Prove your humanity

This interview was originally published on December 20, 2021.

As Shell builds its petrochemical facility to make the building blocks of plastic in Beaver County, Pennsylvania, and more ethane crackers are being considered for the region, a novel about plastic pollution in Appalachia seems well-timed.Trashlands cover

This year’s Trashlands takes place in an eponymous junkyard where decades into the future a
group of people try to squeeze an existence out of the scraps that remain from our modern way of life.

The central character, Coral, named for the coralroot orchid, which has gone extinct, struggles to keep her family together and make sense out of this dystopian reality. Coral doesn’t remember a time when there were four seasons, while she and scrapes together meals from flour made of crickets.

Author Alison Stine created this world. A journalist and staff culture writer at Salon, Stine’s previous speculative fiction book, Road Out of Winter won the 2021 Philip K. Dick Award. The Allegheny Front’s Kara Holsopple spoke with Stine about some of the themes in Trashlands.

LISTEN to the interview

Kara Holsopple: This book takes place in the future after life-altering floods and fires that happen as a result of climate change. Appalachia is now known as “Scrappalachia.” Can you describe this imagined version of the region? 

Alison Stine: I think of my novels, including this book, Trashlands, as our world only tweaked a little bit. It’s a little more extreme. I kind of feel like this may be a way that we’re heading, and in this book, there is so much plastic in the world that it’s used as currency.

Courtesy of Alison Stine

Courtesy of Alison Stine

Plastic is one of the only things of value – or at least they make it have value – still left. I was thinking, in the wake of these 100-year floods –  worse than 100 year floods – these unprecedented floods, what would be left when the waters recede? And I think it would be plastic, something we have a lot of now.

I lived for most of my adult life in Appalachian Ohio. And you know, some people still consider that part of the country kind of a wasteland or a junkyard, a big junkyard. And so I decided to just take that idea, which I think is false, of course, and put it to the extreme. It’s full of junk now. It’s full of scrap. And so it’s called Scrappalachia.

Holsopple: There are some recognizable aspects of Scrappalachia, like it’s still overrun with deer, and acid mine drainage, our orange streams from pollution are still a problem. In Scrappalachia, people work as pluckers. They’re nomadic and they risk their lives to pick plastic, like bottle caps, from rivers and other places to sell. As you mentioned, plastic is also the currency. Can you say a little bit more about why plastic? 

Stine: When I first wrote this book, I dreamed it, actually. I was sleeping in a school bus at the time. I’m a single mom and I don’t get much time alone, and so the very few times I do get alone, I just try to go somewhere remote, even more remote than where I was living in rural Ohio. 

So I had gone to this 1980 Bluebird school bus that had been converted into a very rustic cabin, no indoor plumbing or anything, and I couldn’t sleep. The first night, I dreamed about this woman, this woman named Coral. I knew she was a young mother, and I knew she hadn’t exactly been a mother by choice, and that she wanted more for her life. And I also knew she was surrounded by plastic. 

So I thought, what kind of situation would she be in that that would be her world? And also, what kind of job would she do? I mean, I am someone who comes from a working class background, and so work is very important to me. In literary novels, they never say how people make their money. 

One thing I think the pandemic has taught us is that we still have to make rent and we still have to buy groceries, even though it feels like the world is burning down around us, literally. So I thought in the book it was important for me to show what people did for work and how they could make a living out of the junk they had been left, and the junk was plastic.

Holsopple: Something that stuck with me from the book is when one of the characters looks at a plastic coffee cup and imagines a time – our time – when people only used an item like this once and then threw it away. Are you hoping readers will think about their own consumption? 

Stine: I’m a novelist, so I don’t set out to have a moral in my stories or teach a lesson. I really just want to tell a good story. And this is the story that came to me in a dream, and so this is a story I’m telling. 

But, you know, of course, the environment is very important to my life, as I think it should be to everyone’s. I was raised by family farmers. Everyone in my family, both sides, forever, have been small family farmers. So I learned early on how important the Earth is and how to take care of it and how it’s changing. You know, farmers are going to be the first to notice how it’s changing – or were the first to notice. So it makes sense that those concerns, because they’re so much in my life, are going to be in my fiction, too. 

My day job is in journalism, so I know what it’s like to try to teach someone or to try to give light to an important issue. But I think that we can learn from fiction too, and we can learn from art. If someone comes away from my book and thinks a little bit more about how they’re consuming or thinks a little bit more about the Earth or pays attention to it, I think that’s the best we can hope for as storytellers of all kinds. 

Holsopple:  I know you did a lot of research for this book because there are a lot of environmental themes in it. For example, the numbers on plastic items like the #1, the #2, to tell you how to recycle them. Those numbers don’t really mean that much to us now because there’s really no way to recycle some of these items.

Stine: It was kind of depressing, the research I had to do. You know, when I first write stories, I just write, I don’t really outline. I have more of a fly by the seat of my pants kind of writer because I like to be surprised and I like to not know where I’m going. I just let the story take over. 

But after the first draft, it became clear that I was going to have to learn a lot about plastic. And I did. I learned what plastic floats and what sinks, what even today really can’t be recycled because it’s so thin and cheap. And whether it’s worth it for corporations to recycle or it’s cheaper for them to make a new bottle. These are all these uncomfortable truths that I had to wrestle with, even with this fiction book, to make it real. 

Holsopple: The plastic that is sold in Scrappalachia is sent to factories to be made into plastic bricks that people are using to build with in cities in other places. There are still cities in this future where you can get medicine. They even have newspapers, but people in Scrappalachia are really disconnected from that because there’s no real roads or electricity or cell phones anymore. It’s just a place where this resource that’s needed–this plastic–comes from and the environment is wrecked for the people who live there–which sounds kind of familiar. 

Stine: Yes, it does. 

Kara Holsopple: Sometimes we call places like that sacrifice zones. How did you use the history of energy extraction in Appalachia to create this version of the future? 

Stine: I’ve lived in Appalachian Ohio, for most of my adult life. My son was born there at home and I lived in kind of a small, remote town that does have this history and the history is everywhere. 

When you live in a place like that, as it is in a lot of parts of Appalachia, you know where the mines are. Some of them are open. Most of them are closed. I wrote an essay once which told the true story that some children in my hometown color the rivers on their little drawings for kindergarten red or orange, because that’s the color of the creeks in the woods. 

For a long time, my son and his classmates couldn’t drink the water at their school. The water fountains were covered over with garbage bags because there is lead in the water. So I think when it’s everywhere, I think it’s easier to think about. If you pay attention, I think you can see the legacy of that kind of exploitation, and it’s not a history, you know, it’s still ongoing and it happens everyday. So I was thinking of a way to talk about it without talking about it. You know, the characters in the book are not miners, they’re not frackers. But they do try to take the little resources they have out of this very ravaged countryside. 

Holsopple: There’s also a flipside to the kind of scarcity that is in the book: the ingenuity of the people of Scrappalachia – reusing plastic items like a notebook spiral for a splint or a hair tie. The main character, Coral, is an artist. She uses scraps to create sculptures in the woods. Can you talk about that theme of resilience and possibility in the book?

Stine: I’m really glad that you got that theme out of it, because I think as writers, you should stay away from certain reviews of your books. I think some people have dismissed my book because they’re worried it’s going to be dark, you know? And actually, I think the opposite is true. I think that in a book about the end of the world, we need to think about what world would be next, right? How would we make the new world? Maybe we can make the new world center on women, and maybe we can make the new world be more environmentally conscious and be more aware of the exploitation that happened before. I think that’s part of it. 

I think another part of it is pulling from my own life. My own life didn’t go the way I planned. I’m a single mom and I didn’t plan that. I went to school to be a professor and I never got that job. And so I think, pulling from that kind of resilience and that kind of making do that I’ve had to do for a big part of my life, I think helps a lot. 

I also think that there is still beauty everywhere. Even at the end of the world, there’s going to be art and there’s going to be dance and there’s going to be music. So who are the people that are going to make it and how are they going to make it? It makes sense for me that Coral is a junk artist. That’s the material that she has, right? Just like she’s making a life out of scrap, she’s making art out of leftover plastic. 

Holsopple: I feel like your description of Scrappalachia, as a backward place, a forgotten place, is in some ways how some people who don’t live in this region think of Appalachia and Appalachians. I think one of the characters says that the people who live in Appalachia should tell their own story. Is that something that you were thinking of when you wrote the book?

Stine: Absolutely. I mean, my day job is in journalism, I was living in Appalachia during the last presidential election, and reporters who don’t live there kind of descend upon the region and want to meet somebody in a diner and want to sum everything up in an afternoon and then fly home. I just got so tired of it. 

There is a character in Trashlands who is a bit of what we would call parachute journalists, right? He’s from the city. He comes in and he thinks he’s going to write this story, and then he meets people and he falls in love with the region and things change. I think he starts to question, ‘Should I even tell this story or I could ever know this story from only being here for a short time?’ And also that there are many stories. 

That’s the other thing. I think sometimes people dismiss Appalachia and even Ohio and the Midwest as like one big monolith. But they are really big cities there, and there are really small rural towns. There is art and there is culture and there is science and technology and there are empty factories. I mean, it’s just not one thing. I think that people struggle with that. I hope that’s something that maybe someone might take away from the book, too, is that there are many stories and this is just one.

Alison Stine, author of Trashlandsis a journalist and staff culture writer at Salon.