Writing About Dystopia: An Interview with Alison Stine

Road Out of Winter, a novel by Alison Stine, set in a dystopian apocalyptic future, grapples with many complex issues that shape people’s lives and pose threats to our future, including climate change and poverty. Danger is omnipresent throughout the novel, and the protagonist Wil has to outrun imminent danger after infuriating a cult. As our current world feels out of balance due to the coronavirus pandemic and the visible presence of white supremacy, the actions of the character of Wil is a reminder that we need to continue our own paths until we reach safety.

Set in Appalachia, Stine draws from her own experience living in that area and in poverty to create realistic characters and settings. As someone who has followed Stine’s work for a couple of years, Road Out of Winter serves as another piece of work from Stine that shows how fiction can be used to create authentic, diverse stories.

I spoke with Stine over email about the importance of having authentic representation of people in the Appalachia, how her experience with poverty influences her writing, and what’s next for her.

1. So, what inspired you to write Road Out of Winter, a book set in a dystopian future? With everything that has happened in 2020, it definitely feels like we are living in a dystopia now.

My novel Road Out of Winter was prompted by two things: a really bad winter we had in southeastern Ohio, where I lived for most of my adult life, and a dream. The weather in Ohio can be pretty changeable but this one year spring just took forever to arrive, the winter was awful rough, and I had this thought: what if spring never came back? How would we grow food? How would we grow anything? I’m the sort of writer who has many ideas, I struggle with having too much to write and not nearly enough time (or childcare) to do it all, but I do feel like dreams deserve your attention. And I had this dream about a greenhouse in deep snow. Over a few years those two disparate things became, in the way that is often creating, Road Out of Winter. My novel was printed, finished and ready to go, well before the pandemic even started, but writing has a scary way of telling the future.

2. In what ways have you seen stories set in Appalachia misrepresent people who live there? How can fictional stories like Road Out of Winter help create authentic characters and representation of people living in the Appalachia?

Road Out of Winter is fiction, but a lot of memoirs have fictional elements, and I think looking for representation of a broad and diverse region in any one book, by any one voice, is dangerous, no matter the genre. People write what they know, but they also write from imaginations and intentions. I lived in poverty, so I often write from that. That’s not to say that someone with no lived experience couldn’t research, talk to people, and write about it. Yet it seems like a lot of people don’t put in that work, and often the representations that are simplistic and broad — and confirm some idea that people who don’t share the experience have — get celebrated. But poverty, like most experiences, isn’t simple and it isn’t universal. I know I have had a different experience as a disabled single mom who is white than a single mom of color.

I think you need to do the best you can with what you have, but also really think about intention. There is a lot of power in telling stories, and people are sometimes more impacted by fictional ones. They stay with us. We look to them for comfort and absorption, but then later realize we may have formed some ideas from them. I want to tell a good story, but I also want to represent people in poverty as generous and hard-working, because those are my neighbors. I want to write about characters who are smart and never went to college and use words like “ain’t” because that is my family.

3. Do you see yourself in the protagonist Wil, the protagonist of your novel?

I didn’t when I was writing it, but in retrospect I think I channeled a lot of her strength especially in the early days of the pandemic. A reviewer kindly described my protagonist as like an “Appalachian Wonder Woman.” But in my experience, that’s just how you have to be as a single mom living below the poverty line. Nobody’s coming to save you so you have to save yourself, figure out how to make the groceries last, or what to do when the water breaks or the power goes out on the coldest nights of winter. Wil is not a single mom — though there is a single mom who is an essential character in the novel and one of my favorites — but she has the resolve of the single moms who were my backbone, my family, in Appalachia.

4. You have written essays about growing up in a low-income family. How did that impact how you wrote about poverty in Road out of Winter?

When I grew up we were probably more middle class. I fell below the poverty line when I had a baby and became a single mother, which is not uncommon. Single mothers are more than twice as likely to be living in poverty than single fathers, according to Pew Research, and there are a lot more of us — something like 80% of the millions of single parents in America are mothers. In many ways I inherited that legacy from my grandmother and great-grandmother, who were both rural single mothers when their children were young. I don’t think I consciously set out to write about rural poverty in fiction, but of course experience is woven through everything I do, including my creative work. When one of the characters goes to the hospital, for instance, he doesn’t want to be treated because he doesn’t have insurance — I can’t think about medical care, even in fiction, without thinking about the money and the lack of access for most of us.

5. On that note, in your essay “On Poverty” at the Kenyon Review, you wrote about the cycle of poverty and the challenges low-income people face trying to enter fields like writing. Why is it important for writers who are low-income to write about the experiences of low-income people, even in fiction?

Someone mentioned my work on social media the other day in reference to books that weren’t privilege lit, something I didn’t even know existed — but in retrospect, those are most of the books I read as a young writer. I wasn’t assigned any books by anyone like me in college or even grad school. No disabled writers. Not very many working class writers at all, certainly not any BIPOC. I remember one of my best friends had a professor criticize her short story because the characters, from rural Ohio like us, thought Red Lobster was a nice restaurant, and he didn’t believe it. Not being believed is a big problem for writers who are poor, disabled. So is gatekeeping. Publishing being what it is, it can be frustrating to have a book come out and not receive as much paid publicity as books by wealthy writers.

At the same time, a librarian friend recently told me all 7 copies their library had of Road Out of Winter were checked out and people were waiting in line for it. I wouldn’t have been able to afford to buy my book, either. But reading it in a library when I was twenty-five, it would have changed my life, helped me be stronger sooner. It would have given me an idea of what I could do, as an artist and as a person. I want to give people an idea: your life does not have to be only what people tell you or expect from you.

6. In Road out of Winter, its depiction of the abnormally cold weather is a reminder of what could happen if we do not take climate change seriously. How have your own experiences or reporting led you to include these depictions in Road out of Winter?

I was a little afraid that someone might think I was a climate change denier since the weather in Road Out of Winter is a global cooling, not warming. But I think we know now that it’s climate chaos we’re experiencing, warmer summers and colder winters, worse storms in general. I’ve always been concerned about the natural world and how man-made changes are harming it. Growing up in a farming family will do that to you. As a journalist, which is what I do for my day job, I report on a variety of issues: poverty, education, culture, and the environment. I think some of what I learned from reporting about fracking, coal, and acid mine damage is in the novel, but a lot of that knowledge is just from living where I did, in rural Appalachian Ohio. You can’t live there and not be changed, not notice what is happening all around you, both the scary and damaging and the beautiful in the natural world.

7. What is next for you? How do you plan on confronting myths about people who live in the Appalachia through your work?

My next novel, Trashlands, is coming out from MIRA/HarperCollins in October of 2021. It’s about a near-future where plastic has overwhelmed the world, so much so that plastic is currency. No new plastic can be made, and people make a living trading and recycling what they can salvage. And in this world is a single mother who wants to be an artist in a place that doesn’t really value that.

It’s not exactly our world or at least not our future if we are able to do more about the environment, which I hope we can. But always in my mind I’m thinking of and writing about home: rural Ohio. I think this book more confronts people’s misconceptions about motherhood, particularly single motherhood, how it’s both idealized and demonized. I wanted to explore that, and I wanted to write the pain, not just the joy. I always want to write it real.

Writer, student, and dog person. juliametraux@gmail.com

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