An Interview with Amy Jo Burns, Author of Shiner

I wanted to write about both “snake-handling” and “taking up serpents” because I think a big part of identity comes in how we describe ourselves, versus how the rest of the world sees us.

homemade bookmark

I discovered Shiner by Amy Jo Burns when I saw the novelist’s posts on Instagram. Here we were, entering a shelter-at-home pandemic, and she had a book about to launch. The world was topsy-turvy. It still is. Her book tour was canceled. Like the rest of us, she was entering uncharted territory, with her baby, her first novel.

I ordered a copy from my local indie bookseller, and Amy sent me a homemade bookmark. I’m smitten. The novel is so good. It’s one of those books where you get fifty pages from the end, and you just don’t want it to end. You read a few pages and then plough through when you can stand it no longer.

Shiner is an incredible novel about two generations of Appalachians, about family, friendships and myth-making. The novel’s protagonist Wren is a teenage girl on a quest to find out the truths that have been kept from her. In order to learn the truth, she has to confront her father, a man larger than life, a preacher who survived a lightning strike, who feels God in his bones, who can work miracles, and who tries to kill her.

As the main character Wren tells us at the start of the story: “Beyond these hills my people are known for the kick in their liquor and the poverty in their hearts. Overdoses, opioids, unemployment. Folks prefer us this way–dumb-mouthed with yellow teeth and cigarettes, dumb-minded with carboys of whiskey and broken-back Bibles. But that’s not the real story. Here’s what hides behind the beauty line along West Virginia’s highways: a fear that God has forgotten us. We live in the wasteland that coal has built, where trains eat miles of track. Our men slip serpents through their fingers on Sunday mornings and pray for God to show Himself while our wives wash their husbands’ underpants.”

I had the privilege and pleasure to ask Amy a few questions about this riveting tale: Enjoy!

  1. The relationships between Ruby and Ivy and Briar and Flynn are so close and complex, were these friendships based on your own or inspired by people you know?

Thank you so much for saying that. These relationships definitely came from my imagination, though they’ve been with me for so long that these people feel like my family! I tried to give each of the characters a true piece of me–maybe a fault or an aspiration of mine–in addition to a few small details from people I know.

The relationships between these characters came to me first, in addition to the setting of the novel, and the rest of the story came from there. So much of what we do in life is determined by who or what we love, and I wanted that to be true for the characters in Shiner, too.

  1. The setting of the novel is so paramount to the story, are you from West Virginia? What inspired you to write about this area, mining, “taking up serpents,” and moonshining?

I grew up in northern Appalachia, though not as isolated as the characters in Shiner, and I camped in West Virginia in the summers when I was a teenager. The landscape there really imprinted itself on me–there’s nothing like it in the world. Everywhere you go, the creeks and mountains and caves are telling a story. I think I’ve always wanted to listen in on those tales and tell my own from them.

I also wanted to write about what it means to have faith–and for some people that might mean taking up serpents, for some it might mean laying down your life for your friend, and for still others it might mean making moonshine. Who’s to say one kind of faith is more authentic than the other? I wanted to play with the idea of where real danger, and real miracles, truly lie–and it’s never in the place you expect.

  1. As a child, I experienced day-long, born-again church gatherings with a friend. Was this a part of your personal upbringing?

Oh, yes. This kind of faith (though not snake-handling specifically) was a huge part of my upbringing and the way I first saw the world. So often it’s painted kind of snidely in literature, and I wanted to write about the breadth of it instead–the holy parts, the misguided pieces, the sacredness of that kind of devotion, and even at times the violence done in the name of religion. I think to paint it authentically you have to show all those fault lines between religion and faith and have characters reckon with finding the truth of God in the fissures between them.

  1. “True Story,” the opening of the novel, is gripping and foreboding. Did you know the novel’s ending before its beginning or did “True Story” come after you’d discovered the ending?

I never know where a story is heading when I start it–which is a frustrating way to work, but it’s the only way that works for me! This is why it’s such a long process, but also surprising–which I think is great for a reader. It was only after I’d written the whole thing that I could see it from a kind of global perspective. “True Story” was the last part of it I wrote before the book went out on submission. Often the things I write last become my favorite parts of the book.

  1. I love the distinction between “snake-handling” and “taking up serpents.” can you extrapolate on the meaning and inspiration?

“Snake-handling” is a term only outsiders use to describe the act that followers of this kind of faith refer to as “taking up serpents.” The act references a verse in the chapter of Mark that says, “they will take up serpents; and if they drink anything deadly, it will by no means hurt them; they will lay hands on the sick, and they will recover.” It’s a way of worship and practicing one’s faith, and for a small number of people it’s a way of life, I think.

I wanted to write about both “snake-handling” and “taking up serpents” because I think a big part of identity comes in how we describe ourselves, versus how the rest of the world sees us. Everyone in the novel is struggling with the labels that have been forced on them and who they might be if they weren’t trapped by those terms–for example, the preacher’s wife, the snake handler’s daughter, the moonshiner. The novel is really about the true story behind the story, and often those stories come from how we see ourselves.

I think this is partly inspired by my own experience of growing up in a place that has a lot of labels and stereotypes. It was only once I left western Pennsylvania that I heard terms like “Appalachia” or the “Rust Belt.” It was so weird to see how the outside world had defined us, and in some ways, written us off. So I wanted to write a book about people who felt forgotten and misunderstood, and ultimately refused to be written off at all.

Spoiler Alert: If you haven’t read Shiner, the next questions might ruin the ending for you.

6. Did you struggle with whether or not Ruby would die, or did you always know that she would have to die?

I always knew she would die. That sounds so heartless! Please know how much I love Ruby with all my heart. But I knew from the beginning that this would be a book about the price women pay for men to celebrate their own false legends. But in my mind, Ruby is alive. That’s one of the great things about being the author–all the moments in the book exist at the same time in my mind–so when I think of Ruby, I don’t think of those quick final moments. I think of her at the creek with Flynn, or sitting on a mountain top and looking over the valley with her best friend. To me, her heart still beats with a lot of strength.

  1. Did you struggle with how things would turn out for Wren or did you always imagine her staying on the mountain?

When I started writing the book, I knew I wanted to write a kind of coming-of-age where the main character actually gets to claim the home she’s always known. It’s different kind of story than leaving home or returning home. I loved the idea that Wren gets to tell her own stories, and through that, she brings change to her mountain. So often we think of escape as the answer, but truthfully geographic mobility isn’t always an option for a lot of different reasons. I wanted to celebrate the rich realization that “home” is something you can take with you, and it never means you don’t love your home if you decide to leave. It just means you always have a place–or a person–to return to.

Find Amy at www.amyjoburns.com

Twitter: @amyjoburns

Instagram: @burnsamyjo

 

 

Coping with Corona and Social Distancing

And sometimes I read people’s posts on Instagram, about how Zen and peaceful they’re feeling, and how they are one with the universe, and I think, Oh, Go fuck yourself.

It depends on the hour, sometimes the minute. Sometimes I’m fine, like today, I made my own antiseptic handwipes by pouring rubbing alcohol on baby wipes in a plastic bag. I felt invincible. Then, I ventured to the grocery store and bought a 4-roll pack of toilet paper, only one pack per customer, and everyone was nice at the store and eager to make conversation. (Felt good.)

Then I came home and binged leftover pizza and potato chips totally by accident and felt bad—fat.

I also bought fixings to make brownies tonight and six bottles of wine.

One minute, I feel like crying because I have to stay home, and I can’t follow my routine. I can’t go to the gym and dance, which is my thing… Zumba and Hip Hop. Then, normally, I would come home and shower, write for 3-4 hours, coach tennis or pick my son up from school, go to the library, etc.

My son is now doing online schooling. A good thing. I’m grateful to our county for putting online schooling in place so quickly.

For the students here who have never been able to afford the insurance to bring their Chromebooks home, the county has covered the cost. They’ve also supplied the students without WiFi with hotspots free of charge so that they can participate in school at home. This makes me so happy. I’m very proud of our county’s department of education. Good. Happy. Up.

As far as my writing goes, I can’t seem to concentrate. My fourth novel, in progress, is with my agent right now, and I’m really not ready to dive into novel #5, not until I have a good sense of whether I will be doing more revisions anytime soon with novel #4, and then I think, “Hey, what if people stop reading or buying books?” Then, I think, Oh MY GOD, so many people just had books come out, and they aren’t even getting to tour.

I need to buy books. I need to promote new writers and their books. I’m a writer. Writers need writers—that support, that camaraderie.

I bought We Were Promised Spotlights by Lindsay Sproul. It came out yesterday. That was a highlight. Then, I started reading it, and oh my god, it’s amazing, so I canceled my hardback purchase and bought it on Kindle. I Tweeted about it. I don’t even like to read electronically, but it’s that good. I have my afternoon figured out. Up.

Other things I did: I obsessively and messily painted my laundry room and a hallway cotton-candy pink.

My son and I threw grapes at each other, supposedly aiming for our grape/cake holes, but things didn’t work out. Then, my son, who’s fifteen, drop-kicked a grape. It hit a xylophone cat hanging on the wall and made a pretty sound. A highlight.

I took my lizard, Harry Potter, for a walk.

I made banana bread with blackberries and ate it with strawberry ice cream. I binge-watched, I’m talking one sitting, that Big Cat Documentary on Netflix, all about Joe Exotic and the other crazy meth-loving, big-cat-loving lunatics.

I’m on season six of re-watching “The Office”.

Three days into this whole thing, I tracked down the principal of my son’s high school, asking him for a Driving Eligibility Certificate so my son could get his learner’s permit in the midst of a pandemic. The principal met us in swim trunks. Super amazing, nice guy. I think he’d been at the beach with his family. I drove over an hour to an open DMV where I’d made an appointment. My son got his permit. I got my Real I. D. There was a man outside the DMV with a clipboard and a list of questions. “Have you recently traveled outside the country? Do you have a fever? Have you had a fever in the last 48 hours? Are you coughing? Have you felt fatigued? Do you think you have a fever now?” When we got inside, the chairs were situated 8 feet apart. The DMV employees were wiping everything down between appointments.

Two days into the pandemic, I finished those edits on my fourth book and submitted the ms. to my agent.

I’m trying to exercise every day to combat the pizza, chips, and brownie bingeing, but fuck it. No harm in a little snacking. No harm in getting a learner’s permit. No harm in a little TV and a lot of book reading.

Today, I stopped at Lowe’s after the grocery store, and there was a repeating loudspeaker announcing, “Keep your distance from other customers and employees.” When I went to check out, there was tape on the floor and a big X. The cashier told me to please remain on the X until she was finished scanning my items. She wiped off the credit card machine, but I also had my own fancy homemade alcohol wipes, so I used one to protect my finger. Today was my first day out and about in a long time. Thus, it was a pretty good day. I saw people other than my husband and son. I love them… Don’t get me wrong. We’re jokingly threatening to throat-punch one another, and my husband got a spotlight yesterday via UPS for our boat and shone it at my face. …

We’re going to play cards tonight, make those brownies, maybe drop-kick some grapes at one another, watch a little “Survivor”, and I’ll drink some of that wine.

Last night, I woke up at two am, short of breath, panicked. I sat up, thinking I can’t breathe. I have the Covid-19. No. I was having an anxiety/panic attack. I reminded myself that I was going to be okay and popped a Xanax. We’re going to get through this. We’re going to keep calm and write on or paint on or read on or eat on or dance on. It’s going to be okay.

I worry about my mom and all the older people, especially those in nursing homes. I worry about our nation’s infrastructure and the idiotic politicians who don’t seem to know what they’re doing.

I’d revise this thing and put it in chronological order, but this messy hodgepodge feels more representative of the last twelve days.

…I would be sorely remiss if I didn’t thank the truck drivers and cashiers and managers and stock people and all the workers at all the stores who make it possible for us to buy bleach and toilet paper and food AND the amazing teachers who are making massive adjustments to teach remotely AND the incredible, brave healthcare workers on the frontlines risking exposure to COVID-19 and mustering the patience of all the saints AND everyone else who is simply choosing to be calm and rational and kind and hopeful as we navigate unchartered waters. Yesterday was Lawrence Ferlinghetti’s 101st birthday, which means he was born the year of our last pandemic, 1919. That’s crazy to think about. …

Oh, and sometimes I read people’s posts on Instagram, about how Zen and peaceful they’re feeling, and how they are one with the universe, and I think, Oh, Go fuck yourself. Maybe they’re lying, or maybe I’m just jealous. Maybe both.

How are you doing?

This Writer’s Life… writing the next book, process, and telling the truth to the reader and yourself

Things happened, characters acted in ways I never anticipated, and I felt like I had no control over them. That’s when you know the writing is really good. That’s when the subconscious, the muse, the monkey-mind, the soul (whatever you want to call it) is at work. All inhibition and second-guessing have been lost. The good stuff is pouring out.

I started writing my fourth novel three years ago this month, maybe this very day. It’s been titled George Glass Loves Lily Snow, The Reinvention of Amy Brown, the working title The Reimagining of Amy Brown—because the whole thing needed to be reimagined, and finally, The Hummingbird. My past three novels have had long titles, so maybe it’s time for a short one.

What do I want now?

I want to show you the seven-plus notebooks with every page full. I want to show you early drafts with telekinesis and doors exploding off hinges. I want to tell you the life story of every character in my novel because I know them. I want to tell you how Elisenda swallowed the emeralds and held them in her gut until she soaked in a tub in Barranquilla and passed them into the lukewarm water.

I want to tell you that the main character’s mother used to be his grandmother, and after I made this change—from grandmother to mother, the members of the novel-writing group I was leading, were sorely disappointed. They really liked the grandmother. I’d liked her too, but writing is a process, and one of the things I realized was that this book was my most autobiographical, and I was afraid to make George’s grandmother his mother because it was too close to the truth, to holding up the mirror, and as you know, nothing is better than the truth. The core of all good fiction is its truth. Novelists tell more truths than memoirists. We just don’t admit to anything.

George’s mother wasn’t sympathetic like his grandmother. She was selfish how mothers can sometimes be.

At one point in the evolution of this novel, George’s foster mother was his sister, but again, it was like I was writing around what needed to be written, what had compelled me three years ago to abandon my historical novel-in-progress to tell the story of George Glass, a boy who loses his mother and has to navigate the world without her. Not only does George lose her, but it turns out she was never the woman she claimed to be. He, and the police, have no idea of her true identity.

I want to tell you how much my father’s cancer and his passing influenced this novel, and how much my love for my son, and my willingness to do anything to protect him, influenced this book. I want to tell you that I know, like the dead woman in my book, that I am selfish, that if I could keep my teenager young forever, I would do it. I’d consider consequences, but it doesn’t seem so bad—despite Tuck, Everlasting—no one growing up, no one getting old, no one dying. This might be the most honest novel I’ve ever written.

With every new book, there’s a new adventure. Every time, I hope the process will get easier, but it never does because each book is its own beast, its own treasure, a unique act of discovery. If you’re not putting down layers and scraping them away, you’re not really learning anything. You’re not, as John Gardner wrote in The Art of Fiction, making art.

This novel, like all of them, was an adventure.

2017

I want to tell you about the miracle that happened when my father died, the miracle I was in too much grief to admit to for over a year, because a miracle flies in the face of anger. A miracle crushes anger. I was reading from The Collected Poems of Robert W. Service, a book my father used to read to me early in the morning when he had his instant coffee (and late in the day when he had his beer). My father was dying. We were alone in his room, and I’d woken that morning wondering what I could do to get through the day. I got out a rocking chair and that book, which had seemingly disappeared until just that morning (I’d looked for it the day prior), and I sat across from my dad. I said, “We’ll start at page one,” even though “The Cremation of Sam McGee” was our favorite. I was reading from the poem, “The Three Voices,” (p. 8)

But the stars throng out in their glory,

And they sing of the God in man;

They sing of the Mighty Master,

Of the loom his fingers span,

Where a star or a soul is a part of the whole

And weft in the wondrous plan.

 

Here by the camp-fire’s flicker,

Deep in my blanket curled,

I long for the peace of the pine-gloom,

When the scroll of the Lord is unfurled,

And the wind and the wave are silent,

And world is singing to world.

My father and I were alone, and I knew he was gone. I knew that he had wanted me there to help send him on his way. I knew that he was a part of that firmament.

I want to tell you that this novel is for him. It’s for all of us who love, who grieve, who mourn, and who survive.

I don’t think I’m very good at “writing blogs” because I like to disguise my truth in fiction, but I needed to share the process of writing this novel and how important it is to me and what a journey it’s been thus far.

And I have lots more to share. To be continued…

Independent Bookstores: THANK YOU!

Independent Bookstores offer something online sellers can’t provide: booksellers who read and care about books, who get to know their customers, who know what books to recommend to specific readers, a place to commune and listen to story time or spend an evening listening to authors read and speak, a place to discuss books. A place to turn your cell phone off and breathe.

Book Exchange, San Francisco

I went to San Francisco this summer and saw Susan Rivers’ novel, The Second Mrs. Hockaday listed as a Staff Pick at Book Passage in the Ferry Building. I’d just had the pleasure of meeting Susan at The Greensboro Bound literary festival. My family and I were walking around the wharf, waiting to take the ferry to Alcatraz when I found this incredible bookstore. I get so excited when I’m in a beautiful bookstore, filled with hand-written staff recommendations, surrounded by the brightly colored spines, and then I see books by authors I know.

Downtown Books in Manteo

Independent bookstores are an author’s best friend. This year, the owner and book buyer for my local bookstore Downtown Books in Manteo, Jamie Hope Anderson, championed my third novel, Lost in the Beehive, and when I say, “championed,” I mean she went out of her way to promote it. We threw a book launch where she made a signature cocktail with our local rum distillery, Kill Devil Rum’s honey pecan rum. She ran ads in local papers and radio. We got together and brainstormed ideas. She wrote letters to her friends at other independent bookstores and mailed out copies. She also carried copies and handed them out at SIBA, the Southern Independent Bookseller’s Alliance tradeshow. She’s told everyone that Beehive was the book to buy, and then O Magazine agreed with her, listing it as one of their top ten books in their May issue.

Last year, right after Lost in the Beehive, came out I visited Quail Ridge Books for the second time. I seriously want to have a sleepover. Their bookstore is so vast, beautiful, and comfortable, it’s like Heaven to me. Recently, my son and I were in Raleigh for a tennis tournament, and at the top of my to-do list was to show him Quail Ridge.

Independent Bookstores offer something online sellers can’t provide: booksellers who read and care about books, who get to know their customers, who know what books to recommend to specific readers, a place to commune and listen to story time or spend an evening listening to authors read and speak, a place to discuss books. A place to turn your cell phone off and breathe.

These are a few of my favorite Indies!

Downtown Books, Manteo, NC

Ducks Cottage Books, Duck, NC

Picking Apples, Carter’s Mountain, VA

Island Bookstore, Kill Devil Hills, Duck, and Corolla, NC

Chop Suey Books, Richmond, VA

Fountain Bookstore, Richmond, VA

New Dominion Bookshop, Charlottesville, VA

Chapters Bookshop, Galax, VA

Scuppernong Booksin Greensboro, NC

Quail Ridge Books, Raleigh, NC

Fly Leaf Books, Chapel Hill, NC

Regulator Bookshop, Durham, NC

Park Road Books, Charlotte, NC

Outside New Dominion Bookshop, Charlottesville, VA

Malaprop’s Bookstore and Cafe, Asheville, NC

Aaron’s Books, Lititz, PA

Bards Alley, Vienna, VA

Word Brooklyn, Brooklyn, NY

Bank Square Books, Mystic, CT

Market Street Bookshop, Mashpee, MA

Yellow Umbrella Books, Chatham, MA

Book Passage, San Francisco, CA