The party was, author Luis Alberto Urrea remembers, “a full-on Mexican ‘Finnegans Wake.’”
Urrea, on the phone from his home in suburban Chicago, is taking about the event that inspired his acclaimed 2018 novel, “The House of Broken Angels,” a warmhearted, vibrant tale of an extended Mexican American family, the de La Cruzes, who gather in San Diego to celebrate the birthday of its ailing patriarch. The book is the latest selection of Moira’s Seattle Times Book Club, which will meet online to discuss the book on May 13. Urrea will also make a streaming appearance at Seattle Arts & Lectures on May 20.
Nearly five years ago, Urrea said, his older half-brother threw a “raucous predeath farewell birthday party” full of music, food and multigenerational drama, just days before his death. “It was very moving, very soul-shaking and stirring,” he remembered. Urrea’s wife Cindy, a journalist, urged him to write about it. But the author, whose many previous books include the nonfiction immigrant story “The Devil’s Highway” (a Pulitzer Prize finalist) and the historical novels “The Hummingbird’s Daughter” and “Queen of America,” couldn’t quite find his way in. Until he met Jim Harrison.
The “Legends of the Fall” author and Urrea spoke on a panel at the Tucson Festival of Books, and sat together at a dinner afterward. It quickly became clear to Urrea that Harrison — an author he idolized — wasn’t well. (Harrison died within a year of their meeting, in 2016.) He had, Urrea remembered, “the kind of frankness that someone who’s facing the end has.”
After much to drink, Harrison turned to Urrea and asked to hear about his brother’s death. “I turned to him and I unburdened myself. It was like going to confession with the high priest of sinning,” Urrea said. “He listened to me, with his eyes closed and his head raised, just listened, and when I was done, that’s when he turned to me, and said, ‘You know, sometimes God gives you a novel. You’d better write it.’ I thought, I’d better get on this.”
So he got busy, crafting a story that was somewhat autobiographical but mostly invented — “a post-immigration story, just about a family that’s been in the U.S. for 60 years or so, taxpaying Americans who happen to speak Spanish. I thought it might be a universal story.”
His brother Juan became Big Angel; Urrea’s fictional counterpart was half-brother Little Angel, who, like the author, was the son of a Mexican father and an American mother. Little Angel lives in Seattle — a city Urrea loves and visits often (his wife is from Burien) — and is something of an outsider in the family, considered more American than many of his relatives.
“It’s not me in any way except the feelings,” Urrea said of the character. But nonetheless, those feelings were often painful to probe: While writing, there were a few passages that his wife had to type for him. “I was crying, and I couldn’t see, I walked back and forth, saying it. That’s when I knew that it was profoundly real, at least to me. Even though I was making a fiction, a fantasy.”
Published in March of 2018, the story of the de La Cruz family became a national bestseller and did indeed find a universal audience. “I’ve gotten mail from Russia. It’s going around the world,” Urrea said. He’s been collecting translated editions of the book — it’s been published in multiple languages — and said he got a note from “someone in Iran,” asking if it was OK to make a pirated Farsi translation. “I said, go ahead, why not!” He’s amused that the Hungarian version of the book translates the title as “The House of Fallen Angels.”
The paperback edition, published last year, includes a bonus that the hardcover didn’t have: a de La Cruz family tree, done as a handwritten sketch by Little Angel (who at one point in the story takes notes to help him remember all the relatives). Urrea had been opposed to including one in the book, as he wanted the party to be “a tidal wave that you surrender to,” with readers having to figure out the characters in their own way. But many readers asked for one, and when the paperback ended up having a spare blank page, “we thought it would be kind of fun to give them what they want, and do it like Little Angel’s notebook.”
Two years after “The House of Broken Angels,” Urrea’s now at work on another novel based on personal stories; this time, about his mother, who was in the Red Cross during World War II on the front lines. “She was trapped in the Battle of the Bulge when the Germans broke through, she was a Buchenwald liberator, she was severely wounded,” he said. “I grew up with both secrecy and confessions — she talked about it and then wouldn’t talk about it.”
Working from materials his late mother left behind — photos, letters, journals — Urrea is crafting a fictionalization of her story. “I’ve got the first half done to my satisfaction,” he said. “I don’t want it to be cheesy, I want it to be accurate. I wouldn’t have ventured it if I hadn’t written so many woman-based works first. I feel like I can do honor to my mom.”
And, like the generous storyteller he is, he offers a tiny excerpt. In the course of researching his mother’s history, Urrea and his wife tracked down a friend and colleague of his mother’s during the war (she’s now over 100 years old), and went to her home. Miss Jill, as he calls her, was showing them photos from that time, including a series from a vacation on a beach in Cannes.
“All of a sudden, there’s a picture of my mom with this guy, a handsome lad in swimming trunks,” Urrea said. “Very tall and lanky, Gary Cooper-looking. I said, ‘Miss Jill, who’s this?’ She leans over and looks and says, ‘Ah, that’s Jake.’” Perturbed, Urrea wondered aloud what his mother was doing with some man named Jake. Miss Jill fixed her gaze on him. “Luis, it was a war,” she said. “We all had men.” He burst out laughing, telling the story; you can almost see it on the page, sparkling.
Moira’s Seattle Times Book Club will meet online at noon on Wednesday, May 13, at seattletimes.com. Luis Alberto Urrea will speak online in a Seattle Arts & Lectures presentation at 7:30 p.m. on Wednesday, May 20, at lectures.org; tickets are $10.