Editor’s Note: This interview first appeared in Path Finders, an email newsletter from the Daily Yonder. Each week, Path Finders features a Q&A with a rural thinker, creator, or doer. Like what you see here? You can join the mailing list at the bottom of this article and receive more conversations like this in your inbox each week.
In my grandpa’s basement there’s a room we call the “playroom.” Within my family, it’s basically the landfill where your childhood goes. You have to wear socks in the playroom, or the flat industrial carpet will turn the bottoms of your feet black. The hereditary hoarder gene means that none of us are likely to get rid of the mulleted Barbie dolls and broken skateboards and sticky, scattered decks of cards. On the off chance anyone felt the urge to clear it out, it would have to happen during business hours when my grandpa’s at work, or he’d start organizing the contents of the trashbags by sentiment. I feel at home in that house, and I hope we’re able to maintain the place for decades to come. But when I imagine the possibility of being responsible for it someday, I fantasize about filling that room with cement. The eight foot basketball hoop and shredded punching bag would be frozen in place, and I’d never again feel the dirty dread associated with those grimy carpet walls (Speaking of those carpet walls, I need to have a conversation with whoever was in charge in the ’90s).
The discomfort that comes from sitting in your own trash like that is productive. Usually, it forces you to purge, organize, sterilize. I’m not optimistic about the prospect of humanity as a collective dramatically reducing its consumption, bu t after reading Alison Stine’s new novel Trashlands, I’ve been thinking about how generative it can be to sit in the old and dirty. Her vision of the future, where large swaths of this country serve as a landfill and shards of plastic have replaced the dollar, make me want to go barefoot in the playroom at Christmas and just see if I can get comfortable.
Enjoy my conversation with Alison about living with junk, the tardiness of the Monarchs, and writing about motherhood, below.
Olivia Weeks, The Daily Yonder: First of all, I’d love to hear a bit about you. Where’d you grow up? What do you do outside of writing? How long have you been writing fiction, or aspiring to write fiction?
Alison Stine: I grew up near central Ohio in Mansfield, a former factory town but my family lived in an area that was more rural. I moved away from Ohio after college, moving around all over the country a bit as some people do when they’re younger, trying to find where they belong. But Ohio is always home, and I could only resist the pull for so long. I moved to Athens County Ohio when I was in my twenties, and lived there most of my adult life. My son was born there, at home, eleven years ago.
I’ve been writing fiction my whole life, but I never really found a teacher for it. I published first as a playwright, then a poet. I guess I had to teach myself how to write novels through reading them, and I did, and by writing a lot of terrible novel manuscripts that will never be published, which I also did. I also do visual art and music, though not nearly enough anymore, and I used to perform in theatre, though it’s hard to do more than one thing the older you get, even creatively. The world doesn’t really make space for that.
I also spend as much time as I can outside, hiking, looking for birds, and foraging. Both my grandparents were foragers, supplementing their farming incomes by hunting ginseng and mushrooms. I guess it’s in my blood. I can’t even go on a simple family hike without looking around for stuff to eat.
For my day job, I work in journalism. I’ve been an editor, a freelance reporter for The New York Times, and now I write full-time for Salon as the culture editor.
DY: Your novel Trashlands is about post-apocalyptic life in a region called “Scrappalachia,” long after climate change caused irreparable damage to the electrical grid and water supply and long after raging floods washed away most permanent structures. Was there a moment when you decided upon this premise? What made you want to write about climate change?
AS: I think the ideas that end up meaning the most to you, you can’t really trace where they came from. In a way, they were always there. It just finally became the right time for them to speak, or you as an artist were finally ready to listen. Trashlands came from a lot of things. I was sleeping in a school bus for a while, so there’s that. I dreamed about a woman named Coral, and I knew she lived in an extreme place. There was plastic everywhere in my dream, junk she and her community were trying to make something with, and I thought: What would this situation be? Why would there be plastic everywhere, so much the characters use it as currency? Well, maybe—probably—it’s our future, I decided.
I come from family farmers on both sides so the earth is very important to me: caring for it, studying it. It makes sense that climate change is going to be a part of my books because it’s such a part of my life. Paying attention to the weather, how late the monarchs are or how few morels there are. Climate change is a huge part of all of our lives, whether we want it to be or not. But farmers notice first.
DY: In discourse among those who are seriously afraid of climate change, there’s a tendency to characterize the result of inaction as “the end of the world.” Your book does a beautiful job at emphasizing the way the end of the world will only be the end of the world as we know it. As you write, “They had thought everything good was behind them. But babies were still born.” How do you think about this refusal to imagine the future as a blank slate, to imagine the world after calamity? What’s the point of trying to imagine the beautiful moments in the rubble?
AS: That’s a really beautiful way to characterize the book—thank you for reading that closely. I believe that anyone who has gone through extreme violence, including the violence of poverty, we’ve already had to imagine a way out. We’ve already had to plan, and scramble, and do the unthinkable: leave an abusive marriage or leave home, and then do the unthinkable after that, which is try to make a new life. You think the worst thing has already happened. But then, things keep happening. And some of them are worse, and some of them are better. I mean, even now in the pandemic, we still have to buy groceries. We still have to answer emails and fill out time-off requests, even though it feels like the world is very literally burning down around us.
Some people haven’t had the experience of having to start over, having to rebuild out of the rubble of their old lives, or having to imagine a different future for themselves without support, so I think it might be harder for them to conceptualize an after, a future. Being close with nature also helps. Because I know whatever happens, some life will go on. Some nature will. I remember reading that, if they weren’t maintained, the tunnels in the subway systems in NYC would be taken over by plants in a matter of months. And the info was presented as frightening, but I found it comforting. Some part of the world will continue, even after us. Weeds will still grow. But maybe we should work on solutions to help us stay here sustainably too.
DY: I know from your newsletter that you, like your main character Coral, are a single mother. Are there other fictional accounts of single parenting that have moved you? How do you feel about media representations of mothers going it alone? Were you trying to fill a vacuum?
AS: I’ve been a single mother basically since my son was born. It wasn’t my choice and it hasn’t been easy, especially as we’ve lived below the poverty line for most of it, but I also know it’s a fundamentally shaping experience. Motherhood in fiction and art is difficult. Early in my career, I was advised never to write about it. That it would turn powerful men off—the ones who gave out the awards and the jobs—and it would make people think I wasn’t serious as an artist.
I think that’s still true, some people still think that, but motherhood is such a visceral re-shaping of identity. I am not the same person as I was before I gave birth, or before I raised a baby alone, and I can’t pretend otherwise. I’m not sure that many stories get the toughness right, the sadness, the isolation, and how mothers are supposed to give up their lives and self-actualization in service of child-rearing. So many fictional portrayals of motherhood are saccharine—everything is great. Warm and fuzzy. And that’s a lie. Everything is not great, especially not in this country the way we treat women, people who give birth, and children. It’s a difficult, violent thing, and the support afterward is not there. You’re very alone, even if you’re not a single mom.
I didn’t really set out to do anything on purpose, but that’s the way I write. You make art from the cards you’ve given and the life you’re living. This is mine.
DY: Lastly, what are you reading and listening to lately? Any recommendations?
AS: I tend to listen to a song or a couple songs over and over again when I write. For Trashlands, the songs were “Gods and Monsters” and “Swan Song” by Lana Del Rey. For the new novel I’m writing now, it’s “Garden Song” by Phoebe Bridgers. I let the music help me take the story where it needs to go, emotionally or tonally.
I’m reading Township, a collection of stories set in Appalachian Ohio by Jamie Lyn Smith, and The Wood Wife, a novel recently reprinted by Tor by Terri Windling. During the first year of the pandemic, my family moved from our home in Ohio to Colorado, and I am still trying to adjust. It has definitely been a challenge for me, being away from my community and the woods I know and love. The Wood Wife is set in the desert. I’m trying to learn the plants and ways of where I am now, trying to find community, and we’ll see what the future holds.
This interview first appeared in Path Finders, a weekly email newsletter from the Daily Yonder. Each Monday, Path Finders features a Q&A with a rural thinker, creator, or doer. Join the mailing list today, to have these illuminating conversations delivered straight to your inbox.