Amy Jo Burns is the author of Cinderland, and her writing has appeared in Salon, Good Housekeeping, The Rumpus, Electric Literature, Tin House’s Open Bar, Ploughshares Online, and in Roxane Gay’s anthology Not That Bad. Her novel Shiner is forthcoming from Riverhead Books.
Amy Jo was gracious enough to answer a few questions from another Rust Belt girl–me–about her literary memoir, Cinderland, which I discussed in a previous post; about her Rust Belt upbringing; about juggling the responsibilities of writing and motherhood; and about her upcoming novel, Shiner, which I can’t wait to read!
Amy Jo–your memoir, Cinderland, is set in your hometown outside Pittsburgh. How did that particular post-industrial place inform your upbringing? Does your memoir’s title reflect the place in which you were raised, the abuse you suffered as a girl, both?
I chose the title Cinderland because it represents an inner fire that remains after old, unnecessary things have died away. I see so much of myself in the landscape that I grew up in. The abandoned buildings, overgrown lots, and empty warehouses of my youth were (and are) placeholders for new things to come, and they are so beautiful to me. The story of the Rust Belt is still being written, even if some people call it a dead zone. There is life inside! Rust and cinders aren’t dead things. They’re just in a state of transformation, and I think that became a powerful metaphor for me to explore my own coming of age in my memoir.
In your memoir, you discuss your Christian upbringing and throughout the book use biblical allusions. (Your abuser you call Mr. Lotte.) In using the language of the Bible, did you feel like you were wresting some control over that part of your childhood? Something else?
The Bible was my first introduction to language, so it felt very natural for me to use biblical references as a way to represent how I see the world. This was such a good question for me to consider, because I just realized in borrowing some of that language, I was actually able to release some control over the painful parts of my past. For so long I tried to manage what had happened to me and my grief over it, and it only ended up suffocating me. I was afraid to let it be what it was.
Sometimes I think “religion” tries to manhandle who God is, and having faith is the opposite: letting God be God, and finding rest because of it. For me, that meant letting Mr. Lotte be held accountable for what he did. It was not “Christian” for me to try to hide away his transgressions, even if some people in my community swore it was. When I was writing the book, I came across this verse in Proverbs 17:15:
“Whitewashing bad people and throwing mud on good people are equally abhorrent to God.”
I’d never heard that before. It’s not an exaggeration to say it changed my life to see that God has no interest in camouflaging a man’s true character for the sake of fake peace.
You were a student of ballet, growing up. Had you known the true story you present in your essay, “Body on Fire,” of Emma Livry, a young ballerina whose costume caught on fire during a performance at the Paris Opera in 1862, or did you come upon it more recently? Can you talk about this idea of burning or “consuming” of women with respect to today’s #metoo movement?
I came across that story about two years ago, and I still can’t stop thinking about it. Emma Livry had GUTS as an artist and as a woman, and I think she probably felt just as frustrated to perform for an audience full of men she didn’t trust as so many women still feel right now. Livry’s biographer, a male, seemed to suggest she was a victim of her own making, that it was her own vanity in wanting a certain kind of ballet skirt to wear that ultimately killed her when her tutu caught fire. I call foul! I think she knew her patrons saw her as nothing but a body for consumption. She fought to dance the way she wanted– wearing what she wanted–for herself, first and foremost. She paid a price for it. Livry wasn’t spared because of her talent or her drive. Instead, she was treated like a piece of machinery. That’s what resonates for me with today’s #metoo movement–she was blamed for choices that were never really hers to make.
Have you changed as a writer since becoming a mother, besides having less time and energy to write?
Yes! I wanted to finish Cinderland before I had children because I thought parenthood would make me overly sentimental. I didn’t want to write about my own childhood with too much nostalgia. It’s funny, though, because the opposite has been true. I’m much more raw as a person and as a writer now that I’m a mother, and I like it. My sense of self has totally shifted. I’m constantly becoming someone I’ve never been before, which is weird and wonderful and a little scary. There’s a new urgency to what I write now, like I’m trying to capture each meaningful truth before it disappears.
Also: now I write while Paw Patrol plays in the background. I gave up on trying to find the ideal working environment. It doesn’t exist. That helps me value my writing time without letting it become too precious.
What can you tell me about your forthcoming novel, Shiner—about moonshining, is that right? How different was the writing process for fiction, after writing a memoir and essays?
Shiner is set in West Virginia, and it’s about moonshine, snake handling, and the secrets women keep for each other. I’ve really loved writing it, and it gave me such a burst of energy after finishing Cinderland. I was so, so sick of writing about myself! As far as the difference between genres, I’ll put it like this–novelists suffer from having too many choices, and memoirists suffer from the lack of them. I think I’ve used the same kind of creativity to solve both problems, but the boundaries are very separate.
I hear a lot of writers say that there’s no difference between writing fiction and nonfiction, but for me, the difference is pretty essential. Cinderland has weight as a story because it’s true. I had to put myself at risk to tell it fully, exactly as I remembered it. I don’t think I’d be able to write any kind of worthwhile fiction if I hadn’t first been honest, mostly with myself, about what Mr. Lotte did to me and my town. In that way, I hope that my work in fiction and nonfiction will always strengthen each other, like iron sharpens iron.
Many thanks to Amy Jo Burns for sharing her time and insights with Rust Belt Girl. Find her at her author site, which includes links to her recent work and interviews. And be on the lookout for her forthcoming novel, Shiner.
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*Photos provided by Amy Jo Burns