Amy Burns is the author of Leaving is My Colour, an acclaimed debut novel about a damaged woman from a wealthy background trying to break free from addiction and unrequited love. Here Amy discusses her route to publication, the book and its characters.
Tell us about yourself, who you are, where you’re from, where you live and some of the things you’ve done to date?
I was born in Birmingham, Alabama and lived there until I was fifteen when my family moved an hour north to Hanceville. The house burned before we slept a night there and that pretty much set the tone for the rest of my time in Cullman County. When we arrived on the scene, the fire department was still blasting water at the front of the house while the fire raged in the back. I watched as pages from my books lilted through the air. All the rubble and burnt books were eventually bulldozed into a dilapidated pool and covered over to make a new front yard. My parents hauled in a used trailer and tied it down behind two huge cypress trees, right next to the well, and we lived on a construction site while the new house was built. Just days before the publication of Leaving is My Colour, I find myself once again living with my parents in the new house, which is how I still think of it even though it’s been built now for thirty some odd years.
Seems like I’ve spent a big chunk of my life trying to be things for other people; or what I thought I should be. Part of that involved an almost decade long stint working at a steel mill before I decided that, if I didn’t make a drastic change, I was going to end up picking cotton fibers out of the walls of a padded cell. I taped a sign to my bookcase at work where only I could see it: Leap and the Net Will Appear. I looked at that sign for two years after I finished my degrees in English and Philosophy at the University of Alabama at Birmingham before I worked up the courage to quit my job and move to Scotland where I eventually earned a PhD in Creative Writing at the University of Glasgow.
I’ve served as Managing Editor of Unbound Press and Spilling Ink Review which gave me an opportunity to edit several anthologies of short prose and poetry and I currently hold that same position at Mulberry Fork Review.
Tell us about Leaving is My Colour? Who are the main characters, what’s the story about?
This is who the Daily Mail described it in a recent review:
Demented narrator Rachel’s a kind of dysfunctional debutante. The daughter of vast wealth, she’s got through four marriages, endless drugs, breakdowns, therapy and rehab, all in search of the one thing money can’t buy. This is the love of her childhood sweetheart Jack, who’s with someone else and not interested.
The book’s a crazy mixed bag: sometimes dialogue, sometimes prose, moving back and forth in time and between degradation and glamour.
Restless Rachel might wake up in the Four Seasons penthouse, or sprawled on the floor with someone else’s wet dog.
Will she ever slow down and find happiness?
Why did you choose to write this book (rather than another)?
Once the kernel of an idea comes to me and THE first sentence happens, I’m not sure I have a choice. I’m that hopeless. There is a folder on my computer that contains twenty-seven novels in progress. All of them are in their infancy. All of them are what I consider solid foundations from which to begin. But none of them have THE first sentence yet. No matter how hard I try to work around that problem, outlines, character development, timelines… nothing serious happens until I have that sentence. Once I have the first sentence, I couldn’t write another novel even if I wanted to. This sentence can’t be forced either. In Leaving is My Colour and with my second novel which will be published in 2018, the first sentence was plucked from the periphery of my thoughts. By the way, neither of those first sentences are still in the novels after the edit, so, there you go…
As for why I was able to grow this kernel of a novel as opposed to another, if I knew that, I’d be a much more prolific writer.
What kind of journey has the book been on since you started writing it?
Leaving is My Colour was written in the early days of my time at the University of Glasgow where I eventually earned a PhD in Creative Writing. It was the creative element of my thesis. I wrote it relatively quickly which is probably evident in the pace of the novel itself. But the critical element of my thesis was more difficult. In fact, I struggled so with it, that I actually plucked the main character of the novel, Rachel Bennett, from the ether and forced her in to help finish the dissertation.
What was the most fun part of writing the novel?
Fun parts of writing a novel, let me see… Part of my process involves something that I call sleep thinking. It’s probably closer to active meditation or lucid dreaming; maybe it’s just good-old-fashioned getting lost in my imagination. Now that I’m thinking about it, maybe it’s nearing psychotic break. Whatever it is, I think of it as the magic cauldron part of the process which no writer can quite explain without sounding corny. It’s the howling at the moon part where ideas come from and characters become fully developed and you start playing scenes over and over and over in your head until you know exactly happens or what the rooms of a fictional house look like. When I’m locked into writing, I mean, really writing, I go to this place. I will sleep think for a while; then I will write for a long block of time. Then I will sleep think a while longer and work it all out in my head; then I will write more. I rarely sleep for real during these times which I don’t suppose is very healthy but fun, yeah… it’s a sort of torturous fun.
What was the toughest bit of writing the novel?
I think even with all the external obstacles one faces in getting a novel published, the toughest bit of writing a novel for me is still the pressure I put on myself. The internal critic is a problem.
They say debut novels are often biographical. Is there anything of Rachel in you?
I’d say that Rachel is more ‘of’ me than ‘in’ me. Otherwise, I plead the 5th.
Rachel’s voice is particularly memorable – did you develop it over time or did it arrive fully formed?
I’m glad to hear that Rachel’s voice is memorable because it marks a significant shift in my writing. It was the point at which I stopped trying to imitate my heroes and wrote in my own style and pace.
Rachel’s voice made sense once she made sense. That process happens both on and off the page for me because I spend a great deal of time lost in my head getting to know my characters before I’m able to write freely.
So I guess the answer is, it didn’t arrive fully formed but it happened relatively quickly as she was the main character and I had to get to know her best of all before I could carry on with the novel.
What would Rachel make of the new US President?
Rachel probably wouldn’t say anything; afraid the new US President would grab her by the pussy.