The Appalachian Writer Imagining What the Climate Apocalypse Will Look Like

Narratively contributor Alison Stine on her new novel and her advice for writers looking to find their voice.

The Appalachian Writer Imagining What the Climate Apocalypse Will Look Like

Though most of us see poetry as unrelated to journalism, and perhaps to fiction too, this isn’t the case for Alison Stine: Her nonfiction work feeds her poetry, which in turn inspires her fiction. She is the author of the brand new novel Trashlands—told from the point of view of a single mother in a post-apocalyptic world— which was just released this week. Alison’s novel, like much of her work, is set in Appalachia, the region where she grew up. Narratively sat down to talk with Alison about her novel, her versatility as a writer and the words of advice she has for others.

Narratively: What inspired you to write a book that’s set in a climate apocalypse world?

Alison Stine: I don’t know if I chose the story as much as the story chose me. I am a single mom and have been living in rural Appalachia for most of my adult life. That’s where my son was born, too. Some people would consider the life we were living “dystopian”; some of the food we ate was foraged from the woods and the water would frequently go out. The infrastructure in the town was really old and beyond repair.

And so, I wanted to take that idea further and ask: What would this life be like for a single mom in rural Appalachia in 50 years, or in 100 years, especially if we don’t change the path we’re on as a country? What if things never get better; what would that be like?

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Photo of Alison Stine.

Narratively: You also write nonfiction: In 2015, you wrote a story for Narratively, “The Body Behind the White Church,” about the death of a woman in an Appalachian town. You’re also a published poet. I’m curious about what writing in all these different forms is like for you.

Stine: I think in a perfect world, people who are interested in writing would study all forms, because you never know what’s really going to click with you. You never know where your voice fits well, but also you never know what shape the story is going to want to take.

Narratively: Since you write in these different forms, I’m curious about how you find stories and how you decide what form they’re going to take.

Stine: I write for money and though I enjoy it, I don’t always get to choose. Sometimes I get pieces assigned to me and other times I suggest a piece to an editor and they say no but tell me they want something else.

When it comes to writing novels, that’s a really big commitment—that’s years of your life. The story has to really, really mean it. I’m someone who gets a lot of ideas, probably too many ideas, but if I dream an idea, I feel like it’s really important. The last few novels I’ve written grew from ideas that I dreamt about.

I don’t have a dream journal because I’m the kind of person who would feel guilty if I wasn’t regular about it but I think for more beginner writers having a notebook or a journal is a good idea.

But I also feel like, if it’s a really good idea and it’s for you, it will wait for you. We can’t always drop everything and write a novel; we have jobs, we have kids, there’s a pandemic. But if the idea is meant for you, it will be there when you can get to it, whether that’s in a month or 10 years—the good ones will stay with you.

Narratively: On that note, what advice would you have for beginner writers who also dabble in different forms of writing? 

Stine: It’s hard because on the one hand, there’s evidence that to be really good at something you have to devote yourself to it and put in so many hours into it. And that’s true but perhaps not feasible for our lives and also, it’s not fun. I mean, if I had stuck to poems, I probably would be better known and would have more prizes or more money, but that just wasn’t fun for me.

I always wanted to write novels and once I started writing journalism, I couldn’t just let that go. I love nonfiction and journalism. I love talking to people and learning about stuff. And so, I think that you don’t have to choose. The choice you have to make is to be true to you and your voice and to try as many things as you can. Don’t extinguish the many flames of you because some people just want one spotlight.

Narratively: Do you have any other projects in the works? 

Stine: Always. People say that you should always have a project on the back burner but I feel like for me, all the burners on the stove are on and the smoke alarm is on too. But that’s okay, something is going to work, maybe. In addition to my book, I’m also working on a young adult novel, which is not a direction that I would go in usually. But I was talking to my agent about how there is a need for representation of disability in young adult novels. I was born partially deaf and I haven’t written a book about someone like me, or even fiction about me. That’s what I’m trying to do. 

This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.