One of my student's favourite assignments in my course Lit Mag Love is the interview with a writer they admire. Here is an outstanding example of this. Hege Anita Jakobsen Lepri gets over her "literary penis envy" (as only she can put it) and talks to Debbie Urbanski, a writer she greatly admires. Read on...
Debbie Urbanski is a writer living in Syracuse, New York. She writes fiction, nonfiction and poetry—and even ventures into speculative fiction. Her work focuses on aliens, marriage, cults, belief, and family, or some combination of those themes. I discovered her when I stumbled upon her blog while researching writers retreats, and I have since seen her work in many of the publications I love, The Sun, Kenyon Review, The Rumpus, Joyland, Orion, Brain Child, Room, to name a few.
So you may say Debbie Urbanski has been my trigger point for literary “penis envy,” for a while now. This interview was my excuse to finally get to know her after spying on her online for at least a couple of years.
In April I read her essay in The Sun, “A List My Utopias,” where she pushes the boundaries between fiction and nonfiction and challenges conventional storytelling structures. I wanted to learn more about how that essay found its form.
1) In "A list of my utopias" you weave in and out of imagined, alternative lives of the characters in the essay, and observations of their actual, experienced lives. Can you say something about how you landed at this framing mechanism?
A poet in my writing group had written a poem imagining all the sad real things her mom's utopia would not contain (bad jobs, a car that breaks down, etc.). I told my friend, why not write about the good things you wish you could put into your mom's utopia? I just thought that impulse, to imagine or build a utopia for our parents, was so powerful and beautiful. My friend said no thanks, that wasn't the poem she wanted to write, so I decided to take my own advice, and imagine how I would build perfect worlds for the people in my life who I love. I've never been totally comfortable or interested in straight forward nonfiction or memoir writing, but there is some stuff in my life I'd like to write about, so this seemed a good compromise, mixing the imagined and the unimagined.
2) The essay seems to be a deliberate attempt at mixing fiction (the fictional lives the narrator describes) and nonfiction. Was this choice driven by a desire to mix genres, or was it the material itself that "forced" your hand?
The essay was an experiment: can I find a way to write creative nonfiction in a way that interests me as a writer and also makes me feel like I'm not selling my own soul or the souls of my family? I've written a few small essays about parenting that are very straight forward, and afterwards, when they were published, something about it just felt wrong. I felt like I had to simplify the situation for it to remain factually true. I also felt uncomfortable about writing about my son in a way that was so transparently real. Though the utopia essay is very personal, at the same time the somewhat heightened language and the structure allowed me to take a step back and feel like I was transcending the personal and just writing about these very strong emotional truths.
3) Some parts of the essay seem to reveal very personal truths about significant people around you. How do you navigate the difficult terrain around the privacy of your family in your writing? Did the blending of utopia and reality make it easier or harder to deal with these issues?
I often think of this great quote by Sally Mann, who published those gorgeous and somewhat controversial photographs of her children in the 1980’s: "the fact is that these are not my children. They are figures on silvery paper slivered out of time. They represent my children at a fraction of a second on one particular afternoon with infinite variables of light, expression, posture, muscle, tension, mood, wind, and shade." That's how I feel too.
Three other thoughts:
I read this utopia piece recently aloud in a small reading, and that didn't feel totally right. It felt much more confessional than I wanted it to. I think it works better with actual page between the reader and writer.
Also, not using the names of the people in this essay -- using their archetypical titles, my son, my husband, my mother -- made a big difference in allowing me to write as personally as I did. In one of those straightforward nonfiction essays I mentioned above, the editor told me I should use my son's name instead of calling him “my son,” so in the final draft, I did, and it felt so wrong, like the experience had been narrowed and was now over-specific and overly personal.
Lastly, I do think each writer who wants to write about their life and the people in it will need to find their own comfort zone and their own sense of ethics. I do feel like I own my observations and my interactions and my interpretations. Maybe it's because I haven't had the easiest life (who has honestly?). And if I began to think that some of those tough experiences that I went through belonged to the other people in the memory or scene, or if I owed those people something, such as silence, or if I was worried what would happen if I wrote about my version of the truth....I think that would be very disempowering and unfortunate.
4) You are a frequent contributor to The Sun (at least for the time I've been a subscriber). Can you say something about your history with this magazine? When did they publish their first piece by you? Was that your first submission to them? How much editing and discussion goes into the process after acceptance? Have you developed a personal relationship with the editors?
Do you have any advice for other writers submitting to The Sun?
The Sun published my first story back in 2003. I was studying poetry in grad school at the time, and the story the Sun picked up was my first try at fiction in a really long while. They chose that piece out of the slush pile. I think that's huge, that they read the slush pile with interest and respect. So many magazines that pay well with larger subscription bases treat slush piles with disdain. I sent them a few pieces over the next decade, and got some nice feedback but no acceptances, then, in 2015, they accepted my second story. I had experience publishing with quite a few places in the gap between 2003-2015, so this time I was able to be fully aware how special The Sun was. Publishing several pieces with them in 2015/2016 was such a positive experience that I decided, for the most part, to have them be the first place I send my work to if I think it's a good fit. They edit stories heavily and they do ask for extensive revisions. This is very different from many literary journals, even the bigger ones. But I also feel they care so deeply about what they publish, and I love that they're interested in building ongoing lasting relationships with their writers. I've come to think publishing with them is a collaborative effort, and certain stories have felt more like shared visions. But I've always been proud of the finished pieces. And then The Sun readership! They have the most amazing readers. Often, being published in a literary journal can mean radio silence, but with The Sun, I always hear such heartfelt and personal replies from readers. Their readers seem to read the magazine with open minds and open hearts. One reader even sent me these amazing woodcarvings in response to a story.
As for advice: it'd be the same advice for any magazine. Read the magazine, first, to see what they like (I have been impressed at the range of what The Sun is interested in publishing). Then submit. Do not take any rejections personally. Keep trying.
5) Not really a question (or only partly a question). You are one of the few writers I've encountered to openly share your time between genre writing and "pure" literary writing. I love the category you created--"slow paced genre realism"--and feel that finally captures what I want to do with the "genre" part of my own writing (crime). Can you say something about going back and forth between genre - and literary writing?
I think part of my willingness or interest to write both literary genre and also straightforward literary stories comes from the fact that I really, really love reading both types of writing. I love Alice Munro, and Chekov, and Joy Williams, just as much as I love Margaret Atwood, and Molly Gloss, and Octavia Butler, and Ray Bradbury, and feel like both types of authors are totally necessary to the world. Lately I have been writing more speculative stories, but I did just finish a longer story that is 100% realistic. I wanted to write about the time right after the presidential election, and it seemed like there was enough going on during that time without any genre stuff entering in. It actually was a great exercise, and maybe one I'd recommend to any genre writer -- can you still sustain a story, and plot, and character, without anything magical or supernatural and alien-like happening? I felt very naked as a writer, I have to say. It was really hard and satisfying, and it helped remind me of the importance of the small gestures of a character, or the micro-descriptions of the landscape, stuff that can sometimes be overlooked in typical genre writing. That said, I'm working on a string of genre pieces now, but then I'll probably take a break and write something realistic afterwards.