Tuesday, September 8, 2020

Road Out of Winter

Road Out of Winter
  Road Out of Winter
Author:  Alison Stine
Publication Information:  MIRA. 2020. 320 pages.
ISBN:  0778309924 / 978-0778309925

Book Source:  I received this book through NetGalley and a publisher's blog tour free of cost in exchange for an honest review.

Opening Sentence:  "I used to have dreams that Lobo would be arrested."

Favorite Quote:  "'The world's gone crazy,' Grayson said. 'No,' Janey said, looking out the window. 'It was always this way.'"

***** BLOG TOUR *****


The world is an eternal winter. Actually, we don't know if it is the entire world because phone, internet, and all connection has been lost. It is definitely eternal winter in Ohio and Appalachia. The apocalypse is never explained, but at the beginning of the book, it is no longer new to this community. The book begins at a point of desperation with people trying to flee the winter and society devolving into lawlessness and profiteering.

Wil, Grayson, and Dance are all alone, each having been abandoned by family. Wil lives alone and runs a weed farm. Grayson and Dance are also surviving. The theme of abandonment and the search for love plays out throughout the book. There is also an unrequited romance in the book, but it does not really seem to serve a purpose other than to be there and to clearly identify a character type. Reading the author's interview, it appears that identifying a character is the point.

This ragtag group creates its own family until it doesn't.  The overarching theme still becomes every person for themselves. The family comes together and then dissipates just as quickly and easily. That, however, is the main emotional impact (or lack thereof) of the book. Everything that happens is just there. For all its harrowing circumstances - an apocalypse, drugs, lawlessness, looting, destruction, murder, rape, suicide, and more, the book does not elicit an emotional reaction from me. I never truly connect with or vest in the characters.

The story becomes literally a story of the road. The main characters - Wil, Grayson, Dance, and those who join them on the road - carry through the story. Yet, the book feels like vignettes of each challenge they face and each community - the town, the Church, the Skate State, the Occupied Forest, the dressed in white folk and so on - they encounter. With just a bit of background added, those could almost stand individually as short stories for each community represents a stereotype. The stories are vivid and descriptive, but the characters binding the story together seem to remain the same throughout. The ultimate climax of the book is at best a tenuous connection that truly does not have to do with the theme of living in a post-apocalyptic world.

One thing I do not understand in this book is the geography. Will stars off in Ohio and is bound for California to find her mother. She has a phone connection long enough to map out somewhat of a route. Later of the journey, they manage to find some maps. Yet, the rest of the story references West Virginia and Tennessee. Looking at a real map, those two states are not on a route from Ohio to California. Suspending disbelief, it could be said that forced detours and lack of direction cause this group to veer off. However, the reference to West Virginia and Tennessee almost seems to imply that they headed off the in wrong direction - east - to begin with. Warranted, where they are becomes somewhat irrelevant to the story, but it is a jarring detail.

The ending, when it comes, provides no closure. It is not a cliffhanger but does appear to be simply a stopping point. I wonder if a sequel is planned to continue the journey. At this time, I don't know that I will follow further along the road out of winter.

Author Bio

ALISON STINE lives in the rural Appalachian foothills. A recipient of an Individual Artist Fellowship from the National Endowment for the Arts (NEA), she was a Stegner Fellow at Stanford University. She has written for The Atlantic, The Nation, The Guardian, and many others. She is a contributing editor with the Economic Hardship Reporting Project.

About the Book

Surrounded by poverty and paranoia her entire life, Wil has been left behind in her small Appalachian town by her mother and her best friend. Not only is she tending her stepfather’s illegal marijuana farm alone, but she’s left to watch the world fall further into chaos in the face of a climate crisis brought on by another year of unending winter. So opens Alison Stine’s moving and lyrical cli-fi novel, ROAD OUT OF WINTER (MIRA Trade; September 1, 2020; $17.99).

With her now priceless grow lights stashed in her truck and a pouch of precious seeds, Wil upends her life to pursue her mother in California, collecting an eclectic crew of fellow refugees along the way. She’s determined to start over and use her skills to grow badly needed food in impossible farming conditions, but the icy roads and desperate strangers are treacherous to Wil and her gang. Her green thumb becomes the target of a violent cult and their volatile leader, and Wil must use all her cunning and resources to protect her newfound family and the hope they have found within each other.

Author Q&A

1. If Wil had a favorite song, what would it be?
I feel like she would have grown up listening to country, and to the music her mama liked, as I did, like Linda Ronstadt, Crystal Gale. I think she would really like Kacey Musgraves, and would have snuck a copy her albums to her friend who was raised very strict. But I think Wil’s favorite song would be Burning House by Cam. It was on the radio when I was writing. I used to sing it to my son. The lyrics speak a lot to Wil’s situation: “stay here with you/til this dream is gone.” It would have been on the radio when she was driving home from seeing the person who could never love her the way she wanted, driving through the place that could never love her back.

2. Which character in ROAD OUT OF WINTER do you most relate to?
Wil. We were a few months into the pandemic when I realized I actually am Wil. Writing her made me realize I’m stronger than I know. I can get my family cross-country safely. I can make it work. All of her plant knowledge is my own, which I gained from living in rural Appalachia for so long, and from my friends and neighbors. I cry more than she does, though.

3. What was your favorite scene to write? No spoilers!
Everything involving the skaters, though it scared me too. My son is a skater and my partner is (and I used to be, before getting hurt!). Friends of ours have a homemade skate ramp out in the country. Several of my friends basically have their own compounds which, I’m not gonna lie, is a dream. Anytime I can convey the wildness, strangeness, and the abandon of rural Appalachian Ohio is a good writing day. It can be scary but it can also be really fun, living in the middle of nowhere. You can do what you want, to both good and bad results.

4. Who was your favorite character to write and why?
Jamey. In my real life, in part because of my disability, I’m quiet, especially in new situations. I hold back. Jamey says the things I wish I could. She’s also, as my smart friend and early reader Ellee pointed out, a survivor: she can be sarcastic and harsh sometimes because of what she had to endure. Her defense mechanism is pretending not to care. But she does care, deeply.

5. Why was it important to you to have a queer character in your story?
I didn’t consciously set out to make Wil queer and I don’t know that she would call herself that exactly, if she has that language or community yet. She loves who she loves, but her experience of romantic love in a small town has been things just not working out. Nobody really seeing her. That was also my experience for a long time. I’ve only felt comfortable calling myself bisexual in the past few years, despite having had long-term relationships with both men and women. That was how I grew up, in a small conservative town. Wil wants love, and the woman she loves wants something else, a bigger life, that Wil always hoped she could make somehow right here where she grew up. My experience is that sometimes you have to make that life elsewhere. Sometimes rural spaces are not the friendliest, home is not the easiest. But I am very proud and glad to have a bi woman in a rural space in my book. I guess I wrote the book I needed when I was young and couldn’t find. It’s still hard to find bi characters, especially in adult literary and commercial fiction. It’s even harder to find them celebrated. We seemed to be skipped over quite a lot. Often I feel invisible, like my life and experiences and struggles don’t matter. Being bi is just who she is, it’s not a plot device. Just a fact, as it is in life.

6. Are you a pantser or a plotter?
I like to surprise myself so I am mostly just plunging into writing. The best stories come from dreams, in my opinion. Then once you have the dream, you need to wait a little while until characters and the main events take shape. I usually know the three main acts before I start to write a book, but that’s it. I start to know the end by about the middle. With ROAD OUT OF WINTER, I knew nothing, because the book originally did not go where I wanted it to and so I stopped writing. I thought they were going to go clear across the country and so I stopped. When I came back to the manuscript a few months later, I realized, no, they were never supposed to get out of Appalachia. And I finished the book.

7. Where is your favorite place to write?
I can work anywhere, and have had to, being a single mother for most of my child’s life. But a lot of ROAD OUT OF WINTER, and my next book, were written and revised at The Westend Ciderhouse, a cidery and bar in my town. I would go in the afternoon—they opened early on Fridays—and had my favorite table. Nobody bothered me. Several of the bartenders were my friends but they knew I was working. It was very quiet, and kinda dark and cool, and I would just write—and drink one cider, until it was time for my son to come home from school. I write better in bars than in coffeeshops. I guess I’m just that type.

8. What's the worst writing advice you ever received?
That you need the approval of a teacher or professor or workshop or a degree to write. Writing is being a collector and interpreter of experiences. You don’t have to study writing formally or major in it, and looking back, I kinda wish I had explored more of my other interests in music and theatre and art. All that would have helped my writing too. Don’t let go of the other stuff that makes you happy. Everything you do helps fill your well as a writer—other art, sports, travel, friendships. Books are your best teachers. The best thing you can do to be a better writer is to read, to experience, to write, and to live.

9. What is the best book you’ve read this year?
The best book I read this year so far was Meg Elison’s The Book of the Unnamed Midwife. I read and loved all the books in the trilogy. They were some of the first books I could get through in the early days of the pandemic, when my mind and heart were all over the place. They helped center me, in part because they made me feel seen. The trilogy focuses on women, queer folks, bi folks, and how we might survive in a world that doesn’t really see or even want us—and that matters to me.

10. What are you working on next?
My second novel TRASHLANDS is coming out from MIRA in the fall of 2021. It’s about a single mom at a strip club at the end of the world. She has to choose between being an artist, being a parent, or being in love, which isn’t much of a choice at all but the kind that women throughout time have been forced to make. And I’m starting to write my next novel, about a reporter who is hard of hearing (like me!) and is called back home to investigate something really bad.

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