Luis Alberto Urrea is the author of 11 books, including the best-selling The Hummingbird's Daughter and The Devil's Highway, the latter a finalist for the 2005 Pulitzer Prize. The true story of 26 Mexican men who try to enter the U.S. in search of work but are abandoned in the Arizona desert by human traffickers, Devil's Highway is a piercing indictment of the social and political political that have contributed to this and similar tragedies, of the ruthless coyotes who smuggle people across the border and the predatory vigilantes who represent the extremes of anti-immigration xenophobia.
Urrea is a member of the Latino Literary Hall of Fame, recipient of the American Book Award and other recognitions, and is a creative-writing professor at the University of Illinois-Chicago. At the Wisconsin Book Festival, he is scheduled to join Ana Castillo -- whose new novel, The Guardians, explores similar geographical and policy terrain -- in a program titled "Border Crossings," at noon Sunday, Oct. 14, in the Overture Center's Promenade Hall.
The Daily Page: The first sentence of The Devil's Highway contains such an acute sense of danger and foreboding. It grabs hold and does not let go. How did you craft it?
Urrea: I wish I could take the credit for it being the first sentence of the book. Oddly enough, in the original draft, it was the middle of the book. It was exactly where the sense of dread and danger was supposed to kick in once you knew the characters. My editor wisely decided to scare the readers right at the beginning instead.
Some bad, ruthless people populate this narrative. To what extent did you place yourself in danger to write this book? Where did you find the courage to overcome any apprehensions you might have entertained?
I was told on three separate occasions that I would be killed for doing this book. Not one of those was a direct threat, they were all warnings from law enforcement officers.
You have to understand that I was born on the Mexican side of the border, I was a missionary in the Tijuana garbage dumps for years and I had written three other border books before this one. It sounds funny to say it now, but in many ways I have felt right at home.
It's devastating to read about what happened to these 26 men -- those who died and those who survived: You detail the way the desert cooks them alive, people being driven to drink their own urine out of desperation to survive, the misbegotten policies that yield these tragedies and give rise to the vigilantes and human traffickers who prey on people seeking their American Dream. How did you protect your own emotional well-being while researching and writing The Devil's Highway?
I wrote out of rage and despair. That's why the tone of the book is often so harsh. All I could do was to feel the darkness. Let's face it, I could always come home to my wife and kids. I could always turn on the TV. I could always drink a Diet Coke. The hard part happened to the people in the book.
Recent reports suggest the number of border deaths is continuing to rise. What three things can individual readers of The Devil's Highway do that might be most effective at slowing, stopping or reversing this trend?
There is lots of inflammation out there and very little information. Opinions mean nothing if you don't have information to back the opinion.
So the first thing all readers need to do is to inform themselves. It's not hard. Work your Google. Find out what the numbers are. Find out what the actual immigration law is that is being broken, what does "illegal" mean?
The second thing is political action: vote, agitate, organize, act. I don't care if you're pro-immigrant or anti-immigrant, but inform yourself and act on your convictions. If you're a person of faith, then you already know there are scores of missions and relief groups trying to ease the suffering that launches people north.
A third thing you can do, if you are so inclined, is to go to kiva.org and invest $25 in a third-world company that needs your support.
Who did you envision as the audience for The Devil's Highway? How have the audiences at your readings differed from the one you anticipated?
I wrote The Devil's Highway for the good Americans living in Iowa, Minnesota, Washington state. I wanted the book to try to explain what's happening in a region that seems alien and baffling. Secondly, I wanted the book to speak to people in Mexico. Americans don't know that Mexicans in the heartland know as little about the border as Americans in the heartland. As far as the crowds go, they have tended to be overwhelming. Mostly positive. I would say the most surprising element of the reading public for The Devil's Highway has been an appreciative U.S. Border Patrol.
What is the status of Rudy Joffroy's movie adaptation?
Rudy's film is in pre-production. It will be an independent film. The screen adaptation was written by Ron Nyswaner, author of Philadelphia and The Painted Veil. As far as I know, they intend to start shooting in 2008.
Amazon.com customers who bought The Devil's Highway also purchased Enrique's Journey, by Sonia Nazario; Coyotes, by Ted Conover; Dead in Their Tracks, by John Annerino; and your own Across the Wire and By the Lake of Sleeping Children. Which two other books might you suggest as complements to The Devil's Highway?
Ana Castillo's The Guardians will be featured at the book festival and is a remarkable accomplishment. A book that may surprise you and delight you and that showed me something new about the border (which I never thought was possible) is Keith Bowden's The Tecate Journals, a book I wish I'd written where a mad adventurer rows a canoe down the entire length of the Rio Grande.
The theme of this year's Wisconsin Book Festival is "Domestic Tranquility." How might you define domestic tranquility? And how do you think these 26 men would define it?
These men died trying to ensure for their children what you would want for your own. They were seeking shelter, food, and security. They were seeking a chance at future survival for their loved ones. It's not any different than what you or I or a border patrol agent seeks. They had the misfortune, however, of sheer desperation. My idea of domestic tranquility is to not feel that desperation.
Where do you go to seek tranquility in your own life, and how often do you find it?
Fortunately for me, I find it in the million small details of my own family. I find it every day.
How does being named a Pulitzer finalist compare to winning an American Book Award? And how does either compare to being inducted into the Latino Literature Hall of Fame?
I'll say this about the Pulitzer, I never got so much attention for failing to win something in my whole life. The Latino Literature Hall of Fame was kind of funny because I don't even know if there is a Hall of Fame anywhere. Is it like the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame? Can you go there and see Ana Castillo's shoes? I got a nice engraved bookend though. All kidding aside, all of these honors are overwhelming and humbling.
What does maintaining a blog do for you that writing poetry, fiction and non-fiction doesn't or can't do?
The blog is poetry, fiction and non-fiction. The blog is part of a regular spiritual practice. The blog is a morning cup of coffee with my literary community and readers. Finally, I'm a writing teacher. It's a way to teach.
Which of the other presenters at the Wisconsin Book Festival most excite your anticipation, and why?
More than a professional writer, I am a big fan. So I am excited about all of them. On a personal note, events like these are ways for those of us who are friends to touch base before we spin back off into the world again.
What was the last book you read that you would recommend to friends or strangers, and why would you recommend it?
I just finished reading Donald Hall's collected poems. If I were rich, I'd buy a copy for everyone I know. Maybe after Rudy's movie comes out, I'll do just that!
Who or what accounts for your eclectic musical tastes? What did you listen to yesterday?
I was always a kind of underground freak. Being music crazy, but dirt poor, meant that I bought lots of those really weird cut-out albums in bins at the back of stores for 47 cents or $1.98. That's where my allowance went. But you don't get a lot of Beatles records in those bins.
What did I listen to yesterday? Are you serious? You have to know that I'm writing right now and when I write, there is a curtain -- no a wall -- of sound. Let's see... I listened to Nikki Sixx, the Nortec Collective, Clutch, Gustavo Cerati, Café Tacuba, Nine Inch Nails, Johnny Cash, etc.
To which charity do you direct your greatest support, and why?
That's an interesting question and I would have to define support. I have directed many, many people, donors and checks towards Spectrum Ministries in San Diego. I direct supporters towards Humane Borders in Tucson. We are planning to have our children invest through kiva.org. But we as a family have focused our own financial efforts on one particular family in Mexico that we have tried to take care of.