Wiley Cash’s monthly literary column highlights all things books in the Old North State.
Storms have been on my mind a lot lately. Perhaps this is because we are in the early days of hurricane season here on the southeastern coast of North Carolina, where our late afternoons and evenings are routinely interrupted by downpours and cracks of thunder.
As a matter of fact, as I write these very words an afternoon storm has settled over Wilmington. Thunder rattles the windowpanes on my home. Fat raindrops clatter like buckshot on the roof.
Or perhaps I’ve been thinking about storms because of the many fictional portrayals of them.
Jesmyn Ward brilliantly covered the plight of the have-nots in her 2011 National Book Award-winning novel Salvage the Bones, in which a young Black girl is struggling to survive even before a storm based on Hurricane Katrina ravages coastal Mississippi.
Novelist Michael Farris Smith used the terror created by Katrina as inspiration for his 2013 novel Rivers, in which the American South, from the Florida Panhandle to western Louisiana, has been utterly devastated by a series of seismic hurricanes. Not quite done with the carnage, Smith published Salvage This World this April, a novel that explores the horrors that might await a region that has been brought to its knees by climate change.
And last year, Bruce Holsinger published a novel titled The Displacements, in which a superstorm hits South Florida, leveling the playing field between the haves and have- nots in a postapocalyptic New South.
We have our own legacy of hurricanes here in North Carolina, none more recent or more memorable than 2018’s Hurricane Florence. And writers are slowly building the literary legacy by which that storm will be remembered. Poet Emily Paige Wilson’s recently published novel in verse, Four Months Past Florence, is one of the early literary portrayals of the storm that caused 52 deaths and $24 billion of damage.
The idea of writing a novel in verse, which is to say a novel comprising poems, came about in 2016 after a literary agent who had read some of her poetry online contacted Wilson. The agent asked Wilson if she had ever considered writing for a young adult audience, and if so, would she consider writing a novel in verse?
Wilson had just graduated with an MFA in poetry from UNC-Wilmington and was balancing a professional life that found her teaching at two separate community colleges in southeastern North Carolina while working a retail job in Wilmington. She jumped at the opportunity to write a novel under the eye of a literary agent, but neither Wilson nor her agent were happy with the early results.
“I finished it, and I learned a lot,” Wilson told me recently. “I submitted it to my agent, and she said, ‘This isn’t it,’ and I knew it. But it was like a golden carrot in front of me. I was fresh out of grad school. I didn’t have a network or connections, so to have a literary fairy godmother saying ‘I believe in you’ was a guiding light.”
“I knew I needed to start working on a second project,” Wilson said.
And then Florence hit. Wilson and her partner evacuated to Pitt County from their home in downtown Wilmington near the banks of the Cape Fear River. As they took down the plywood from their windows nearly two weeks later, the entire plot of what would become Wilson’s first published novel formed in her mind.
Four Months Past Florence is narrated by Millie Willard, a high school junior with big journalism dreams who serves as the weather reporter for her school’s student newspaper. Florence offers Millie experiences she never could have imagined. Wilson eloquently employs the hurricane as a metaphor to track the storms of friendship, family, education, and social pressures.
While working on the novel and even after finishing it, Wilson kept thinking about how her experience of Florence would have been different had she been forced to stay in Wilmington.
“If we hadn’t had people to take us in for 11 days, we would’ve been wiped out,” she says. “Sometimes people don’t evacuate because of lack of resources. What about the people who can’t leave?”
I’m currently writing a hurricane novel of my own, and like Wilson I’m thinking about people who don’t have the resources to evacuate. I’m also thinking about people who cannot fully recover regardless of whether or not they flee a storm—people like Mary McCoy, a 90-year-old resident of a historically Black area of Brunswick County called Piney Grove. McCoy told Wilmington’s StarNews that she almost didn’t return after Florence, during which floodwaters rose past her windows and swept away part of her house’s foundation. Most of her neighbors decided not to come home.
“Every room in my house was completely gutted,” she said. “I’m just going to find me some place else to go. It doesn’t matter where as long as it’s uphill.”
Sometimes insurance or federal programs are of little assistance, especially in rural, historically Black communities where homes have been passed down through what is known as heirs property, making it difficult to track down deeds and titles after a catastrophe.
The circular nature of the experiences we’re having with major storms mystifies Wilson, too, who notes that these experiences teach us lessons that many of us—especially those who could change building codes or land use rules, or cut regulatory red tape—refuse to learn. As she points out, there were people who hadn’t yet recovered from the damage of Hurricane Matthew when Florence hit.
“Citizens, on the individual level, are wondering what power or agency or choice they have in helping to combat these storms caused by global warming,” Wilson said. “I think hurricanes make us confront our own limitations.”
Season after season of record-breaking storms, rising waters, catastrophic winds, and lost lives. It almost sounds like fiction.
Wiley Cash is the New York Times bestselling author of four novels and the founder of This Is Working, an online creative community. He’s been a fellow at Yaddo and the MacDowell Colony, and he teaches fiction writing and literature at the University of North Carolina-Asheville. He lives in North Carolina with his wife, photographer Mallory Cash, and their daughters.