maybe that intersection between what’s interesting to you and then also what might be interesting to the reader and where the kernel of energy lies that you couldn’t see yourself. And I’m curious if that was the first time that happened for you, or if you need that reflection to get to the kernel?
Luis Alberto Urrea: It just depends. I think this story was far too close to me to understand how to write it, you know what I mean? It’s my mom and my mom was troubled, you know, and I did not know this vivacious creature that was Irene. All I knew was the beaten down gray woman who hated being a beaten down gray woman but couldn’t come out of that that valley. And so yeah, to have a team is fabulous, but it always begins with Cindy, my wife. We do everything together. We do all the research together, we do the travel together, and you know that began with The Devil’s Highway, but she survived the Wagnerian sturm und drang of watching me try to write The Hummingbird’s Daughter over and over again. That was an impossible task. So, I’d say probably the most difficult tasks for me have been both The Hummingbird’s Daughter and Good Night, Irene to try to find the tonality and so forth. But you know, Cindy’s a journalist, she’s a 20-year veteran of Gannett, and the newspapers. And so, the versions of the book needed some trusted voice to say, I don’t think you’re getting it. Which of course, you know, is hard to hear. I like to make believe that I’m humble, but part of me feels like I’m doing something really important, and I’m really good at it. And by God, if anybody knows this story, it’s me. And it took Team Urrea to point out to me that you may know this story, we don’t. And you’re going to have to do better. My secret voice inside, I have a lot of them, but I was discovered as a kid, by Ursula Le Guin. She was my first authorial guide and guru. And what an intractable woman that never backed down, you know, never, never settled. She was she was fantastic. So, I hear her voice too. She used to call me Luisito. And, you know, a little remembered raised eyebrows like Le Guin’s speaks volumes. And I knew I was getting there. Because when I finally found this iteration, after traveling all over Europe, after traveling all over New York and going to the childhood homes and going to the family home in Mattituck, and so forth, I saw my mom.
Luis Alberto Urrea was a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize for his landmark work of nonfiction The Devil’s Highway. He is the author of numerous other works of nonfiction, poetry, and fiction, including the national bestsellers The Hummingbird’s Daughter and The House of Broken Angels, a National Book Critics Circle Award finalist. A recipient of an American Academy of Arts and Letters Award, among many other honors, he lives outside Chicago and teaches at the University of Illinois Chicago. His new novel is Good Night, Irene.