After a week of below-normal temps in the Phoenix area, today it hit 100 degrees - not yet really too hot for us - and as it began to cool off, we drove from our home in Apache Junction to our favorite indie bookstore, Changing Hands, to see the prolific and versatile Luis Alfredo Urrea, on tour for his just-published novel, To the Beautiful North.
Although this was listed as a ticketed event, with those who bought the book eligible for seating starting at 6 p.m., there were still enough seats available when we got to Changing Hands at 6:45 p.m. to score one of the comfy padded chairs (rather than a folding chair) in the back row. The author, dressed casually in a short sleeved shirt over a black T-shirt, khakis and New Balance walking shoes, soon arrived with his wife and they greeted and chatted with another couple sitting to our left.
Yesterday Luis was at Denver's wonderful Tattered Cover and after tonight, he was headed for D.C.'s Politics and Prose, then Powell's in Portland and more indie bookstores, but Luis seemed to gather energy as the evening went on. He's a good reader and a great raconteur.
Luis, a 2005 Pulitzer Prize finalist for nonfiction and member of the Latino Literature Hall of Fame, is a prolific and acclaimed writer who uses his dual-culture life experiences to explore greater themes of love, loss and triumph. Born in Tijuana to a Mexican father and an American mother, he's published 11 books in multiple genres.
The Devil's Highway, his 2004 non-fiction account of a group of Mexican immigrants lost in the Arizona desert, won the 2004 Lannan Literary Award and was a national best-seller as well as being named a best book of the year by the Los Angeles Times, the Miami Herald and the Chicago Tribune.
Luis's first book, Across the Wire, was named a New York Times Notable Book and won the Christopher Award. Luis also won a 1999 American Book Award for his memoir, Nobody's Son: Notes from an American Life and in 2000, he was voted into the Latino Literature Hall of Fame following the publication of Vatos.
His book of short stories, Six Kinds of Sky, was named the 2002 small-press Book of the Year in fiction by ForeWord, and he's also won a Western States Book Award in poetry for The Fever of Being. His The Hummingbird's Daughter, is a historical novel tells the story of Teresa Urrea, sometimes known as The Saint of Cabora and the Mexican Joan of Arc.
Women outnumbered men 4:1 in the crowd, and it seemed as if many had attended previous appearance by Luis at Changing Hands and most had read more than one of his books. It was an audience largely made up of Urrea fans, and he kindly provided a fan to the first person to ask a question. It was from the taco shop and internet cafe of the real-life model for one of his characters in Into the Beautiful North, and he took it out of a shopping bag from the Kanakee, IL, public library, where a week ago even the town's mayor got her copy of the book autographed.
No wonder, from the excerpt he read from an early chapter. Consider this, from the Dallas Morning News review by Roberto Ontiveros:
In a Mexican village called Tres Camarones, the men have gone missing. Over generations, fathers and sons went off to find work or new lives, and now the women left behind have realized they are alone.
These women work hard and still have time to dream of marrying Johnny Depp or getting friendlier with the cute missionary boy. They have a new mayor, and there is even some work at an Internet cafe. But a smooth drug dealer who calls himself Scarface has come into town and sized up the situation. He and his thugs plan to make the town their own.
They accost Nayeli, a dark 19-year-old beauty who works at the Fallen Hand Café. She handles herself, but later, during a viewing of The Magnificent Seven at the perpetual Steve McQueen film festival, she realizes what she needs to do: go into the United States, find seven Mexican men and persuade them to come back to Tres Camarones. So she grabs her pals Yolo and Vampi, and her flamboyantly gay employer, Tacho, and off they go.
In sweet youthful naiveté, Nayeli announces the simplicity of the plan: "We will only be there for as long as it takes to get the men to come." She continues: "The Americanos will be happy we're there! Even if we're caught!"
Now comes an entertaining slew of horrific street hustlers, terrifying Mexican officials, bumbling jump-the-gun boarder patrols, and a staff-wielding trash dweller who comes straight out of Kurosawa.
Luis Alberto Urrea's Into the Beautiful North is awash in a subtle kind of satire. Our travelers get sick from having to eat American fast food, and they get thrown out of a Mexican restaurant by a fellow Mexican who realizes they're illegal.
Here is a funny and poignant impossible journey in which the characters come to earn pride for a homeland they have gone on a comedic pilgrimage to defend. Into the Beautiful North is a refreshing antidote to all the negativity currently surrounding Mexico, with its drug cartels, police-abandoned cities and killer flu.
Luis began by telling some great stories about his experiences with the Border Patrol when he was researching The Devil's Highway, which Little, Brown asked him to write when he was finishing up two decades of research on The Hummingbird's Daughter, ten years of which was spent among the medicine people and curanderos of Arizona's Yaqui people.
"If you're a writer, you know that writers' careers are like a Six Flags roller coaster ride," Luis said. "You can be up one day and way down the next." He said when Little, Brown called he was publishing his books "out of a guy's garage in El Paso, Chicano style." (We've all been there.)
After relating some of the scarier initial experiences with Marine-gruff Border Patrol agents when he was doing research on the tragic case of the Yuma 14, Luis talked about Kenny Smith, the veteran agent who said to him early on, "You think I'm a jackbooted thug. . . Well, I am your jackbooted thug in shining armor." And Luis said The Devil's Highway couldn't have been written without Kenny, whom he introduced as the man sitting to our left. He got a big hand from the crowd, and clearly the two men are close friends.
The excerpt he read from Into the Beautiful North was funny and precise, setting the plot in motion as Nayeli and her friends realize why there haven't been any pregnant women in their town for quite a while: all the men have left for work north of the border. It was teaser enough for us that we are anxious to read the novel.
After we applauded his lively and funny reading, Luis said he wanted to "chat" and said, "Hit me," and that's when he awarded the fan to the fan who aked the first quetion. The Q&A session was one of the liveliest we've heard.
Someone asked about the mixture of Spanish and English in his dialogue, and Luis said he listens to the voices in his head and sometimes he hears them in Spanish and other times in English. Sometimes he's accused of having too much Spanish, as when a reader sent him a letter: "What do you expect of your readers?"
Luis rightly said that reading is not necessarily a passive activity but - as most of us who are even slightly familiar with his work will attest - he tries extremely hard to make it fairly clear what's said in Spanish.
He made some interesting comments about the Spanish translations of his books - Luis writes poetry in Spanish sometimes - and said his cousin Enrique Hubbard Urrea has translated some of his novels. The Hummingbird's Daughter became La Hija de la Chuparrosa, deliberately using the Mexican 'chuparrosa' rather than 'colibrí."
He was asked about his upbringing and that led to a fascinating reminiscence about growing up dirt-poor and ill with TB in Tijuana, his American mom going to the U.S. to work every day, a trip to visit relatives in Sinaloa via a 12-hour bus ride (on a bus with a stewardess), during which someone finally realized that the 12yo boy badly needed glasses. We're drastically compressing and probably distorting some of these colorful recollections - but it gave us a good picture of how Luis Alberto Urrea became the writer he is today: clearly a man upon whom no experience is wasted.
Asked about his staff of researchers, Luis pointed to his wife and praised her for her invaluable help. He told about his mother's traumatic experience in a bombing as a World War II WAC servicemember behind enemy lines in Germany. An audience member asked how he felt being compared to Cormac McCarthy. "I'll take it!" Luis exclaimed.
There was a lot more. Luis said he may appear at an event like this to be "Mr. Professional Writer," but at heart, he's a fan who's been kept alive by the authors whose books he's read since childhood. He discussed the writing process and his shrewd editor's effective work in shaping his books.
We had a wonderful evening, thanks to Luis Alberto Urrea and Changing Hands Bookstore, and we're looking forward to reading Into the Beautiful North.