Amy Jo Burns wanted to tell a story about people who feel forgotten. For that, she turned to the hills and, yes, the hollows, of West Virginia. The result is Burns’s debut novel Shiner (paid link), which is available starting today.
Shiner features 15-year-old Wren Bird, who’s growing up with a domineering preacher father in the backwoods of West Virginia. From Burns’s website: “Over the course of one summer, a miracle performed by Wren’s father quickly turns to tragedy. As the order of her world begins to shatter, Wren must uncover the truth of her father’s mysterious legend and her mother’s harrowing history and complex bond with her best friend. And with that newfound knowledge, Wren can imagine a different future for herself than she has been told to expect. “
Shiner is Amy Jo Burns’s first novel and second book. She published a memoir, Cinderland, in 2014. Burns’s writing has also appeared in The Paris Review Daily, Tin House, Ploughshares, Gay Magazine, Electric Literature, and more.
In the interview below, Burns talks about her inspiration for Shiner. She mentions her faith, her love of Jane Austen, and the books she’s enjoyed reading lately.
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Interview with Amy Jo Burns
Can you tell us a little bit about yourself?
I grew up about an hour north of Pittsburgh in a small town. I changed the name to “Mercury” in my memoir Cinderland since the book has a delicate subject matter, and I wanted the book to focus more on the after-effects of trauma rather than pinning a specific spot on the map.
I live in Princeton, N.J., now, and it’s beautiful here. I write when I’m not caring for my two small children, who are five and two. We have a grumpy and beloved pet bunny named Fozzie. When I’m not reading or writing, I really enjoy dancing in all its forms. My husband and I also love having friends over for dinner, and we’re looking forward to doing that again when everything is safe.
Your new book and first novel, Shiner, is set in a rural West Virginia mining town. What led you to place the story there?
Western Pennsylvania, where I grew up, is part of both the Rust Belt and Appalachia, so it was a huge inspiration for Shiner. I also grew up visiting West Virginia in the summer when I was a teenager, and I fell in love with it. The beauty there is brimming with life—trees, streams, wildflowers. I think I always knew I’d write about it someday, even before I started writing much at all.
What prompted you to tell a story from that part of America? Do you think current events, Trump voters and opioids, for example, influenced your setting at all?
I love to write about home, and for my first fiction project, I wanted to write about people who felt hidden or forgotten. West Virginia is full of mountains and caves, and it’s a place that’s easy to get lost in (in wonderful ways). I wanted my characters to feel close to their landscape, and there’s no better place than West Virginia for the kind of kinship with land that I wanted to capture.
It’s interesting—I started writing this novel long before Trump was even in politics, so he had absolutely no influence on it. I like to say that Appalachia existed long before Trump’s presidency, and it will outlast him, too. Opioids, on the other hand, are a subtle backdrop in Shiner, since they are often a part of contemporary life in America.
Shiner centers on a teenager, Wren Bird, who preaches about Jesus and believes in faith healing. You grew up in a similar church, correct? How did that experience inform or influence this story?
I did grow up in a faith healing church, though no one there took up serpents, as they do in Shiner. I grew up with a reverence for things I didn’t quite understand and couldn’t perform myself—like speaking in tongues or prophesying.
I have a very deep faith, but I had to find it on my own apart from that way of life, even though I still have a respect for it. Wren feels a very similar tension as a young woman who is desperate to know if she can have an authentic kind of faith if it doesn’t match her father’s.
I really wanted to capture the fault lines that exist between faith and religion, and also the rupture between religion and gender norms. Men and women don’t experience their faith in the same ways in Shiner because men get to play by a completely different set of rules.
You said in an interview that you hadn’t heard the term Rust Belt until you left home. Why do you think that is?
I think the way “outsiders” define us is never the way we define ourselves. I also think the outside world is eager to use labels that are never useful to the people they give them to. That contradiction is a huge inspiration for most of the things I write.
In Shiner, I wanted every character to absolutely refuse to be written off as some kind of stereotype or victim. I wanted to crack open those stereotypes and examine all of the broken pieces.
Shiner is coming out in the middle of a pandemic, which doesn’t sound ideal. How has the pandemic impacted the release of your book?
It’s definitely not ideal, and honestly, I’d change it if I could. Everyone keeps telling me that now is the time people will read more, but I also think it’s very understandable if people are finding it impossible to read right now.
One strange thing is that when I set out to write a novel about characters who felt hidden, isolated, and forgotten, I never thought the world could relate to it so tangibly! I also think it’s a responsibility and a privilege to be putting books out into the world right now. We need them just as much as we always have.
Who are some of your favorite writers, past or present?
I am a devoted Austenite, and a strong believer that Persuasion is her best novel. I’m also a huge fan of Alice Walker, Jo Ann Beard, Alexander Chee, Aryn Kyle, and Abby Jimenez. And the list wouldn’t be complete without my favorite poets Natasha Trethewey and Jimmy Santiago Baca.
What are some of the best books you’ve read lately?
So many good ones! My recent favorites are Kept Animals by Kate Milliken and Take Me Apart by Sara Sligar. I also really enjoyed Such a Fun Age by Kiley Reid, which I read back in January. And I have to mention the incredible thriller Never Have I Ever by Joshilyn Jackson, which I loved so much that I did nothing but read it for two and a half days straight last year, and it just came out in paperback.
You can buy Amy Jo Burns’s Shiner on Bookshop (paid link).
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