Author Amy Jo Burns On Her Debut Novel 'Shiner'
SCOTT SIMON, HOST:
Amy Jo Burns' novel "Shiner" opens with the banner true story. And let me just get out of the way so she can begin to tell it.
AMY JO BURNS: (Reading) Making good moonshine isn't that different from telling a good story. And no one tells a story like a woman. She knows that legends and liquor are best spun from the back of a pickup truck after nightfall, just as she knows how to tell a story slowly, the way whiskey drips through a sieve. Moonshine earned its name from spending its life concealed in the dark, and no one understands that fate more than I do. 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 broken-backed Bibles. But that's not the real story. Here's what hides behind the beauty line along West Virginia's highways, a fear that God has forgotten us.
SIMON: Amy Jo Burns joins us now. "Shiner" is her debut novel. Thank you so much for being with us.
BURNS: Thank you so much for having me. It's my pleasure.
SIMON: What a powerful beginning. And this is a landscape you know. This is territory that is yours, isn't it?
BURNS: It is. I grew up not as isolated as the characters in the novel, but I did grow up in Northern Appalachia. And it's a region that I've loved, obviously, all my life, but it's also stereotyped and lampooned as being poor and uneducated. But there are real human beings who live there. And they've got complicated lives and secrets and longings and triumphs. And I wanted to be able to celebrate the region with all of that texture, beauty and splendor.
SIMON: Tell us about the young woman who's at the heart of this narrative, Wren Bird.
BURNS: Wren is 15 years old. And she lives hidden in the mountains of West Virginia with her parents. And her father became a local legend when he got struck by lightning. And he became a preacher who takes up serpents. So when Wren witnesses - perform a strange miracle that goes horribly wrong, all these secrets from her family's past start to unravel. I really wanted to write about a young woman who is looking for miracles in all the wrong places. You know, she's taught by her father that she needs to be looking for something magnificent and explosive like a lightning strike. And part of Wren's growing up is learning to find real miracles in the right places that are usually just right at her fingertips, you know, those daily flesh and blood wonders that are found in the women who love her.
SIMON: Her father believes - who is, by the way, not just a snake handler, but a one-eyed snake handler who survived a lightning strike.
SIMON: And he believes he wasn't just lucky or even blessed but that it somehow - it conferred the power of divinity on him.
BURNS: Yes. He has a kind of faith that is a bit narrow. What's happened is he's used that to create this narrative about who he is. And, you know, I think at the heart of the novel is a group of characters who feel misunderstood. And Briar is one of those. And feeling misunderstood like that changes the trajectory of all of their lives. You know, every character in the novel is reaching a breaking point where they're starting to ask themselves, who am I if I didn't get struck by lightning? Who am I if I'm not a moonshiner? Who am I if I'm not a preacher's wife or if I'm not the snake handler's daughter? You know, for the women in the novel, which is Wren and her mother and her mother's best friend, Ivy, this creates a beautiful longing for what might lie outside this world they know. But for the men, really Briar in particular, he bets on this myth of himself in ways that put his family in danger.
SIMON: I did not know - put this under the category of my own naivete - that moonshine, which is one of the essential lubricants of this novel...
BURNS: It is.
SIMON: I didn't know it was kind of still around. I mean, is it artisanal nowadays, as they say? Or...
BURNS: You know, it is. And it's fascinating and exciting because it's actually had a resurgence, I would say, in the past five to 10 years because for a long time - I mean, it has been around in the United States since the 1700s, you know, when the Scotch-Irish brought it over. But it was always done in secret because there was prohibition. And there were, you know, fights over who's going to pay taxes. And what's happening now that's really wonderful is that there's been a big push to legalize the process so that so many more people can take part in it. And what I think is really exciting about that is that moonshine is not just whiskey. It's this cultural footprint. And it's an art form and this family heirloom that binds generations together. And it's a story in a bottle. And I think that's why people continue to buy it.
SIMON: Of course, we're speaking during the week of Mother's Day. And in the course of this story, Wren learns more about her mother, Ruby. And I'm kind of moved to ask you, is it - it reminded me that it's kind of a shame we can't know our mothers when they were kids like us?
BURNS: Yes. The women in "Shiner" are carrying around some very deep and juicy secrets, and they have such rich histories that the men in the book know nothing about. And secrets - obviously, they're usually kept for a good reason, and often they mean survival. And that was very true for Ruby when she was young. But keeping those secrets also changes a person, and sometimes, they come at a great cost. It's also a really important question to think about, especially, you know, now that we're, as a culture, living through this really horrific and difficult time. And one day soon, much like Ruby, we're going to have to figure out how to craft a story for our children from these long days quarantine, you know, because our stories might be lived in isolation, but they gather meaning when they're shared. And I think that's the duty of an older generation. And also, it's their gift to us.
SIMON: I think so. Amy Jo Burns - her debut novel, "Shiner." Thank you so much for being with us.
BURNS: Thank you so much for having me, Scott.
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