Ellen Urbani – Landfall
Ellen Urbani’s debut novel Landfall pits two adolescent girls against myriad dangers, both physical and psychological, all set in motion by the disastrous experience of Hurricane Katrina. Drawing from harrowing events documented about post-Katrina New Orleans and her own experience in the treatment of trauma survivors, Urbani follows Rose and Rosy as they navigate the wreckage of their lives.
Urbani’s first book, the memoir When I Was Elena, chronicled her years as a member of the Peace Corps living in war-ravaged Guatemala. After returning stateside, she trained as an art therapist, focusing on the effects of oncological illness and trauma. This expertise led to work as a consultant for the U.S. Department of Homeland Security and the Annenberg Center for Health Science Research. Having spent her early years in the South, Urbani now lives with her family on a working farm outside Portland.
EMILY CHOATE: In several ways, Landfall’s two main characters, Rose and Rosy, would seem to be colliding from opposite sides of the Hurricane Katrina disaster. How did these two distinct young women take shape as characters?
ELLEN URBANI: Such a seemingly simple question requires a bit of a roundabout tour to get to the answer.
My children, who were nine and ten at the time I sold the manuscript, were in the room with me when I took a call from my publisher, Laura Stanfill of Forest Avenue Press, at the moment she proposed the word that became the title of the book. I’d had a couple working titles, but none of them ever felt right, and when Laura acquired my manuscript our first task was conceiving of a new title for it. She and I made list upon list of potential titles, all of which I rejected; I knew I’d recognize the title when we landed on it, and I knew we hadn’t done so yet. As it happened, it was hurricane season, and Laura was listening to the radio while brainstorming titles when the announcer cut in to say a hurricane was about to make landfall on a U.S. territory. She immediately reached for the phone. “Landfall!” she said, and there it was.
When I hung up the phone, my children initiated the barrage of questions familiar to any parent of young ones: “Who were you talking to? Why did you keep saying ‘landfall’ over and over? And what does landfall mean, anyway?”
I explained that landfall is the moment when a mighty storm over the sea comes aground. It is the moment when elements that typically abide and operate in separate realms collide—air, water, and land crash together—and it is, as such, the most dangerous moment in a hurricane. It is the moment when most things are destroyed, and lives flipped upside down. I explained to them that landfall is typically the moment to which survivors refer when saying, “From that point forward, my whole world changed.” But I said, too, that out of the destruction of landfall, resurrection happens: people return to an altered landscape, they rebuild, they reconnect.
In a tightly controlled and ordered environment, the land and the sea—like the two main characters in Landfall—reside in separate domains. But as you note, the storm commingled not just the elements but the lives of these two girls as well. The hurricane’s landfall mirrors their own: drawn together from opposing poles, from different cultures, in a literal and figurative collision. That storm-mirroring was the metaphor from which the two characters grew. As for their development, I felt that as Rose and Rosy grew into fully formed people-on-paper they became, in many ways, a reflection of different pieces of myself. While I didn’t consciously set out to do so, I realized rather quickly that I what I’d done as I wrote was to give much of my heart to Rosy, and much of my head to Rose.
EC: As someone who has worked extensively in the world of art therapy, with a focus on survivors of trauma, how did you bring this training to bear on the experiences of Landfall’s characters?
EU: I have long been comfortable in the company of the dead and the dying; the end of life does not scare me as it does so many. (One of my childhood playmates, whom I hadn’t seen in decades, showed up at one of my book tour events. He says he remembers a large box in my basement where I interred myself, calling it my coffin. I don’t recall being such a weird child—and I’d like to think I wasn’t!—but one’s self-assessment is infrequently an accurate measure of character.) I suspect this familiarity with death and loss may have made it easier for me to immerse myself in the truly horrific stories of Hurricane Katrina that might have overwhelmed some others, and it certainly helped me understand and empathize with the psychosocial repercussions of the scenes within which I placed my characters. The single-minded focus (some might say obsession) driving Rose and Rosy in the wake of their significant traumas is a universal phenomenon, as are the heightened emotional responses and outsized imaginings both girls exhibit. Having seen this at play so often in the lives of my patients and clients, I hope I was able to gift their insights to the characters in my book.
EC: Given how complex and heartbreaking these events are for the people of New Orleans, did you have trepidations about coming to this story as an outsider?
EU: Initially—way back when I got the original itch to write Landfall—it didn’t occur to me to avoid telling this story simply because I hadn’t been there when it happened. But then again, neither did it occur to me to question Tony Doerr’s tackling of a WWII story simply because he didn’t live in France during those battles, or Nathaniel Philbrick’s authority to write In the Heart of the Sea despite the fact that he, himself, wasn’t on the whaleship Essex. The task of an author of historical narrative is, first and foremost, to be a studious researcher. And I love research.
But I must admit that your question gave me pause the closer I got to New Orleans on tour last month. Like everyone else, I am subject to the full range of human emotions, and I worried about how a story written by a girl who no longer lived in the South would be accepted by those who had personal investment in, and experience of, the events I limned. Would they show up to support me? Would they like me? Would they accept my work or would they charge me with ‘stealing’ their story?
I need not have worried so. With the grace and good humor with which New Orleanians approach everything from hurricanes to potholes, people all over the South welcomed me home. I preempted the question you’ve laid before me by offering up this rationale, learned in my work with people in grief and trauma: sometimes it takes a person unrelated to an incident, someone without emotional attachment to a story or a memory, to summarize it in a way that pulls together the multiple truths and perspectives of the people who lived it. I asked people to judge the book less by the hometown of its author and more by its authenticity: Did I get it right? Did I nail the details and experience of their storm?
Many Katrina survivors apologized to me for not having finished the book before I visited—which is, of course, not necessary! But they all had the same reasoning. To a person, each said that she had to pause in her reading because the book resurrected so many buried memories of the storm and her experience of surviving it. “It’s so authentic and true,” each said, “that I have to take it more slowly than I would another book.” Which is the highest praise, and greatest reassurance of a job well done, that any author could possibly hope for. I was equally honored when a former member of the Times-Picayune staff—a group of journalists who won multiple Pulitzers for their evenhanded reporting of Katrina and didn’t miss a single day of filing stories even when their newsroom flooded and their presses were underwater—said to me, “You got this story exactly right.”
EC: Rose and Rosy are both daughters of single mothers, but these two pairs have radically different relationships. The particular ways in which mothers and daughters communicate (or fail to communicate) feel deeply important to the progression of the novel. Was that an integral element in creating these two girls’ inner lives?
As a daughter, and as a mother to a daughter (hell: as a person in relationship with any other person) I am intensely aware of the ways in which one party’s intentions can be wildly misinterpreted by another. What is meant as a gift can be received with acrimony; a kindness not fully considered can transmit cruelty instead of care. I explore this concept in short form in an essay about my sister and me that appeared in the New York Times earlier this year [linked below].
I knew with absolute certainty from day one that this degree of miscommunication and misunderstanding would also play an essential part in Landfall; not only in the inner lives of Rose and Rosy, but in the plot itself.
EC: In your previous book, When I Was Elena, you explored your Peace Corps experiences during a period of dangerous upheaval in Guatemala, writing not only in your own voice, but also in the voices of several Guatemalan women you met. Did that method of memoir writing naturally lead you toward fiction?
EU: Until you asked this question, I had never considered such a thing. But reading this, the way you put it, the possibility certainly makes sense. Had you merely asked “Why did you decide to write fiction?” I’d have told you that I never intended to do so. I wanted to write a book of family stories, as I prefer to write about truths that are known to me. But when I told my family members of my intention … how to put this? … let’s just say it’s a good thing there wasn’t a gibbet nearby. As such, because the truth was barred to me, I had to go and make something up.
In structuring Landfall, I deliberately decided to alternate point of view/perspective between the two young female protagonists in much the same way that I alternated chapters in When I Was Elena, wherein stories written from my perspective were always followed by stories written from the perspective of other women. I find that technique intriguing—this volleying serves as a constant reminder to me that we are best served if we can refrain from choosing sides, and instead hold ourselves open to hearing the same story told in a different way from alternate players.
EC: When crafting fiction from well-documented events like these, how much leeway do you think is appropriate? How do you approach these decisions responsibly?
EU: I can’t speak to how other authors of historical fiction choose to include, or deviate from, the facts of actual events, as I believe there is likely a great amount of discrepancy from one work to the next in that regard. However, I can tell you that I committed myself to building the framework of my story from true events, and adapted my fictional characters to those truths instead of the other way around. As such, I spent the first year of work on Landfall researching the city and the storm (to such a degree that I could have told you from which direction the wind was blowing, and at what speed, at any given moment on August 28 and 29, 2005). Then I melded my primary fictional characters into the structure, and let their stories weave around verifiable, actual events. Most of the tertiary characters—politicians, preachers, neighbors—are real people whose real names are used, and quotes from those people are quotes pulled from actual news sources. There is only one circumstance in which I knowingly altered a fact to suit my story, and that is in regard to the imprisonment of Rosy’s mother in the makeshift jail that sprung up in New Orleans at the Greyhound/train station post-hurricane. In Landfall, I have the jail operating a few days earlier than it did in reality. That alteration is noted in the Reference section at the back of the book.
EC: What can you tell us about where your writing life is heading next?
EU: If I can get away with it, I suspect I’ll circle back to memoir next. For the past four years, my husband and children and I have been building a farm and home for ourselves on acreage in Oregon, and that process—during which we lived in a mobile home in a hay field while building our house by hand—has been full enough of drama and hilarity and inanity to fill at least one book. Sneak peek:
Yep. Those are llamas. In my minivan.
Purchase a copy of Landfall at Indiebound and a portion of the purchase price will support Late Night Library.
Check out Ellen’s Modern Love essay in the New York Times (referenced above).
Ellen Urbani is the author of Landfall (Forest Avenue Press) and When I Was Elena (2006, The Permanent Press), a BookSense Notable selection. 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. A Southern expat now residing in Oregon, her pets will always be dawgs and her truest allegiance will always reside with the Crimson Tide. Learn more at ellenurbani.com.
Emily Choate holds an MFA from Sarah Lawrence College. Her writing appears or is forthcoming in The Florida Review, Chapter 16, The Double Dealer, Yemassee, Nashville Scene, and elsewhere. Her short fiction is a runner-up in the 2014 William Faulkner-William Wisdom Competition, and she has held writer’s residencies at Kimmel Harding Nelson Center for the Arts and Vermont Studio Center. Emily lives in Nashville, where she’s working on a novel.