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'The House of Broken Angels' author Luis Alberto Urrea answers your questions


Notice: Transcripts are machine and human generated and lightly edited for accuracy. They may contain errors.

Judy Woodruff: Now Jeffrey Brown has a conversation with the author of our July pick for Now Read This, the "NewsHour"'s book club, in collaboration with The New York Times.

This report is part of Canvas, our ongoing coverage of arts and culture.

Jeffrey Brown: It's the final day of Miguel de La Cruz, known as Big Angel, the dying patriarch of a large Mexican American family.

As three generations gather to celebrate his life, individual and larger histories unfold in a novel of both comedy and sorrow.

"The House of Broken Angels" was our July book club pick. And author Luis Alberto Urrea is here to answer some of our readers ' questions.

And welcome to you. Thanks for joining us.

Luis Alberto Urrea: Thanks for having me.

Jeffrey Brown: I'm going to go, I think, right to one of -- to our first question, because it sort of goes to the title and sort what you were after.

Lorrie Button-Edelson: The title fits so well with the contents of this book. Did you have the title in mind before you began writing? Or did it fall into place after finishing the book?

Luis Alberto Urrea: Good question.

I didn't know that it was a book, honestly. My big brother Juan died of cancer. And, you know, the family had given him a farewell birthday party. And my family attended. And they had never seen anything like it.

And I think my wife really had the idea that I should write a book about it. He had passed away very soon after this party. And, oddly enough, Jim Harrison, the great novelist...

Jeffrey Brown: Oh, yes, writer and poet, yes.

Luis Alberto Urrea: ... had been a hero of mine for a long time. And we had an opportunity to have supper one night. And he asked me: "Tell me about your brother's death."

And when I told him, he said: "Sometimes, God hands you a novel. You better write it."

Jeffrey Brown: Huh.

Luis Alberto Urrea: So, I thought, well, between Jim and my wife, I better do it.

Luis Alberto Urrea: So that's where it came from.

Jeffrey Brown: OK. Let's go to our second question, because it continues that very theme.

Luis Alberto Urrea: Right. OK.

Margaret Kearney: I was wondering if the character Little Angel is based upon the author himself.

Jeffrey Brown: We should say, so there is Big Angel, who is dying.

Luis Alberto Urrea: Yes.

Jeffrey Brown: And then Little Angel is the brother, who is somewhat estranged. Right?

Luis Alberto Urrea: For the purposes of the novel, if you're going to have kind of a rupture that in some ways maybe represents the border, migration, immigration, to have one brother who is from a different mom who happens to be American, who doesn't quite know how to penetrate that incredibly well-woven world of the primary family.

Jeffrey Brown: But this is you, I should -- in some ways, right, product of a Mexican father...

Luis Alberto Urrea: An American mother.

Jeffrey Brown: ... white American mother, university professor.

Luis Alberto Urrea: That's me.

Jeffrey Brown: That's you.

Luis Alberto Urrea: And author.

Jeffrey Brown: And author.

Luis Alberto Urrea: So, yes, I mean, it gave me a palette that I could paint that character with, because I could understand everything I think that he felt or any doubts he may have had, whereas I think, in some of the other characters who may have been based on real life, I had to guess a little bit and hope for the best.

Jeffrey Brown: You were telling me just before we started that you had to go to your family, some of them, and say, OK, it's based on you, but here's what fiction is. Right? Fiction is not the truth.

Luis Alberto Urrea: Right.

After my brother died, I went to the family. The family threw a little dinner in San Diego, and his widow and I went, and we were all talking. And she just kept staring at me across the table like this.

And I said, "What?"

And she said: "Do you have something to tell me, Luis?"

And I said: "Nah. What's there to tell?"

She said: "You have something you need to tell me."

And I thought, oh, my God.

Jeffrey Brown: Word was out that you were writing a book about the family.

Luis Alberto Urrea: Word was out. I had been outed by my niece.

And I said: "OK, yes, I have based this novel on what happened to us and what happened to you. But it's fiction."

And said: "So, fiction, it's a lie. I made it up, you know? I'm making things up, and I'm making a movie, and sometimes you have to act in my mind, so I can write."

And she just stared at me like that. And she put her finger up. And she said: "I just want to know, are you, you know, paying respects? Are you honoring my husband?"

And I said: "Well, of course I am, yes."

"That's all I need to know."

Jeffrey Brown: OK.

Let's go to our next question.

Mary Higgins: One of my favorite passages in this book is where Big Angel remembers his father saying to him: "This second just became the past. As soon as you noticed it, it was already gone."

The concept of time comes up again and again in this book, and I was wondering if you could talk about that.

Luis Alberto Urrea: Time, yes.

Jeffrey Brown: I love that question, because time is such an essence of the book, also kind of making fun of Mexican time in a way.

Luis Alberto Urrea: Right. Right.

Big Angel is obsessed with time. And that comes directly from my own father. People used to call my father the German, because he was punctual. In fact, he was early to everything. So that bled over.

And that line that Big Angel's father has said to him was something my father said to me. To me, the ticking clock in this is that we know he's going to die, he knows he's going to die, and he only has so much time to try to rectify anything that he may have done wrong or any problems in the family, which I think any of us who are parents, you know, who were once in our 20s and no longer there, you know, we all think about these things as time passes.

What can we do? How can we negotiate our time?

Jeffrey Brown: OK.

Next question.

Charlie Koonin: "The House of Broken Angels" has showed me that every moment of life is precious.

When you set out to write this book, did you intend for this to be a central message?

Luis Alberto Urrea: Yes, I did, actually. I intended that. You know, I may not have known it until I started crying.

Jeffrey Brown: Crying to yourself while you were writing?

Luis Alberto Urrea: Yes.

And there were a few passages that my wife, Cindy, had to actually type because I couldn't deal with them. I just walked around crying saying them, an she typed them in for me.

So the realization, I think, of time passing and everyone you love leaving someday -- it's been a lot of loss in our family, but that was -- yes, that became a kind of obsession to me.

Jeffrey Brown: You can't read this book now without thinking of the times we're in, the situation at the border, you know, the contention over immigration.

Luis Alberto Urrea: Yes. Hmm.

Jeffrey Brown: You sprinkle allusions in and out occasionally.

What -- I wonder, what's the role of fiction?

Luis Alberto Urrea: I think it's our responsibility, if you're writing sort of social realism, to pay attention to what's going on, but also, you know, to universalize the story.

And I cannot help but think that, if I give you this family, that may be quite different from your family, after a while, you will realize they're not that different, you know? There's love. There's regret. There's life. There's death. There's sexuality. There's religious faith.

The entire book is a parable, I think, for grace.

Jeffrey Brown: We're going to continue this discussion online.

For now, Luis Alberto Urrea, thank you very much.

Luis Alberto Urrea: Thank you. Thank you.

Jeffrey Brown: And before we go, we're going to try something different for August.

Many of us love nothing more than to return to a beloved older book for a summer re-reading. So we decided to ask one of today's top writers to select a personal favorite, a book that continues to inspire and entertain her.

Celeste Ng is author of the bestselling novel "Little Fires Everywhere." Her pick for us to read? "The Woman Warrior," the acclaimed memoir by Maxine Hong Kingston. Celeste Ng will sit down with us at the end of next month.

Please read along and join us here and on our Facebook page for the Now Read This book club, in partnership with The New York Times.

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