Amy Jo Burns, SHINER

Amy Jo Burns, SHINER

Zibby Owens: Amy Jo Burns is the author of the memoir Cinderland, and Shiner, a novel which just came out this summer. Her writing has appeared in The Paris Review, Tin House, Ploughshares, Gay Magazine, Electric Literature, Literary Hub, and the anthology Not That Bad.

Welcome Amy Jo. Thanks so much for coming on “Moms Don’t Have Time to Read Books.”

Amy Jo Burns: Thank you so much for having me. So happy to be here.

Zibby: You have written not only Shiner and a memoir and so much else, but your personal essays, we have to talk about because they are so good. I just kept reading one after another. I know that Shiner is your latest book, so let’s talk about that first. Can you tell listeners, please, what Shiner is about?

Amy Jo: Shiner is the story of a fifteen-year-old girl. Her name is Wren. She lives secluded in the mountains of West Virginia with her parents. Her dad became this local legend when he got struck by lightning when he was young. He became a snake-handling preacher. One summer, Wren witnesses her father perform this really strange miracle that goes terribly wrong. As a result of that, all of her family secrets that she had no idea about start to unravel. The book is told from three different perspectives. One is hers, of course. Another is a lovelorn moonshiner. Then the last is a reclusive housewife. Those voices all work together to tell this story that is the true story behind this mountain legend.

Zibby: Wow. What inspired you to write it?

Amy Jo: A lot of different things. I think that this story has been growing inside of me for such a long time. I grew up in Northern Appalachia. The landscape has always been incredibly special to me and inspiring. I think the actual roots of the story started, and it really started to feel alive to me, was after I finished publishing my memoir which is called Cinderland. It’s a story about what it’s like to be a young woman who has to keep a secret. As a result of publishing it, I had so many people come forward and just share with me these stories that they had been keeping for decades. It was such a moving experience that I realized that I wanted to tell the second half of the story. I wanted to talk about what it’s like to be a woman who has a story that has gone unheard. I also wanted to write about what a great act of compassion it is to bear witness to someone else’s story. That’s where the seeds of this story with all these different histories and winding trails came together for me, was how you can find the bravery within yourself to tell that secret that you thought you never could.

Zibby: Now that I’ve read all your personal essays, I know your secrets.

Amy Jo: You do. They’re all in there.

Zibby: Are you comfortable talking about some of this stuff from your past that may have informed this book and everything?

Amy Jo: Absolutely. Happy to.

Zibby: You wrote really honestly and beautifully about what happened when, not even so much in the moment of what happened with the abuse of your piano teacher, but then how you kept it a secret. When it came out that you had not been the only one — maybe I shouldn’t tell your story. When you were not the only one and then your parents confronted you about it, how you handled it and how that experience impacted your life, can you talk a little about that and even your decision to share what happened with you?

Amy Jo: What happened when I was ten was this really beloved piano teacher in my hometown was accused by, it started with one girl and then another and then another for assaulting them during their lessons. I like to use that word, assault, because I think it’s something that only came into play within the past few years. I’m really grateful to be able to use it because I feel like it’s an accurate description. Basically, a few girls started to come forward about what he’d done during their lessons. A lot of the people in the town chose to support the piano teacher instead of these young women. I was somebody who saw all this happening. These young girls, we were ten, eleven, twelve years old, they were vilified by the town, accused of conspiracy and a bunch of other ridiculous things, not by everybody, but by a lot of people. What ended up happening after that is that it was put in this vault and nobody talked about it. I grew up having this huge secret. I saw what had happened. I decided to lie about it to the police. I just held that secret.

I didn’t really remember it, actually, until I’d left home and was in college. I was out in the woods one day and it just slammed me in the face. I thought, oh, my gosh. It was one of those moments you have where you just feel like everything changes in your life. I remembered. To tie it back to what I ended up writing about was I realized that it wasn’t only the event itself that had caused a lot of harm. It was the silence around it and the weight of keeping a secret. I wanted to write about what it was like to hold it and the cost that came not only to me as a young woman, but to my whole hometown and also this generation of young women that felt like we couldn’t talk about it. That was the basis of the book. I did not see Cinderland coming. I always had dreamed of myself as a novelist, but every time I sat down to write, everything I wrote, it was just not very good. Sure, that’s normal. Everybody’s got a learning curve and things like that.

I came to point personally where I realized if I didn’t tell the truth about what had happened firstly to myself, that I was going to be writing around it for the rest of my life and that everything I wrote was just going to have a huge blind spot because there were a few things that I was really afraid to be honest about in my life. I thought it was going to cost me everything. That’s what I had been taught when I was ten, was that if you tell the truth about this, you will lose everything that you have. What ended up happening is that I just started to try to tell one true thing after another true thing after another true thing. Then eventually, I had a book. I couldn’t believe that my first book was going to be a memoir. Now that it’s been out for about five years, I’m so grateful that it was my first book because I feel like it’s such a foundation that reminds me of what’s at stake when you sit down to write, whether it’s a story you’re imagining or if it’s something that happened to you. There’s real stakes about putting your story out there and inviting other people to kind of sit in it with you, you know?

Zibby: Totally. I have to go back now and read your memoir, seriously. I also am just so struck, I’ve talked to so many people who talk about the damage that keeping secrets really does to somebody, especially a child. There seems to be no worse thing than telling a child to not own up to something that’s happened in any context, not just sexual abuse. I feel like there should be some sort of deep dive into the damage of keeping secrets. I’m sure it has been done.

Amy Jo: Absolutely. You know what one of the saddest things for me was? Was when I was an adult and I realized that keeping that secret made me feel like I was this guy’s accomplice and not his victim. That was something that I really had to work through. Part of writing Cinderland was me saying, you know what, it is okay for this man to be held accountable for what he did. It’s not wrong. It’s not the “Christian thing” of me or the “female thing” of me to let it slide and to offer forgiveness. There’s a real importance to say, no, he can be held accountable for what he did. That’s a lot of what that book is about. It’s also about a longing for home and all those things that I thought I had lost as a result of what had happened. Some of the things ended up coming back to me. A lot of friendships I thought I had lost actually returned to me after I published the book. That was a really wonderful thing too.

Zibby: When the pandemic ends and if this ever can work out, I would love to have a conversation between you and Adrienne Brodeur who wrote a book called Wild Game. She had to keep a secret from about the same age as you. Although, it was the fact that her mother was having an affair. She became an accomplice to that. I feel like you guys would have a really interesting chat about secrets.

Amy Jo: conversation. I would love to.

Zibby: Anyway, as an aside. Also, I wanted to talk about your love of ballet and how you called yourself a Rust Belt ballerina, which was so great and I feel like should be a children’s book, by the way, Rust Belt Ballerina. You can start working on that.

Amy Jo: I’ll add it to my list.

Zibby: Okay, good. Tell me about that and how you found your love of ballet and what that did for you growing up.

Amy Jo: It’s funny. My first ballet lesson, I think I was maybe six or seven. My mom took me. It was in an old community center. I didn’t even have a pair of ballet slippers. I think I had an orange pair of Chuck Taylors. I went. We didn’t even have a barre. It was just a row of folding chairs. We listening to a recording on an old boombox that was a recording of a recording of a recording to this piano music. It was very static-y and things like that. Yet even in all of that, I just found such a grace and beauty about the art form of ballet. What it became for me was, it was a way for me to express myself that I couldn’t find through words. I couldn’t find it through anything else. Now of course looking back, I can see this young girl and this young woman who was wrestling with all these things she couldn’t articulate. Ballet became that weekly thing I did where it was like my body was just able to speak for itself. That was why I loved practicing ballet, but I never wanted to perform it. It didn’t hold that draw. Typically, you hear about ballerinas loving the lights and the stage and all that. For me, I loved that solitary practice at the barre, up and down, the predictable rhythm of it. It became something that was a real anchor for me when I was young. Please know I’m five-foot-tall, never a professional ballerina. It was one of those things that, it was so lifegiving to me at such an important time.

When I think about it now, I see myself performing ballet in the middle of this town that was literally in the midst of a steel collapse. The building we had it in I think was next door to this empty steel mill. The only reason we were able to practice was because nobody could use the building anymore. When you’re a kid, you don’t pick up on all that stuff. Then when you’re an adult, you think, oh, my gosh. There’s a sadness to that, but there’s a real beauty to it too. That is one of many things that I loved about growing up there even though the rest of the world looked at it and thought, this town is past its prime. To me, I thought it was beautiful. I still think it’s beautiful. I think that also shows up in Shiner, this idea of what the rest of the world thinks is true about the mountains in West Virginia and if it’s cautionary tale. The people who live there say, we refuse to be written off. We’re living very complicated, very vibrant lives regardless of what the rest of the world thinks.

Zibby: You said somewhere that the expressions that people used to describe you, I can’t remember exactly what they were, you had never even heard until you left home. They were somehow derogatory. You’re like, what do you mean? Why are you describing me that way?

Amy Jo: Yeah. My name’s Amy Jo, obviously. I never realized it, but when I went to college, people wanted me to explain my name, and that was how I realized having a middle name like Jo or going by a first and middle name at all signifies maybe that you’re from a certain region of the country or that maybe you’re a hillbilly or a redneck. That was some of the questions I got asked. I would be in class and they would talk about this area that’s known as the Rust Belt or this area that’s known as Appalachia. I’d be looking at a map. I was like, oh. It just was such an interesting thing how people academically try to slot you in some category. If nothing else, it was fascinating to me, but then also like, oh, when you realize that doesn’t really match what I felt or what I experienced. I think that, probably more than anything else, is a common thread throughout everything I write. You think you know the real story, but I don’t think you do.

Zibby: Tell me a little about your process and how you tackled both the memoir and the novel, if you do outlines or how you organize yourself and how long it took to write those books.

Amy Jo: Lord, it is a mess. books that I have written, it just was such a mess. I had to learn to just be okay with that because anytime I tried to organize my mess, it would sort of circumvent the whole process and I would have to start again. I think that when I start writing something, whether it’s an essay or the memoir or a novel or something like that, my subconscious is my best friend. It’s trying to work something out on the page. If my inner editor comes in and tries to have an opinion about it too soon, then it just sort of goes off the rails. Logistically, my process for everything, whether it’s something long, something short, true, not true, it’s pretty much the same. I will have a notebook. I will write down a bunch of just — they’re not even sentences. It’s just phrase, images, things. I will fill up an entire notebook that does not make any sense to anybody but me. I realize at this point that that’s my first draft. It’s sort of like getting a bunch of patchwork pieces all together. Then you step back and look at it. Then you can make a quilt from it. My second draft is usually trying to match up all the quilt pieces. Then I go from there. It takes me a long time. Cinderland, the difference with writing that, that probably took me two or three years. The big difference with that was that I did not have kids when I wrote that book. I was able to sit down and just work for five, six, seven hours straight. I felt like I had gone into that material so deep. I was so in it in a really interesting way. Then I had two kids. As you know, you don’t even get an hour.

Zibby: I know. You don’t get a minute.

Amy Jo: No, you don’t. Much of Shiner was me sitting down, I would get my laptop all set up, and my pen and my paper, then I would run and try to get my son in his crib and cross my fingers and then run downstairs and maybe get forty-five minutes where I would write something. I thought every day, I was like, I am never going to finish this. Then I would just let myself say it. Then I would write two hundred words. Then all of a sudden — I say all of a sudden, but it was a lot of rewrites and things like that and having another baby. But then it was done. It was done in these very forty-five minutes here, maybe an hour and a half there. That’s how that book was done. I feel like that’s so important to mention. I think it’s scary for a lot of people to think, how do I make this creative life with kids? It does change. I won’t lie and tell you I don’t miss those deep dives into the material that I had before, but I’m so happy with how Shiner came out. I think there’s something special about it that I probably wouldn’t have been able to capture if I didn’t have kids. I see a lot of evolution of myself as a person in Shiner that came about because I couldn’t work the way I once did. I just had to roll with it and let my creative energy figure it out.

Zibby: That’s amazing. Amy Jo, thank you so much. Thank you for sharing about Shiner. Thanks for sharing your deepest, darkest secrets with us and just glibly talking about them in the middle of the day.

Amy Jo: I’m so happy to do it because I think that it’s really important to say it’s not the secrets themselves that should cause us any kind of shame. It’s something I’m always happy to dive into in the middle of day. Thank you for asking me and hearing me out.

Zibby: Of course. Great talking to you.

Amy Jo: You too.

Zibby: Buh-bye.

Amy Jo: Bye.

Amy Jo Burns, SHINER