Former editor Brando Skyhorse reveals several Mexican-American perspectives in his debut, The Madonnas of Echo Park.
What led you to write The Madonnas of Echo Park?
I came to publishing the way a lot of people do, with an autobiographical first novel and dreams of publishing glory. And it didn't quite work out that way. After I left Grove Atlantic, I had an idea for this book that I'd sort of been putting off. I started brainstorming it in 2007. I was working at a startup company during the day and at night I would stay up drinking espresso sodas and writing.
How did your experience as an editor prepare you to write this book?
Working at Grove Atlantic gave me an invaluable education in how to make myself a better writer. When you're editing the best of the best, absolutely superb writers, it forces you to analyze why you're asking writers to make certain choices.
In Madonnas, there are two threads that hold the narrative together: one is Aurora's family; the other is a shooting. Which came first?
It started with the very last chapter, with Aurora, with only an idea of her looking for her dog. In 1998, my grandmother had just passed away, and her dog hadn't been walked for god knows how long. My friend accidentally left the door open and the dog bolted out. So we hopped in the car and started chasing him, and I began noticing that the neighborhood I thought I knew so well was, even back then, starting to undergo little bits of transformation.
Some of the relationships between the characters are very clear, while others are less obvious. What was your idea in trying to establish these more tangential characters?
Growing up in Echo Park, our neighborhood really had a smalltown feel. As I got older, the relationships my parents had with people in the neighborhood started to make sense and I started to realize, oh, that's why we do business there or that's how they know that person. I wanted to give a sense of that to the reader.
How did your own upbringing, which you discuss briefly in the author's note, affect your view of ethnicity?
In case there's been any confusion: the author's note is fictional. It was always sold as fiction. When I was writing the book, I assumed there would be questions about why a guy named Brando Skyhorse is writing about Mexican-Americans in East L.A., and it's a totally fair question. The part about me not knowing I was a Mexican until I was 12 or 13 years old, that part is true. I wanted to acknowledge that part of my life in this book in some fashion and I felt that the best way to do that was in a fictional author's note. The idea of ethnicity is a little weird for me because, for a number of years, I believed that my biological father was Native American. I'm a Mexican, but a Mexican is not all that I am. That probably sums it up best, at least for me.