Author Interview: Ellen Urbani

Books In Common asked Ellen Urbani, author of Landfall, a few questions about her just-published book and her experience at literary events. Landfall was released August 11, 2015, and follows the path of two young girls as they deal with the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina in New Orleans, La.

What inspired you to write this story?

When I lived in Guatemala at the end of that country’s civil war, in the early 1990s, the husband of one of my dearest friends disappeared. Like thousands of others, he was one of the Los Desaparecidos (The Disappeared Ones): villagers abducted by government forces in

retribution for their allegiance to the resistance. A short time later, military troops returned for his sons, to forcibly enlist them in the state-sponsored army. I hid the boys in a small storeroom in my home as soldiers ransacked the town, and my house, in search of them, at one point passing within inches of the children’s hiding place. The story of that experience is detailed in my memoir When I Was Elena. Many years later, after I’d returned to life stateside and Hurricane Katrina hit the Gulf Coast, reports of vast numbers of missing citizens quickly wafted out of the South. I couldn’t help thinking about my Guatemalan friend and her family, and was overcome with empathy for the families of Katrina’s ‘desaparecidos,’ 705 of whom are still classified as missing these 10 years later. From that place of empathy, Landfall grew.

Would you share some notable experiences you’ve had at your speaking events?

After my first book released some years ago, I traveled back to one of the cities where I’d designed a counseling program for childhood cancer patients and their families. When I took the stage and turned to the audience, I discovered a whole handful of my former patients, now grown up, crowded into the front row with their parents and siblings. All smiling, all together, all alive. As I made my way through their ranks afterward, hugging and reconnecting with each, I expressed my glee at this surprise encounter. ‘But this is how it should be,’ one mother said to me. ‘We have come to support you, as you once supported us.’ I shall never forget the beauty of that night; I shall never have to. Many of those families have stayed in touch and have already contacted me to let me know they will be there again when I set off on tour with Landfall. Good stuff, that.

What are some of the teachable moments in your book that make it work well for a speaking engagement?

Landfall is set in the wake of Hurricane Katrina, the greatest environmental disaster in U.S. history, a storm that touched nearly every American citizen in one way or another. In examining the ways the people of New Orleans and the larger Gulf Coast responded to the calamity, pooled their assets, asked for and accepted help from outside sources, and rebuilt their towns, we see a model of community-building and resource management translatable to settings as varied as schools, workplaces and neighborhoods. Chock-full of characters rebounding from the more private disasters to which most of us can relate — car accidents, poverty, personal assault, family illness — the choices faced by Landfall’s protagonists set the stage for conversations focused on psychological resilience and the ways in which we can and must rally personal resources to weather storms of all sorts in our private lives. Additionally, by honestly confronting issues of racism in America through the intersection of two mother/daughter pairs — one Caucasian, one African-American — Landfall invites a conversation about culture, bias, and empathy that is both timely and essential for any audience.


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