In September 2018, Asheville-based poet Emily Paige Wilson and her now-husband, Eli Sahm, were living in Wilmington. As warnings of Hurricane Florence’s destructive path toward the coast intensified, the couple deliberated whether to evacuate. They hadn’t left for Hurricane Matthew two years prior, but Florence was projected to be a Category 5 storm.
At the time, Sahm worked at a hotel in Wilmington. It had a backup generator where health care providers would relocate if the hospitals lost power; the site was also where news reporters would stay. Sahm and Wilson had the option to ride out the hurricane at the hotel, too. Unlike Sahm, Wilson wasn’t eager for a front-row seat to the disaster.
“I was, like, ‘Hell no!’” the poet recalls, and the couple evacuated.
The fear and excitement leading up to the storm, followed by the shock of its power and destruction, made a lasting impression on Wilson. Though Hurricane Florence made landfall as a Category 4, it brought between 20 and 30 inches of rain to various locations in Wilmington, with wind gusts of 105 mph.
Eleven days after it hit, Wilson and Sahm returned. The experience, says the poet, inspired her latest book, Four Months Past Florence, which came out in June.
From poetry to fiction
Wilson’s novel tells the story of Millie Willard, a high school junior in a small town in South Carolina. She’s the weather reporter for her school paper but dreams of becoming the editor-in-chief her senior year. All she has to do is prove her worth.
After Hurricane Florence hits her town, Millie breaks news about an electrical fire at the local library during the storm, and she ends up making waves. But along the way, she learns the importance of journalists asking the right questions and the responsibility that reporters have to their community — including the people they report on.
Unlike Wilson’s previous collections of poetry, Four Months Past Florence is a novel-in-verse. Wilson’s agent, Ammi-Joan Paquette, proposed the form after another client’s success — Elizabeth Acevedo’s bestselling novel-in-verse, The Poet X, won the 2018 National Book Award for Young People’s Literature, among other accolades.
Unlike a traditional prose novel, a novel-in-verse uses poetry to narrate the story’s events. Open to the suggestion, Wilson’s work was soon underway.
More than sensationalism
To research Florence, Wilson interviewed employees from sheriff’s departments in North Carolina and South Carolina about the processes for organizing evacuations and caring for those who shelter in place during a hurricane. Though she didn’t speak with journalists about reporting on natural disasters, she did revisit her own youth as a high school newspaper reporter for inspiration.
Meanwhile, the book’s themes, says Wilson, were influenced by her personal thoughts about sensationalism in news coverage. Through Millie’s experience, Wilson wanted to demonstrate how a reporter’s desire to make a name for herself can be at odds with fairness and accuracy in reporting.
In this vein, the book dramatizes a firsthand experience Wilson had when she and Sahm evacuated. She recalls watching a local news broadcast in which a camera angle manipulated how deep the actual flooding was in a particular section of Wilmington. Wilson remembers panicking about her home until she noticed a fire hydrant in the frame that revealed the true water level.
Similarly, Millie is convinced by a local news broadcast that her mother’s workplace has been damaged, only to discover the broadcast took liberties with its reporting. The realization leads the protagonist to question the outlet’s ethics and values, which in turn leads Millie to interrogate her own responsibilities as a reporter.
‘Texting and Snapchat’
Wilson wrote Millie as ambitious and full of convictions but also “headstrong and transparent and not self-aware of her own foils,” she says. “That was very much who I was as a teenager. … I was always on my soapbox.”
Still, writing in a contemporary teen’s voice was trickier than she’d expected. “The hardest part for me was not wanting to sound like a cheugy old adult who is so far removed from high school that she can’t remember what being in high school is like,” Wilson explains. (“Cheugy,” for the old adults out there, is pronounced “chew-gee” and is slang for trying too hard and generally being uncool.)
To stay up to date on other lingo and fads, Wilson reached out to a friend who teaches at a high school. Among the questions raised, she asked if students still passed notes behind their teacher’s back. “My friend was like, ‘No, they don’t do that anymore! It’s all phones — texting and Snapchat!’”
Despite the author’s initial concerns, Millie’s experiences and outlook in Four Months Past Florence ring true. So much so, in fact, that readers would never know Wilson isn’t on TikTok.