A Writer’s Insight: Debbie Urbanski

Debbie Urbanski’s story “Are You Ready to Go” appears in the spring 2018 issue of The Southern Review. Here, she discusses her writing as a way of finding truth during difficult times, her process of translating experience into fiction, and the years of work it took to bring this story to the page.

Garrett Hazelwood: “Are You Ready to Go” is part of a series, along with two other stories that were previously published in Kenyon Review and The Sun. Can you tell us about how these stories came to be? What was the original impetus behind them? Did you conceive of this as a multipart project from the beginning?

Debbie Urbanski: I started taking notes for these stories when I was going through a rough time (that is a euphemism) with my son several years ago. I was having so many strong emotions about motherhood then: I have no idea what I’m doing; I’m not cut out for this; I am not the right parent for my child; I want my life back; somebody help me. Did my son actually need me? Or was my presence making the situation worse? All the while, my son was obviously suffering too, because my husband and I weren’t giving him what he needed, because we didn’t understand what he needed—it was a mess that was gradually destroying my marriage and my life. Taking notes became a way of surviving what my family was going through. Something awful would happen, and I’d go over to the computer and write it down and think at least I can turn this moment into something—useful. Or true.

Some time passed, my son got a diagnosis, we found more-helpful therapists, the situation at home settled down, and I began thinking about turning my notes into a story. And immediately I felt this uncomfortable tension, this pressure to turn my experience and my son’s experience into something neater and more presentable than it had been. The traditional conventions of storytelling seemed in opposition to that tough period of my life. That’s when I decided to break up the story and have the narrator tell several stories: part 1 (which was published in Kenyon Review), part 2 (which was published in The Sun) and part 3 (“Are You Ready to Go”). Parts 1 and 2 are really love letters from part 3’s narrator to her son, where the narrator is building fictional worlds in which her son could be happy. The mother, in the original versions at least, is very clear she is making these worlds up. Part 3 is where, in my mind, the narrator drops the usual fictional conventions and tells what really happened.


GH: It strikes me that “Are You Ready to Go” is a story built from lists. There is the list of books on the bedside table, the list of therapeutic toys, the list of doctors, and the various lists of Luke’s misbehaviors and triggers and questions. As you write, they are all “such small things on their own.” But they accumulate and become forceful. How do you see these lists functioning within the story? What effect do they have on the pacing and emotional energy of the narrative?

DU: That’s a great observation. I think lists can give a desperate order to chaos and mess. When you write things down in neat lines, your life immediately looks better, or at least takes on the appearance of looking better. A list can give you the misguided feeling that you understand the problem and have solutions to the problem and can maybe even overwhelm the problem with the length of the list. This tough time with my son was really a time of lists for all the above reasons, and I wanted to reflect that desperate list making in this story as well.


GH: There are several powerful moments when the narrator is indirectly linked to the qualities she finds disturbing in her son. The narrator establishes that her son does not like to be touched; when a therapist puts a hand on her arm, she claims “it felt strange to be touched.” Later, she imagines Luke’s foster home in a level of detail that recalls his obsessive descriptions of LK-32-C. What do these echoes tell us? What questions do they force us to confront?

DU: This is something I’ve thought about quite a bit—how our children reflect both our best and worst qualities. How in some manner everything inside one’s child has been given to that child by the parents, either genetically or through nurture, at least in the beginning. This is a rather overwhelming prospect. I also realize it isn’t entirely true (at least that’s what my therapist keeps telling me). If parents truly believe they are responsible for all of their child’s actions and moods, those parents will probably go insane, alternating between moments of great joy and great despair. But that responsibility certainly feels true, especially during rough times. If the child is failing, the parent has failed, et cetera.

I think it’s also possible that parents reflect their children. I imagine this might be what’s happening when the therapist touches the narrator—the mother may be reflecting her child’s aversion to being touched. There is also the possibility that the narrator, who isn’t able to touch and comfort her son, has become disillusioned with the idea of touch. Later on in the story, of course, touch becomes something more brutal.


GH: At one point, the narrator veers into third person, saying, “This way, it can be like a story about someone else.” To me, this reads as a very essayistic move and draws attention to the first-person POV in a way that feels almost like a breaking of the fourth wall. Can you tell us about your decision to use first person? Is it a way to build an additional layer of dramatic tension? A strategy to make the character more complex and alive? Both? Neither?

DU: Drawing on what I mentioned in the first question, I wanted the emotions and the core of this particular story to be true and unfictionalized. More specifically, I wanted to write about my own emotions as a mother, but in a fictional setting. I didn’t want to change those emotions to make a neater or better story or to make the mother a more sympathetic character. Especially in early drafts, this particular story was, in fact, more of a fictional essay, the narrator meandering through her thoughts about motherhood and the limitations of a mother’s love while pondering her relationship with her son, which was falling apart. The first-person point of view let me slip into that sort of thinking more easily.


GH: I saw on your website that “Are You Ready to Go” was an honorable mention in a Glimmer Train contest back in 2016. How long have you been working on this story, and what was the most difficult part to get right?

DU: Yeah, I’ve been working on all of these stories for years. “Are You Ready to Go” was actually much longer in its first iteration, and it was difficult for me to figure out the correct length. I had so much material and it all seemed so vital. Originally, this piece was twice as long. I’ve spent a lot of time whittling it down, which is not necessarily my greatest skill as a writer. I fall in love with certain sections (the poet side of me, I suppose), and I just keep working and reworking them until they are like these little jewels. It took a lot of effort on my part to realize the story would be just fine, better in fact, without those sections.


GH: What are you working on now? Any upcoming publications we should keep an eye out for?

DU: Lately, I’ve been writing a lot of speculative fiction. (It’s actually kind of rare these days for me to write straightforward literary fiction, like “Are You Ready to Go,” but I do find it useful and pleasurable to go back to pure realism from time to time, like exercising a different set of muscles.) I have a speculative story about asexuality and the mother-daughter relationship coming out in Gulf Coast shortly. Another speculative story, about relationships and what happens when a person in a relationship substantially changes, is coming out in Fantasy & Science Fiction sometime in the next year. And I shifted gears, finally—putting aside marriage and motherhood for a little while—to start working a larger project about climate change, where I’m trying to write postapocalyptic stories about the end of humanity in a nonheroic way.

Debbie Urbanski’s stories have been published in The Sun, Nature, and The Best American Science Fiction and Fantasy 2017. She lives with her family in Syracuse, New York.

Garrett Hazelwood is the editorial assistant at The Southern Review. He was the 2017 and 2018 recipient of the Kent Gramm MFA Award for Literary Nonfiction and his work was recently anthologized in Eclectica Magazine’s twentieth anniversary anthology of speculative fiction.

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