How did you become a writer?
By accident and by yearning, in equal measure. Which is to say that as a young person the things I wrote won some acclaim, which made writing seem like a good fall-back skill, so I put myself through college and such working as a writer for various publications but for whatever reason never considered it my ‘profession.’ I went on to a career in other arenas. These many years later, I’ll say I’m an author if someone asks me what I do — because I have a new book out and it seems a reasonable assessment of my present time investment/commitment — but I also feel that I am just as much a farmer (I own my own tractor and can mow an enviably straight row in a hayfield!) and a mother and a beast-wrangler (dogs, llamas, horses, and the occasional errant guinea pig) as I am a writer. When I sit down to write a book or an essay, I do so only because I am no longer capable of holding the ideas inside me anymore. It’s like my gut has caught on fire and I have to spit the flames out of me onto paper to get any relief. That burning/yearning is the only reason I write.
Name your writing influences (writers, books, teachers, etc.).
I could name a handful of gifted authors — Wallace Stegner, Michael Chabon, Pat Barker, Anne Fadiman — and go on and on about the ways in which their talent captivates and inspires me. But I believe the non-literary lessons of confidence, tenacity, and perseverance have, more than anything else, influenced my writing. My 10th-grade AP English teacher, Dr. Elizabeth Tarner, taught me to believe in myself because she so fiercely believed in me that I couldn’t fathom letting her down. My aunt, Joan Urbani Vance, with the help of her mother Jeannette McSorley Urbani, raised four children on her own while battling mental illness and yet every day found the strength to get out of bed and face the world. The women who sheltered me in Guatemala lived lives rife with poverty and illness and child-loss and violence (domestic, national, racial) but daily laughed and loved anyway. Every one of these women — all of whom have made their way into my books — modeled for me the sort of courage and self-determination that serves me well in my writing and in all the rest of my life.
When and where do you write?
In bed or on the sofa, with my laptop balanced on a pile of throw-pillows. The throw-pillows drive my husband mad, for they are everywhere in our home; enough to make a pile must always be within arm’s-reach.
What are you working on now?
I’m still touring a good deal with Landfall, which came out this summer, and am otherwise working at detaching myself sufficiently from promotions and social media so as to turn my attention to other things. I recently had a personal essay appear in The Rumpus but am focused now on the impending task of churning out a new book of historical fiction … in which my miniature donkeys may very well have a cameo!
Have you ever suffered from writer’s block?
Naturally. I can be a terrible procrastinator, and also, moreover, I find that I tend to write about weighty subjects that I sometimes need to remove myself from for a spell in order to get some emotional or psychological reprieve. I’ve gotten better about allowing myself that distance without ruing it, or feeling guilty about it, as I’ve gotten older.
What’s your advice to new writers?
Ignore all the advice. If you’re inclined to write every day, write every day. If you’re inclined to write only when you feel like it, write then and harvest vegetables or walk your dog or love your spouse or read a book in the other spaces. No one else can tell you how to live your life or express your passions, so stop giving others egress and opportunity to try. Heed the burning in your own gut, and tend your own flames.
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. Her writing has appeared in The New York Times and numerous anthologies, and has been widely excerpted. A Southern expat, she now resides on a farm in Oregon’s Willamette Valley with her family and a passel of barnyard pets.