Young adult novel-in-verse revisits Hurricane Florence

STRONG WINDS: Emily Paige Wilson's young adult novel-in-verse, Four Months Past Florence, tells the story of a teen journalist reporting on Hurricane Florence. Images courtesy of Wilson

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.



Thanks for reading through to the end…

We share your inclination to get the whole story. For the past 25 years, Xpress has been committed to in-depth, balanced reporting about the greater Asheville area. We want everyone to have access to our stories. That’s a big part of why we've never charged for the paper or put up a paywall.

We’re pretty sure that you know journalism faces big challenges these days. Advertising no longer pays the whole cost. Media outlets around the country are asking their readers to chip in. Xpress needs help, too. We hope you’ll consider signing up to be a member of Xpress. For as little as $5 a month — the cost of a craft beer or kombucha — you can help keep local journalism strong. It only takes a moment.

About Jessica Wakeman
Jessica Wakeman is an Asheville-based reporter for Mountain Xpress. She has been published in Rolling Stone, Glamour, New York magazine's The Cut, Bustle and many other publications. She was raised in Connecticut and holds a Bachelor's degree in journalism from New York University. Follow me @jessicawakeman

Before you comment

The comments section is here to provide a platform for civil dialogue on the issues we face together as a local community. Xpress is committed to offering this platform for all voices, but when the tone of the discussion gets nasty or strays off topic, we believe many people choose not to participate. Xpress editors are determined to moderate comments to ensure a constructive interchange is maintained. All comments judged not to be in keeping with the spirit of civil discourse will be removed and repeat violators will be banned. See here for our terms of service. Thank you for being part of this effort to promote respectful discussion.

Leave a Reply

To leave a reply you may Login with your Mountain Xpress account, connect socially or enter your name and e-mail. Your e-mail address will not be published. All fields are required.