What is your book about?
A book is always about a lot of things. In a nutshell…This is a mystery about a suburban community where the women begin to spontaneously ignite and burn as they go about their usual daily business. Cassandra, the protagonist and narrator, is a witness to the first burning and sets out to answer the question of how and why this is happening, and why it is only happening to women. It’s a science fiction/fabulist mystery that raises questions about women’s lives.
What was the most difficult part about writing this story?
It was so important to make this strange phenomenon believable. I had to carry the reader along without losing acceptance of the premise. If I failed at that, the book wouldn’t work. The sequencing of clues to the puzzle of spontaneous burnings had to be just right. They had to mingle with Cassandra’s own personal struggles. A satisfying conclusion had to come for both.
In my first draft, the lead was a police detective. But Cassandra evolved into a completely different woman, a stay-at-home mom who gave up her career to raise her kids. Nobody in town has any idea she is as smart and as equipped as she is with the knowledge needed to solve the mystery.
The most rewarding?
When Charles Dickens wrote “Bleak House,” he killed off a character, Mr. Krooks, with spontaneous human combustion, and was criticized for it. He wrote in an introduction to a later edition that ‘nobody has ever proven it cannot happen.’ I had to find a way to not only include this in a story, but I had to prove that it could happen and get over the anticipated eye rolls the book might receive from the publishing world and readers, just like Dickens. (Keeping good company here, LOL.)
This required endless research into real and speculative science. I discovered so much about the physical world, energy, ancient cultural beliefs, and schools of self-healing during the writing of this. I dug into research about women and fire, how different cultures around the world all have mythologies, stories or terrible practices where women are burned. It all fed into Cassandra’s exploration.
I also realized that my experiences, not only as a stay-at-home mother myself, but from the rather eclectic series of jobs I’ve had in my life, fed into the answer to the mystery. I taught school groups about culture and art at a museum. I also taught space science where I learned about some of the physical science elements in the story. I studied ancient cultures and modern societies as an anthropology student in my early days. I realized that nobody else could possibly have pulled the disparate elements of this together to make it work. It really is my creation and mine alone and that is what feels rewarding.
Fire / burning seems to be a major theme in women’s writing lately. Do you have any thoughts on why that might be?
I’ve been spending part of this summer reading books with ‘burning’, in the title. I just finished “A Burning” by Megha Majumdar. “Girls Burn Brighter” by Shobha Rao is up next on my TBR list. They are both stories of India. My book takes place in suburban New Jersey, and Cassandra, my character, knows what happens in India where there are over 4 million missing women. She knows about self-immolation, dowry deaths, the outlawed practice of sati. Her journey in “Only the Women are Burning” reveals some of the smoldering issues women face everyday living in our American patriarchal society. These days, women are expressing a slow burning rage as their consciousness awakens to the mythology of equality for women despite our gains in some areas. My women friends, when they heard about this book, most often say, “Oh, I can relate to that. Sometimes I wish I could just burst into flame and disappear.” These books about burning women channel a shared consciousness through the imaginations of women writers. I am excited to be on this wave with them.
What do you hope other people will take away from reading your book?
I hope my mom-turned-sleuth feels like someone who could be a friend. I hope book groups talk a lot about some of the truths Cassandra observes about relationships, women and friendship, marriages, motherhood, men and the choices we make. Cassandra is a smart woman and she is very likely to appear in a subsequent novel. I’m working on her next adventure. As for a take-away… a sense of shared triumph with Cassandra and a strong recognition by readers of their own ability to triumph over their own circumstances.
Who are your favorite authors (and why)?
Oh, Flannery O’Connor is my absolute favorite. Many readers are mystified by her, don’t understand her wicked humor, and sometimes interpret her work incorrectly. I feel like I’ve been let in on her secret, like I’ve been given the key to unlocking what she’s up to. That’s why I love teaching her stories.
My recent discovery is Kevin Wilson, author of “Nothing to see Here,” about two children who spontaneously ignite when they’re agitated. I loved finding another contemporary author with spontaneously burning characters while I was getting “Only the Women Are Burning” ready for publication. I’ve read nearly all his work in the past few months…all so full of heart. Alice McDermott appeals to my Irish Catholic background and sensibilities, Margaret Atwood, Ann Patchett – Bel Canto is a forever favorite, Alice Hoffman writes about families of women and there’s always magic elements to raise the intrigue into the unexpected, Donna Tartt’s prose and precision and thorough storytelling, and Leif Enger’s “Peace Like a River” is one of my all time favorite books – he ties character and setting and plot together so perfectly. I am re-reading this one now to observe his interwoven elements of language, voice and the miraculous. Dan Chaon is another. I can keep going but I’ll stop here. I have to mention the female sleuth from my childhood – Nancy Drew Mysteries, by Carolyn Keene (pseudonym).
What’s the best writing advice you ever received?
Tayari Jones was my thesis advisor in the MFA program at Rutgers – which I did late in life (my mid 50’s). I mention her in my acknowledgements page in OTWAB because she helped me to differentiate my fiction writing endeavors from habits of mind from my past study of culture. My undergraduate degree is in anthropology so at first I wrote from what I thought was a conscientious effort toward writing diverse characters. She advised me to move closer to home and create characters more familiar to me. Once I focused on my known world and dug into material from there, the authenticity of my fiction grew. Also, a friend once said, “If you find you have writer’s block, the way to get around it is to lower your expectations.”
What’s next for you? Will readers see more of Cassandra in the future?
I started a collection of short stories with the working title “Units of Measure.” But, Cassandra’s journey is continuing and I need to see where she goes next and what challenges she faces. She may be the lead, or her teenage daughter may take over the narrative for the next adventure, or it may be two points of view. Maybe my readers will tell me what their wish list for Cassandra would include.
How can our readers get a copy of your book?
I always encourage readers to support their local bookstore, particularly now during the pandemic. Watchung Booksellers, is so supportive of writers in mycommunity (Montclair, NJ) I feel it’s time to help keep their doors open. So, here is the link to their pre-order page for “Only the Women are Burning.” They ship anywhere. (Of course, there is Amazon and Barnes and Noble online, too.)
What is the best way for our readers to connect with you?
I love to do virtual or live (after pandemic) book group visits. My website is www.nancyburkestories.com
. My email address is on my website for anyone who may want to get in touch.
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