Award-Winning Sci-Fi Novel Imagines A Terrifying Appalachian Future
Appalachian Ohio writer Alison Stine’s first novel, “Road Out of Winter,” won the 2021 Philip K. Dick Award in April.
Presented by the Philadelphia Science Fiction Society, the award goes to “distinguished science fiction published in paperback original form in the United States.” Its namesake was an iconic cult sci-fi writer who published brain-warping stories such as “The Man in the High Castle” and whose work provided source material for movies like “Total Recall,” “Minority Report” and “Blade Runner.”
Stine’s novel grew out of a career writing poetry and journalism. “Road Out of Winter” is a near-future story that resonates with Appalachians for its images of tree-sitters, short-staffed emergency rooms, and the blending of class and value systems found in communities throughout the region.
Inside Appalachia co-host Mason Adams recently spoke to Stine about “Road Out of Winter,” and what it tells us about the world of today.
***Editor's Note: The following has been lightly edited for clarity.
Adams: For readers who don't know this book, maybe we should start out by introducing them to the main character. So would you mind reading something that kind of describes the main character of “Road Out of Winter.”
Stine: So here's a little bit about Wyl, and her situation near the start of the book.
Weed needs a warm, humid climate. Always before that was what we had in southeastern Ohio; that was our gift. One of the only things that grew well in our old, abused soil, the earth mistreated by years of coal mining and fracking and mountaintop removal, was marijuana. That was what Lobo said.
But the outdoor harvest the year that Lobo and Mama decided to leave had been a bad one. A wet spring, if you could call it spring at all. Lobo and Mama had lost their plants that grew in the wild; in neglected lots, in deep forest, in patches of unused land behind highways, in woody acres belonging to the state or accessible only by canoe.
Some of the plants that Lobo had hiked in on a pack and planted at twilight in the illegal ground had been swept away by rain. Other plants never took. The earth was too wet and chilled. Their roots rotted. Still other plants froze: their leaves folding, blackening, then falling off. Or they were eaten young by desperate animals or the always-desperate insects. Every time Lobo went out in a canoe to check on the wild plants, he returned with his head a little lower, his back more dejected, his jaw tight. I knew he would chew his food silently and angrily, lash out at Mama, kick something down the stairs. I didn't go up to the farmhouse for dinner on those nights. I didn't want to be the thing he kicked.
Outdoor crops were half our income. But after the first cold year, after the loss of everything wild, we didn't even try to plant outside. All we had left was the grow room in the basement of the big house.
As a teenager, I had avoided going in there. It hurt my eyes. I felt like it would stick on me, like the scent of weed, be obvious. I thought — like sex — once I had been down in the grow room, people would know. And they did know, but for other reasons: it was a small town. There were rumors that were true: people … came across state lines to buy from us. And they talked about it, about us.
I’ll stop there.
Adams: Already, this is an engaging story about an engaging, interesting person. So I'm familiar with your journalism, and your work going back several years. What was it that inspired you to write this particular novel?
Stine: I think with books, because they take so long, it's really a question of sort of gathering elements that sometimes might seem disparate, over a period of sometimes years, and stitching them together. So for “Road Out of Winter,” those elements were started with a dream I had. I am the kind of writer that I get a lot of ideas. But when it's a dream, I feel like you really need to pay attention to it. I dreamed about a greenhouse and snow — the image of that at night with two characters inside. I knew they were two young people, and there was a child with them, but it wasn't their child. Somehow I knew that in the dream. I've been carrying that image with me for a while. And then we had a very late spring in southeastern Ohio. If you're familiar with Ohio, the weather can be very strange. But this time it snowed in late May. And I just remember thinking, ‘What if spring never comes back?’ And those two elements became “Road Out of Winter.”
Adams: Tell us a little bit about the book and what happens.
Stine: “Road Out of Winter” is a novel about a young woman who's grown up on her family's illegal marijuana farm in rural southeastern Ohio. After two years without spring — spring just never comes back, and her folks have already left — she decides to leave the farm and head to a warmer place in California. But along the way, she and a couple friends she's picked up run into trouble, including the man who needs her skills of making things grow and doesn't want to let her go. It's funny that I mean, everyone does call it ‘speculative fiction,’ and it does have a wild element. This is not exactly what's happening in our world — but I think it's close. The climate chaos that we're experiencing is close. And I certainly wrote this before the pandemic, but it was kind of scary to see the pandemic happen right before the book came out, and see that kind of collapse of infrastructure and lack of the little we had to support us.
Adams: I had just read the book, when the Colonial Pipeline shut down because of the ransomware attack. The resulting panic buying was frightening, given the context of your book. It's lived in my head since then. And not necessarily just through fright — there are a lot of elements to this book. In some ways, your characters are reflective of different people and different aspects of ourselves. Then, they go through different communities that are very much a reflection of the Appalachia that I know.
How did you shape your thoughts on Appalachian identity and community found in the book?
Stine: Community was very important to me in the book, as it has been in my life. My rural community in small-town, Appalachian Ohio helped me raise my son when his father left when he was a baby. I described my town as like my husband, and my son's father in many ways, because they were there for me as strangers who became friends. My neighbors were there for me the way that no one else was. Helping others is essential to the book. So is knowing when you have to cut your stakes and save yourself, but the main character Wyl takes in three and a half people she doesn't know very well. Some reviewers criticized that about this book, [saying] ‘Why would this woman take in this man she barely knows and help him?’ I thought, ‘Well, reviewer, you've obviously never lived in Appalachia.’ You help your neighbor. You help the stranger who needs you.
Adams: A lot of people would struggle to find hope in this book. It’s pretty bleak at times. And yet there is this closing scene that grew out of that dream you had. Would you mind reading a little bit from the closing scene?
Stine: It was quiet in the grow room, I remembered. And though I preferred working outside, feeling the sunbaked soil in my hands and the light warm on my back, the dirt in the basement room was warm, too, heated by the lights. When I cupped a tiny plant with its root webs and thick, dark globe of dirt, warmth radiated through me. I would hold each plant in my hands longer than necessary, each time I transplanted them to a bigger container. It was like holding a baby chick, something alive and breathing with hope and potential. I imagined I could feel them breathe. I imagined that it mattered that I was down there, that I mattered. And when I was in there, in the grow room, I couldn't hear the shouting from the farmhouse above. I couldn't hear my mama crying, or smell the vomit or smoke or worse. I was making medicine, I told myself. I was making medicine.
I was a witch, I had told myself when I was even smaller, not too much older than Starla, the first time my mama had taken me out to Lobo’s farm, to meet the magic man. I was a witch girl, and only I knew the secrets of the wild plants. They whispered to me, like wind through the long grass. Slippery elm bark for sore throat, boneknitter for sprains, jewelweed for poison ivy, elderberry for cold.
I broke a pebbled leaf of spearmint for Lisbeth to chew. The first time we met, in the fields behind the elementary school. She trusted me, took the sweet taste from me. The bright surprise of lemon balm, the peppery wild onion. Only I knew where the nettles grew, gathered willow bark by the stream. Only I could heal the maiden’s heart, find the warmth in the cold cold room, deep underground.
I carried Jamey. Over the hills, the greenhouse glowed in the distance...
Adams: Although I love ambiguity, would you mind talking a little bit more about sort of what that ending signifies for Wyl and the world around her?
Stine: Publishing a novel is a very strange process. One of the parts of the process is that if an editor is interested, they'll call you and kind of talk with you a little bit about the book. The one thing that the editor that we ended up going with said is that she really feels like this book is about the power of the matriarchy, the power of a new way. In this book, aspects of the new way might be led by women. In many apocalypse stories, there's a man at the head, the father figure who's the leader of the group. But it's more rare to have a woman who's the leader of the group who ends up being the survivor. Without giving it away, the women do survive in this book, and I also believe that they survive after this book. I think the end is a new beginning. So much of the main character's private journey has been — because of the way she's raised, growing up with illegal work and secrecy — so much of her journey has been struggling to trust people, and struggling to not want to be alone and do everything herself. I think the end points to her being ready to accept help, not only with this outcast family that she's made, but with others. We get sort of a hint of some other people, another group close by, who may be good people. I think that in the morning they will help her, and I think that she's ready for it.
Adams: Such a tantalizing view of the future for Wyl. Alison Stine, thank you so much for being with us here on Inside Appalachia.
Stine: Thanks so much for having me. And thanks so much for doing this. You know, so much of my journalism seems like correcting people's incorrect views of Appalachia and poverty and rural life. I'm really glad that you're out there fighting the good fight.
Stine’s next novel, another speculative fiction story titled “Trashlands,” is scheduled for release in October.