Luis Urrea

How did you become a writer?

I was possibly sprung from the womb writing. I certainly was a sonic vacuum cleaner, sucking up the endless loops of delightful sound in Spanish and English all around me. Mine was a family with little but pride and blather. My Mexican relatives spoke a Barbaric Yawp of both high Spanish and gutter Mexican. My mother, however, was a New York socialite who channeled Zelda Fitzgerald in her discourse. And my beloved god-parents were humble Mexican country folk who spoke puro rancho. I tried to make some sense of all this in my mind while wading into Twain and Kipling and Bradbury...then Brautigan and Vonnegut and Le Guin. I became a writer, though, as in putting pen to paper or fingers to typewriter keys, around tenth grade. I was trying to be Stephen Crane and Jim Morrison and John Lennon and Leonard Cohen. I tell this story often--my mom saw me actually applying myself to something: typing! And she sewed my manuscript pages together and made my first book for me. From then on, I was all in.

Name your writing influences (writers, books, teachers, etc.).

Surely, you jest. See above. And see below. Add Steve McQueen and Pedro Infante. Add Dali (his Diary of a Genius blew my little mind). Biker movies, Hunter S. Thimpson, Diane Wakoski, s-f, Borges, Neruda. Ed Abbey. Thomas McGuane. Kerouac and Bukowski and Mary Oliver and the Asian masters: Issa, Buson, Basho, Han-shan, Li-Po, Wang Wei, Ko Un... Joan Didion and Annie Dillard. El Topo and The Wild Bunch. The Bible, ok, yeah. Malcom Lowry, from whom I stole reams of imagery for The Hummingbird's Daughter. More? I could fill your entire feed with this answer. I am a sucker for poets.

When and where do you write?

I write in a loft on our second floor. Mostly. It looks out on an oak tree that is massive and ponderous in nature. It houses antic squirrels, and is overtraken at night by a fat owl. I have a small desk upon which grow some plants, and where I keep my antique telegraph key. I think all writers should have an old telegraph key. I half-expect it to start tapping out messages one day. To its left, there is a framed picture of Neruda's desk. To the right, a framed picture of a statue of Basho covered in snow. Between these, you will always find my words.

On either side of my desk are book cases. Two huge cases to my left groan with poetry. The case to my right is crammed with haiku books, zen books, and Asian collections. On the far side are research, reference, and theology books. (Merton, yes; Buechner, yes; Thich Nhat Hanh, yes.) 
And there's always music. Loud music. Music forming a sonic cave that keeps the world at bay.

Or I'm writing on my knee in a speeding vehicle or under a tree or cactus on a long walk.

What are you working on now?

I am working on a million things and nothing. Since Hummingbird and Queen of America took me 26 years to complete, I have been in a weird daze of relative inactivity. That being said, I never stop working. I currently have a book of stories I am dawdling on because the last story is not perfect yet. I have two collections of poetry ready to roll. And I am researching two other books. I also write a reular column for Orion magazine called "The Wastelander."

Mostly, however, I tour. I speak. In fact, I'm leaving in a couple of hours for Arizona. Again.

Have you ever suffered from writer’s block?

I don't tend to suffer writer's block. But I do suffer a kind of life-block. This is when all my duties away from the writing desk blow my mind so much that I just sit and stare at the wall and can't do anything. Or I stare at Deadliest Catch marathons on cable.

What’s your advice to new writers?

Urrea's writing Rule #1 is this--WEAR THE BASTARDS DOWN.

Also: remember that you are not trying to be rich or famous, or you would be a basketball player. What you are doing, as a young writer, is earning your black belt.

And: it's not about fame, it's not about money, it's not about groupies as sweet as groupies might be. It's not even about that private Led Zeppelin jet I used to think I'd get if I wrote a REALLY GOOD POEM about my girlfriend. Not writing that is going to last. My tip is this: put love in your pen. Love is the ink, my friend. If you don't load that sucker up with love, don't bother to write a word.

Luis Alberto Urrea, 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, Mexico to a Mexican father and an American mother, Urrea has published extensively in all the major genres. The critically acclaimed and best-selling author of 13 books, Urrea has won numerous awards for his poetry, fiction and essays. The Devil's Highway, his 2004 non-fiction account of a group of Mexican immigrants lost in the Arizona desert, won the Lannan Literary Award and was a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize and the Pacific Rim Kiriyama Prize. An historical novel, The Hummingbird's Daughter tells the story of Teresa Urrea, sometimes known as the Saint of Cabora and the Mexican Joan of Arc. The book, which involved 20 years of research and writing, won the Kiriyama Prize in fiction and, along with The Devil's Highway, was named a best book of the year by many publications. It has been optioned by acclaimed Mexican director Luis Mandoki for a film to star Antonio Banderas.

Urrea's most recent novel, Into the Beautiful North, imagines a small town in Mexico where all the men have immigrated to the U.S. A group of young women, after seeing the film The Magnificent Seven, decide to follow the men North and persuade them to return to their beloved village. A national best-seller, Into the Beautiful North, earned a citation of excellence from the American Library Association Rainbow's Project. A short story from Urrea's collection, Six Kinds of Sky, was recently released as a stunning graphic novel by Cinco Puntos Press.

Mr.Mendoza's Paintbrush, illustrated by artist Christopher Cardinale, has already garnered rave reviews and serves as a perfect companion to Into the Beautiful North as it depicts the same village in the novel.

Into the Beautiful North, The Devil's Highway and The Hummingbird's Daughter have been chosen by more than 30 different cities and colleges for One Book community read programs.

Urrea has also won an Edgar award from the Mystery Writers of America for best short story (2009, "Amapola" in Phoenix Noir). His first book, Across the Wire, was named a New York Times Notable Book and won the Christopher Award. Urrea 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 the editors of ForeWord magazine. He has also won a Western States Book Award in poetry for The Fever of Being and was in The 1996 Best American Poetry collection. Urrea's other titles include By the Lake of Sleeping Children, In Search of Snow, Ghost Sickness and Wandering Time.

Urrea attended the University of California at San Diego, earning an undergraduate degree in writing, and did his graduate studies at the University of Colorado-Boulder. After serving as a relief worker in Tijuana and a film extra and columnist-editor-cartoonist for several publications, Urrea moved to Boston where he taught expository writing and fiction workshops at Harvard. He has also taught at Massachusetts Bay Community College and the University of Colorado and he was the writer in residence at the University of Louisiana-Lafayette.

Urrea lives with his family in Naperville, IL, where he is a professor of creative writing at the University of Illinois-Chicago.