The secret to writing with Yuri Herrera

Yuri’s Uber is running a few minutes late, so I step into the Fellini Caffe in Rice Village, our agreed meeting place, and order an Americano. I text a description of myself to Yuri, stand near the counter, and wait for a table to open up. Outside, Fall weather has yet to take hold in Texas: it’s sunny, slightly muggy, and over 90 degrees Fahrenheit.

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A man who looks like Yuri walks hastily into the Café. I recognize his face and glasses, but he doesn’t see me. He’s wearing a really sharp-looking, white guayabera shirt made from a fabric known as manta Hindu in Spanish. He approaches a white dude with a beard sitting at a table and typing away at a laptop. The man looks puzzled and nods no, and Yuri scans about and sees me waving.

My wife and daughter had tagged along to get a drink and go window-shopping at Rice Village while I did the interview; they make to exit, but Yuri – smiling, warm, and energetic – insists we all sit together. A shaded table on the patio opens up, we finally get our orders, and finally settle.

Yuri sits a bit back from the table with his body open to the entire table. He never once crosses his arms or legs. Yuri speaks excellent English, but we converse in Spanish and Yuri answers most of my questions without pause. The charla flows and he speaks rapidfire, like a resident of Mexico City, but without the grating Chilango tone; he clarifies that he lived in Mexico City for 13 years, but grew up in Pachuca.

Like Yuri, I myself studied political science at university, so I’m curious about his path to literature. Did he amble? Meander? Stumble about? What caused the switch from poly sci to letra? Yuri explains that he considered himself a writer even before starting studies at the Universidad Nacional y Autónoma de México (UNAM). Instead of doubt, his decision was based on confidence. At the time, he worried that studying literature in the academic sense “would unduly influence” his own writing.

He grins and acknowledges that, looking back now, he was probably wrong and perhaps foolish even. I point out that he has more compensated for any lack of an undergrad lit degree, having finished an M.F.A. program at the University of Texas, El Paso and a P.h.D. at UC Berkeley. I then ask, a bit pointedly, if he feels any tension between the creation of fiction for a general readership and the academic world of theory?

He pauses and squints his eyes. He looks to the side for a second and says that “Yes”, he does sense “a tension, but…it can be overcome.” He then smiles and points out that, from his P.h.D. program, “Foucault can show you a lense to view society and power, but will not teach you how to write a good story.”

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The obvious follow up question is: what is the secret to writing a good story? How does one start? I ask Yuri if his creative process starts with a person, a landscape, or plot? Again, Yuri pauses before answering. He states that for his debut novel, Kingdom Cons, the story’s “núcleo” – “core” in English – was the tension and “inequality in power” between the musician artist and his wealthy, violent drug lord patron. All else flowed from that.

I confess to him that I have not yet read Kingdom Cons, Spanish title Trabajos del Reino. Weeks ago, I had ordered a copy at Brazos from his Spanish publisher, Editorial Periférica, but was waiting to get my copy at his signing. I note that his other novels – Signs Preceding the End of the World and The Transmigration of Bodies – have strong endings.

I ask: does he know the ending for a story before he starts writing? Does he have an outline? Yuri very strongly states that he does not know the ending before he starts. However, he believes that the key to his own process is very careful thinking and rumination before he even starts writing. He admits that, while writing, he has an outline, but things can and do shift with frequency. He mentions his obsession with words. For example, he says, he “could write an entire chapter just so it could include a single word.”

I mention the presence of phonetically-spelled words and expressions in his books’ Spanish versions. For example, characters say “Usté” instead of the proper Usted. I also admit to laughing at having read the phrase “Hijuelachingada,” which may sound odd to non-Mexican ears. Basically, it’s the sound of somebody saying Hijo de la chingada very fast. This translates roughly to “son of…something not good.”

I ask Yuri about his life in the United States and more specifically New Orleans, where he teaches at Tulane. He’s spent about seven years there and feels comfortable in the Big Easy, but hasn’t quite had enough time to “make memories.” He is very concerned about the gun violence in New Orleans that disproportionately affects young black men – he compares the bloodshed to Ciudad Juárez at the height of the Calderón presidency.

HYuri Herrera 4e mentions his digs have a yard and he shows me a picture on his phone of his adopted dog Max, a rescue. He then uses an English word to describe his house: he calls it a “shotgun.” I’d never heard the term before, so he describes it in Spanish. Basically, they are narrow, rectangular houses with similar-sized rooms stacked one after another front to back.

Suddenly, time rears its ugly head. We realize Yuri’s event starts in less than ten minutes. He graciously takes his dirty plate and cup into the café to save the waiter a trip, and then I offer him a ride to the reading. He accepts, and, only after my wife insists, sits in the front passenger seat.

While avoiding aggressive Texan drivers – a staple of Houston – I recall one last question. I tell Yuri that he mentioned in an earlier online interview that he enjoys reading The Bible and viewing it as a work of written craft. I ask: could he someday pen a book in epistolary form, first-person letters? He pauses for some time, his eyes dart up, and he tilts his head from side to side subtly. He says “it’s possible,” but it’s been “done before” by others. He would need a “truly original” idea before attempting it.

We arrive at Brazos right at 7:00pm; the parking lot is packed and so is inside. Still, Yuri gets out of the car slowly and then patiently waits for me, my wife and daughter.

The term in Spanish for somebody well-mannered is “educado.” The word also means “educated.” It’s an apt description of Yuri, who, with an MFA, PhD, and several acclaimed novels, remains a gentlemen and still brims with infectious energy when discussing the written word.

Yuri Herrera (Actopan, México, 1970). Has written three novels, all of them translated into several languages: Trabajos del reinoSeñales que precederán al fin del mundo, and La transmigración de los cuerpos; which have been published in English by And Other Stories. He is currently an assistant professor at the University of Tulane, in New Orleans.
Elliott Turner is a graduate of Emory University. His writing has appeared or is forthcoming in VICE, Fusion, The Guardian, SplitLip Mag, and elsewhere. His debut novel, The Night of the Virgin, is available from RBM Press.

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