Amy Jo Burns Interview
Amy Jo Burns is the author of the memoir Cinderland (2014), in which she reflects upon the abuse she and other young girls faced at the hands of a well-liked piano teacher in the Rust Belt town of Mercury, Pennsylvania. Her writing has appeared in The Paris Review Daily, Tin House, Ploughshares, Gay Magazine, Electric Literature, Literary Hub, and the anthology Not That Bad.
In her debut novel, Shiner—forthcoming from Riverhead Books on May 12, 2020—Burns tells the story of Wren Bird, a preacher’s daughter who has been cloistered away in a secluded Appalachian world of snakes, miracles, and powerful men. When a miracle performed by her father turns to tragedy, Wren must face her parents’ harrowing histories in order to move forward into her own future. A magical must-read, Shiner is a novel imbued with all the wonder and secrets of the lush West Virginia mountains.
Full of enthusiasm and wit, Burns is always a delight to talk to. We chatted over email, discussing the transition from memoir to novel, the risks of writing, and her upcoming novel, Shiner.
Your first book, a beautiful and haunting memoir called Cinderland, came out with Beacon Press back in 2014. Since it is a book that faces personal trauma and small-town isolation head-on, I assume there was some trepidation on your part when that release date came around. What was your post-Cinderland experience like, both writing-wise and otherwise?
I’ve never been so scared as I was when Cinderland was published. I was really afraid of what my hometown would think when they found out I’d written about something we’d all silently agreed to never speak of—which was one of many reasons I wrote the book. I wanted to understand why that fear had taken such a complete hold of me. The reactions from people who knew me when I was young were very mixed. It took me a while to see that this was ultimately a good thing. A close friend and mentor of mine told me that if everyone had liked the book, then it meant I hadn’t told the truth. The scandal that happened in my hometown was so complicated, and I don’t think anyone really got the chance to properly grieve because of all the silence surrounding it.
It’s possible that publishing Cinderland cost me the good opinion of a select few who used to know me, but the support I received was overwhelming. I regained old friendships I thought I’d lost. The mothers of my high school friends as well as my teachers reached out to tell me how proud they were. But even with all the love, I felt extremely exposed when the book came out. I’d laid bare my biggest shame. That’s not a complaint—I certainly signed up for it! But I felt a deep exhaustion that I didn’t know how to treat. I was also really sick of myself.
When I tried to write during that time period, I was longing for new material. Something that felt like uncharted territory. I was so surprised to find myself drawn to moonshiners—artisans who perfect their craft in the middle of the night because it isn’t safe (or legal) to do in daylight. I related to how misunderstood they must feel, and yet how resilient they are to continue doing what they love, regardless of what people may say. And that’s (in part) where the seeds of Shiner first took root.
Speaking of Shiner, when did you decide that a novel was your next move? How did you begin that new writing process?
Actually, it was Cinderland that caught me off guard! I’d always dreamed of being a novelist, but every time I sat down to write, it was clear that I was circling this thing that had happened to me that I was afraid to talk about. I realized if I didn’t write my way through those memories, then I’d always be writing around them. I wrote a few short essays and used them to apply to a nonfiction MFA program. When I got a phone call to let me know I’d been accepted, I was so shocked that I couldn’t even manage to say anything in response!
I spent the next two years learning how to write a memoir, and then the following two years after that actually writing it. I will always be so grateful I wrote a memoir first. It gave me a really strong foundation and a sense of identity as an artist and as a human. When I sit down at my desk now to work on something new, I say to myself, “You’ve already written a really hard thing. You can totally do it again.”
“... readers become very good judges of who to hold accountable. They don't need our help to do it.”
I definitely understand the feeling of writing that one thing that both scares you and gnaws at you to be said. You’ve previously touched on this idea in your essay for LitHub called “The Risk, and Reward, of Turning from Memoir to Fiction.” In the essay, you write, “Sometimes writing fiction feels like getting away from something, and writing memoir feels like getting caught. Sometimes the opposite is true.” Could you speak more on the risks of writing? What are the risks we run as writers, even when the stories aren’t our own?
Risk is something I think about a lot. Most of the time when something I’m writing isn’t working, it’s because I haven’t put myself at enough risk. Or to put it another way, I haven’t clearly defined the stakes for myself. I think a writer has to do that first before she can do it for her characters (imagined or real). The stakes for me usually have to do with something I’m afraid to acknowledge. I’ve found that my best writing always lies down the path of revealing some truth I never wanted to know, but I do.
I also have bottom line for myself in terms of essay and memoir. No matter what I’m writing about, I need to be the one who is the most exposed—or, to put it in terms of your question, I need to be the one taking the biggest risk. It’s easy to dissect someone else’s shortcomings. It’s much harder (and much more rewarding) to dissect your own. When we do this with even a small amount of courage, I think our readers become very good judges of who to hold accountable. They don’t need our help to do it. And just from a personal perspective, this practice has also helped me forgive myself for a lot of things.
I feel like I might be painting the idea of “risk” as this scary monster, but I don’t mean to! The most exciting kind of risk we take as writers is when we fall in love with what we’re working on. That feeling is why I keep at it every day.
To steer away from risk and hard truths and back towards your books—you are exceptional at breathing life into the settings that you write about. One might say that your settings become characters in their own right. In Shiner, the cloistered Appalachian mountainside the Bird family lives on intrinsically affects the characters’ livelihoods and emotional wellbeing. In Cinderland, though the quintessential American town is an archetype at this point, your attention to detail makes Mercury into something living and breathing on the page, even for those of us who have never set foot there. How do you achieve this level of intimacy? What is your research process like, and how much do you pull from memory?
I always start with memory. The past often feels more alive to me than the present. Memories just come organically with an instant mood, you know? So first I try to capture that mood, what it felt like to be in a certain place at a certain time. I follow where my intuition leads, and I’ll make themed playlists to listen to while I work. This is when I like to write by hand. Usually once I’ve taken it as far as I can on my own, I’ll start doing a deep dive into books, documentaries, interviews, court documents, and photos from the time and place I’m writing about. I use these to square up my memories as well as add some telling details.
It’s hard for me to keep writing while I’m doing this kind of information gathering, so I tend to wait very impatiently until I’ve done enough research to make it feel like I’m breathing the same air as my characters. Basically I want the world I’m writing to feel more real than the world I’m living in—that’s how I know I’m ready to head back into the manuscript and start the work of deepening it.
“No one was talking about consent like they are now, even though these kinds of crimes are nothing new.”
In both Cinderland and Shiner, there are strong themes of female solidarity. In Cinderland, you talk about the shame you continue to feel for remaining silent rather than defending the other young girls who spoke out about their abuse. In Shiner’s anachronistic mountain community, women must stick together in hopes of survival and escape, so they pass on their stories matrilineally to save their daughters. In this era of fourth-wave feminism and #MeToo, you certainly aren’t alone in tackling these issues—I’m thinking of Sophia Shalmiyev’s Mother Winter, T Kira Madden’s Long Live the Tribe of Fatherless Girls, Jeannie Vanasco’s Things We Didn’t Talk About When I Was a Girl, etc. With nearly six increasingly fraught years between your two books, can you reflect on how this changing atmosphere has affected your writing process, your themes, how your work has been perceived, etc.?
I think the biggest difference that came out of those six years is the emerging lexicon of the #MeToo movement. It gives me so much hope. The term “sexual assault” wasn’t very widely used back when Cinderland came out, and now that it’s part of the conversation we’re having about these issues, I think there’s a larger understanding that the term deserves a broad definition—just like the word “rape” does, which Jeannie Vanasco covers so incredibly well in her memoir. No one was talking about consent like they are now, even though these kinds of crimes are nothing new. Women have always understood each other on these matters, and I think publishers are slowly starting to give us our rightful platform.
I’ve watched stories just like mine play out over and over in the media. It’s not the stories that have changed, so my writing process and my work itself remains the same as it always has. I think what’s changing is that people are finally gathering the courage to listen.
And what role do you think fiction specifically plays in these critical and courageous times?
I think fiction writers have an incredibly powerful opportunity to distill the experiences of many into the experience of a single character. Fiction is our opportunity to say: this is the art I want to see in the world, this is the elixir I made that might help heal us.
What are you currently reading?
My favorite subject! I recently loved Such a Fun Age by Kiley Reid and Take Me Apart by Sara Sligar. They’re both page-turners that also address wealth, sexism, racism, and mental illness. Next up for me are a few books I’ve been dying to read: Writers & Lovers by Lily King, So We Can Glow by Leesa Cross-Smith, and Recipe for a Perfect Wife by Karma Brown.
Have you been reading anything good lately?
I have! My to-be-read pile is miles long at this point, what with all of the highly anticipated titles hitting the shelves left and right. I recently breezed through Shiner, of course, and I’m looking forward to seeing it in my local bookstores. As of right now, I’m reading The Magical Language of Others by E.J. Koh and Shock Treatment by Karen Finley. I figured that the latter would be a pertinent read in these trying times because of its dealings with illness and how it intersects with politics, politicized identities, and vulnerable populations. To borrow the words of Amy Scholder from her “Note from the Editor” in the 25th Anniversary Edition of Shock Treatment: “In these texts [Finley] was able to put into language what it felt like to live and die in those plague years, when the brutality of deadly disease was surpassed only by the fearsome culture of cruelty surrounding the most vulnerable communities.”
Next up for me is Su Hwang’s newest poetry collection, Bodega.
And now for the final, inevitable question … Besides diving into a whole host of exciting new releases, what’s next for you?
Right now my biggest project is homeschooling my two small children, since we’re housebound for the foreseeable future until the virus stops its spread. I will admit to you—it’s daunting! Other than that, I’m slowly working on another novel (which feels so wonderful to share). It’s about a meteor that strikes the same small town where a famous female folksinger once disappeared, and how her past starts to intertwine with the young woman who witnesses the meteor strike the ground. It’s still very much in progress, but so far, I’m enjoying the journey.
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