“I Wanted to Create Some New Legends for Appalachian Women”: An Interview with Amy Jo Burns

side by side series of the cover of Shiner

“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 broke-backed Bibles,” narrates Wren Bird, the protagonist of Amy Jo Burns’s first novel, Shiner, out today. The Birds live on a West Virginia mountain in an isolated cabin that lacks an address as well as a phone. Wren’s father, Briar Bird, is a preacher who speaks in tongues and “takes up serpents”—the five venomous snakes he keeps in a shed behind their house in particular—while Wren’s mother, Ruby, makes her dresses.  The only item Wren has with her name on it is a library card she keeps secret from her father. On Sundays, Briar preaches in an abandoned Texaco gas station to his small congregation. “My father obeyed the rituals of snake-handling law,” Wren says, “which meant he pretended we still lived in the 1940s instead of the age of the internet and all the things people did on their cell phones that I couldn’t understand.” Though Wren’s parents grew up in the ’90s, it is easily forgotten that Wren’s nearly overnight coming-of-age is set in the present day as we become more deeply enmeshed in her community.

This coming-of-age is set into motion when Wren’s mother’s best friend, Ivy, catches on fire during her daily visit to their cabin, stumbling into the fire over which Ruby is making soap. Miraculously, Briar heals Ivy’s burns, and all Wren sees left is “a thin seam of red, like a rash,” left on the back of her skull—nothing like the burn blisters her mother gets saving her friend, and which she declines Briar’s offer to heal. The miracle sparks tension between Briar and Ruby, and when Ivy demonstrates a new interest in Briar’s religion, it threatens Ruby and Ivy’s friendship, too. Soon, Ivy and her entire family grow sick, though the family doesn’t seek medical care because of its scarcity and expense as well as their new belief in Briar’s religion; it isn’t until the end of the novel that Wren discovers the family was drinking water poisoned by runoff from a coal mine. Despite Ivy’s extreme frailty, she has Briar baptize her in a frigid creek. Then he baptizes and nearly intentionally drowns Wren—which sends him fleeing into the hills as the congregation scatters. That night, Ivy dies. In the wake of these events, Wren works to make sense of a world she had been sheltered from now that her family, religion, and identity have been shattered.

This story, though, is more than just Wren’s—Burns situates her in a legacy of women and this land, telling their stories through two additional narrators: Flynn, her father’s former best friend, and Ivy. Ruby, Ivy, and other women in their rural town, Trap, repeatedly express the ways gender binds them, and how often men are oblivious to this or else brutally enforce it. Young men are taught “that a young woman was an uninhabited land until a man laid claim to her.” Burns writes:Graduation, for a boy, might have been youth’s last call before he faced minimum wage at the diner, or years of combat, or the dark maze of the coal mines. Sobered by their own futures, these boys couldn’t see that girls like Ruby and Ivy had grown up long before. They knew how to feed other mouths before their own, to lie about leaving home after dark, to avert their eyes when men stared at them too long.” Flynn’s perspective demonstrates the freedom he and Briar have to stay out late and choose their own paths—Flynn to his family’s moonshine business and Briar to snake healing—while Ruby and Ivy have little choice but to marry to escape their harsh, alcoholic fathers and the duty of caring for younger siblings. But marriage turns out to be its own trap: Ruby is bound by her husband’s restrictive religion and Ivy to baby after baby as her husband drinks whiskey and pops Percocet. Though Ivy catching on fire tips off the novel’s action, the connected stories of Ivy and Ruby snake deeper to what has been done to them and to what Flynn and Briar have done, a story fragmented between them all and one that they hide from each other.

Through these narrators, Burns pieces together Ruby’s story. Influenced by “the sacredness alongside the weirdness” of the faith-healing church she grew up in, Burns, who in 2014 published a memoir, Cinderland, about growing up in western Pennsylvania, felt compelled to write Ruby’s story after reading Dennis Covington’s nonfiction book Salvation on Sand Mountain (1995), about a scandal that happened at a snake-handling church where a preacher went to jail for murder after his wife died of a snakebite. Like this wife, Ruby is at risk of being subsumed by her husband’s legend: Briar is famed in his community for his widely-spread tale of being struck by lightning, which morphs him into the legendary White Eye. “When my mother married White Eye,” Wren notes, “she gave her life for his legend. It turned her into a ghost.” In Shiner, Burns resurrects Ruby’s experience, along with Ivy’s and women like them, rather than letting these experiences be buried along with their bodies while their husbands live on. Still, the stories aren’t sensational or miraculous like Briar’s. Wren describes her “father’s stories [as] strutt[ing] with prowess” while her “mother’s wept with sorrow.”

In addition to reclaiming women’s stories, Burns tells the metaphorical story of the land through Flynn, who adapts Briar’s storytelling prowess to describe the taste of his moonshine, the fiery whiskey that holds within it the taste of the land and the history of the men (mostly) who make it—a quite different use of storytelling from that of Briar and his congregation. Both moonshine and religion, though, struggle to combat the damage the opioid epidemic is wreaking on their community. “Heroin gave folks the kind of community they’d once found in church,” Flynn observes, “one with a leader and some loyal followers, a shared resolve to outlast another long winter.” In short, Burns masterfully builds a web of tension by drawing together the frayed threads of these characters’ lives: the coal mine’s destruction of the land, the opioid epidemic, the limited access to medicine, and the lack of freedom women experience.

Confronted with the fragility of her father’s myth and the world he’s constructed, Wren questions whether the life he’s built for her and Ruby can continue. “I didn’t know if my mother and I would survive his fall,” Wren says in the wake of his near-drowning of her. After this botched baptism, Ivy’s death, and a disastrous snake-handling accident that forces Wren from her mountain home, one might say that Wren’s story ends tragically, but its tragedy is trumped by the ways Wren emerges from the wreckage. “My father remained the mountain’s favorite outlaw, my mother his sacrifice. I hated my part in the myth. I was nameless, faceless . . . Briar Bird was not a man, a father, or a husband. He was a story, and nothing else,” Wren reflects. “I didn’t want to be a story. I wanted to live.” After all that befalls Wren so quickly, upending her life, Wren rises to create her own legend, an homage to her mother and Ivy, and she finds a way to live despite the trauma of her past.

I recently spoke with Burns, former contributor to the Ploughshares Blog, among other outlets, about her Appalachian novel.

Sarah Appleton Pine: I’m fascinated by your choice of title—like the mountain and the snakes, the stills and moonshine figure prominently in the plot. How and when did you settle on Shiner as the title and what was the process to coming to it?

Amy Jo Burns: I actually decided pretty early on. I knew from the beginning that I wanted to have something that I really delighted in on the page, and I just found moonshine so delightful, and I wanted the title to reflect that. I felt like the heart of the novel is about women, but it’s also about a love for the land. For me, the main metaphor in the book comes through moonshine. I wanted to choose something that was representative of that love of a certain kind of culture and of the land itself.

SAP: This land—the mountain, in particular—is essential to Shiner and the characters’ lives. What was it like to write about this place?

AJB: I grew up in western Pennsylvania, about two hours from the Pennsylvania-West Virginia border, and when I was a teenager, I went to West Virginia in the summer. It is a staggeringly beautiful place. There are mountains and caves and waterfalls—you really feel like when you’re there that the mountain is speaking to you, speaking about the past and present, and it’s hard to not have something like that grab hold of you. I always wanted to write about it. In my first book, a memoir, it appears in sections when I was a teenager. It’s just such a wonderful place to set the story because the landscape itself is a story. I wanted to write a book about people that felt forgotten or were hidden, and that was largely true before the 2016 election—and then things really shifted, but I had written the book before then. People’s perspectives of West Virginia I think have changed after that, but that was my relationship with West Virginia growing up.

SAP: Storytelling and stories are something we value in our culture and are very much a part of the characters’ lives in Shiner, too. How did you consider storytelling in the novel’s plot and structure, and how would you describe your role as a storyteller?

AJB: I wanted Shiner to really feel like an oral history, like you felt as you were reading that you were sitting down at a campfire and having someone tell you a story. There’s a tradition in Appalachia called murder ballads that comes in folk music and in old myths and legends that have been passed down from one person to another person to another person, so I wanted this book to feel like you were hearing that story and getting a sense of the story behind the story.

I think my role as a storyteller is to try to make it feel as melodic as possible through the language itself so that you can get the rhythm of it and feel it as you are reading but not so much that you get stuck in the language. I wanted to create a space for people who felt forgotten to have space to tell their stories, and I wanted to create some new legends for Appalachian women.

SAP: It was neat to see the stories told from different perspectives that create one story in the end even though we don’t get it from the one person or even from one moment in time. I wondered how we would find out what happened after Wren discovered the tiny fragment of a letter Ruby was writing to her—“Dear Wren, I have to tell you.”

AJB: With Ruby, and the letter she writes that’s unfinished, I wanted to really reckon with what happens or what’s lost when we prize the male perspective in all of our stories and what is lost when we don’t get to hear a mother’s story. There are real things that’s lost in our culture when we continue to listen to the stories of men and expect those to be the stories that create history.

 SAP: This story is so much about the women, so it’s interesting and surprising that Flynn narrates a part of the story, too. Why did you choose to use Flynn as a narrator?

AJB: When I started writing this book, my main purpose was to give voice to the forgotten, and while I think that tends to be mostly female, I do think that there are men out there who don’t fit a typical patriarchal narrative, and that is isolating in and of itself in a lot of ways. So I think to prize female mythmaking is not to completely disregard the male perspective but to let it incorporate into a larger female narrative—that’s why I included his voice. And because I wanted to capture moonshine in the mountains and a lot of moonshiners are men. If I had left a lot of that out, the story wouldn’t have felt complete. I didn’t want to completely disregard a whole part of what is life in Appalachia just because I wanted to tell the stories of women. Stories of women are also made up of men. A lot of the characters are living in a man’s world. I wanted to make a character that you could fall in love with but also see how privileged he is and how unaware of how privileged he is.

SAP: You touch on some pretty thorny issues—religion, snake-handling, faith healing, environmental concerns, and abuse. Did you ever struggle with telling these characters’ stories or was there something that helped you feel empowered to tell these stories?

AJB: I will always approach those sorts of things with trepidation, and I think that’s as it should be for a writer to continue to realize the weight of the story you’re telling. One of the reasons why I wanted to write about these things was that a lot of the stuff I’ve read about faith healing is always told from the outside in, and it’s always told with this sort of mocking overtone—Oh, look at this weird thing—and it just, to me, was not the full picture of what a life dedicated to that is like. Yeah, maybe some of it is weird and strange and unexplainable, but there is something that I think is very mysterious and very beautiful, even if it’s not something that I practice. I’m still absolutely a person of faith, but I don’t practice it that way anymore. I just wanted to be able to get up inside of it and show what those lives are like from their own eyes.

SAP: Wren says that her father’s religion places them in the 1940s, so how did you work with this time period versus the novel’s literal setting of the ’90s and present-day?

AJB: I grew up in the ’90s, and so it wasn’t an accurate or detail-for-detail picture of what my teen years were like, but I think what is true—and what I wanted to get across—is that not every life in West Virginia looked like what it was like for Wren and what it was like for Ruby and what it was like for Ivy because of the practices of their faith. There are other characters in the book who lead very different lives and are able to look at what Wren has and say, “So this is very different.” If anything, I was very conscious that I was never going to speak for an entire state, which is very varied in terms of religion, nor was I going to speak for all of Appalachia. I just wanted to tell a story of what my faith was kind of like in some ways. For Wren, living the life that she lived, she also had to mark time in a different way than the rest of the world because of what her life looked like. And that is why the book is told the way that it is, true to the reality that she lived in.

SAP: Your access to moonshine was limited while you were writing Shiner since you were pregnant—twice! Can you talk a little bit about what it was like to be working on a book throughout this time in your life?

AJB: I don’t think I would have written this book if I hadn’t been going through all of that at the time. So much of what Ruby and Ivy experience when they’re young is this fear of what happens on the other side of marriage and motherhood and seeing what that reality was for them. My story is nothing like theirs, but being able to work through what they might have been feeling was very helpful for me to have a kindred experience of motherhood with somebody under different circumstances and working through what it’s like to have to care 24/7 for another life and to value that life more than your own. I don’t think I would be able to render them so fully as humans if I hadn’t become a parent myself first.

When you’re writing a book, the book is always reflecting back to the writer exactly what you need at that moment and that’s what Shiner did for me. I had such terrible insomnia when I was writing it—I was up with the kids and I couldn’t get back to sleep—and so much of what I was writing was what I needed to hear in that moment from another woman, from another mom. The book is what gave me comfort when I was finding a new normal for myself during that time because I was like, “I’m recognizable to myself.” I’m really grateful to the book for keeping me such good company during that time.

SAP: And then in some ways you’re channeling Flynn and his father because you’re up at night just like they are, making moonshine.

AJB: Exactly—I just felt like the characters gave me company in a way that I didn’t have. I just felt so alone. Each of the characters really befriended me in a really important way during that time when I was wondering, will I ever finish this book? I finished it by thinking I was never going to finish it, and that is a miracle, and I felt that it’s an encouragement to other people who are staring down these hard choices: how do I have a life with art and how do I incorporate art into my life? It’s possible even as you believe it’s impossible—there’s something that becomes possible in the trying.

SAP: Is there anything else you would like to add that I didn’t get to?

AJB: I hope that when people read Shiner they see joy escaping into the mountains and all the mysterious beauty that’s there. And I hope also that there’s something about the book that encourages people to ask their moms about their histories and just see what comes of it.