In Conversation with Amy Jo Burns


Shiner is a coming-of-age story that explores ideas of faith, the relationships between mothers and daughters, and what the past looks like when it stays buried. This book was so beautifully written that I can’t stop thinking about every word. Burns uses language to enhance the cyclical nature of the story, and it’s done in such a way that it never even calls attention to its own brilliance. If you don’t want to frame every single page after finishing this book, I’ll be shocked. It’s just that beautiful.


Burns’ Shiner is out now. We discuss her use of language, how trauma informs how we view the world, and what writing about faith changed in how she views her own beliefs.

 


Amy Jo Burns, Image courtesy of Amy Jo Burns


Hunter Mclendon: The opening of Shiner, a prologue called ‘True Story’, creates an immediate feeling of intimacy. When I first read it, it reminded me of the stories my friends told each other while drunk, sitting by the fire pit. I mean that in the best way, because those were the ones that always stayed with me; people tend to reveal more than intended, and by the end you really know a person. It also reminded me of the opening of Greek Poems, like The Odyssey, in how it lets you know what you’re in for on the first page. Did you always have the prologue? How did you come about the decision to execute it in this way?


Amy Jo Burns: It makes me so happy to know the prologue reminded you of stories told around a campfire, because that was exactly what I was trying to recreate from my own memories. Those campfire confessions represent everything I miss about home, and the people I miss, too. I wanted the reader to have that feeling of longing from the first page onward. So much of how we understand our relationship to home comes from the stories we tell, and who we share them with.


I also wanted the story to have a mythic quality, so I’m glad that came across as well. So many American legends and biblical stories are interpreted from such a narrowly masculine viewpoint. Most often there is a woman hidden behind any man’s tale of great faith or great failure, and I wanted women like that to have their own legends, and the chance to speak for themselves.


I sound like I had it all planned out, but ‘True Story’ was one of the last things I wrote for the novel. It’s so short and it took me weeks to write it. I think I had to see the book as a whole to understand what my subconscious was trying to tell me—that I’d set out to write the kind of story I’d longed to hear around those campfires so many years ago.



HM: One of the reasons I love this book so much is because I love coming-of-age stories centering on a girl in a distinct setting. I’m not sure if there’s a particular name for these stories. Other books that come to mind are History of Wolves, Swamplandia!, White Oleander, and Salvage The Bones. Yours takes a step in another direction partway through the story, and I think it distinguishes it from the others. What do you think of the genre altogether? Do you think Shiner fits into this genre?  



AJB: I think this genre fits Shiner like a glove. If I had to choose a favorite genre, female coming-of-age stories would be it! Of course I’m a huge fan of the books you mentioned, and I’d also add The God of Animals, The Yonahlossee Riding Camp for Girls, and Kept Animals.


I opened up the story partway through the book because I think one of the great things about fiction is the ability to reach toward multiple points of view. That way the reader can experience the truth as a chorus of voices. After writing a memoir where I was stuck in my own head, I loved having the freedom to include different accounts of the same event. That feels very true to life in a way that’s unique to the novel as an artistic form. No one experiences the past in quite the same way.



HM: You write beautifully about Appalachian West Virginia. What drew you to writing about this place, and what did you find most difficult? I know people seem very protective about the image that’s given to this setting. Did you have a specific approach to how you wrote about this place and the people who inhabit it? 


AJB: I’m from northern Appalachia myself, and I visited West Virginia in the summers when I was a teenager. I fell in love with it instantly. Every part of the landscape sings a hymn—the lush mountains, the dark caves, the rushing creeks. I think being there was the first time I truly knew that dirt and rivers and trees tell stories of the past far better than a human can. I used to camp by a deep creek every year, until a flood came and washed away that earth. It was the first time I realized something I trusted in as a constant could fall away. The face of that beloved place had changed, and memory was all I had left of it.


The most difficult part of writing about this region is absolutely the persisting stereotypes. I actually never knew I was from this region called “Appalachia” until I went to college and people started using the term to describe me and asking me, based on my name, if I was a hillbilly. It wasn’t mean-spirited—I think people were trying to understand me—but they were using terms I’d never use to describe myself. So I think that, in the long-run, inspired the relationship my characters have with the world around them. They don’t need the outside world to define them, even though it keeps trying. 


I didn’t want to ignore stereotypes as a writer. I wanted to break them open and explore all the brutal and tender things hiding inside them.



HM: There’s a musicality to your prose, a certain cadence that makes your work recognizable immediately. The writing is almost elliptical. I first noticed it when I read your memoir, Cinderland, and then again while reading Shiner. When did you find your voice as a writer, and has there always been a lyrical quality? 


AJB: Thank you so much for that! What a compliment. Honestly, I didn’t find my voice as a writer until I started to deal with some painful events in my past—which ended up coming together in my memoir. I never thought that would be my first book. I’m still sort of shocked by it. After writing a failed novel and a half-draft of another book, I realized that if I didn’t take on that tough material from my own history (which included the choice to stay silent about a sexual assault when I was young), then I’d always be writing around it. Nothing I wrote felt true to me until I started writing about what I missed from home. I wrote a scene—about sitting around a campfire, actually—and after that, everything changed. A mentor of mine asked me to tell her where I was from, and Cinderland became a long answer to that question.


In terms of musicality, I only very recently put together that the first stories I heard were the ones my father told while singing with his guitar. I think pretty much everything I write is trying to recreate the memory of listening to his songs.




HM: The structure of this novel almost feels like you’re tunneling through time. The deeper into the past you go, the more truth is revealed. How did you decide to structure the novel this way? What was it like, exploring time in this way?


AJB: I cannot think chronologically to save my life. The past has always felt more real to me than the present, so the “moving backward” structure of the book felt very natural to me. I actually didn’t know it was strange to experience time in this way until a handful of people read the book and asked me about the chronology. My editors kept asking me about why I was jumping around in time, and only then could I see how often I feel like I’m living three moments all at the same time.


I think a lot of it has to do with how we process trauma—in my case, I felt the effects of the trauma I lived through years after the event itself, and years before I was able to articulate what had actually happened. I wanted to write a kind of legend that went backward instead of forward as a way to reflect how we carry trauma (and hope, and love, and grief, and joy) throughout our lives. I think we tend to orbit events in our pasts more than we leave them there, alone.



HM: I completely agree with this. I think about trauma a lot, actually, and when you suffer from trauma, when you have post-traumatic stress, there are definitely moments when something is so triggering that you’re reliving your trauma while you’re in the present moment. There is that weird feeling of existing in two dimensions at once. And even if it’s not a moment like that, it’s still always floating around us. 


Just going back through Shiner now, at the start of the chapter ‘Stranger’, it says, “Before she’d burned, Ivy had always…”—the narrator, Wren, is framing aspects of this story around trauma. Would you say that’s accurate? I also think in a way, she might have been taught to frame her life this way because there’s generational trauma there, and I think when you grow up around people who frame their past around their trauma or mythologize it, it’s hard not to do the same. 


AJB: Absolutely. Something I wanted to explore in this novel before I’d even truly started writing it was what we lose when our mothers don’t share their histories with us. It comes from a desire to protect, I think, and it’s so valid for a mother to want to spare her child from her own pain.  But the risk of fallout with that choice is that often trauma repeats itself and reverberates through generations, as you said. The trauma is there, whether it’s spoken of or not. I wanted to give a voice to the burden of pretending that silence is a sign of strength, when really all it’s doing is eating you alive. 


In the novel, Ruby doesn’t feel safe sharing the truth with the men in her life, and for good reason. Silence is an unjust punishment for her, in a way, and she’s fighting for a way to free herself from it.



HM: How many drafts did you go through in the writing of this? There’s a precision of language and the way you deliver information is so beautifully woven into the narrative that it never weighs it down. Did it take a long time to get to this point?


AJB: It took forever. I just looked on my computer, and I did nine drafts on my own (each which had 3-4 mini drafts), and then another seven with my editor. The whole thing was a serious journey—it took me a long time to perfect the mood I was going for, and then to make sure every word fit. It’s a process I actually enjoy, for the most part. 


The hardest part for me is to get the rough draft down. As I just mentioned, I can’t think chronologically, so my first drafts are so scary. They’re like bits of a patchwork quilt and I have no idea what the pattern is. That first draft never makes sense. The longer I can hang out with that kind of ambiguity, the better the story gets in the long run. It just takes a very, very long time. 



HM: Were there any books that inspired you while writing this? Are there any authors who are general inspirations? 


AJB: Yes and yes! Almost ten years ago, I read the incredible Salvation on Sand Mountain by Dennis Covington, which is a real-life account of a journalist who goes into the mountains of Alabama to report the story of a snake-handling preacher who gets convicted of murder when his wife dies from a snake bite. The book is jaw-droppingly good. Covington writes with so much nuance and respect. The book lit something deep inside of me. When I finished it, I felt such a sadness that this preacher’s wife was only known to the rest of the world through her husband’s sins. She had her own dreams, longings, talents. The seeds of Shiner began when I started to imagine what kind of story a woman like that might tell, if she had the chance.



I’m also a huge fan of the Foxfire Anthology books, which contain an oral history of Appalachia. There are full of first-person accounts about what life in the mountains is really like. Reading all those voices in one book helped me catch a vision for what a multi-voiced novel might be, and why oral histories are such an important part of understanding who we are.


In terms of general inspiration, I really love Alice Walker. One of my favorite books is her essay collection, In Search of Our Mother’s Gardens. I also really love the poets Jimmy Santiago Baca and Natasha Trethewey, and the classics Jane Eyre and Persuasion. My most recent love, which I know will be a lifelong favorite, is Alexander Chee. His essay collection How to Write an Autobiographical Novel got me through a really hard time about a year and a half ago when someone I loved passed away.



HM: A lot of this book explores ideas of faith and a higher power, truth and doubt. One of the main characters is a snake-handler who is a bit extreme in his commitment to the Lord. You’ve created a lot of depth and nuance to some of these things that could have easily been dismissed. What drew you to exploring faith in this way? Was there anything you discovered while writing this that influenced your own views about faith?


AJB: I grew up in a faith healing church, which my family attended it until I was twelve. We were taught then that the one true way to worship God was through prophecy and speaking in tongues and laying hands on the sick. I grew up with a real reverence for those things, but I was never able to do them myself. It created a real tension within me—was I a fraud? Did I just not love God enough? I never doubted that those things were real. But I did doubt myself. 


Most of the things I’ve read about faith and religion in literature tend to pick a side—they either write it off completely, or there’s some kind of blindly inauthentic devotion to it. I wanted to capture that rich area in the middle, to write something with characters who wrestle with finding the real God within the constraints of their religion, and whether it’s possible.


What came out of it was a cast of people who each have their own ways of seeking after God. Briar, the preacher, looks for miracles. His wife, Ruby, helps people. Her best friend Ivy sees a higher power in her suffering. Flynn, the moonshiner, finds the miracles of the earth itself. And Wren trusts in the magic of her own heart. Together I think they paint a diverse portrait of what it means to have faith.


In terms of what writing the book taught me, this is what I’ll take with me for the rest of my life. If I’m so busy looking for the capital-M-Miracles in my life, I’m going to miss the true, daily, flesh-and-blood miracles that live at my fingertips and are found in the people I love and who love me back. That’s what Ruby and Ivy’s friendship gave me.



HM: So much of this book is about isolation. It’s a small town, a small family, a girl who finds herself isolated after everything falls apart. We’re living in a time of isolation right now, with everyone in quarantine. Is there anything you’ve personally discovered during this time of isolation that has given you a deeper understanding of the isolation of your characters—specifically Wren?


AJB: Whew, I never thought that when I published this novel, its characters would be so tangibly relatable! I always understood that Wren was afraid of the world that lay beyond her mountain, but I have to admit I never experienced that emotion myself until now. In the beginning of the novel, I write about how difficult it is for Wren and her mother just to get to the grocery store—and while that’s a small thing, I think it represents something we’re all feeling right now—the loss of communal safety and the sobering recognition that this safety was always an illusion. That’s a reality Wren has always faced. She never dismisses her fear as something false or irrelevant. She gives it the healthy weight it warrants—and yet, she still finds true reasons to hope in the outside world, too. 



HM: What brought about your interest in moonshine? 


AJB: Two things, really—the first was that after I published my memoir, I felt really exposed. I loved writing Cinderland, but publishing it was extremely hard. When the book came out, I was called names by a few people in my hometown and accused of lying for the sake of money. I didn’t see it coming and it knocked the wind out of me. I felt so misunderstood, and I wondered if I had it in me to write another book. 


While I was researching faith healing and the like, I came across all these first person accounts of moonshiners from both the present and the past. Not only was I fascinated, but I found such a kinship in how they practiced their art alone in the dark, unsure if it would ever see the light of day. Because of that, making moonshine is a lot like writing a book. I gathered a lot of strength from those stories, and I realized that if I wanted to write another book, there was nothing to it but to do it.


The second thing that brought me to moonshine was my insomnia. When my son was an infant, I couldn’t sleep at all for the first six months of his life. I was awake on many hot summer nights, and the thought of moonshiners out there, doing their own work beneath the moon, kept me really great company. I wanted to find a way to really honor them in my novel.



HM: I do want to go back to Cinderland for a moment. Earlier, you mentioned loving Alexander Chee’s essays (which I also loved), and in one of his essays, he discusses the ways people try to find how you’ve masked yourself in your fiction. And I think that’s something I’ve always found interesting about readers, is how they always assume people’s fiction is their reality, but sometimes doubt a person’s own account of their lives. Your memoir came out right before the #MeToo movement took off, but Cinderland really is a story that speaks to that. Do you think the response might have been any different, had it come out a few years later? And also, do you think people will try to place Wren’s experiences onto you? 


AJB: I’ve thought about this a lot, and I do think that the reception around Cinderland would have been very different if it had come out, say, a year ago. There are much better words at play in the conversations we’re having now. It seems weird to say, but phrases like “sexual assault” and “consent” weren’t really used even five or six years ago. The world is (painfully) slowly getting more educated about why stories like these are essential to the common good, and hopefully it’s also becoming less fearful of stories like this in general. That’s one reason the #MeToo movement was so powerful—it removed the “otherness” of these stories of assault, and invited us all to take a closer look.


One really great (and semi-devastating) thing about publishing a tough memoir was that I had to learn to let go of what people think of me. I still need the reminder every once in a while, of course, but if anyone does try to liken Wren’s life to mine, I think it’s a good opportunity for a conversation about what we look for when we open a book. Often what we think we’re finding in someone else—whether an author or the characters she creates—is actually a reflection of ourselves.



HM: I’m already desperate to read your next book (no pressure). Are you working on any new projects? Do you think you’ll still be exploring some of these similar themes?


AJB: I am! I think I’ll always be writing about women’s untold stories and things I once loved and lost, in one way or another. I’ve been at work on a new novel, which has been such a great feeling. It’s about a meteor that strikes the small town where a famous female folk singer disappeared a long time ago, and how her past intertwines with the life of a young woman who witnesses the meteor strike the ground. It’s also about the power of music, memory, and female mentorship.



HM: I need this book. I won’t pry, and you can decline my nosiness, but can you mention if you have any current inspirations for who the folk singer might resemble? That’s all I’ll ask because I don’t want to ruin anything. I’m mostly just curious because after stalking your currently reading on Instagram, I have a feeling we have an interest in the same people, musically. 


AJB: You can pry all you want, my friend! The first answer is the one and only Loretta Lynn, forever and ever amen. She’s a favorite of my mother, and she has this great book titled Honky Tonk Girl: My Life in Lyrics. I read the whole thing and felt that there was still so much left unsaid. The book has so much white space! The particulars of Lynn’s life and the life of the character I’m writing are very different, but they have the same creative spirit, the same irritations with the patriarchy, and the same kind of shrewdness and nerve it takes to swim in the deep-end of a male dominated industry.


I’m also pulling from a lot of other inspirations, and I’m loving it—Emmylou Harris is one, and Marijohn Wilkin, a songwriter who wrote the murder ballad “Long Black Veil,” is another. I also recently got obsessed with the collaborative band The Highwomen. They are performing the soundtrack to the book in my mind. Brandi Carlile is my everything lately. Who am I missing? Please tell me your thoughts.


The last thing I’ll say is that I’m also doing a deep dive into the making and mastery of the mandolin. Did you know someone who makes a mandolin (and other stringed instruments) is called a luthier? I didn’t. Writing this project so far has been such a joy. 



HM: Let’s say we’re fifty years down the line: what kinds of books do you see yourself having written? Do you currently have a dream about the type of writing career you will have had later on down the line? 


AJB: I hope I keep writing books that feel like home. I want to get better and better at writing the kinds of stories that readers get lost in. I’d love to try writing for music, television, and film. I also hope I get to connect with readers in meaningful ways—that’s a huge highlight of publishing a book. It’s a dream come true for an author to get to answer questions like the ones you’ve asked, and I hope I get the chance to do it all again with more books.



HM: What do you hope people get from Shiner


I hope people find a sense of wonder in the mountains, and what it means to make a life there. I hope they enjoy the mystery of miracles that aren’t so easily explained. I also hope Shiner inspires its readers to seek out the untold stories of the women in their lives.





Shiner by Amy Jo Burns is out now.



You can buy Shiner, Cinderland and all the books mentioned in this interview in our Bookshop.


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