Solo Parenting and Writing in Appalachia
An interview with acclaimed poet Alison Stine about her debut novel, Supervision
Supervision (HarperVoyager, 2015), the moody, mysterious debut novel by Solo Mom Alison Stine, tells the story of Esme Wong, a rebellious teenager sent to live with her estranged grandmother in a gothic Appalachian town where nothing is what it seems. Full of ghosts, longing, and loneliness, this lyrical young-adult novel is clearly the brainchild of a talented poet. Recipient of both the Ruth Lilly and Stegner fellowships, Stine is also the author of three acclaimed poetry collections. To learn more about this amazing writer, check out her website.
Stine sat down with ESME’s Domenica Ruta to talk about mothering and writing.
Q: How did you come to solo motherhood?
A: I didn’t plan on being a Solo Mom. It happened soon after my son was born, an unexpected separation, and we just kept going. I completed my PhD when he was a baby; I wrote my dissertation with him strapped to my chest. I think all single moms know this: you just do it. How do you do it? You just do. Now my son is four. He and I live in a little house on a big hill in Appalachia. I write and teach and try to keep up with him.
Q: How has motherhood, particularly solo motherhood, changed your writing process?
A: You know, I always write, no matter what my life circumstances. If I haven’t written for a few days, I feel hungry, like I’ve skipped too many dinners. Now, with being a writer and a mother, I get much less sleep in order to get the writing done. Supervision was completed after several weeks of 4 a.m. nights. I would make a pot of coffee when my son went to bed and stay up editing until my fingers shook. Then I’d get up at 7:30 and start the day all over again. So I think the major way motherhood has changed my writing process is that now I know I’m unstoppable. I know how much I want this. And I sacrifice for this and work for this writing life every single day. Motherhood taught me how hard I would work—and continue to work—in order to write.
Q: How much outside help do you get with child care and household chores?
A: My family helps a lot. I’m fortunate in that my parents live fairly close by and take care of my son a few weekends a month. I have several trusty babysitters, including a former student, whom my son adores. I’m on my own when it comes to cooking and cleaning, school pickups and drop-offs, and all the household work. That can be overwhelming, especially with a high-energy, high-mess preschooler. I try to remember that my son probably won’t remember the dust bunnies under the couch, but he will remember our creek walks. I try to make memories, not chores.
Q: How long did it take you to write Supervision? What was your daily schedule like?
A: The initial draft of Supervision took a couple months. I was living in New York City at the time, newly married, and I couldn’t find work as a teacher. I would go to the Rose Reading Room at the New York Public Library on 42nd Street and write, like a job. I got to the library when it opened in the morning, and I would usually stay until closing. Then I edited Supervision, off and on, for a period of seven years. I wrote other projects. Books came and went, but Supervision was always there in a drawer, waiting.
Q: Do you have any advice for Solo Moms trying to balance writing, parenting, and wage earning?
A: If any of you figure out how to do it, let me know! It’s a struggle every month bills are due, every day deadlines are approaching, and it’s already school pickup time, and raccoons tore the garbage out again, and what am I going to put in his lunch tomorrow?! But you know, you’re not alone. I’m not alone. There are so many of us out there. We’re in this together. And the work that we’re doing, both child-rearing and creative/career work, is the work that teaches our children—models for them—how to live, how to survive, how to make it, and how to be happy. Know that your kids are proud of you. The day Supervision was published, my son told everyone about it at day care. Of course, he told them the book was about him (it isn’t!), but he knew enough to know that it was work, that I had tried, that the book is important to me. It matters to him to see his mom work hard and try and accomplish something. And he talks all the time about finding his own “art.”
Q: Esme Wong, the protagonist of Supervision, is a rebel beset by longing. How much of you/your life is in her?
A: Esme was loosely inspired by a friend’s daughter. She’s Chinese-American while I’m of Cherokee descent; but, like Esme, my heart is bigger than my head sometimes. Esme has a hopefulness as well as a sense of adventure like mine. And she never gives up, even on people who kind of gave up on her. It doesn’t look like my life is going to work out in a way so that I have another child. So, in a way, Esme is my other child, my daughter. I worry about her—but I know she’s gonna be great.
Q: What’s next?
A: Right now I’m putting the finishing touches on a novella called The Protectors. Amazon invited me to write something for its Kindle Singles program, and I ended up creating a whole new novella. The main character is a teen girl, the sheriff’s daughter, whose sense of right and wrong is shaken when she meets a graffiti artist and learns that the artist, who calls himself her “protector,” is hiding a secret. The Protectors will soon be available on Amazon Kindle Singles.
Domenica Ruta, ESME’s Showcase Writing Curator, is the author of the New York Times best-selling memoir With or Without You. She’s a Solo Mom who lives in New York City with her son and her dog. You can follow her on Twitter at@DomenicaMary.
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