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WL author wrote "Landfall," a novel set in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina



TIDINGS PHOTO: VERN UYETAKE - Ellen Urbani started working on Landfall in 2007, but a series of life-changing events delayed its eventual publishing until this past summer.Back in 2007, when West Linn resident Ellen Urbani was in the midst of writing her debut novel “Landfall,” she likes to say that she lived her life amid Post-It notes.

Her life at the time was a blur — light on sleep and heavy on stress. Freshly divorced, Urbani was a single mother of two young children, and when she decided to write “Landfall” it was not out of passion but necessity.

“I needed to produce something,” Urbani said. “I needed to provide for my kids and me. I sort of figured I had to save us; I had to make it happen.”

And so Urbani carried Post-It notes everywhere — the diaper bag, her jogging stroller, toy chests — to document her ideas for the book. Then, from 9 to 11 a.m. on Tuesdays and Thursdays — while the kids were in preschool — Urbani would collect all of the Post-It notes at the edge of her bed, sort them out and begin writing.

“It was a very bizarrely focused time,” Urbani said. “I’m not prone to just sitting down and working.”

But as Urbani likes to say, “Necessity is the mother of all sorts of good things,” and the end result was a book that has been praised as “an amazing and original piece of literature” according to a review. Set in New Orleans and Tuscaloosa, Alabama, the book details the saga of two teenagers in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina, and was released this past summer on the 10th anniversary of the storm.

The timing might have been perfect, but Urbani certainly didn’t plan it that way. After just about two and a half years of writing and editing, Urbani was getting ready to look for a publisher when she met her soon-to-be husband, Steve, in 2009.

They were married in 2010, and suddenly Urbani’s life had changed on a dime. Steve was “an Oregon farm boy at heart,” and the family decided to move out to the rural Stafford area. They bought a large property and have spent the past five years farming and building a brand new home, which they moved into this past summer.

All the while, “Landfall” was shelved — a promising but incomplete project.

“I didn’t need the book to save me anymore,” Urbani said. “So it just got set aside while I focused on this new life of mine.”

But Urbani has never been one to not finish a project, and she knew she would return to “Landfall” as soon as she had the time.

“Last summer (in 2014), I knew we’d be moving into the house this summer, so I could see this light on the edge of the horizon,” Urbani said. By her math, she figured she would need at least two years to sell the book — by which point she would be settled into the new home.

Yet as it turned out, in the fall of 2014 the book was purchased by the very first publisher Urbani approached: Laura Stanfill of the Portland-based Forest Avenue Press. Soon thereafter, Urbani and Stanfill agreed that the book should be fast-tracked for a release coinciding with the 10-year anniversary of Hurricane Katrina.

“So it was an insane year,” Urbani said. “I was still building the house, we were still living in a trailer (on the property). So I put my kids to bed at 9 and then I’d work until 3 or 4 in the morning getting edits done and such. Last September I probably averaged three hours of sleep a night — but for a good cause.”

The end product is a work of fiction that is nonetheless informed by a web of personal experiences. After growing up in Virginia, Urbani attended the University of Alabama in Tuscaloosa. Beyond her geographical connection to the area, Urbani also spent 15 years as a grief counselor and had personal experience working with the Oregon Medical Disaster Team as well as the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA).

“In choosing to set the book in the wake of a massive natural disaster, I could bring all of that grief work and the trauma counseling to bear on that story,” Urbani said. “I feel like it gave me a perspective that allowed me to be very well-informed ... and it was something I could bring to the telling of that story that I don’t think we’d heard much of.”

Having already written a memoir, “When I Was Elena,” about her time as a Peace Corps volunteer in Guatemala, Urbani had originally intended to write another work of nonfiction with stories about her family.

“But my family was none too pleased with that idea,” she said. “The joke is, my family wouldn’t let me tell the truth, so I had to go make something up. In choosing to use fiction, I could sort of tell the family stories I wanted to but do it in a fictional manner, a narrative manner.”

Her own family experiences, in other words, are reflected in the stories told in “Landfall.”

The end result was a book that has been well-received across the country — most importantly in the region that was so devastated by the storm in 2005. Urbani and her family traveled to Tuscaloosa and New Orleans this past summer as part of a three-legged book tour, and she was relieved to hear from readers who were impressed with the book’s authenticity (one of the two main characters is an African-American teenager).

“People say, ‘You so often write from the perspective of someone very different from yourself — how does that work?’” Urbani said. “To me, the greatest things the arts does for us is give us a chance to imagine worlds beyond the ones we’re familiar with. Do we really want for white women to only ever write about the experiences of white women? Or black men to only ever write about the experiences of black men? That’s so insular, that creates distance between us — it doesn’t create community.

“That probably was the most heartening thing about that tour, to be moving through the area most affected by all of the experiences I wrote about and have people say, ‘I don’t know how you did it but you got it right.’”

To learn more or buy the book, visit ellenurbani.com. The book is also available at local booksellers and Amazon.

Writer’s workshop at library

On Tuesday, Nov. 10, Urbani will host a writer’s workshop as well as a question and answer session on “Landfall” at the West Linn Public Library.

The workshop, which focuses on essay writing, will run from 4 to 6 p.m., followed by the question and answer event at 6:30 p.m.

“I’ll probably read a little from the book, talk about why I wrote it, do a Q&A about publishing, ‘Landfall,’ the hurricane — see what people are interested in,” Urbani said.

The event is open to the public, and registration for the writing workshop is not required. Learn more at westlinnoregon.gov/library/essay-writing-workshop and westlinnoregon.gov/library/author-talk-ellen-urbani.

Urbani is also taking part in the "50 in '15" book club challenge, with the hopes of hearing from at least one book club in every state.

Clubs that sign up to read "Landfall" will enjoy author participation (by Skype or in person) among other perks. Register at ellennurbani.com; the deadline to register is Dec. 31.

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