The Rumpus Book Club chats with Alison Stine about her debut novel for adults, Road Out of Winter (MIRA Books, September 2020), finding the story’s origins in a dream, why she loves Appalachian Ohio, what she hopes readers will take away from this novel and apply to our current sociopolitical moment, and more.
This is an edited transcript of the book club discussion. Every month The Rumpus Book Club hosts a discussion online with the book club members and the author, and we post an edited version online as an interview. To become a member of the Rumpus Book Club, click here. Upcoming writers include Jenny Hval, Beth Alvarado, Mattilda B. Sycamore, Randa Jarrar, Morowa Yejidé, Melissa Febos, and more.
This Rumpus Book Club interview was edited by Marisa Siegel.
Marisa: Hi, and welcome to The Rumpus Book Club chat with Alison Stine about her new novel, Road Out of Winter!
Alison Stine: Hello! Thanks for including this story in the Book Club!
Marisa: I’m so excited to talk about this book!
Nat: Hi, Marisa and Alison! So excited for this! I just read all afternoon—what an utterly delightful, twisty, unputdownable book!
Marisa: Nat, yes, totally unputdownable! I read it in two sittings, during a week-long power outage (which was strangely appropriate?).
Ali, can you kick us off by talking about when and how you came to write Road Out of Winter? You mention, in an essay running this week at The Rumpus, that you dreamed the story (or a piece of it), and went from there. What else drew you to this story, this protagonist?
Alison Stine: I did dream part of it, an image that kind of figures in the end of the story: a greenhouse lit from within and surrounded all about by snow. I somehow knew in my dream that there were two people and a baby in the greenhouse, but the baby was not their own.
I feel that books are stitched from many things we have happening all around us, that we kind of gather in. And one of the other things that was happening about that time is that we had a very cold, late spring in Ohio—not uncommon! But this weather was really bad, a really long winter, even for southeastern Ohio, which is usually more temperate. And I just had this thought: what if spring never came back?
I had felt like I wanted to write about a pot grower, too, to have her be a woman, and not only that, but someone who struggled with poverty and being outcast, even in her own family. To show a different side of that.
Those were the threads that came, though they sometimes take a long time in coming, and not always together!
Marisa: How long did it take for the book to come together, in terms of writing? Was this over a period of years?
Alison Stine: Definitely years. Maybe three years? But an interesting thing is that I stopped in the middle of writing the first draft. I was upset and frustrated with where the story was going—or more specifically, where it was not going. I had planned for them to make it all the way across the county—and when that kept not happening, I abandoned the project, only to realize when I picked it back up maybe six months later: oh, they’re never gonna get out of Appalachia.
Nat: Wow! You wove all those threads together so well. When Dance left, and then Grayson—I was so emotionally caught up in those losses. And I loved that the story didn’t center on a romance, though there were many different kinds of love present.
Alison Stine: That’s interesting that you say that, Nat. Because originally, very early, I did try to make a love triangle between Wil, Dance, and Grayson—I think I felt some kind of pressure to. And then when I returned to the draft, I realized that didn’t work either. There are all kinds of love, and the main love in the book is that of a family—and making your own found family when your birth family doesn’t quite work out for you, and love doesn’t work out the way you planned.
Nat: Ha, I love that! I fully expected it to go in that direction, so I think that’s why it felt so lovely for it to not happen. It’s such a well-trodden trope.
map7880: Did you grow up in Ohio? If so, please tell us about that.
Alison Stine: I did grow up in Ohio, in Mansfield, a small town with a big prison—The Shawshank Redemption was filmed there. It was an Ohio factory town where the factory had left. Very rural and had its struggles with poverty. One of my friends drove a tractor to class the last day of school his senior year. I spent most of my adult life a little more south in Ohio, rural southeastern Ohio, where the book is set (and where pretty much everything I’ve written the last decade-plus is set). My son was born there. Ohio is so great and interesting because it is very very different in areas. Appalachian Ohio is my favorite part, though, despite how difficult it often is to live there, as far as lack of access to health care, fresh food, good schools. I learned there how to be a parent, how to be an adult, basically. How to give with my whole heart and love truly.
Nat: I went to grad school in Athens, at Ohio U, so the setting felt very familiar. The grip of winter just never lifting would be so stark there, and you portrayed that beautifully.
map7880: Thank your for that lovely, complex snapshot of Ohio. This country is so vast. It’s difficult to take in all the nuances.
Marisa: Is there a particular character who you felt closest to? A character who came to you most easily? Or, the opposite: one who was hardest to get on the page?
Alison Stine: I realized not too long ago that I am more like Wil than I realized. It’s hard sometimes to see your own strength, or to believe in it. But I’ve had similar struggles, and a very similar journey, as you’ll read about in that Rumpus essay later this week! I’m very calm in an emergency. I assembled my own found family in Ohio—I had to, after being left by my ex-husband shortly after my son was born. And I do know my way around a plant or two!
I think I struggled with Dance, who is a more complicated character, in some ways, than Grayson, in that he isn’t totally toxic, like some of the men in the story, but he doesn’t always make the best move or say the right thing. I think he’s trying, and writing a character who is trying but not fully a good person or a helpful person yet is hard.
Marisa: I wondered at first if Dance was going to turn out to be more a foe than a friend. But it was lovely that you instead just allowed him to be a complicated person without really crossing that line.
Alison Stine: I think he frustrated me and scared me at times—but he is someone who is learning, like a lot of our friends sometimes. Especially learning how to be in this new world.
map7880: What can you say about Wylodine’s mother?
Alison Stine: As far as Wil’s mom, I think I put some of my weaker moments into her, and my fear. As the single mom of an infant, I really worried about my son not having a dad around. I think I chose to spend time, at that time of my life, with some men who weren’t good for us long-term, because I thought he needed a father figure, however poor. I think of Wil’s mom as trying her best in a situation that is really, really hard. She tries to put her daughter’s happiness before her own, and then tries to be happy herself—but she may not know herself very well, which is one of the hard things that parenthood, especially motherhood and especially having kids younger, does to you. How can you actualize when you don’t know who you are? Wil has had to be more the mother figure to her own mom, and she does that with her friends, too. She is the nurturer, even though she may not have really been nurtured.
map7880: “How can you actualize when you don’t know who you are?” So true.
Marisa: What is it like to have your book, especially given its subject matter, come out now, amid the COVID-19 crisis?
Alison Stine: I would recommend not having a book come out now, ha! It’s definitely interesting. I know I personally struggled, at the start of the pandemic, to get through any book. I was so scared and preoccupied; it took a while for me to be able to read again.
But one of the first books I read during the pandemic—all the way through—was Meg Elison’s The Book of the Unnamed Midwife, which is about a pandemic! But it was different enough that it was okay. I hope my book is different enough, too, that it’s okay.
I try not to read reviews so much—not good for writers!—but it’s hard not to stumble upon them. I’ve seen a few that mention “I can’t read a dystopia right now,” not even trying to read the book. But I don’t think Road Out of Winter is a dystopia. I won’t spoil the end, but in my mind, after the book ends, there is a new beginning. And, it is better than what came before. You can’t build a new house on the same land where an old, rotten one is standing.
Marisa: YES. Exactly that. I mean, I found your book to be a source of comfort and hope during a long, hot power outage during the pandemic.
Alison Stine: I have also stumbled upon some reviews that mention hope. And that is, in my heart, what I want people to take away from my book, and take away now. The chance to do better. Some ways forward. A way to make it, no matter what is being thrown at us right now.
Nat: Totally! I feel that.
map7880: The pandemic and your book evoke a lot of similar emotions—fear, dread, anger, hope, disbelief. But yes, the ending is very hopeful!
Alison Stine: I’m so glad you each felt that!
It of course has been very strange having events be canceled and doing things solely online, but the good news is people joining wherever they are. My Zoom “book launch” had friends from high school, a friend I met when I was thirteen who lives in California, and that was a wonderful reunion that wouldn’t have happened otherwise.
Nat: I was really interested in the climate activists, and Dance’s past with them. What an intriguing portrait with Mica and her group—there were so many characters and snapshots that left me incredibly curious!
Marisa: Can you talk about the relationship between Wil and Lisbeth, and what it meant to you/what you hoped it’d convey to readers? That relationship was very compelling.
Alison Stine: I think Wil’s experience of life—which has kinda been partly my feelings about it, if we’re being totally honest—is things just not working out. Even at her relatively young age—I picture her about twenty-two, twenty-four—things just haven’t gone the way she hoped. She didn’t get to go to college. She hasn’t been able to leave town or travel or see much of the world. And the same is true of love; love just hasn’t worked out for her.
I view her as falling in love with her best friend, which is a wonderful thing, but her friend was raised differently, has a different world view, and just isn’t able to dream or hope right now the way that Wil is able to. She can’t picture anything better. As a bisexual writer who was raised in a small, rural town, I can relate to that! It’s hard sometimes to envision things working out. And sometimes you have to leave the small town you love to make a better life for yourself. I think Wil is going to get there though.
Marisa: For me, Lisbeth and Wil were the central romantic relationship in the book. I did also wonder about Wil and Grayson… For some reason, maybe because he made me nervous, I didn’t think of Dance as a romantic interest.
map7880: I agree about Lisbeth and Wil. And such a sweet relationship.
Alison Stine: Yes, I think of Wil and Lisbeth as the central romantic relationship, too. But I also think of Wil as being bi, and maybe it could have worked out with Grayson instead. Maybe it could have worked out a dozen different ways. But that’s one of the sadness about the book—and about our present pandemic!—we’ll never know what could have happened. The extreme situation we’re in has destroyed some of that future, while making a new one that we can’t see yet.
Marisa: Oh, I so hope that is true, Ali. I’m having a hard time imagining a brighter future right now.
Alison Stine: Me, too. I’m writing a new novel right now, and it’s set in our world—and I’m wondering, how on earth do I acknowledge the pandemic? I have to, right? It’s not set on Mars or in the past, so the pandemic happened, but I don’t know the way out of it, so how I write about this time set maybe two or three years in the future? How will we think of the pandemic then? I never thought that writing would be so much like fortune telling, but it is.
map7880: Have you always been a writer? I mean, since very young? Do you write every day? Are you working on anything new?
Alison Stine: I have always been a writer. I tried to rebel a little bit when I was younger and tried to be an actor or a singer for awhile, but not with my whole heart. My first memory is of writing. My mom was an elementary school teacher and taught me to read when I was very young. She used to write down my “stories and poems” before I knew enough words to do it myself. My grandma bought me a notebook when I was five or so, and that became a pattern. I would just fill the notebooks. I published my first story when I was twelve in the local newspaper—it was a Halloween story that won this ghost story contest.
I don’t write creatively every day. I do write for my day job—I work as a freelance writer and reporter, after being laid-off from my journalism job—but that often feels like a different side of my brain, more analytical. That happens just about every day, because it has to. Otherwise we don’t eat! When I’m working on a book—as I am now—I try to write first thing in the morning. I think I heard somewhere that you’re the most creative, and freshest then. And I just feel better after writing in the morning. No matter what happens, I did that. I try to write at least a thousand words a day. And I just get them down. They might be very, very bad words, but at least I get a thousand! Only when I’m done with a draft will I go back and reread what I’ve wrote. It’s usually a hot mess of a draft. But that can be fun, too! Going in there and slashing and burning until a real story emerges.
I have a book under contract that is coming out next fall, Trashlands. It’s about a single mother at a strip club at the end of the world. She has to choose between her art, love, and survival—which isn’t much of a choice at all but one especially women throughout time have been forced to make! I’m also drafting a new novel about a journalist who is hard of hearing (like me!) who has to return to the small town she left after a terrible crime happened, when the crime happens again. I’m drafting it entirely during my son’s school Zoom meetings!
map7880: What’s on your “to read” list? Or maybe you don’t have much time to read?!
Marisa: Kind of a similar/related question: what were you reading, listening to, watching while writing Road Out of Winter? Are there specific authors and/or books you looked to while working on the novel, or feel the novel is in conversation with?
Alison Stine: I try to read every night before bed. Sometimes it’s hard, especially lately. I’m so tired from, well, this life, I usually fall asleep with the lights on. But I think a good book can be a comfort. Silvia Moreno-Garcia’s Mexican Gothic is next on my list. I read her book Untamed Shore, and really enjoyed it. I have a strong appreciation for writers who write a lot of things, experiment with genre or form, and for whom this isn’t their first rodeo. I’m not really interested in flash in the pan, one-hit wonders. I appreciate an artist with staying power. I think that takes a certain kind of strength, because this world often tries to bring you down!
I’m also really interested in reading Emma Cline’s Daddy. Short stories aren’t my favorite to read, just because I fall in love with characters and want to know more! But I loved her novel, The Girls. That was a big influence on Road Out of Winter. In fact, I pitched Road Out of Winter to my agent as “an Appalachian The Girls.”
I’m also incredibly excited for Tana French’s next book, The Searcher, due in October. I’ve devoured everything she’s ever written. I love that her books are literary, resist categorization, and have a small unsolved mystery in every story. That was something that I really took to heart with Road Out of Winter (and the Pumpkin King…).
Marisa: I love Tana French! Not at all surprised she’s an influence.
map7880: Tana French! Yes!
Alison Stine: I have a weakness for scary movies. Anything scary, no matter how trashy, I eat it up. It’s hard for my partner and I to watch movies because I have seen everything. I love zombie fiction. I know I was burning my way through Z Nation when I was writing Road Out of Winter, which is like a trashier, surrealistic The Walking Dead, which I also love.
Nat: I was shaken when I found out Jamey was only fifteen. I’d love to hear more about how her character came about.
Alison Stine: As far as music, I often listen to the same song over and over again when I’m revising, to kind of set the tone for the book (and so I don’t accidentally write down lyrics or something), and for Road Out of Winter, it was actually David Bowie’s song “Let Me Sleep Beside You.” It’s an early track, very creepy if you listen to the lyrics, very big 70s guitars and crashing sounds, and it made me think of Jamey, and worry for her.
Marisa: Would you want to see Road Out of Winter adapted for film or television? I kept thinking as I read, Wow, this would be a great movie or TV show.
map7880: Agree, it would be a great movie.
Alison Stine: I would love Road Out of Winter to be a movie. Any director, any format. Go for it.
My favorite thing is art inspiring art, and whatever direction any artist would like to take it would be full-speed ahead for me (though I think a scary Netflix move would be best!).
Marisa: We’ve got just a few minutes left, but one last question from me: the end of the novel leaves us feeling hope for Wil, as we discussed at the start of the chat, but doesn’t tie anything up neatly. Why did you choose this ending? In your own mind, where does Wil go from the book’s end forward? Does she survive?
Alison Stine: I do think Wil survives. I think she joins the colony on top of the hill, which may include men, but I think part of her journey is learning to trust, including trusting the right men. That was my journey, too, as an artist and as a person.
Wil is a survivor. Jamey is a survivor. Starla is a survivor. And together, they’re going to make a new world. And maybe it’s a world led by women. Maybe it’ll take almost the entire wide world freezing or burning down to do it, but maybe it’s time.
Marisa: That is the perfect note to end on. Ali, thank you so much for joining us today to talk about Road Out of Winter—and for writing such a wonderful, hopeful, and fun (!) book.
And thanks to everyone for joining us, and for your great questions and comments!
Nat: Thank you so much! It was a fantastic read, and so wonderful to hear more about the story and your process. Can’t wait for your next book!
map7880: Thank you for the fascinating chat, Ms. Stine. You have a wonderful, imaginative, strong voice. Keep it going, and don’t let the world bring you down.
Alison Stine: Thank you so much! I really appreciate your wonderful questions and careful, smart readings, especially during this time. Art matters more than ever. Thank you for making it so!
Marisa: Here’s to imagining a hopeful new future!
Photograph of Alison Stine by Ellee Achten.