When The Kenyon Review published Alison Stine’s essay “On Poverty” on Leap Day of 2016, the Appalachian author’s commentary on classism in the writing world-- a piece full of bite but avoiding vitriol--went viral. Like, really viral. Stine’s work has appeared in publications typically associated with the literary elite (read: writers who got a head start): The Paris Review, The Atlantic, The Nation, Tin House, and others. Two years after “On Poverty” made its debut, SPINE caught up with Stine, whose novel The Grower will appear from Mira in fall 2020.
Stine maintains that the best writing comes from living, from tiring work outside of academia, from feeling the earth shake when coal mines get dynamited, or from the raw, driving necessity of feeding a child. How would she know? She’s lived it. She’s living it. And she’s creating from inside it.
Stine has long been enamored with creation. “I’ve been telling stories as long as I can remember. My mother taught me to read when I was very young, and even before then, she would dictate stories and verses I told her,” Stine said. “We lived way out in the country. I spent a lot of time alone as a child, and with elderly babysitters. Because of this, and my nature, which is more introverted, I’ve always been more of an inward-turning person. Visual art was important to me as well, and dance and theatre basically saved my life. I did community theatre constantly starting when I was in third grade. In real life, I was shy, but on stage, I wasn’t. It was my way to make it through: by being someone else.”
Eventually, the page became Stine’s platform. “I started writing songs when I was a teenager, and that was another way for me to be alone, be in my own bubble, which I think I personally need to survive,” Stine said. “To build up a kind of dome around myself and just do my own thing.” As she grew up and attended college and graduate school, Stine’s love for writing became her occupation; though, as is the case for many students of creative writing, imagination and reflection did not prove lucrative. Or even realistic. Throw in single parenthood and like, not having a trust fund, and you may begin to see how the privilege-driven demands of the writing life began to bear down on Stine.
Nevertheless, she persisted. It paid off, and it hasn’t quite paid off enough.
“As far as my process: I work whenever I can for as long as I can. Before I became a single mother, I would write as soon as I woke up and stop when I was dying for breakfast, or when I had to go to work, which at the time was teaching. But since becoming a parent—and a parent raising my kid alone—I have had to fight to make work,” Stine said. “Often, I have to hire a babysitter in order to get it done, which is stressful: is this thing I’m making really worth the $40 it takes to crank out a rough draft? When I’m writing a novel, like THE GROWER, I try to write at least 1,000 words a day—and I do subscribe to the keep-going method: just get the first draft out, let it be messy, let it be wrong, just let it happen. I print my drafts out, and then I revise them longhand, then I type up the changes, and revise again. Revising can happen anywhere. I can pick up and put down my work as I have to, as life interrupts. I can hold the thread for a long time.”
Some writers (the author of this article included) hold fast to tidy routines or curated superstitions in order to sustain their writing practices. Stine, however, works when she can. She makes time, even if making time means tearing the seam of her day. “I know some people—especially childless men—who are precious about writing. They have to be in the mood, or sit at a certain spot, or create at a particular time of day. I don’t know any single parent artists like that. Single parent artists are hungry to work. We’re dying for it,” Stine said. “We’re dying for it. If you give me five minutes, I will make something. If I had a whole day, I could make something big. I haven’t had a whole day for a long time.”
As far as her novel The Grower is concerned, Stine says the novel sings the honest praise of her home, the foothills of Ohioan Appalachia. “My home in Appalachia hugely influences my work, as it has my life. THE GROWER is set here, in the foothills. For a long time I’ve lived in the poorest county in the state. It’s also the most loving, forgiving, and hardworking,” Stine says. “Here you learn to hustle, to make do, and to make enough—and enough isn’t really that much. You can survive on very little. Just a bit can keep you going. My home taught me how to pick up and keep going.”
Pick up and keep going. This rhythm seems to be at the heart of all honest writing. As does clarity. As does the savory splendor of telling it like it is. That’s what it’s like to read Stine: to see all facets of a place and the people it produces.
Mary Ryan Karnes is a freelance writer and a Master's candidate in fiction at the University of Southern Mississippi.