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Meet Deb Miller Landau, 2023 Oregon Literary Fellow

We’re thrilled to introduce the 2023 Oregon Literary Fellowship recipients with individual features on our blog! Out-of-state judges spent several months evaluating the 500+ applications we received, and selected 13 writers and two publishers to receive grants of $3,500 each. Literary Arts also awarded two Oregon Literary Career Fellowships of $10,000 each. Applications for the 2024 Literary Fellowships will open in June 2023.

Deb Miller Landau is a Canadian-born journalist and essayist. She has written more than a dozen travel guidebooks for Lonely Planet, and her work has appeared in ForbesNational Geographic TravelerAtlanta Magazine, and Best American Crime Writing, among others. She is currently hard at work on two projects: a memoir, and a true crime book that will be published by Pegasus Books in 2024. Deb is the recipient of the Oregon Arts Commission fellowship in Nonfiction.

Q&A with Literary Arts

Who are some writers you look up to or who move you to write? 
Even though I write a lot of nonfiction, I read mostly fiction. It’s the first thing I read when the New Yorker arrives in my mailbox. I love short stories for the total immersion into a new world for a brief and quirky moment in time. I grew up on Canadian authors, who write so sparsely and beautifully about human nature and the importance of place: Alice Munro, Ann Marie MacDonald, Margaret Atwood, Michael Ondaatje, among others. I turn to Toni Morrison whenever I want to fall in love with language again.

What are your sources of inspiration? Of joy?
I am fed creatively and spiritually by nature, water, the mountains—anything outdoors. My kids fill me with joy, reminding me that physical, emotional, spiritual and social growth can be both painfully incremental and surprisingly immediate.

How would you describe your creative process?
I spend a lot of time thinking—often walking or hiking—before I jump in to a big piece of writing. This phase is often followed by panic at the thought that I’m not accomplishing enough. Then I’ll procrastinate for a while until suddenly I’m ready to launch in. That seems to be my path to flow. It’s a bit anxiety-provoking but easier now that I understand to trust the phases. I’m a slave to a deadline. Deep down I know I’ll get it done, but I put myself through a bit of turmoil to get there.  

What is most exciting about receiving a fellowship?
Validation. The excerpt I submitted is part of an in-progress personal history/memoir about being an athlete in my early-20s, getting diagnosed with a gastrointestinal disease and surviving the myriad surgeries that followed. Writing it has been an exercise in honesty, vulnerability, shame, rage, tears—you name it—so knowing that it resonated with the esteemed judges was just incredibly validating. 

What are you currently working on?
I am working on a true crime book about a murder that happened in Atlanta in 1987. It involves an interracial couple, the South, power, wealth, a hired hitman, and an international manhunt. It’s a wild ride! It will be published in late-summer 2024 by Pegasus Books.

What has kept you writing?
I’ve been a writing chameleon for most of my life—as a reporter, a magazine writer, travel book writer, writing professor, corporate marketer, script writer, essayist, etc. Just before the pandemic, I took a leap and quit my day job. While I still do contract work to keep the lights on, I vowed to focus on writing from a deeper, more soulful place. I’m finally letting my real voice come through.

What advice do you have for future applicants?
Just going through the application process is a win in itself; it means you believe in your work. Keep doing that. Eventually others—including Literary Arts—will believe in you too.

Any book (or movie, album, show, etc.) recommendations?
This is a short random list of things that have resonated recently:

  • Know My Name, by Chanel Miller
  • The Sound of Gravel: A Memoir, by Ruth Wariner
  • The Rain Heron, by Robbie Arnott
  • The Vanishing Half, by Brit Bennett
  • The Boy with a Bird in His Chest, by Emme Lund
  • Lost Girls, by Robert Kolker
  • Bone Valley (true crime podcast)
  • Someone Knows Something (CBC podcast)

Excerpt from “Bag Lady”

While my teammates spend evenings carbo-loading and partying with other rowing crews, I lock myself in the washroom at the homes of billeting strangers, keeled over with stomach pains. It gets worse when I eat, so I stop eating altogether. For days, I race with only one eye open to stave off dizziness. When we haul the boat out of the water and onto our shoulders I hang onto it for dear life—not out of fear of dropping it, but because if I let go, I’ll most certainly pass out.

There are so many of us, it’s easy to hide. I don’t tell anyone I am sinking, that I’m about to drown.

During a break between regattas, I take an early Greyhound to visit my grandmother at our family cottage on Otter Lake. My parents met at this lake when they were teenagers and we’d come in summers to swim with our cousins, fish for trout and outrun the horseflies.

Dehydrated and scared, I am delirious by the time I get to Grandma, a fiery white-haired woman who sits on the Yellow Pages to see over the dash of her Lincoln. She quickly senses what my coaches and teammates did not: I am terribly, dangerously sick.

I walk down to the dock and slide into the lake. There, floating, I feel weightless, free. But I can see shadows looming. I climb onto the dock and wrap myself in an old, line-dried towel, watch the ripples fade like the setting sun, listen as the loons wail into the oncoming night. Clouds of mosquitoes dance on the surface of the water. As darkness closes in on the pine trees and the lake edge dissolves into night, I felt the forlorn loon calls vibrate deep inside me; maybe I am wailing too.

Judge’s Comments

“Miller Landau’s new project resists the impulse for a triumphant story that makes sense of the ways our bodies often stray from its assumed course. She upends one’s expectations for unfettered mobility and gives readers a chance to see up close how disability complicates intimacies with the self in relation to others. The body is an underworld Miller Landau shepherds us through.”

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