‘House of Broken Angels’ author Luis Alberto Urrea to close Winter Words series on Tuesday
IF YOU GO …
Who: Luis Alberto Urrea at Winter Words
Where: Paepcke Auditorium
When: Tuesday, April 3, 6 p.m.
How much: $25
Tickets: Wheeler Opera House box office; www.aspenshowtix.com
“I’m finishing this monster. I think it’s the best thing I’ve ever done.”
So said writer Luis Alberto Urrea, in the late summer of 2016 during a visit to Aspen, as he completed writing the novel “The House of Broken Angels.” Urrea returns Tuesday to discuss the book at the Winter Words author series.
Published in March, “The House of Broken Angels” is a grand American epic. Set in San Diego over the span of a week and featuring sprawling Mexican-American family, it is bookended by the funeral of the De La Cruz family matriarch and the final birthday party of her terminally ill son. With splashes of Spanglish and playful riffs on border politics, this honestly and exuberantly written book encompasses a century of Mexican immigration to America and back while digging through the foibles and follies and tragedies of the De La Cruz clan.
It’s also a deeply personal work, inspired by Urrea’s brother’s final days.
Dying of cancer and realizing his 75th birthday would be his last, Urrea’s older brother, Juan, chose to throw a blowout going-away party of sorts in 2014.
“He threw himself a last birthday party on Earth,” Urrea recalled, “unleashing a ‘Finnegan’s Wake’ of Mexicans that allowed him to make last amends, to receive endless praise, and he just sat there in his wheelchair and absorbed it with great glee.”
His brother was quite weak, Urrea recalled, and had to go lay down several times during his birthday festivities.
“I would go back and get in bed with him,” Urrea said. “And when people realized I was there in bed talking with him, the family would come and dogpile in bed with us.”
And so it goes in “The House of Broken Angels” as Urrea’s fictional stand-in, the college professor Little Angel, his industrious and proud brother Big Angel, and their diverse extended family — a deported Iraq War vet, a “Satanic Hispanic” heavy metal singer among them — come together to say goodbye.
As Urrea recalled, he’d been at work on a different book when, in 2014, he had the “cataclysmic experience” at his brother’s farewell party that inspired “The House of Broken Angels.”
Urrea was reluctant to write about the experience until he told the story to the novelist Jim Harrison, who called it a gift from God and convinced Urrea that he had to make a novel out of it.
“How often do you get told to write a book by Jim Harrison?” Urrea said of the literary lion, who died in 2016. “I was sorry he passed before I could show it to him.”
Harrison and Urrea’s wife, Cindy, share the dedication page of the novel. As Urrea recalled, he needed a kick in the pants from both to write the book.
“It kind of haunted me, but it didn’t seem like a story,” Urrea said. “Cindy kept saying, ‘You’ve got to write it!’ And then Harrison sat down at dinner and said, ‘Tell me about your brother’s death.’”
As he made his way into the fictional version of the experience, Urrea found himself tapping into a universal tale of family and history, something like the culmination of a career as the unofficial poet laureate of the Mexican-American border that includes works like the Pulitzer-nominated narrative nonfiction book “The Devil’s Highway” and the sweeping two-novel epic “The Hummingbird’s Daughter” and “The Queen of America.”
“I thought it would be a little novella about how sweet this party was,” Urrea said. “But it turned into something beyond, when I was able to have it be not my brother’s story but inspired by what happened to him, to make it this post-immigration story of Mexican people that have been here forever.”
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