Debbie Urbanski writes with raw honesty about the choices we make as individuals and as a species. She examines the vulnerability of a woman who discovers she has inherited a BRCA1 breast cancer mutation (herself) and the fate of a planet whose inhabitants continue to make choices that are not sustainable.
And she does all of this with a sense of humor.
Urbanski has been published in dozens of magazines and literary journals since 2003. Several of her short stories and essays have won awards and have been selected for “Best of” anthologies. Her first novel, “What Comes After the End,” will be published next year by Pantheon Books.
Urbanski calls her fiction “speculative,” rather than applying a label of science fiction or fantasy. She also writes essays on climate change, species extinction, nature and her own physical and mental health.
She is a regular contributor to The Sun magazine, including her recent essay, “Inheritance,” about inheriting a mutation of the BRCA1 tumor suppressor gene, which increases the risk of breast and ovarian cancer. Urbanski’s grandmothers and an aunt died of cancer, the oldest at age 61. Two of them had a variant, or mutation. In the essay, Urbanski writes about the emotional and physical toll of learning of her “inheritance” and her decision to undergo major surgeries.
Urbanski and her husband, Harold, and their two children (Jasper, 14, and Stella, 11) live in Syracuse, N.Y. Jim McKeever visited with Urbanski on the family’s backyard deck. Here are excerpts from that conversation, and from follow-up e-mails.
Q. Why don’t we start with your novel coming out next year, the whole process?
A. I’m editing now. I’ve been working on it seven, maybe eight years. Some parts of it have been published in The Sun — apocalyptic, environmental climate change stories, and the same characters are the people in the novel. It takes place in the future and I’m imagining humans going extinct as a solution to climate change. And it’s told backwards. There’s A.I. (artificial intelligence), as narrator, so there’s a lot going on.
Q. What was the germ of it? You delve into sci-fi a lot, and children are probably part of it.
A. I love apocalyptic fiction just as a reader, but I think what always frustrated me was the entertainment value in it. I mean I love getting lost in heroic stories of the end of the world and survival, but I was interested in a non-heroic story. Humans are such a small part, a speck in the big picture. All species eventually go extinct, so that got me thinking, what if that happens sooner? And then I started reading more and more about climate change and species extinction, and started questioning whether we should prioritize humans vs. other species when we’re thinking about climate change.
Q. In your non-fiction, you put yourself out there as far as vulnerability, your family and physical and mental health. That’s really courageous.
A. I guess I feel like the mental health stuff, the depression, also for the BRCA1 mutation and the surgeries I went through, I feel like that’s important to try and verbalize or get out there. I wish there were more writers that I could have seen being OK on medication. I Googled and I looked and I looked, but I think a lot of writers are still uncomfortable about it. I myself was really uncomfortable about it.
And with the BRCA1 stuff, it’s kind of the same, it’s still kind of new, they’re testing more and more. I don’t see a lot of essays, there’s a lot of articles that are helpful, but it’s not about the emotional experience. Those topics felt important. That said, it is weird having that stuff published. Writing it is one thing, and realizing people are reading it, it’s different for non-fiction. I think the hardest part was going through it, to be honest, so writing gave me some nice closure.
Q. I detect some humor in your writing, self-deprecating or dark humor. Like when you broke your leg in a fall in the Adirondacks. I confess I laughed out loud at, “I asked my husband to shoot me. We didn’t have a gun, of course. All we had was Advil.” Where does that come from?
A. Good, I’m glad that comes through. I think partially the topics I write about are pretty dark most of the time, so I also think looking back at a lot of moments, they’re so surreal they are kind of funny. I jot them down. I can’t believe we actually said this stuff, but we did. The humor I think comes from it being surprising or weird or strange, so I don’t do it intentionally. I think it’s just how things in retrospect feel and sound.
Q. We have to laugh at ourselves occasionally.
A. Yeah, yeah, in some of the pieces about the BRCA1 stuff, I had my dead relatives come and question, “Why are you writing about yourself so much?” and the question about why I was making my — I was calling it suffering, and they’re like, “Whatever, that’s not even close to what we experienced,” so it gave me an opportunity to have a little voice in my head come out, in a funny way maybe.
Q. There’s a character Dana in one of your apocalyptic stories who has to record everything. She’s the witness, and it doesn’t matter if anyone else gets to read it. You obviously have an audience, but why do you do this?
A. I feel like often I find holes in genres or in stories. I’m interested in what I feel is missing. That’s why I’m interested in genres, in science fiction, fantasy. The idea of portals (temporary passages to another world) fascinated me for a while — what if somebody never gets to see those? It’s so often a story of someone who goes through a portal, what about the people left behind? Or can’t find their portal. That’s a fantastical example.
I guess some of my non-fiction, like the BRCA stuff, I feel I want more about the experience to be out there so if people go through it they feel like other people have gone through it as well.
With my novel — why am I writing my novel? (laughs) We hike a lot. I care very deeply for the forests around here, and other species. I do hope the novel gets people to think. I hope they also enjoy it as a novel, but I would love for someone to think about, “Are these the right choices we should be making for the entire earth rather than just ourselves?”
Q. I don’t know if you want to delve into the political realm right now. I saw in one interview, your concern about the rise of right-wing extremists out there …
A. I wrote a short story (“Long May My Land Be Bright,” in the New England Review) about envisioning the country as having two presidents. There was an even-day president and an odd-day president and the country splits off. It’s very fantastical. Your neighbor could be an “oddist,” I called it, and they have to pretend to be an “evenist” on even days. Eventually these rifts, these holes in the ground, started opening around neighborhoods and in cities and they got so wide people couldn’t cross them. So I guess that describes my feeling about what is happening. I love thinking of it as a physical distance between each other.
Q. In a 2018 interview about the writing process, you were asked how you know when you’re done. I think your answer was something like revise, revise, revise and if you reach a point where it seems like “I didn’t write the words at all, that these words have always been this way,” that’s when you know it’s finished. I found that fascinating.
A. It’s kind of magical when that happens.
Q. Does it happen every time?
A. Usually I don’t have actual deadlines, so this (the novel) is a weird experience for me. Generally I’m writing essays or short stories and I send them out so I can take as long as I want on them. I have the luxury of going over and over and over them until everything is like I want it. So it has happened. At The Sun they do a lot of editing, they send back their edits and when I’m reviewing them I think, “I would never have said that, had written it that way,” and I assume they changed it, but no actually I wrote it and I just forgot that I had. I hope it’ll happen with this novel.
Q. Your background and education — you’re from Minnesota?
A. I was born in Chicago. We lived in a suburb growing up, I moved to Minnesota for college where I met my husband. We went to Minneapolis for a couple of years and moved out here to go to grad school (she has an MFA from Syracuse University’s creative writing program). We co-own a letterpress business, Boxcar Press, so the presses moved with us and were in our house for a while. I ended up working with Boxcar Press during grad school instead of teaching. I ended up working with my husband for a long time after I graduated before I decided to write more and spend more time with the kids.
Q. Do you want to talk about the pandemic, and the effect on your writing, your life?
A. Our letterpress shop prints wedding invitations and nobody was getting married. There were a lot of scary things about the pandemic for a lot of reasons, but one of them was watching businesses really dwindling to nothing until the government was able to step in with all the loans and support. I’m a writer and I sold my book, but we still need our business to survive. So that was stressful. I did try writing in that time, when I was really stressed and nervous and wondering whether our livelihood was going to go away.
I remember walking with my daughter — we go on a lot of walks together — and we were walking maybe a day or two after things shut down and there were no cars on the street. We were walking down the middle of the road, no people, it really felt post-apocalyptic. Whenever I saw somebody I was so grateful somebody else was out there. But people are getting married again and the business is more stable, and the kids went back to school, the vaccines, things are feeling more normal.
Q. I remember one of your stories, it was in the Sun in 2019 and has to do with a virus —
A. — That’s my book!
Q. So you were prescient in regard to that. Did you think about that once COVID hit?
A. Everybody’s going to think I wrote (the novel) in reaction to COVID, right? But it is amazing how I feel like lot of novels and movies that are post-apocalyptic kind of nailed how things were slowly falling apart. I’m glad they stopped, in the books they keep falling. But at that beginning stage, they really understand what it’s like even though they imagined it.
Q. I started following you on Instagram. Does photography serve a particular purpose for you, as a human being or as a writer?
A. Lately I’ve been interested in trying to identify plants and insects since I got a macro lens. I love just putting the camera with the macro lens on the ground and taking pictures to kind of see what things look like down there.
Q. I saw some of your photos of ants and dandelions.
A. l feel kind of bad about the ant thing. I really want to write more about the environmental landscape, I feel like such an intruder sometimes — here I was lifting up this pot and then the ants had their eggs, some stage of eggs, they were trying to save the little white things, so it really disturbs them and I did it to get a picture.
I’m interested in the kind of choices people and companies are making on a larger level. It’s just me and my backyard and my ants, but a lot of times people make the same choices with bigger repercussions. So with photography I guess I’m excited by looking at things close up. I had no idea dandelions are so beautiful, or anything when you look at it close up.
Q. Are you optimistic about the way things are going, pessimistic, or do you go back and forth about our society, our planet?
A. I think I’m more — rather than optimistic or pessimistic, it’s more maybe just a sense of acceptance that (pause) I’m not sure I want to say it, I don’t think things will go great for the planet.
I think we’re prioritizing humans over natural spaces, over other species. I feel like there’s going to be a lot of extinctions. And I think that’s going to be a huge loss. All the stuff I’ve read, it’s about how we can keep our lives as close to how they are now, how can we use technology to make our impact less but still have everything we have now. I feel like there’s not a discussion about the radical changes we would need. I feel terrible saying that. So I don’t know … I think there’ll always be dandelions (laughs) and ants. They’re amazing! Maybe there will be a lot of loss, but we’ll find some new forms of nature.
Jim McKeever is a co-founder of Sense of Decency. In the spirit of the quirky biography blurbs published by The Sun magazine, Urbanski would someday like to eat the ripe fruit of a mayapple, and she recently learned that everything is beautiful when looked at close up (except, perhaps, jelly fungus.)