How Amy Jo Burns found herself again in her debut novel Shiner

Amy Jo Burns 2014 memoir, Cinderland, allowed the world into her childhood. She revealed how one lie could ruin everything. She won over readers with the raw honesty that oozed from her beautiful sentences. Now, in her debut novelShiner, she builds off her skilled writing and transports readers into a West Virginia town where a young girl must defy her father to survive.

The book is about Wren Bird, a teen who lives in a small village an hour from civilization where no one visits and those who haven’t escaped yet probably never will. Told over the course of a summer, the novel follows Wren as she discovers the truth about her parents while she also grapples with coming of age.

I corresponded with the author about the difference and similarities between her memoir and novel, how secrets reveal themselves on the page, and what she sees herself writing about in the future.

You previously published a beautifully written and revealing memoir called Cinderland in 2014. Was Shiner in your head back then or did the genesis for your debut novel come later?

Shiner was in my heart and my mind for a long time before I wrote its first sentence. I think I dreamed of setting a story in West Virginia before I even really knew I’d end up as a writer, but it took me a long time to be truly ready to write it well. Writing a memoir was actually a surprising detour for me—I’d always wanted to be a novelist, but for some reason when I sat down to write, all the stories I wrote were true. Writing Cinderland was a really challenging and unexpected gift I gave myself. I realized if I didn’t write the truth of my own experiences that I’d always be writing around them. I’m so grateful that Cinderland is the foundation for the rest of my life’s work. It helped me become the person I needed to be in order to write Shiner.

What was the main inspiration or goal for writing this book?

I wanted to give people who felt hidden, isolated, or misunderstood a chance to speak for themselves. Everyone in the novel is cloistered, either by choice or by life circumstances. After I published Cinderland I felt really exposed and a little misunderstood, and I was searching for a way to get back to myself again. The characters in Shiner—especially the women who are held responsible for the sins of the men in their lives—helped remind me of life’s quiet rhythms, and how important it is that they also get a chance to shine in the legends we tell.

Your memoir is about your life being disrupted as a young girl due to telling the truth. This book also features a young girl, an enigmatic man, and secrets. Were there a lot of personal flashbacks you had while writing this novel or how did it affect you?

You know, now that you’ve put it like that, I’m seeing Shiner in a new way. What a gift! Thank you for that. I think my memoir told a truth that my sixteen-year-old self wasn’t yet ready to hear, so I kept it for her until she was strong enough to bear it. In a similar sense, I think Shiner is the kind of story my younger self was looking for, but couldn’t find.

Writing a memoir gave me a lot of opportunities to learn how to care for myself well while writing difficult material. I set a timer, no more than twenty minutes to write it, and then afterwards I make sure I do something I enjoy—like dancing or taking a bath. Little by little, bit by bit, those tough scenes get done. 

Shiner was such a joy for me to write. I loved getting lost in it—and I loved everything about the process of making moonshine and what it represents to the people who brew it. Often getting to work on the novel was a high point of my day while I had two very small children to love and care for at home. 

You grew up in a small town in Pennsylvania. This book is set a little farther away in a small town in West Virginia. Some of my favorite passages are the ones describing the mood and feeling of the setting. Did you spend a lot of time in WV or pull from your memories in Pennsylvania?

I visited West Virginia in the summers when I was a teenager, and though both West Virginia and western Pennsylvania remind me of home, they are each distinct in their own ways. An outsider might say that both are part of Rust Belt-Appalachia, and western PA leans more toward the Rust Belt while West Virginia is more Appalachian. To me, though, I found reflections of myself both in the abandoned warehouses along Route 80 and in the secluded caves in the Monongahela Forest. Together, I think they paint a portrait of who I was when I was young.

Something that both your memoir and novel had were very lyrical and beautifully written sentences. I’ve become fascinated with writers’ approach to sentences. Are you one who naturally writes this way or is there a lot of thought and revision? What does that look like for you?

So. Much. Revision. It goes on and on and on. Whew, it’s overwhelming to even think about! Usually, my first drafts don’t make any sense—they’re just a patchwork of images that I’m not even sure will fit together in the end. Part of that lyrical process for me is hunting down those connections and breathing life into them. I wouldn’t say it feels natural, but there’s something about the friction of it that I really love. I like working at it little by little every day, and then when that paragraph or sentence or scene is complete I can see all the layers beneath it. I’m not very patient, though, so I always wish it would happen more quickly than it does.

How is writing non-fiction different or similar for you to writing fiction?

I actually don’t find them very similar, aside from the fact that I’m the one in charge of the writing itself. I think fiction and nonfiction have different end goals—fiction uses the imagination to express an emotional truth, while nonfiction uses a mix of fact and memory to express that truth. I like to say that fiction lives at the horizon while nonfiction is found in the rearview mirror. I think it’s really important that your reader can trust in the boundaries you’ve set. 

I don’t think this is true for everyone, or that it has to be. This has just become my personal philosophy since I wrote in my memoir about a sexual assault that many claimed was a lie. It feels really crucial for me that when I say something is true, that I’ve told that truth without embellishment. 

Where do you want to take your writing from here? Continuing to explore young women combatting secrets or push further away?

I hope I’ll do both—that I’ll continue to dive into the kinds of stories it might be unsafe for women to tell, but are still so incredibly necessary. But I also hope that I’ll keep pushing myself into new territory that surprises me. I want to keep writing deeper, wider, bolder, kinder, funnier, and wiser than I ever did before.

I’m attempting all these things in my latest novel project about a meteor, music, and memory—but it will be a bit before I can tell if I’ve pulled it off. Either way, the risk of trying something new is never wasted.

Please subscribe to Debutiful’s podcast, which releases once a month with an in-depth interview with one debut author.

Adam Vitcavage is the founder of Debutiful. His interviews and criticism have also appeared in Electric Literature, The Millions, Paste Magazine, and more.

Visit Amy Jo Burns at her website and follow her on Twitter.

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