In 2004, terrorist bombs rip apart a train in Madrid.
Five years earlier, a local politician is murdered by young Basque nationalists.
And in 1949, a young American teacher finds love with a Basque woman whose father was brutally murdered by the thugs of Franco’s dictatorship when she was a child.
The threads of these three plot lines inch together over the course of All That Followed, the powerful debut novel by Gabriel Urza. An American lawyer of Basque descent whose passion for human redemption has taken a literary turn, Urza’s work offers important insights into the individuals whose humanity is often ignored as a result of the violent crimes with which they are labelled.
From the Legal to the Literary
What inspires a successful lawyer to set aside his career and turn to creative writing, instead?
In the case of Urza, the desire to write was always there, even if he took a circuitous route to fulfill it. His first interest was journalism, but his mother, also a lawyer, convinced him that a law degree would provide a better background for a journalist. Much to his surprise, he enjoyed the work, and wound up employed at a public defender’s office.
“I didn’t think that I would be there for five years!” he laughs. “I think there will be part of me that misses the satisfaction that comes with being a public defender because—and I don’t say this to make myself sound selfless—but it certainly is a selfless vocation in a lot of ways. You see people that are at their worst all the time and you have a chance to really help some people. Writing can, I think, a lot of the time seem very abstract. While law seems very concrete.”
Still, it was writing that called to him. “I know that if I’m not writing, and not only writing but finishing manuscripts and finishing stories, I feel like there’s a part of me that’s not being expressed, that is very important to me.”
Rewarding though his legal career was, the long hours and psychologically draining workload proved a barrier to the writing he craved.
“I just found it really hard to set aside the time to do it, and to have the energy to do it. Considering the emotional volatility of the material I was around all day as a public defender, the last thing I wanted to do at night was to come home and try to feel something for a story. I left all my catharsis at the court house, and I was ready to just come home and turn on Game of Thrones and wait for sleep.”
Ultimately, the lure of writing proved irresistible, and he eventually returned to graduate school in creative writing. It’s a move he has not regretted. His thesis became his debut novel, and this year he’s taken up a position teaching creative writing at a college in upstate New York.
Writing From Experience
All That Followed reads with a riveting sense of immediacy. From the touching portrayal of small village life, the evocative descriptions of local cafes, the intense landscapes and ubiquitous presence of the tongue-twisting Basque language, the book conveys a powerful sense of place. It’s a familiarity born of experience. Urza’s parents are Basque, and although he was born and grew up in the United States (“Iowa City – it doesn’t get much more American than that!”) he spent significant periods of time visiting and living in the politically volatile Basque region of Spain while growing up. He spent a year there during college, and returned again as a young law student on a grant to study the Spanish government’s suppression of a Basque political party.
“I was always sort of around the Basque community, both in the States as well as in the Basque country. You can’t really be a part of that community without being aware of the political situation that’s over there… My father worked with the Basque community in the United States, and so we also had the opportunity to have a lot of Basque scholars and intellectuals in the house when I was growing up, and I got to sit around the coffee table and around the dinner table and listen to all of the discussions about the political situation. When I was over there during college, it was a little bit more real for me to see firsthand. Even though I certainly wasn’t participating in any of the political activism I saw it, it was impossible to not be around.”
The novel’s pages are full of images drawn from his own memories of those years.
“I wasn’t out in the streets throwing Molotov cocktails or anything like that, but I certainly saw them being thrown and I saw the police go into crowded streets and start shooting rubber bullets, and I saw a bus being burned by Basque separatists when I was in my teens. So yeah, I was around it.”
The novel itself is loosely inspired by a real event, the killing of a Spanish politician who was kidnapped and murdered by the Basque separatist organization ETA in 1997. Outside of that frame, the novel itself is a work of fiction, told from the perspectives of three key characters in the small town where the kidnapping takes place.
Redefining the Political Novel
While Urza’s work has received strong praise, he’s come under some criticism for not situating the politics more at the forefront of the book. What’s central is the three core characters and their relationship to each other. The political backdrop, and the centrality of the kidnapping and murder, serve largely to facilitate the characters’ development and engagement with each other. The critique about a lack of more overt political action frustrates Urza. Making the politics more prominent, he says, would have defeated the point of his novel, which is to make the characters human – not merely political actors.
“It requires people to think about political actors as individuals rather than as ideologues. That’s been my experience in real life. I think it makes it more complicated to look at a political situation when you consider that there are individuals on the other side, rather than just these faceless ideas.
“We don’t have the same sort of identified politics or political violence in the United States, as there exists in the Basque country, but there is still political violence and political labels that take place all the time. When you label some crime a gang crime, for example, that’s a political label. What you find out when you meet these people, when you learn about the circumstances of the crime, is that most crimes are not carried out for some vague idea of a gang, but because there are individuals involved that have individual stakes.”
Yet the characters’ lives are indelibly shaped by the political backdrop. Joni’s girlfriend Nerea had a father who was murdered by Franco’s dictatorship, and it changed her life (and thus Joni’s) irrevocably. Mariana’s husband is murdered by Basque separatists, and the murder exacerbates and exposes the complicated web of emotional relationships in which Mariana is already situated. And Iker – the young, idealistic Basque nationalist who winds up in prison for Mariana’s husband’s murder – finds his future cut short by the political violence he tried so desperately to leave behind him.
The absence of overt political drama does not make the book any less political; indeed, its subtle and nuanced treatment of the region’s politics, and the way the politics insinuate themselves into every relationship and situation, makes it all the more powerful a political novel.
“One of the goals of the novel was to show somebody like Iker—who maybe a lot of people would consider to be by nature evil, just because of the act that he’s implicated in—and show him to be just a sympathetic person or a flawed person that we can relate to.”
Here, Urza finds his experience as a lawyer, and his creative perspectives as a writer, aligning in powerful ways.
“As a defense attorney, you get these crimes and you get these cases where people already have these sort of labels on them. For example, if you get a case where somebody’s been killed, your defendant is already accused of being a murderer. That label has already been attached to them. But my experience in working on murder cases and other cases like that, is that you find out that generally speaking, these people are complicated people that aren’t inherently evil. They have arrived at this situation, and at that label, just by circumstance… I feel an impulse to speak for people who are considered socially as outsiders or people who are seen as irredeemable, and to hopefully show that they are redeemable.”
Stylistically, All That Followed adopts a complex structure. The action spans a roughly 50-year period, with each chapter skipping back and forth across the broad historical sweep. It’s told from the perspective of three different characters, who alternate chapter by chapter. At first, a structure of this sort can seem daunting. But as the plot begins to stitch itself together, and the narrative begins to coalesce across time, the reader experiences a particular reward from immersion in the innate complexity and elusiveness of chronology and perspective. It’s an effect Urza deliberately sought.
“The book is told as a series of memories from each of the characters, looking back on events, and the nice thing about writing the book from that perspective, is that they’re not limited as to what memories they can go back to. So while they may be primarily concerned with what happened in 1997, they might just as easily think back to a memory of the ‘50s. And so in a way it’s non-linear, but I think that that’s how people generally remember things anyway.”
Although the narrative presents itself as complex, he found the complexity in fact helped the flow of his writing.
“The nice thing about having the three narrators in the book is that each time I felt that I got stuck with one character, I could just put that character away for a while and go work with another character. And usually by the time I’d finished the next section with a new character, the issue with the first character would have resolved itself in some way.”
From the Courtroom to the Classroom
An avid traveller as well as a passionate teacher of creative writing, Urza is critical of the insular character of a lot of contemporary American literature.
“I think my biggest critique of American literature, or its accessibility, is that it is so inward-looking. I think there’s been a lot of amazing works on American domestic realism that have their value, but I’m always impressed when I go abroad and when I see the diversity of cultures and experiences that are represented in bookstores there. It seems like in the United States you’re lucky to have one bookshelf of international literature, and I think it’s a shame that there’s not more, that international literature has not been more broadly accepted into American literature.”
How do we change that dynamic?
“Probably you just have to make a couple of mini-series based on Jo Nesbo books,” he jokes. “But seriously, I don’t know. The academic side of me now would say that schools are a good place to start, and universities are a good place to start. I think there is an important movement towards bringing in international writers in translation, but… you don’t get new up-and-coming, not-tried-and-true international writers getting a lot of publicity in the United States.”
With his first novel under his belt, Urza is already hard at work on a range of other projects: the beginnings of a new novel, several non-fiction writing projects, and putting the finishing touches on a collection of short stories. In addition to pursuing his own literary career, Urza now teaches creative writing at the college level. In both, he’s a strong advocate for the importance of personal experience.
“I think it’s hard not to draw inspiration from real life. I tend not to really go looking for subjects to write about, but it’s been my experience that if you keep your eyes open they present themselves. I’ve been lucky enough to have had a lot of experience in my life. I’ve had the opportunity to travel a lot and to cross paths with very interesting people. Whether it’s people that are involved in Basque politics, or people that are involved in social justice and criminal defense. Those areas really give me a lot of material.”
He encourages his students to do the same – to get out and experience life.
“I’m teaching young writers now, essentially, many of whom want to make careers in writing. It’s tough, because on the one hand I think the best advice you can give is to write, but I also feel that I really benefited from having some experience out in the world before going back to writing. I feel that if I had gone to graduate school when I was 22 years old I wouldn’t have received the benefit I did going back at 30, after having worked for five years. So you know, I think my advice would be to go easy on yourself now as far as publication goes, but try to experience a lot and try to surround yourself with interesting people.”
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