Ellen Urbani is the author of the newly-released novel Landfall, which takes place during Hurricane Katrina, and is now taking the fiction world by storm.
Ellen is in the middle of an ambitious book tour, but took time to answer questions for Rose City Reader.
When my first book, When I Was Elena, released in March of 2006, I was six weeks into a new and unexpected version of my life: freshly divorced, and on my own with a two-year-old toddler and an eleven-month-old baby. To say that it was an insane time is not hyperbolic, nor does it truly convey the whirlwind nature of traveling across the country on a book tour with little ones while juggling house sales/legal wranglings/relocation back in Portland. I can’t say I recommend such timing, but it did keep my mind focused enough on external events so as to prevent me from wallowing in more emotive concerns.
When I finally resettled myself, I determined that having weathered so many changes already I could tackle a few more, so I decided to leave my medical career and focus on writing. This change allowed me stay productive and intellectually stimulated while still being home with my children during their formative years. It was the most frightening thing I’ve ever done, as it required me to ask for help, accept support, and press forward toward an unknown outcome – none of which appeals to a Type-A planner/organizer like me.
It is really no wonder then, is it?, that in the midst of that moment I wrote a book that features single mothers and girls who leave behind everything they know to venture in the direction of novel – and requisite – possibilities, relying on the goodness of strangers and building community as they go. Landfall is, at heart, a story about chasing hope. In that way, it is as much about me as it is about New Orleans or a hurricane.
Did you know right away, or have an idea, how you were going to end the story? Or did it come to you as you were in the process of writing?
I hate surprises. I absolutely cannot tolerate them – in real life, or in my literary life, apparently.
I wrote the ending of both my books before I wrote the beginnings.
Can you recommend any other books about New Orleans, fiction or nonfiction?
There are many insightful, well-researched books written about Hurricane Katrina and its impact on the Gulf Coast; I list many of them in the Resource Guide at the back of Landfall and also highlighted a number of others in a recent piece for Literary Hub.
But the books that first sold me on the mysticism and history of New Orleans, which I drank up during my college years, were Anne Rice’s. While her Vampire Chronicles, featuring Vampire LeStat, brought her the most acclaim, I also relished The Feast of All Saints for its majestic descriptions of a city I grew to love.
Also, I feel compelled to mention A Confederacy of Dunces by John Kennedy Toole, for it is perhaps the most lauded and acclaimed story set in NOLA. Yet I must admit it is one of the few books I have ever despised – so much so that I can’t even keep a copy of it on my bookshelves, for Ignatius repulses me to such a degree that I can’t share a home with him. Which is exactly how Kennedy Toole meant for me to feel, and it is what makes him such a revered author.
Who are your three (or four or five) favorite authors? Is your own writing influenced by who you read?
I have always been a sucker for the circus. Despite the political incorrectness that has plagued Ringling Brothers for years on end now, the circus still delights me with all the vigor it ever did, and no matter where I am in the world I will race to duck beneath the tent awnings and watch with glee as three rings come alive with color and magic and coordinated fervor. As much as anything, the circus influences my writing.
Those authors I most adore, whose skills I endeavor to emulate, are those who can set three separate rings to spinning in a coordinated fashion: well-developed characters in one sphere, a captivating plot in another, and wordsmithery in the third. Think Michael Chabon, Wallace Stegner, and Pat Barker: ringmasters all, whose love of precise language often forces me to reach for a dictionary with one hand while I flip their pages with the other, who possess a keen understanding of pacing and never forsake character in their storytelling.
Theirs is the greatest show on earth.
What kind of books do you like to read? What are you reading now?
When I am camping, I prefer smart and taut Scandinavian crime novels, for the act of adventuring alone in a dark forest is always heightened when one starts the trip a touch on edge.
In the midst of Oregon’s cold and gloomy winter, when it is pitch black outside by 4pm and a fire is crackling in the hearth, I prefer literary fiction; stories of people whose lives unravel in ways that make my relatives’ conflicts at holiday gatherings seem like simple fare.
When I am barefooted and the scent of fresh hay is carried to me on a mountain breeze, I prefer true-life adventure stories that remind me anything is possible with a stout soul and a Swiss Army knife.
When I am in a hammock: anything at all.
When I was pregnant: Disaster survival and storm survival books. (Had you asked me to explain during my childbearing years why I was drawn to such topics, I couldn’t have told you. Yet neither could I read anything else. These many years later, looking back, the metaphor is so obvious as to cue a laugh track.)
And today: the Ferrante series, I think. For I am beginning to feel left out of the party that is the Neopolitan saga.
You have a terrific website, facebook page, and overall social media presence. From an author's perspective, how important are social networking sites and other internet resources to promote your book?
In our present digital age, I believe all these things are essential to promoting a book. But I’d also say they are addictive, and can be complicit in stealing one’s life. Oddly enough, I find that managing the way my online persona interacts with the virtual world is the most vexing part of present-day publishing for me. I don’t think it is an overstatement to say the online universe is a whole new world, and I recognize that, for me, the building of boundaries and parameters within that world is necessary in order to allow my real and primary world – the one in which I exist with my children and new husband, the one in which I find time to pet my dogs and feed my horses, the one in which I volunteer in my community and consider writing again – to thrive.
You are in the middle of an ambitious book tour. Are you energized or exhausted right now?
Both. In equal measure. But more than energized or exhausted, I am grateful: to the people who helped make my book, to the people who read my book, and for the chance to live the life I chose. I do not fail to notice that mine is a very lucky life, indeed.
What is the most valuable advice you’ve been given as an author?
A gifted editor, Phyllis Hatfield, wrote in the margins of an early draft of Landfall: “When next you are tempted to write a word ending in –ly, please stop yourself. I can’t bear any more.”
I love her for that.
What’s next? Are you working on your next book?
I’m not sure what’s next, exactly. Which is to say I’ll try to keep being a good mother, a loving wife, a decent farmer, a happy pet owner, a loyal daughter and sister, an attentive friend, a world adventurer, and a documenter of my experiences. Maybe that will result in another book. But I’m not yet ready to place any bets in that regard.
LANDFALL IS PUBLISHED BY FOREST AVENUE PRESS AND IS AVAILABLE FROM POWELL'S, AMAZON, OR ASK YOUR LOCAL BOOKSTORE TO ORDER IT!