Trashlands by Alison Stine
A resonant, visionary novel about the power of art and the sacrifices we are willing to make for the ones we love
A few generations from now, the coastlines of the continent have been redrawn by floods and tides. Global powers have agreed to not produce any new plastics, and what is left has become valuable: garbage is currency.
In the region-wide junkyard that Appalachia has become, Coral is a “plucker,” pulling plastic from the rivers and woods. She’s stuck in Trashlands, a dump named for the strip club at its edge, where the local women dance for an endless loop of strangers and the club’s violent owner rules as unofficial mayor.
Amid the polluted landscape, Coral works desperately to save up enough to rescue her child from the recycling factories, where he is forced to work. In her stolen free hours, she does something that seems impossible in this place: Coral makes art.
When a reporter from a struggling city on the coast arrives in Trashlands, Coral is presented with an opportunity to change her life. But is it possible to choose a future for herself?
Told in shifting perspectives, Trashlands is a beautifully drawn and wildly imaginative tale of a parent’s journey, a story of community and humanity in a changed world.
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Alison Stine is an award-winning poet and author. Recipient of an Individual Artist Fellowship from the National Endowment for the Arts (NEA), and an Ohio Arts Council grant, she was a Wallace Stegner Fellow and received the Studs Terkel Award for Media and Journalism. She works as a freelance reporter with The New York Times, writes for The Washington Post, The Atlantic, The Guardian, 100 Days in Appalachia, ELLE, The Kenyon Review, and others, and has been a storyteller on The Moth. After living in Appalachian Ohio for many years, she now lives and writes in Colorado with her partner, her son, and a small orange cat.
Author Q & A
- Give us an out of context quote from your book to warm our hearts.
“People had thought there would be no more time, but there was. Just different time. Time moving slower. Time after disaster, when they still had to live.”
- What’s the last book you read that inspired you?
Lily Cole’s Who Cares Wins: Reasons for Optimism in a Changed World. I’m quoted in the book, which is how we met. She had me on her podcast. It’s a book of ideas and hope for sustainability and environmental action. And it inspires me that she is able to leverage her platform as an actor and model to try to do good in the world. This world really wants you to be just one thing, and she resists that, and converts the attention into calls for action.
- Name one song or artist that gets you fired up.
Lana Del Rey’s “Swan Song.” It has a slow build, dark and intense, like I hope my work is. I don’t listen to music with lyrics when I draft, but I listen to the same song over and over again when I revise. That song becomes the heartbeat of the book. And “Swan Song” was one of the heartbeats of Trashlands.
- How do you find readers in today’s market?
There’s only so much a writer can control. I do everything in my control–post on social media, do events, publish essays–but at the end of the day, my job as a writer too is to tell the best story I can, to the best of my ability, in the time I’m given. What happens after that is a function of money and attention and decisions that don’t include me. As a disabled writer, it’s especially hard– nobody does year-end best lists about us. I try to remember that the writers I most admire–Octavia Butler, Angela Carter–wrote a ton. They just kept writing. I have to just keep writing, keeping going, too.
- Do you come up with the hook first, or do you create characters first and then dig through until you find a hook?
Every book is different and every book teaches you how to write it. For me, trying to be analytical about things like plot or meaning doesn’t work. If I have a story I can’t let go of, something I dreamed, or something that keeps coming back to me, I listen to it. Often a character speaks first.
- Coffee or tea?
Definitely coffee. I’m a lightweight, so I try to limit myself to one cup a day.
- How do you create your characters?
One thing that I think is missing from some contemporary literary fiction is work. As someone from a working-class background, what characters do for money, how they feed themselves and live, is important to me, and can define character. Often what you want to do is different than what you have to do. I try to make it very clear how my characters support themselves, which can be a big part of characterization and plot–like in Trashlands, where several major characters work at a strip club at the end of the world– but also, what are their larger wishes? What are their unfulfilled dreams? What do they regret?
- Who would be your dream cast if TRASHLANDS became a movie?
Lana Del Rey as Foxglove, Erin Kellyman as Coral, Eric Roberts as Trillium, MJ Rodriguez as Summer, and the late John Dunsworth as Mr. Fall.
- If you could grab lunch with a literary character who would it be?
Jet from Alice Hoffman’s Practical Magic series. I just read The Book of Magic, which reminded me how much I love Hoffman’s characters and that world. We all need an aunt in our lives who’s a witch, someone who’s both no nonsense and a lot of nonsense–and who serves cake for breakfast. (It just occurred to me that I may be turning into that kind of witch myself.) We need someone to remind us of our own personal magic.
- What are you currently reading?
Township, a collection of stories by fellow Ohioan Jamie Lyn Smith, which is slated to be published this December.
Coral was pregnant then. She hid it well in a dress she had found in the road, sun-bleached and mud-dotted, only a little ripped. The dress billowed to her knees, over the tops of her boots. She was named for the wildflower which hadn’t been seen since before her birth, and for ocean life, poisoned and gone. It was too dangerous to go to the beach anymore. You never knew when storms might come.
Though they were going—to get a whale.
A boy had come from up north with a rumor: a whale had beached. Far off its course, but everything was off by then: the waterways, the paths to the ocean, its salt. You went where you had to go, where weather and work and family—but mostly weather—took you.
The villagers around Lake Erie were carving the creature up, taking all the good meat and fat. The strainer in its mouth could be used for bows, the bones in its chest for tent poles or greenhouse beams.
It was a lot of fuel for maybe nothing, a rumor spun by an out-of-breath boy. But there would be pickings along the road. And there was still gas, expensive but available. So the group went, led by Mr. Fall. They brought kayaks, lashed to the top of the bus, but in the end, the water was shallow enough they could wade.
They knew where to go because they could smell it. You got used to a lot of smells in the world: rotten food, chemicals, even shit. But death… Death was hard to get used to.
“Masks up,” Mr. Fall said.
Some of the men in the group—all men except Coral—had respirators, painter’s masks, or medical masks. Coral had a handkerchief of faded blue paisley, knotted around her neck. She pulled it up over her nose. She had dotted it with lavender oil from a vial, carefully tipping out the little she had left. She breathed shallowly through fabric and flowers. Mr. Fall just had a T-shirt, wound around his face. He could have gotten a better mask, Coral knew, but he was leading the crew. He saved the good things for the others.
She was the only girl on the trip, and probably the youngest person. Maybe fifteen, she thought. Months ago, she had lain in the icehouse with her teacher, a man who would not stay. He was old enough to have an old-fashioned name, Robert, to be called after people who had lived and died as they should. Old enough to know better, Mr. Fall had said, but what was better, anymore?
Everything was temporary. Robert touched her in the straw, the ice blocks sweltering around them. He let himself want her, or pretend to, for a few hours. She tried not to miss him. His hands that shook at her buttons would shake in a fire or in a swell of floodwater. Or maybe violence had killed him.
She remembered it felt cool in the icehouse, a relief from the outside where heat beat down. The last of the chillers sputtered out chemicals. The heat stayed trapped in people’s shelters, like ghosts circling the ceiling. Heat haunted. It would never leave.
News would stop for long stretches. The information that reached Scrappalachia would be written hastily on damp paper, across every scrawled inch. It was always old news.
The whale would be picked over by the time they reached it.
Mr. Fall led a practiced team. They would not bother Coral, were trained not to mess with anything except the mission. They parked the bus in an old lot, then descended through weeds to the beach. The stairs had washed away. And the beach, when they reached it, was not covered with dirt or rock as Coral had expected, but with a fine yellow grit so bright it hurt to look at, a blankness stretching on.
“Take off your boots,” Mr. Fall said.
Coral looked at him, but the others were listening, knot-ting plastic laces around their necks, stuffing socks into pockets.
“Go on, Coral. It’s all right.” Mr. Fall’s voice was gentle, muffled by the shirt.
Coral had her job to do. Only Mr. Fall and the midwife knew for sure she was pregnant, though others were talking. She knew how to move so that no one could see.
But maybe, she thought as she leaned on a fence post and popped off her boot, she wanted people to see. To tell her what to do, how to handle it. Help her. He had to have died, Robert—and that was the reason he didn’t come back for her. Or maybe he didn’t know about the baby?
People had thought there would be no more time, but there was. Just different time. Time moving slower. Time after disaster, when they still had to live.
She set her foot down on the yellow surface. It was warm. She shot a look at Mr. Fall.
The surface felt smooth, shifting beneath her toes. Coral slid her foot across, light and slightly painful. It was the first time she had felt sand.
The sand on the beach made only a thin layer. People had started to take it. Already, people knew sand, like everything, could be valuable, could be sold.
Coral took off her other boot. She didn’t have laces, to tie around her neck. She carried the boots under her arm. Sand clung to her, pebbles jabbing at her feet. Much of the trash on the beach had been picked through. What was left was diapers and food wrappers and cigarettes smoked down to filters.
“Watch yourselves,” Mr. Fall said.
Down the beach they followed the smell. It led them on, the sweet rot scent. They came around a rock outcropping, and there was the whale, massive as a ship run aground: red, purple, and white. The colors seemed not real. Birds were on it, the black birds of death. The enemies of scavengers, their competition. Two of the men ran forward, waving their arms and whooping to scare off the birds.
“All right everybody,” Mr. Fall said to the others. “You know what to look for.”
Except they didn’t. Not really. Animals weren’t their specialty.
People had taken axes to the carcass, to carve off meat. More desperate people had taken spoons, whatever they could use to get at something to take home for candle wax or heating fuel, or to barter or beg for something else, something better.
“You ever seen a whale?” one of the men, New Orleans, asked Coral.
She shook her head. “No.”
“This isn’t a whale,” Mr. Fall said. “Not anymore. Keep your masks on.”
They approached it. The carcass sunk into the sand. Coral tried not to breathe deeply. Flesh draped from the bones of the whale. The bones were arched, soaring like buttresses, things that made up cathedrals—things she had read about in the book.
Bracing his arm over his mouth, Mr. Fall began to pry at the ribs. They were big and strong. They made a cracking sound, like a splitting tree.
New Orleans gagged and fell back.
Other men were dropping. Coral heard someone vomiting into the sand. The smell was so strong it filled her head and chest like a sound, a high ringing. She moved closer to give her feet something to do. She stood in front of the whale and looked into its gaping mouth.
There was something in the whale.
Something deep in its throat.
In one pocket she carried a knife always, and in the other she had a light: a precious flashlight that cast a weak beam. She switched it on and swept it over the whale’s tongue, picked black by the birds.
She saw a mass, opaque and shimmering, wide enough it blocked the whale’s throat. The whale had probably died of it, this blockage. The mass looked lumpy, twined with seaweed and muck, but in the mess, she could make out a water bottle.
It was plastic. Plastic in the animal’s mouth. It sparked in the beam of her flashlight.
Coral stepped into the whale.
Excerpted from Trashlands by Alison Stine, Copyright © 2021 by Alison Stine. Published by arrangement with Harlequin Books S.A.
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