Author Brando Skyhorse

Editor-turned-author examines his journey of culture and talks about navigating the publishing world and his debut novel.

Brando Skyhorse was born and raised in the area of L.A. that he used as the setting of his debut novel, The Madonnas of Echo Park, which tells the story of Mexican day laborers and the intersection of lives in the multicultural neighborhood. He graduated from Stanford and completed a writing program at UC Irvine in the late '90s, where his classmates included Lovely Bones novelist Alice Sebold. He also worked in book publishing in New York City for 10 years. Skyhorse is currently working on his next book, the memoir Things My Fathers Taught Me.

TRANSCRIPT

Tavis: Brando Skyhorse is a first-time novelist whose book, “The Madonnas of Echo Park,” has been named one of the best of the summer by “USA Today” and for that matter just about everybody else. The book takes its name from the L.A. neighborhood he grew up in – a neighborhood, in fact, just down the road from this studio. Brando, welcome back to the neighborhood.

Brando Skyhorse: Thank you so much, Tavis. (Laughter) Happy to be back.
Tavis: How you been, man?
Skyhorse: I’ve been good, I’ve been good.
Tavis: I know that this, as I said, is a book that everybody’s picked for their summer reading list, and so this is your first novel so it’s kind of a coming out party, so to speak.
Skyhorse: Sure.
Tavis: I know and I’m confident that years from now I’ll be taking pride in the fact that I was able to meet you early on in your career. Because I know people are going to come to know your work over the years, let me just start with some stuff about you, so folk get to know you before we get into the actual text. I mentioned that you were raised in the Echo Park are of L.A.
Skyhorse: That’s right.
Tavis: Tell me about your childhood.
Skyhorse: I was born in 1973 in Echo Park and my grandmother owned a house there. She bought it in 1952, so from the time that I was – my family had connections there in the early ’50s until the time I left in the late ’90s – was there for almost 50 years.
We saw an enormous transformation over that time. My grandmother moved there when it was a predominately White and Italian neighborhood, and we saw that neighborhood transmogrify over the years from White to Italian to Mexican to Vietnamese.
So I grew up right on the cusp of that second changeover from White to Italian to Mexican and Vietnamese, and it was -
Tavis: (Unintelligible)
Skyhorse: Yeah, it was an interesting place to kind of be exposed to a lot of different cultures and a lot of different ethnicities.
Tavis: To your point about ethnicities and cultures, you are what? What is your background?
Skyhorse: I’m Mexican-American, and the name Brando Skyhorse – well, the name Skyhorse is a Native American name. When I was three years old, my Mexican father abandoned me and my mother started corresponding with a man in jail who was Native American. I believed until the time I was 12 or 13 years old that I was literally Native American, and when I found out that I was Mexican she encouraged me to keep up the story because she was living her life as a Native American too.
She went from being Maria Theresa Vanaga to Running Deer Skyhorse now. (Laughter) If you could choose, which name was you want? I’d want to be a Running Deer, too.
As far as Brando is concerned, I know it sounds cheesy to say, but she was a really big fan of “The Godfather,” so it was either going to be Brando or Pacino. Pacino Skyhorse? (Laughter) I think she made the right call.
Tavis: So when you found out that you were not, in fact, born Native American but born Mexican, the journey in Echo Park, the journey in America, for that matter, of being Mexican is what as you see it, and the journey being Native American is what as you see it?
Skyhorse: Those are very distinct journeys. I think that my mother felt that she would get not only more currency, maybe a better story to tell, but in the late ’70s or early to mid-’70s, I’m sure you remember the American Indian movie. The Skyhorse/Mohawk trial here in Los Angeles.
I think there was something not only glamorous but something also very dynamic. There was a feeling that this was a movement that was going to change things in America, especially for an ethnic group that had been long since marginalized.
I don’t think that she felt that way with Mexican-Americans, which is strange to say because there was also the Chicano movement, the La Raza movement. So growing up as a Native American, she tried to do what she could raising me in a scattershot kind of way.
I went to sweat lodges, I met people in the American Indian movement who were involved in trying to get people out of prison and such, but as far as Latinos and such, it was just something that she wasn’t interested in, just something that she didn’t really connect with.
Tavis: My sense is – and I get a chance to talk to authors on this program and my radio show, for that matter, all the time – my sense is that beyond a good story, which we’ll come to in just a second, part of the reason why you’re being so celebrated by the industry is because you come out of the industry.
It’s not often that you get someone who writes his or her first book who has worked in publishing for 10 years. Tell me about your journey through the publishing world.
Skyhorse: I’d like to say that there was a part of that, but when you’re working in the industry, especially I worked as an editor for about 10 years and you’re working on other people’s writings, when you’re dealing with agents and such, they don’t want to know from Adam that you’re writing.
They want to know if you could buy my client’s book, if you can do this, if you can do that. So I don’t want to say there was a huge advantage. I think I knew more about the machinations of the industry so that when my book got ready to be shopped and it came time to looking for an agent and such, I was aware of the pitfalls and I was aware of how long response times take, for instance.
So if I had approached the industry as a neophyte, I’d send something to my agent on a Monday, I would be calling up Monday afternoon, “So you read it? Is it going out today?” So I think it was helpful for me navigating all the sort of pitfalls that a lot of first-time writers fall into.
Tavis: I hear the point about how understanding how the process works was beneficial. How does it help to have been an editor of other people’s work, to your point, for 10 years?
Skyhorse: Yeah, that’s a very astute observation because I think that as an editor, you’re asking really skilled writers, and I worked with some of the best nonfiction journalists in the business.
You’re asking them to make decisions about their own work, and this is work that they have an enormous amount of connection to. So when you make those types of demands, you go back to your own writing and you ask yourself, “Why am I asking my reader to do this? Why am I asking my reader to make this leap for me?”
So you become more demanding of what you expect not only of your own work but of a reader who interrogates your work as well.
Tavis: One final question, I think, about you, before I get back to the book.
Skyhorse: No, sure.
Tavis: Since you mentioned you’ve worked with so many great writers over the years and since they all thanked you in the credits anyway, this ain’t no secret.
Skyhorse: Some of them did, most of them did. The good ones, the ones I like did. (Laughter)
Tavis: Give me a sense of some of the folk you have had the honor of working with over the years – authors.
Skyhorse: I worked with Frank Deford, who is one of the legends of the business, and I worked with a Pulitzer Prize winner named David Zucchino. I’ve worked with a guy named Tim Flannery, who wrote one of the early treatises on climate change, “The Weather Makers.”
When you work with writers of that caliber and you’re asking them to make significant changes to their text, they want to feel that they’re in the hands of somebody who knows what they’re doing but also is committed to their text as well, and I hope that I conveyed some of that passion and enthusiasm in my own book.
Tavis: Does that mean that you were editable?
Skyhorse: (Laughs) Yeah, yeah, I’m malleable. (Laughter) Yeah, that works too. Yeah, open to suggestions and such.
Tavis: Yeah, in your own writing.
Skyhorse: You have to be, because it’s really a dialogue. I think that the thing that people forget about publishing is that even though my name’s on a jacket, there are tons of people, my editor, Amber Qureshi, who worked with me on getting the text where it needed to be, copyeditors, proofreaders, jacket designers. It’s really a collaborative process.
Tavis: So tell me then about “The Madonnas of Echo Park.” It’s a fascinating storyline, because it is a novel but it to my reads looks like short stories.
Skyhorse: Yeah, I think I could see how one would come to that conclusion. The idea is that there is an incident in which a young girl named Aurora Esperanza is on a street corner with her mother, Felicia, and they’re reenacting a Madonna video – the video “Borderline,” from 1984/’85 or whatever.
Tavis: Great song.
Skyhorse: Yeah, yeah, exactly. So there is an incident that happens while they’re enacting that particular video. There’s a drive-by shooting and a young girl is murdered, and so Aurora and Felicia then have to deal with the consequences of that particular incident.
What you get is the stories of the community that are dealing with this incident, so you get Aurora’s estranged father, who’s a day laborer, who decides if he can turn in somebody that he knows is a murderer, you get a woman who is sort of cruising the streets of Sunset Boulevard who thinks that she’s communing with the Virgin Mary.
So you get all of these people who in some way or another their lives have been impacted by this one particular incident, so I feel that unlike a collection of short stories, where you get a different cast of characters and a different set of situations, each one of these chapters affects what happens in the next chapter and the characters intersect with each other, like the movie “Crash,” in a way.
Tavis: Because you are a citizen of the world, and for that matter a citizen formerly of Echo Park, having to navigate these issues that people of color, whether they be Native American or Mexican-American or Black-American for that matter, you have lived this story, this journey, what it means to be a person of color, how much of – I don’t want to say cheating – how much social commentary -
Skyhorse: Is there in the book?
Tavis: Yeah, do you want us to – and I’ve gone through it. I know you’re not proselytizing, but I can see some pieces here and there.
Skyhorse: Yeah, there are pieces here and there that sort of poke through, and I think that if you preach to people, if you’re didactic, especially in a book, it’s death because people don’t want to be preached to -
Tavis: Especially in a novel.
Skyhorse: Yeah, well, especially you’re asking them to pay $23 or whatever it is in order – they want to be entertained. So my primary goal is to entertain and to write entertaining stories and entertaining fiction. I write about the things that are interesting to me, and those things have always been race, class, ethnicity. All those things are potent (unintelligible) Los Angeles, so I think those things are going to shine through.
I want to write about those tings in a way that’s engaging and unique to me, but also in a way that I haven’t seen addressed in literary fiction before. So if I’ve accomplished that, then I’ve done my job. But those things are always going to be issues that I’m interested in, because this is where I grew up and I think if you’re a citizen of Los Angeles in particular, you have to be interested in those issues. You have to be aware of those issues.
Tavis: Exactly. So how do you keep your feet on the ground, literally and figuratively, when you’ve got all this hype swirling around your very first novel?
Skyhorse: It helps that I worked in the business for 10 years. I’ve seen this sort of mechanism happen before with other writers, and I’ve seen the pitfalls that some people fall into. I think it’s helpful to have a very good sense of humor, not only about yourself but about your work as well, so I’m just happy and grateful to be here, talking about my book and finding an opportunity to discuss it.
Because especially having worked in the business for so long I was doing all of my writing on the side at night, so the fact that I would even have an opportunity to talk to you or to talk to people about my writing, I’ve gotten more than I could ever hope for so anything from this point on is gravy.
Tavis: How long before Madonna calls when she hears that your book -
Skyhorse: If she’s watching – (laughter) if somebody’s got her number, I’d love to take that one.
Tavis: When she hears you’ve got a storyline built around “Borderline,” you just keep on pushing my love over the borderline – that’s a cold song. I like that.
Skyhorse: I like the way you sing it.
Tavis: Yeah, I love it. (Laughter) The new book from Brando Skyhorse – got to love the name, you’ve got to love the book – his name, Brando Skyhorse, the book, “The Madonnas of Echo Park,” a novel. Everybody talking about it, and I’m sure you will be too once you get your hands on it this summer for your summer reading. Brando, congratulations in advance and good to have you on the program.
Skyhorse: It’s a privilege to be here, thank you.
Tavis: My honor to have you.

[Walmart - Save money. Live better.]
Announcer: Nationwide Insurance proudly supports Tavis Smiley. Tavis and Nationwide Insurance – working to improve financial literacy and the economic empowerment that comes with it. Nationwide is on your side.
And by contributions to your PBS station from viewers like you. Thank you.Tavis: Brando Skyhorse is a first-time novelist whose book, “The Madonnas of Echo Park,” has been named one of the best of the summer by “USA Today” and for that matter just about everybody else. The book takes its name from the L.A. neighborhood he grew up in – a neighborhood, in fact, just down the road from this studio. Brando, welcome back to the neighborhood.

Brando Skyhorse: Thank you so much, Tavis. (Laughter) Happy to be back.
Tavis: How you been, man?
Skyhorse: I’ve been good, I’ve been good.
Tavis: I know that this, as I said, is a book that everybody’s picked for their summer reading list, and so this is your first novel so it’s kind of a coming out party, so to speak.
Skyhorse: Sure.
Tavis: I know and I’m confident that years from now I’ll be taking pride in the fact that I was able to meet you early on in your career. Because I know people are going to come to know your work over the years, let me just start with some stuff about you, so folk get to know you before we get into the actual text. I mentioned that you were raised in the Echo Park are of L.A.
Skyhorse: That’s right.
Tavis: Tell me about your childhood.
Skyhorse: I was born in 1973 in Echo Park and my grandmother owned a house there. She bought it in 1952, so from the time that I was – my family had connections there in the early ’50s until the time I left in the late ’90s – was there for almost 50 years.
We saw an enormous transformation over that time. My grandmother moved there when it was a predominately White and Italian neighborhood, and we saw that neighborhood transmogrify over the years from White to Italian to Mexican to Vietnamese.
So I grew up right on the cusp of that second changeover from White to Italian to Mexican and Vietnamese, and it was -
Tavis: (Unintelligible)
Skyhorse: Yeah, it was an interesting place to kind of be exposed to a lot of different cultures and a lot of different ethnicities.
Tavis: To your point about ethnicities and cultures, you are what? What is your background?
Skyhorse: I’m Mexican-American, and the name Brando Skyhorse – well, the name Skyhorse is a Native American name. When I was three years old, my Mexican father abandoned me and my mother started corresponding with a man in jail who was Native American. I believed until the time I was 12 or 13 years old that I was literally Native American, and when I found out that I was Mexican she encouraged me to keep up the story because she was living her life as a Native American too.
She went from being Maria Theresa Vanaga to Running Deer Skyhorse now. (Laughter) If you could choose, which name was you want? I’d want to be a Running Deer, too.
As far as Brando is concerned, I know it sounds cheesy to say, but she was a really big fan of “The Godfather,” so it was either going to be Brando or Pacino. Pacino Skyhorse? (Laughter) I think she made the right call.
Tavis: So when you found out that you were not, in fact, born Native American but born Mexican, the journey in Echo Park, the journey in America, for that matter, of being Mexican is what as you see it, and the journey being Native American is what as you see it?
Skyhorse: Those are very distinct journeys. I think that my mother felt that she would get not only more currency, maybe a better story to tell, but in the late ’70s or early to mid-’70s, I’m sure you remember the American Indian movie. The Skyhorse/Mohawk trial here in Los Angeles.
I think there was something not only glamorous but something also very dynamic. There was a feeling that this was a movement that was going to change things in America, especially for an ethnic group that had been long since marginalized.
I don’t think that she felt that way with Mexican-Americans, which is strange to say because there was also the Chicano movement, the La Raza movement. So growing up as a Native American, she tried to do what she could raising me in a scattershot kind of way.
I went to sweat lodges, I met people in the American Indian movement who were involved in trying to get people out of prison and such, but as far as Latinos and such, it was just something that she wasn’t interested in, just something that she didn’t really connect with.
Tavis: My sense is – and I get a chance to talk to authors on this program and my radio show, for that matter, all the time – my sense is that beyond a good story, which we’ll come to in just a second, part of the reason why you’re being so celebrated by the industry is because you come out of the industry.
It’s not often that you get someone who writes his or her first book who has worked in publishing for 10 years. Tell me about your journey through the publishing world.
Skyhorse: I’d like to say that there was a part of that, but when you’re working in the industry, especially I worked as an editor for about 10 years and you’re working on other people’s writings, when you’re dealing with agents and such, they don’t want to know from Adam that you’re writing.
They want to know if you could buy my client’s book, if you can do this, if you can do that. So I don’t want to say there was a huge advantage. I think I knew more about the machinations of the industry so that when my book got ready to be shopped and it came time to looking for an agent and such, I was aware of the pitfalls and I was aware of how long response times take, for instance.
So if I had approached the industry as a neophyte, I’d send something to my agent on a Monday, I would be calling up Monday afternoon, “So you read it? Is it going out today?” So I think it was helpful for me navigating all the sort of pitfalls that a lot of first-time writers fall into.
Tavis: I hear the point about how understanding how the process works was beneficial. How does it help to have been an editor of other people’s work, to your point, for 10 years?
Skyhorse: Yeah, that’s a very astute observation because I think that as an editor, you’re asking really skilled writers, and I worked with some of the best nonfiction journalists in the business.
You’re asking them to make decisions about their own work, and this is work that they have an enormous amount of connection to. So when you make those types of demands, you go back to your own writing and you ask yourself, “Why am I asking my reader to do this? Why am I asking my reader to make this leap for me?”
So you become more demanding of what you expect not only of your own work but of a reader who interrogates your work as well.
Tavis: One final question, I think, about you, before I get back to the book.
Skyhorse: No, sure.
Tavis: Since you mentioned you’ve worked with so many great writers over the years and since they all thanked you in the credits anyway, this ain’t no secret.
Skyhorse: Some of them did, most of them did. The good ones, the ones I like did. (Laughter)
Tavis: Give me a sense of some of the folk you have had the honor of working with over the years – authors.
Skyhorse: I worked with Frank Deford, who is one of the legends of the business, and I worked with a Pulitzer Prize winner named David Zucchino. I’ve worked with a guy named Tim Flannery, who wrote one of the early treatises on climate change, “The Weather Makers.”
When you work with writers of that caliber and you’re asking them to make significant changes to their text, they want to feel that they’re in the hands of somebody who knows what they’re doing but also is committed to their text as well, and I hope that I conveyed some of that passion and enthusiasm in my own book.
Tavis: Does that mean that you were editable?
Skyhorse: (Laughs) Yeah, yeah, I’m malleable. (Laughter) Yeah, that works too. Yeah, open to suggestions and such.
Tavis: Yeah, in your own writing.
Skyhorse: You have to be, because it’s really a dialogue. I think that the thing that people forget about publishing is that even though my name’s on a jacket, there are tons of people, my editor, Amber Qureshi, who worked with me on getting the text where it needed to be, copyeditors, proofreaders, jacket designers. It’s really a collaborative process.
Tavis: So tell me then about “The Madonnas of Echo Park.” It’s a fascinating storyline, because it is a novel but it to my reads looks like short stories.
Skyhorse: Yeah, I think I could see how one would come to that conclusion. The idea is that there is an incident in which a young girl named Aurora Esperanza is on a street corner with her mother, Felicia, and they’re reenacting a Madonna video – the video “Borderline,” from 1984/’85 or whatever.
Tavis: Great song.
Skyhorse: Yeah, yeah, exactly. So there is an incident that happens while they’re enacting that particular video. There’s a drive-by shooting and a young girl is murdered, and so Aurora and Felicia then have to deal with the consequences of that particular incident.
What you get is the stories of the community that are dealing with this incident, so you get Aurora’s estranged father, who’s a day laborer, who decides if he can turn in somebody that he knows is a murderer, you get a woman who is sort of cruising the streets of Sunset Boulevard who thinks that she’s communing with the Virgin Mary.
So you get all of these people who in some way or another their lives have been impacted by this one particular incident, so I feel that unlike a collection of short stories, where you get a different cast of characters and a different set of situations, each one of these chapters affects what happens in the next chapter and the characters intersect with each other, like the movie “Crash,” in a way.
Tavis: Because you are a citizen of the world, and for that matter a citizen formerly of Echo Park, having to navigate these issues that people of color, whether they be Native American or Mexican-American or Black-American for that matter, you have lived this story, this journey, what it means to be a person of color, how much of – I don’t want to say cheating – how much social commentary -
Skyhorse: Is there in the book?
Tavis: Yeah, do you want us to – and I’ve gone through it. I know you’re not proselytizing, but I can see some pieces here and there.
Skyhorse: Yeah, there are pieces here and there that sort of poke through, and I think that if you preach to people, if you’re didactic, especially in a book, it’s death because people don’t want to be preached to -
Tavis: Especially in a novel.
Skyhorse: Yeah, well, especially you’re asking them to pay $23 or whatever it is in order – they want to be entertained. So my primary goal is to entertain and to write entertaining stories and entertaining fiction. I write about the things that are interesting to me, and those things have always been race, class, ethnicity. All those things are potent (unintelligible) Los Angeles, so I think those things are going to shine through.
I want to write about those tings in a way that’s engaging and unique to me, but also in a way that I haven’t seen addressed in literary fiction before. So if I’ve accomplished that, then I’ve done my job. But those things are always going to be issues that I’m interested in, because this is where I grew up and I think if you’re a citizen of Los Angeles in particular, you have to be interested in those issues. You have to be aware of those issues.
Tavis: Exactly. So how do you keep your feet on the ground, literally and figuratively, when you’ve got all this hype swirling around your very first novel?
Skyhorse: It helps that I worked in the business for 10 years. I’ve seen this sort of mechanism happen before with other writers, and I’ve seen the pitfalls that some people fall into. I think it’s helpful to have a very good sense of humor, not only about yourself but about your work as well, so I’m just happy and grateful to be here, talking about my book and finding an opportunity to discuss it.
Because especially having worked in the business for so long I was doing all of my writing on the side at night, so the fact that I would even have an opportunity to talk to you or to talk to people about my writing, I’ve gotten more than I could ever hope for so anything from this point on is gravy.
Tavis: How long before Madonna calls when she hears that your book -
Skyhorse: If she’s watching – (laughter) if somebody’s got her number, I’d love to take that one.
Tavis: When she hears you’ve got a storyline built around “Borderline,” you just keep on pushing my love over the borderline – that’s a cold song. I like that.
Skyhorse: I like the way you sing it.
Tavis: Yeah, I love it. (Laughter) The new book from Brando Skyhorse – got to love the name, you’ve got to love the book – his name, Brando Skyhorse, the book, “The Madonnas of Echo Park,” a novel. Everybody talking about it, and I’m sure you will be too once you get your hands on it this summer for your summer reading. Brando, congratulations in advance and good to have you on the program.
Skyhorse: It’s a privilege to be here, thank you.
Tavis: My honor to have you.

[Walmart - Save money. Live better.]
Announcer: Nationwide Insurance proudly supports Tavis Smiley. Tavis and Nationwide Insurance – working to improve financial literacy and the economic empowerment that comes with it. Nationwide is on your side.
And by contributions to your PBS station from viewers like you. Thank you.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

*

You may use these HTML tags and attributes: <a href="" title=""> <abbr title=""> <acronym title=""> <b> <blockquote cite=""> <cite> <code> <del datetime=""> <em> <i> <q cite=""> <strike> <strong>

Please note that the WNET editorial staff reserves the right to not post comments it deems to be inappropriate and/or malicious in nature, as well as edit comments for length, clarity and fairness. No solicitations or advertisements will be allowed. Users may link to other Web sites relevant to discussion, but most often links to commercial Web sites will not be permitted.
Last modified: April 26, 2011 at 12:28 pm