Somehow this web of women had become her storm shelter, her makeshift family, and if any part of it were to be salvaged she knew she needed to do it alone. ~ from LANDFALL by Ellen Urbani
In an article for The Atlantic, Julie Beck says, “Storytelling…fictional or nonfictional…is a way of making sense of the world around us,” and Margaret Atwood in Negotiating with the Dead says she writes “to bear witness.” We all have different reasons for putting pen to paper, but Ellen Urbani satisfies both of these ideas in her novel, Landfall: she writes on a real-world tragedy and paves the way to understanding such an experience through fictional characters.
Rose Aikens and Rosebud Howard live states and worlds apart. Yet in the days following Hurricane Katrina, they are thrown together in a car accident that kills one and leaves the other searching for answers and atonement.
I remember when Hurricane Katrina hit. Buffered by miles and privilege, I had no real sense of what it was like to be tossed into the fury of Mother Nature, politics, and racism. Landfall narrows in on the impact of such a storm and sheds light on the role tragedy plays in pulling us apart and bringing us together. I’m honored to host Ellen as she talks about her book, survivors, the walk between genres, and life and writing on a farm.
There’s a giveaway, too, so welcome Ellen Urbani and drop your name in the comments for a chance to win her book!
CC: Do you have a personal connection to Louisiana? What drew you to write a story set in the days leading up to and after Hurricane Katrina?
EU: Though I spent much of my life in the South, it might be said that I have more of a connection to the act of disappearing than I do to any other element — be that place, or theme, or character – in Landfall. I have cultivated a long-term habit of letting go, dropping everything, racing off to some far-away unknown, yet I also know what it is to rebuild a life around someone else’s vacancy and soldier on with a persistence unique to the left-behinds. I have lived alongside the families of los desaparecidos (the disappeared ones) in foreign lands and learned their secrets. I have gobbled up reports of missing children, attuned to Amber Alerts and calls for volunteers to join the hunt. I have counseled survivors. Disappearances and resurrections fascinate me.
With respect for those who lost loved ones in Katrina and her watery aftermath – 1,836 people killed, 705 still unaccounted for – and with the understanding that nothing so earth-shattering has, blessedly, ever beset me, it is nonetheless a true statement to say that my first husband disappeared into the maw that was the wake of Hurricane Katrina. When he answered the call for first-responders to provide emergency services along the Gulf coast it turned into the trial separation we couldn’t bring ourselves to otherwise effect. From the wreckage, he phoned home on occasion and described to me miles of highway lined with decaying bodies of alligators, people seeking shelter beneath lean-tos constructed with repurposed slabs of roofs or automotive hoods. Only a fool could fail to notice the all-too-obvious metaphor for the detritus of our marriage. Within weeks of his return, he occupied one home and I another.
Much like survivors of more pervasive calamities, I rebuilt my world using the resources I had at hand. Which is to say that as my newborn and toddler aged up, and started preschool, I started writing again – on Tuesdays and Thursdays, from 9am-11am, the only time they were out of my arms – banking our future on the story of a storm. I imagined a girl, running from all she knew and losing herself along the way, only to encounter some alternate version of herself through which she might be guided home. And in that way, the fiction that is Landfall hews very closely to a reality I have occupied. I did not race from Louisiana under raging skies, but I know what it is to flee, to escape, to rebuild. To survive.
CC: Early on in Rose’s search for Rosebud’s family, Detective McAffrey tells her, “You can’t go interpreting coincidences as signs.” But everything about her quest is rooted in coincidence, from the timing of the car accident in Chapter One to a ripped page from a phonebook found in Rosebud’s pocket. Incidental clues along Rose’s path; messages from the Universe. I’m a big believer in signs (when I’m paying attention), and I imagine you are too. How do these kinds of tiny accidents work in your life as a writer?
EU: I believe in the possibility of almost anything, and I have seen it come to pass in my whole life – not just my writing life – that the strangest and most unpredictable string of circumstances leads to an outcome I can best describe as miraculous. Albert Einstein said, “Coincidence is God’s way of remaining anonymous,” and if I could bring myself to believe in a God that would be a convenient theory. But I’ve long suspected life is not so simply explained. (And I don’t suspect for a minute that Einstein did, either.) Instead, like the esteemed man, I believe in mathematical probability, and in the environment’s tendency toward patterns and order, and in the verifiable fact that highly unlikely things happen in the natural world every day. Call it magic. Call it coincidence. Call it signs or God or karma or science. Regardless, it has been my experience that if we live with our eyes wide open and our hearts in the right place, if we shoulder life’s hardships without allowing them to hollow us, and if we learn from our mistakes and follow the clues they carve for us, we often land on precisely the path upon which we need to stand.
The storm that ended my first marriage birthed my second book. The storm responsible for claiming the life of one girl in that book gave new meaning to the life of another. Looked at one way, Hurricane Katrina might have gutted my characters, might have gutted me. Looked at another way, it might fill us up.
And as for the thousand small acts of happenstance between the end of the one thing and the beginning of the next, any of which, responded to differently, might have altered mine or Rose’s or Rosebud’s course in unfathomable ways? That simply would have been an alternate story, motivated by an alternate set of signs, leading us down an alternate path. Not necessarily better or worse. Just meant to teach us a different lesson.
CC: You have a wonderful essay in the New York Times Modern Love column, and your first book, When I Was Elena, is a memoir. As a writer, I learn so much more about the craft when I explore both fiction and nonfiction. What do you love most in writing across genres?
EU: The truth? I think of myself almost exclusively as a nonfiction writer, which is why I never intended to write Landfall. Instead, I wanted to write a book about my family of origin – I even had a title; a really good title – but my mother and sisters begged me not to do it. I’m happy to report there has been compromise over the years, but at the time, eight years ago, I believed myself barred from telling the truth and instead had to go and make something up. The idea of having to do so was remarkably intimidating, as I’m an utterly inept liar, and neither had I ever believed myself to be in possession of the imaginative chops requisite for writing fiction.
Nonfiction comes naturally to me. On a day-to-day basis my relatives and I, with a hereditary inclination toward the dramatic, provide sufficient material to inspire the literary oeuvre of a half dozen nonfiction writers. But fiction? It always seemed to me that fiction writers must draw from an alternate intellectual pool, a murky lake in which I’d never seen my reflection. But eventually the idea of trying something so novel as writing a novel grew on me. I craved the intellectual challenge, as I’d reached a point in my single parenting of two babes when I could actually feel my brain matter atrophying with each successive reading of Goodnight Moon. And I’ve always liked adventures tinged with risk, so despite this being my virgin effort at fiction I decided to up the ante: to try to write the kind of novel I so frequently crave but infrequently find. A high-minded pot-boiler; literary fiction with a twist.
Which brings us here, to the moment when Landfall makes…well…landfall, and a world of readers gets to determine whether they think I succeeded. But even if Landfall is a commercial bust, there will be a certain satisfaction in knowing I’ve met the personal goal you ask about here: I jumped genres, and wrote a book I wouldn’t have guessed I had in me. And in the process I learned that truth has many more variations and shades than I ever might have imagined.
CC: What are you reading these days?
EU: As I write this, I am sitting on the ground in the hay in a stall in a barn beside a llama at the Marion County fair. The llama’s name is Buddy. He is kindly tolerating my laptop, balanced on his back; he is perfect desk-height. Just outside the wide-open barn doors there is a U.S. flag flying. Children’s legs flick in and out of my view, dangling from a bungee-esque gyroscopic carnival ride, and Martina McBride wails “Let freedom ring!” from a powerful speaker system. Cushed behind me is Viv, Buddy’s sister. Cushed is a term that defines a lying-down llama, and specifically indicates the folded-leg manner in which llamas rest, close to the earth, without touching their bellies to the dirt. I learned there was a specific term for this unique positioning in the book I’ve been carrying around with me of late: The Camelid Companion: Handling and Training Your Alpacas & Llamas by Marty McGee Bennett. (Which also contains this sage axiom: “The greatest obstacle to good communication is the presumption that it has already occurred.” Clearly, communicating with llamas is not all that different than communicating with anyone else.)
The llamas belong to my children, equal parts pet and 4H project. The llamas took 3rd and 4th prize in the Showmanship Class at the fair before being abandoned to my care by the kids, who have dashed off in search of elephant ears and mechanical bull rides.
At the Multnomah County fair last month I also babysat the llamas while reading and writing, that time with Tracy Dougherty’s much-anticipated Joan Didion biography, The Last Love Song, in hand; I’d been tasked with reviewing it for The Oregonian. I was curled in a camp chair, using one hand to hold open the book, using the other to pet a goat through the open slats in the neighboring pen, when a cry suddenly went up to catch a loose llama. Turns out, Buddy escaped when I became so enchanted by the book that I failed to notice him pestering open the gate that the children had left unlatched in their verve to go snuggle a Sugar Bear. (Google ‘Sugar Bear,’ but only if you’re prepared to fall in love.) Long story short: I returned to the pen with the renegade llama to find a civic-minded passerby engaged in a wrestling match with the goat, who had eaten the cover off of Joan’s/Tracy’s book and was halfway through the first chapter. Goats, unlike llamas, will eat anything. (I later posted a picture of the stubby remnants of the devoured Prologue on my Facebook page, positing that the goat found the book as delectable as I did, and a relative of Joan’s responded to say she would love this story.)
The point of all this? What I clearly should be reading, but am not, is a self-help manual entitled How to Keep Your Children Better Occupied During Summer Break in Order to Get in Some Decent Reading. I’m particularly interested in the chapter, hidden deep within that book, titled “I Thought Farm Life Was Going to Guarantee Me More Time to Read and Write … So What the Hell Went Wrong?”
A free copy of Landfall to the person who can find me that book!
CC: What bit of writing advice do you turn to most often?
EU: I used to think I should have an answer to this question. I used to think I should follow all the advice: That I should write every day. That I should write early in the morning, before doing anything else. That I should make an outline. Or twelve. That I should write drafts and that I should be willing to throw them away and start over and over and over again. (Kill me now.) That I should write background stories for my characters that never show up in the book. That I should throw away my darlings.
But I’m finally able to admit that I don’t have any answers. Not to this question, and not to lots of others. I don’t turn to any writing advice. I do whatever I want, whenever I can, to the best of my ability.
But I do aspire to someday be smart enough and courageous enough to throw away my darlings.
Ellen Urbani is the author of Landfall, a work of historical fiction set in the wake of Hurricane Katrina, and the memoir When I Was Elena, a Book Sense Notable selection documenting her life in Guatemala during the final years of that country’s civil war. She has a bachelor’s degree from The University of Alabama and a master’s degree from Marylhurst University. Her writing has appeared in The New York Times and numerous anthologies, and has been widely excerpted. She’s reviewed books for The Oregonian, served as a federal disaster/trauma specialist, and has lectured nationally on this topic. Her work has been profiled in the Oscar-qualified short documentary film Paint Me a Future. A Southern expat now residing in Oregon, her pets will always be dawgs and her truest allegiance will always reside with the Crimson Tide.
Check Ellen out elsewhere: on Facebook, on Twitter, on Goodreads and Instagram. And remember, a quick comment (emoticons welcome–really, no pressure) enters you into the giveaway! Winner will be chosen on Tuesday, August 18th.