Ellen Hagan is the author of the new young adult novel in verse Don't Call Me a Hurricane. Her other books include the middle grade novel in verse Reckless, Glorious, Girl. Also a performer and an educator, she lives in New York City.
Q: What inspired you to write Don’t Call Me a Hurricane, and how did you create your character Eliza?
A: The story of Hurricane arrived in poems for me. It started with lines and words that held onto the feeling of everything you own being washed away and your community being destroyed. I kept coming back to the words on the cover: After the storm, what is left behind? And the tension of that moment.
Climate change is devastating and the main character is dealing with severe anxiety and fear while also navigating new love and rising up for her community and pushing back against overdevelopment of her island home. So this is a character dealing with extreme emotions and powerful language, so poems felt like the best way to hold those emotions.
Eliza showed up so clearly on the first page. Her voice, what she believed in and her love for her family, friends and island were evident to me. It was such a joy to write in her voice and follow her journey on the page.
I grew up going to Long Beach Island, New Jersey, every summer. My mom spent her summers in Harvey Cedars and my family had a home in Holgate, New Jersey, so I spent several months each year working on the island. I sold sunglasses at the Sunglass Menagerie and have such beautiful and powerful memories down the shore. The ocean has a special meaning to me and I wanted to hold that feeling in a story.
I also wanted to talk specifically about climate change, especially after Hurricane Sandy and the damage that was done all along the coastline. The island felt so unique to me, and also so fragile - I wanted to tell the story of a community fighting back against overdevelopment in order to protect and hold onto what they love most - their home.
Q: The writer Olivia A. Cole said, “The way Hagan writes about the land is the way she writes about love--with passion, humanity, and clarity.” What do you think of that description?
A: It was so beautiful to get this blurb from Olivia A. Cole. She was a student of mine at the Kentucky Governor’s School for the Arts in the creative writing program and I remember being in awe of Olivia’s talent as a high school student and I feel so thankful to be in conversation with Olivia now as a friend and fellow artist.
We are both Kentucky writers and I think there is a powerful connection to the land - to all the lands that raised us. I feel this same generous love for the hills of Kentucky as I do the waves of the Atlantic Ocean.
These landscapes brought me up - they are part of my story, and so I am always thinking about how to show them love in my writing. How do I show off the land and introduce it to people who have never been or are just getting to know this new place.
as a community-based artist, I am always searching for the humanity in
everything. How do I help shine a light? How do I listen more and pay close
attention to my community and my changing world? I care deeply about this work,
so I am thankful when fellow artists that I respect and love see that in my
writing and hope future readers will see that love as well.
Q: How was the book's title chosen, and what does it signify for you?
A: The title comes from a line in one of the poems. Eliza’s father used to call her a hurricane - the poems are in conversation below. Eliza shares the reasons for the comparison and then having lived through an actual hurricane on the island, she shares why they will never compare her to that again.
The title is a way of acknowledging the destruction that hurricanes bring. It brings me back to the danger and destruction of climate change - and how we rise up to fight back. The poems are shared below:
My father used to call me
wild & unruly
rowdy & messy
fast & reckless
unmoving & impulsive
headstrong & willful
unexpected & quick
electric & fleeting
floating & flying
scrappy & break-neck
all the time
we are careful
not to compare anything
to a hurricane
because we know
& destructive it can be.
We know its death toll.
From the US
to the Caribbean
& on & on.
& families across the globe.
We know its winds & rains.
Floods & rising waters.
We know the damage.
& the loss.
We know the trauma
& the pain
& the doubled over
& the weeping
& my mother holding onto us
to save us
from the storm.
How the shape
of our lives
Q: What do you see looking ahead when it comes to coastal New Jersey and the impact of climate change?
A: I feel hopeful, especially seeing young people who are not only interested, but are activated around protecting the island, the dunes, participating in beach cleanups, pushing back against overdevelopment while at the same time working to make the community as sustainable as possible. There is more renewable energy popping up all the time, more information getting shared and more stories being told.
As I researched this novel, I was motivated by all of the young climate activists that I was reading about such as Xiye Bastida, Hannah Testa, and Katie Eder. I was also buoyed by organizations like the Climate Museum in New York City and The Long Beach Island Foundation of Arts and Sciences in Loveladies, New Jersey.
The more I researched, the more I discovered about artists, activists, and organizations doing this work together. As an educator working with schools around the globe and a mother to two young children, I am ignited by this work and the passion and love for our environment.
I wrote Don’t Call Me a Hurricane as a love letter to the ocean, to the community, and as a way to protect and honor the places we come from.
Q: What are you working on now?
A: I am working on a new novel in verse that is set to arrive in 2023. It is a story about the complications of class set in Lexington, Kentucky. I am sharing the synopsis below and thrilled to share these new characters and this new story with you all.
Chloe Brooks was born into wealth - so much that she never even thought about it. Raised in the rolling hills of Lexington, Kentucky - home of horse country, bourbon and limestone fences, she had it all - everything she could ever want. When her father loses the family fortune and moves them ten miles away into an apartment complex on the outskirts of town, her world begins to unravel. What does it mean to have everything and lose all that you thought mattered and all that you imagined made you who you are? Meeting Clint and Skye and seeing the side of Kentucky she had long ignored and forgotten changes everything. Can Chloe still hold onto who she was and figure out who she needs to be without losing her new friends - the ones who somehow see her for who she truly is.
Q: Anything else we should know?
A: I would love to share some prompts and writing activities that I return to and that work well for me. I got the chance to share poetry prompts in April with Oprah Daily and these are exercises that I do with my students and that I do myself to get into the writing process. Check them out here: Oprah Daily Prompts and on my website as well.
I believe that everyone can write and tell their own stories and my work as an educator is rooted in building community, sharing who we are, where we come from, and how to sustain those essential relationships to each other and to our planet. I hope you will write and create with me!
--Interview with Deborah Kalb. Here's a previous Q&A with Ellen Hagan.