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An Interview with Amy Jo Burns
Amy Jo Burns is the author of Cinderland, a lyric memoir about a secret she kept throughout her adolescence. The year she turned ten, a police officer asked Burns if her piano teacher had ever put his hands on her. No, she lied. So did many other girls. The seven girls who did tell the truth were treated as outcasts in their small industrial town, accused of conspiring against an innocent man.
Released by Beacon Press last October, Cinderland is written in a lovely, haunting voice. Believe Roxane Gay when she says, “This book demands to be read.”
JEANNIE VANASCO: Cinderland is as much about your piano teacher molesting his female students as it is about the Rust Belt town where you lived. How easy was it for you to bring setting and character together?
AMY JO BURNS: Part of it came naturally because my hometown, Mercury, is such an important part of who I am. I still feel really connected to the Appalachian landscape there and its point of view. It’s a flesh-and-blood creature, one that I loved and felt lonely without. During my first year of grad school I took a poetry class where we studied writers like Natasha Trethewey and Jimmy Santiago Baca, and I started to see how powerful place can be in literature. They showed me that particular places and ideas of home find their rightful proportions by becoming larger than life.
I also think setting and character inform each other: we change and are changed by the places where we live. In my hometown, it just didn’t feel safe for a girl to tell the truth. There was no privacy, and your reputation tended to follow you around. I hated the thought of being labeled by something done to me—or even worse—to be called a liar or a snitch. I really wanted to be able to define myself, and one of the problems I kept having with my hometown was that I felt like it had already defined me just because I was a girl.
JV: Was it ever hard to see yourself as a character?
AJB: Yes! I had a lot of trouble “seeing” myself when I first started to write, mostly because I was afraid to revisit that period in my life for a really long time. I also had to learn to be kinder to myself. I used to think of myself as a coward for not speaking up. Writing the book helped me see a lot of bravery in this young girl who made a tough choice in a terrible situation. And I wasn’t the only one—there were so many others just like me who faced the same impossible decision.
JV: Are there conflicts that you didn’t include or develop as much? Not because they weren’t relevant but because the narrative might have become too unwieldy?
AJB: Unwieldy is the perfect word. I think the trick to memoir is to avoid taking a panoramic view of your life and instead take one conflict and fully explore it. Even though it doesn’t come up much in my memoir, I’m fascinated by religion in America. Growing up, I felt pretty suffocated in the wild, charismatic church my parents went to. What’s even weirder is how much more relaxed I felt when we started attending a more traditional church. It’s definitely something I’m hoping to explore in my fiction writing in the future.
JV: If you’d written Cinderland as fiction, how might you have made it different?
AJB: It’s actually hard to say. I might have included some kind of confrontation between my character and the piano teacher. When I was writing, I kept wishing that I’d gone to his house and told him off. But after the book came out and I heard back from a few readers, I ended up being glad it never happened. Most victims never get the chance to confront their abusers and it can really eat away at you. I’m glad I got to give that frustration a realistic portrayal.
JV: Were there particular novels you turned to for guidance?
AJB: Absolutely. I read fiction almost exclusively during the latter half of writing the book. It was a great trick for me to read fiction while writing nonfiction. Jeffrey Eugenides’ The Virgin Suicides was unbelievably helpful, not only for his use of the first person plural, but also for the way the book gushes with young love and lust against a backdrop of decay. Aryn Kyle’s The God of Animals was also a really important book for me. She really knows how to spin a sentence, and I fell in love with her characters because of their flaws.
JV: I understand how writers can get absorbed by their own genres, so I think it’s great you turned to fiction and poetry. What I don’t understand is when I encounter poets and fiction writers who scoff at memoir.
AJB: Consider me a memoir evangelist! I always wonder why memoir seems to be the single genre consistently judged by its worst examples. Why do we have to accomplish something extraordinary in life in order to have license to write about it? Humans are so rarely exemplary, anyhow. As a reader, I find it so much more interesting to see how characters fall short of their own ideals and then paw their way back toward them, or discover new ones, one imperfect move at a time. That feels like a more authentic picture of humanity.
I think some of the distaste you mention comes from a deep discomfort with publicizing the difficult truths about our lives. Telling the truth is tough—for the writer and for those she writes about—and sometimes it’s hard to understand why we choose to put ourselves or others at risk. Isn’t it safer just to write it and call it fiction? But this question assumes that fiction is the best form for every story, as if each memoirist first began as a failed novelist. That might be true for some writers, but we can’t forget that form operates in service to the story, not the other way around.
JV: Did you personally experience any of that backlash?
AJB: Not too much. While I was writing my memoir, I did have a few people tell me I probably had nothing of worth to say because I was too young. Maybe they’re right. But I also see a lot of value in examining your life from different vantage points. For example, you can watch a tree from far off and see it change from season to season. But you can also stand close enough to it to inspect its individual leaves. Cinderland was a story that needed to be written while I could still remember the veins in the leaves.
JV: Your next book is fiction, right?
AJB: It is! I’m working on a novel. It’s a bit of a family saga about the daughter of a prominent snake-handler in West Virginia who’s trying to determine whether or not to follow in her father’s footsteps. A lot like Cinderland, the novel covers the familiar territory of tight-knit communities, the legacy of betrayal, and the secrets we keep from those we love. Unlike Cinderland, there’s a lot of moonshine in it.
Actually, the process of writing fiction has been pretty similar to nonfiction. I’m still hunting for the difficult truths as I write, even though I’m not yet sure what they are.