Marylhurst alum Ellen Urbani ‘96 won several awards for Landfall, her book of historical fiction set in Louisiana during Hurricane Katrina, including the 2016 Maria Thomas Fiction Award from Peace Corps Worldwide.
Ellen Urbani, who traveled to Guatemala in 1991-92 with the Peace Corps, received the 2016 Maria Thomas Fiction Award, named after another Peace Corps author who lost her life in a plane crash while working for a relief agency in Ethiopia. The Peace Corps Writer Awards are an initiative of Peace Corps Worldwide, an organization that publishes and celebrates stories from around the world by Peace Corps volunteers, to “bring the world back home.” Their online magazine is an outgrowth of the print newsletter Peace Corps Writers first published in 1989 to promote, encourage and recognize Peace Corps writers.
In March 2017, Ellen was invited to Cannon Beach to as one of the featured authors in their Northwest Author Series. She shared with their audience the backstory behind Landfall and how she came to tell this particular story.
In the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina, there was an outpouring of support from the volunteer community, with many people traveling to New Orleans and neighboring cities that had welcomed those displaced from their homes. Usually in these situations, Ellen would be among the first to arrive, to help set up evacuee centers and provide mental health care. But she had recently become a mother – her second child – and so traveling to Louisiana was out of the question.
“Hurricane Katrina changed my life in a lot of ways, even though I wasn’t there when it happened. But Katrina was a significant fracture for me in the way it was for a lot of people who survived that storm, in that your life was different the day after the storm than it was the day before,” she said.
Not long after Katrina, Ellen found herself divorced, a single mother with two young children. She left her counseling job. She enjoyed writing (it was therapeutic), and so in a leap of faith she took on writing as a full-time avocation. She began writing her memoir, stories of her years growing up in the South, but her family reacted with unease, so she shelved that idea and shifted to historical fiction. “And that is where Landfall came from.”
It took about two and a half years to complete the book, she said, the first year spent predominantly on research. Landfall follows the journey of two women, both named Rose, showing resiliency in the wake of Hurricane Katrina. “Through the grief came beauty,” she said.
Ellen Urbani earned a master’s degree from Marylhurst University in 1996, studying art therapy and specializing in oncological diseases and trauma survival. Her 2015 book, Landfall, was also named a 2015-16 Great Group Reads by Women’s National Book Association and Book of the Year in Lunel, France.