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Meet Gabriel Urza, 2020 Oregon Literary Fellow

We’re thrilled to introduce the 2020 Oregon Literary Fellowship recipients with individual features on our blog! Out-of-state judges spent several months evaluating the 400+ applications we received, and selected eleven writers and two publishers to receive grants of $3,500 each. For the first time, Literary Arts also awarded two Oregon Literary Career Fellowships of $10,000 each. The 2021 OLF applications will be posted in May 2020, and the deadline to apply will be in August 2020.

Gabriel Urza

2020 Oregon Literary Fellowship Recipient
Gabriel Urza (he/him/his)


Gabriel Urza is the author of the novella The White Death, and the novel All That Followed.  His family is from the Basque region of Spain, where he lived for several years. He is a grant recipient from the Kellogg Institute for International Studies, and his short fiction and essays have been published in RiverteethHobartErleaThe Kenyon ReviewWest BranchSlate and other publications. He spent several years as a public defender in Reno, Nevada, and is currently an assistant professor at Portland State University.

Q&A with Literary Arts
What are your sources of inspiration?
My direct sources of inspiration vary by project, but are almost always a combination of people and research. I had a novella come out last summer that was about a young magician; that story started with a casual conversation with a friend who told me that he used to be a professional magician until he nearly died while practicing an escape routine. I became fascinated by magic and escapology, and by the obsessive nature of magicians. Houdini was rumored to embed lock picks under his skin—that’s a scary level of dedication!

I grew up in Nevada, and so I also find a lot of inspiration in the western landscape. I live in Hood River, which is such an amazing place; in forty-five minutes, you can be hiking at Punch Bowl Falls, or up above tree line on Mt. Hood, or in the high desert at Horsethief Butte. I end up working through a lot of ideas while I’m out on a run or a hike. 

And of course I often find myself inspired by reading other authors, and by learning about the practice of artists in different mediums. I teach writing at Portland State University, and I love learning about what students and other writing faculty are working on. 

How would you describe your creative process?
For me, the creative process starts with time. A lot of writers talk about the importance of a regular routine—getting up every morning at 5 to work for an hour. I’ve never had that sort of practice, and because of that I’ve often felt like I wasn’t really a writer. But I’ve started to realize that I work best in longer, more intense increments, especially during first drafts. I have a family, which is great (of course) but makes it more difficult to find these immersive times on the spur of the moment. So I’ll occasionally set aside a few days to hole up with a project and just let things get weird—I’ve camped at Lost Lake or booked a cheap hotel in The Dalles, or just skipped out on a trip to the coast so I could have the house alone. 

The process itself is a messy and imprecise science; I often find myself thinking about an idea for months or longer before I ever sit down to put it into 12-point font. Lots of notes and far-casting research, and then I usually sit down for an intense first draft where I’m really experimenting on the fly with characters, structure, and language. Because the first draft tends to be pretty haphazard, the editing process is often really long and arduous, filling in big gaps, making decisions more intentionally, and also just trying to figure out what the hell I was thinking during that first draft. 

After a couple rounds of revision I start to get a little strange and obsessive. This is when I know that I need other eyes on a draft, and so I enlist the help of a few friends to read over the manuscript and give me their thoughts. I recently gave the first hundred pages of a novel to my friend Derek Palacio, who is teaching at Oregon this year. He came up to Hood River for a weekend, and we spent an afternoon on the Klickitat Trail, going for a long run and intermittently talking about the pages. I’ve been busy incorporating his suggestions into my next round of revisions. 

What is most exciting about receiving a fellowship?
This fellowship came at a really vital time for me. Writing is such an isolated venture, and there are these long periods where you’re basically cut off from any external forms of validation or recognition. In these subterranean years, it’s easy to second-guess the value of what you’re writing. I’ve been at work on a novel for the last four years, and I honestly had no sense whether anyone would be interested in it. On a whim, I sent an excerpt in with my Literary Arts fellowship application; it was actually the first time I’d really shown any of the book to anyone, and it was a big emotional step for me just to send it out. To have the excerpt recognized with a fellowship was really a vote of confidence; it was the first external response to something I’d been working on in isolation for such a long time. It gave me a real sense of momentum as I’m trying to finish up a really big round of revision on this manuscript. 

What are you currently working on?
I have a few projects that I’m working on at the moment. The project I’m most actively working on is a revision of a novel about a young lawyer with obsessive compulsive disorder who returns to his hometown to work as a public defender. (My wife is laughing at my characterization of this as “fiction;” I was a public defender for five years in Reno before pursuing writing, and there’s definitely an auto-fictional quality to the book). There’s a high profile murder at the center of the book, but it’s more about the experience of being a public defender, the sense of secondary trauma that often accompanies jobs like this, and about the specific ways that the criminal justice system falls short every day. 

I’m also in the planning and research stages of a nonfiction project about an American explorer who worked in South America and later started his own religion. And finally, I’m in the final editing stages of a collection of short stories called An Incomplete History of the American West that is set in the Great Basin and spans the last 150 years. 

What advice do you have for future applicants?
I’d recommend taking a risk with your writing sample. When I’ve applied to the fellowship in years past, I used a writing sample that felt safe—it was easily accessible and showed off my writing at its most polished. I think I was just aiming to show competence. 

Maybe it’s just a coincidence, but this year I decided to send something that I wasn’t as sure about, that I hadn’t had any feedback on yet. I’d edited the excerpt a ton, of course, but it also felt scarier, more uncertain. I can’t really substantiate this claim, but it felt like this sense of risk, and of trusting these unknown readers, paid off for me.  

Excerpt, The White Death: An Illusion
Even today—nearly two decades after his death at the age of fourteen—many within the profession of stage magic are eager to suggest that the early tremors of the Great Bendini’s decline might have been intercepted, had anyone bothered to observe them. His journals from the early months of 1993 suggest a growing boredom with sleight-of-hand illusions and a newfound interest in the art of escape and feats of physical endurance. Not surprisingly, once his attentions were focused on these new areas of study, they were pursued without moderation. 

Ben’s studies in escape started, predictably, in the most widely known histories of the tradition. He was a great student of the Davenport Brothers and their blend of escapology and mysticism, and was fascinated by the 19th century illusionist Chung Ling Soo, who died during a recreation of The Bullet Catch when a live round was accidentally fired from his assistant’s gun. His biography of Harry Houdini, the great early-twentieth century escape artist, is dog-eared and highlighted, notes in Ben’s scrawl littering the margins. The Great Bendini seemed particularly fascinated by the more extreme methods of escape that Houdini employed, including the imbedding of metal lock picks under the skin of the forearm months before a scheduled performance. 

By early 1994 news of the prodigy’s change of focus had crept through the magic community. Illusionists began to share accounts of the Great Bendini’s infrequent escape performances much as a painter might have described a peek into Picasso’s studio a few generations earlier. At the time, I met these accounts with mixed emotion. Children in general, and child performers in particular, tend to confront superior talent with unbridled envy, and I was no exception. But as my own career in magic began to wane, I found myself following the growing legend of the Great Bendini (still a boy of thirteen) with unabashed fascination. My jealousy had diminished because, quite simply, there was nothing to be jealous of. He was not one of us; he was a freak, an alien. Even in this boy, this pre-teen, we recognized a darkness, a palpable pain and isolation, that made his proficiency possible. And it is not a darkness that any of us would voluntarily embrace, even if his genius were our reward. 

Judge’s Comments
“In his novel excerpt, Gabriel Urza creates a tension-filled opening to a crime novel. The writing strikes the right note of moody melancholy and grim ambiguity, helped along by a reflective and haunted narrator. In particular, the description of the crime scene, where the narrator visits to talk out loud to the dead women, is written with a skillful use of specific, sensory detail: “I kneel, rub the dirt between my thumb and forefinger. Rhyolite and siltstone, sandstone and granite and slate.” The rhythm of these sentences point to Urza’s ability to create a compelling atmosphere through his prose.” — Aatif Rashid

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