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This conversation has been lightly edited for clarity.
Stories of snake handlers, moonshining and the isolated mountains of West Virginia have been around for years, but “Shiner,” a new novel by author Amy Jo Burns, looks at them from the perspective of a 15-year-old girl caught in the middle.
Eric Douglas spoke with Burns to discuss the newly released book.
Douglas: The book is set in modern day, but there are pieces of it that feel like they could have been told 100 years ago.
Burns: I wanted to really try to get inside somebody’s head who just did not have access to things like smartphones. Somebody who lived a very isolated life. I wanted the reader to experience what it would be like for somebody like Ren who lives this very private, secluded, almost timeless life. But then the rest of the world is moving on without her so she feels that tension. She sort of goes back and forth between the two.
Douglas: There are elements in the story that mystical, yet the story is set in modern day and in modern life. Why did you choose that approach?
Burns: I grew up in a faith healing church, which is not a snake handling church. And there’s certainly a difference. But I did grow up in a landscape where people expected God to be doing very mysterious things that weren’t easily explained. So that was a huge part of the way I grew up and the way I approached the world around me. I’ve read so many books about that sort of thing that always seemed to be looking at it from the outside and thinking, ‘Oh, this is such a weird tradition’ or ‘Look how weird these people are.’
[So] I wanted to tell a story that came from inside it and was able to capture the sacredness of those things that aren’t so easily explained, even though they are a little hard to understand and lead to some pretty damaging situations. Even though it was something I couldn’t quite understand, I still had a reverence for it. I think that is really the main tension that Ren is experiencing as she’s coming into her own as a young woman.
Douglas: What’s your connection to West Virginia or Appalachia? Why did you choose to set the book here?
Burns: I grew up in western Pennsylvania. When I was a teenager, in the summers, I visited West Virginia and I just fell in love with it. It’s so beautiful there and I think the landscape is constantly telling a story. In my memoir, which I published about five years ago called “Cinderland,” West Virginia plays a role, too.
In terms of the plot of the novel, West Virginia is actually the only state in the United States where snake handling is still legal. So that was certainly an interesting piece to add into the story, but I think I love to write about places, especially places that I longed for, and I think West Virginia has always held that place in my heart.
Douglas: When you start talking about snake handling and West Virginia, that brings up some stereotypes that make some people uncomfortable.
Burns: I think what I wanted to do was to break apart the stereotype. The man who takes up serpents is named Briar Bird. There’s a legend about him that is larger than life that no human can live up to. It is a stereotype. I wanted to create a man in the book who was like the men that I knew when I was growing up — someone who had a lot of ambition that had nothing to do with money. It had nothing to do with travel or leaving home but had a real sense of wanting God’s presence to show up in a really powerful way.
My hope is that I got the mystery across in the book and all the problems that come with it. It’s also about what happens to women who were caught up in that cycle. I didn’t set out to write a book that was meant to speak for everybody in West Virginia, everybody in Appalachia. I wanted to tell a nuanced story about somebody who does some very difficult things to understand.
Douglas: Is there anything we haven’t touched on anything you want to add?
Burns: I feel like what’s going on in our world is so uncertain and so scary. It’s been a real journey for me to process what it means to be putting a novel out in the world at this time. On the one hand, it can seem maybe frivolous or purposeless, but the more I’ve been able to think about it, the more grateful I am that I get to share something like this with the world.
This interview is part of an occasional series with authors from, or writing about, Appalachia.