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Tuesday, March 20, 2018

Flashback to My 2013 Interview With Luis Alberto Urrea and Suggested Readalikes [and a mini-rant on diverse readalikes]

Yesterday's post where I talked about pairing your promotion of upcoming books with a backlist suggestion led me to thinking about other current releases and how I could help you promote both new and old easier. Back on March 6th, Luis Alberto Urrea's new novel, The House of Broken Angels, published with much [derserved] fanfare and press. 

I loved how during that week Urrea was everywhere, writing New York Times Op Eds, on FreshAir, and especially in all of our Chicago media [he teaches at UIC]. I am sure you had many requests for the book. While I loved this because I am a huge fan of Mr. Urrea's work [here's my review of a book I still think about and suggest all of the time, Into the Beautiful North], but I know first hand he is a wonderful person too.

How do I know? Because in 2013 I was asked to interview Mr Urrea for Fox Valley Reads. The details of the evening as well as more links to some of the planning documents are here and reposted at the end of this post.

Mr Urrea was amazing throughout this process. Not only did this event take place in Spanish and English, on two different days [I have a post here about how the Spanish interviewer and I worked together on this], but he also spent over an hour with me on the phone prior to the event so we could "get to know each other." He is smart, kind, and funny. And, I bet this comes as no shock, he is an amazing off-the-cuff storyteller.

While all of the marketing for The House of Broken Angels was happening, I kept flashing back to my interview with Urrea, and yesterday's post made me realize I should have reposted it for all of you too.

In keeping with the theme of using a new release to promote older material, take a look at this post from 2013.

But also, here is an updated diverse readalike list of authors for Urrea to help you provide pepole with books to read while they wait for The House of Broken Angels. First, you need to understand that while Urrea's plots focus heavily on the Mexican American immigrant experience, the reason his books have such a wide appeal is because they are about a duality of identity and being an outsider in general. So while a few of my titles and authors may be "Hispanic" not all of them are.

...Wait, now I need to do a mini rant for a second because that last sentence got me going....

Just because Urrea's books are "Mexican-American" in frame does not mean readers who like his books only want "Meixcan American" books. I HATE THIS. What readers love about Urrea is that he writes character centered stories with dramatic and bittersweet storylines, lyrical writing that is beautiful but still accessible, that heavily draw on the themes of identity and belonging. Yes for some the frame is intriguing, but not for everyone. Most lists with Urrea also have Sandra Cisneros too. Look, she's a good writer, but they ARE NOT THAT SIMILAR IN STYLE. You know why people put them together? Because they are Mexican. That is not helpful to anyone. We can open people up to a variety of authors from many walks of life who write similarly to Urrea who aren't Mexican American. It's not that radical people. It's what we already do for white writers.

....Okay, rant done, back to your regularly scheduled post...

Second, as I have been saying constantly these days- truly diverse lists don't only have POC or LGBTQIA authors, they have a sampling of everyone. You can see my recent updated Stephen King diverse readalike author list for more on that.

So here is a great list of other authors who come from a variety of backgrounds but like Urrea write character centered stories with dramatic and bittersweet storylines, lyrical writing that is beautiful but still accessible, that heavily draw on the themes of identity and belonging:

  • Junot Diaz
  • Louise Erdrich
  • Jennifer Clement
  • Carol Rifka Brunt
  • Viet Thanh Nguyen
  • Toni Morrison
  • Colson Whitehead
  • Mohsin Hamid
  • Jonathan Safran Foer
  • Cristina Henriquez



Luis Alberto Urrea and Me: A Recap with Pictures!

Well last night went great.  We had a nice crowd and I think people enjoyed it. As you can see I have a few pictures spread throughout this post, but for more pictures go to the Fox Valley Reads Facebook page.

As a reminder, here are the questions I was planning to ask Luis. I got to most of them.

Now here are some thoughts from me on what he said:

  • Luis loves libraries and he loves visiting book groups.  He encouraged everyone to contact him about either visiting your book group in person or over Skype.  He estimates he has participated in at least 70 book clubs already and a man invited him to their Books and Guns book club in November.  He had his wife [who was in the audience] checking his schedule to see if he was available.  
  • We began with Luis describing his early life as a poor kid living in Tijuana with an East Coast mother and a Mexican father.  Besides his funny and poignant impersonations of his parents, he talked about his first stabs at writing, his mother "publishing" his first book [he was the best selling author of his kitchen], and how he never thought a kid from his world could be a published author.
  • His mom reading him Mark Twain is what really opened his eyes to literature and made him want to be a writer.
  • Ursula Le Guin was his first big supporter and she was one of the first people to buy one of his pieces.
  • We talked at length about the real people he based most of the characters off of.
    • Aunt Irma is a real person.  It was his aunt.  She was the Mexican bowling champ.  And if you have read the book, the fight about Yul Brenner really happened.
    • The Mexican Biker who falls for Vampy...he's a real guy from Aurora!
    • Atomico is based on his cousin.
    • Nayeli is a real girl.  In fact, you can listen to more from Luis and Nayeli on this episode of This American Life from 2003.  Luis is in the process of entertaining offers to turn Into the Beautiful North into a movie. He has always promised Nayeli a cut of the money he would get from a movie version.  He really hopes that happens.
    • Mary Jo the librarian, who tragically passed while working at the library before the book was written, was a real librarian in Kankakee.  Her family is grateful that she now will spend eternity on library shelves.  Luis talked about a beautiful memorial to her that he participated in.
  • That reminds me.  I did ask the question, "Why Kankakaee?" Luis shared his experiences in that city.  Most of what he said was also recounted in the New York Times by him here.  Luis has kept up his affiliation with the community and really feels it is a model city for working with the immigrant community.
  • Much as I said in my review of Into the Beautiful North, Luis talked a lot about how he wanted to take a break from the heavy tomes he had been writing, and instead write a book that "made him laugh everyday as he was working on it," but still bore witness [his biggest drive as a writer] and was thought provoking.  He is honored that the book has had such "legs."  As he said most books are lucky to last 6 weeks.  The Devil's Highway is going on its 10th Anniversary and will have a new edition to honor that out next year, with new text. He said that every time something tragic or newsworthy happens on the border, the book's sales increase.  And now with Into the Beautiful North being an official NEA Big Read approved book, it's is selling well now, a few years after its publication.
  • We talked about the ending and how the entire story is really about Nayeli's hero's quest to become a samurai warrior in her own right.  Luis said that he saw the book's ending not as abrupt, but as the end of Nayeli's journey to become the hero.  The audience [and I] agreed with him.  It is a powerful, epic hero's quest story even without knowing if she was successful in beating out the banditos. In fact, it is more about the quest because of the ending.   
  • We did end the discussion of the book with my question about the unique set up of the book and it's subversive way of tackling the immigration issue.  I commented on how I thought the book would make anyone, from the right or the left, question how they feel about this complex issue.  He shared stories of visiting the border and the "wall," which by the way, is only 600 miles on an over 2,000 mile border, and you can simply walk around it at its end. He talked about the border jumpers and board patrol agents who both love his books.  He also expressed hope that there can be a resolution to this problem.  He thought we were moving in the right direction but then 9/11 put us in reverse.  He also mentioned that we have to solve the drug problems first.  Arms are going into Mexico and drugs are coming out all illegally and it is making everything worse. There is no easy answer, but he is confident there is an answer. He hopes to help to be part of the solution.
  • He ended the night by talking about much of what he is currently working on.  He also told a poignant story about researching his mother's past as a Red Cross Doughnut Dolly on the front lines of WWII and finding pictures of her in a book.  He is working on a historical fiction novel to honor these brave but forgotten women.  He said it will freak out reviewers and fans because there will not be "a single Mexican in the book," but rather he is bearing witness to his American roots.
Overall, he was just a wonderful storyteller who cares passionately about using his work to speak for those who have been forgotten or do not have a platform to speak for themselves.  He is a honorable, good man, but he is also charming and funny.  A rare breed.  If you ever get a chance to see Luis in person, go.

Thank you to Fox Valley Reads for putting on a great program and for allowing me to be a part of it.
Some of the wonderful staff who made the
event possible [with Luis].

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