Montclair author Nancy Burke has written a novel sure to ignite discussion and introspection. ONLY THE WOMEN ARE BURNING is set in Hillston, a town much like Montclair. The novel centers on the aptly named Cassandra who is thrown into a shocking mystery when a woman bursts into flame right in front of her as they wait for the train. When news hits that two other local women have met fiery fates that same morning, speculation about cults, political protests, or attacks abounds, but Cassandra suspects the truth is more complicated.
Burke manages to create a believable background of suburban life while injecting mystery, science, family drama, social commentary, and constant anticipation of horror. The characters are recognizable, and the conflicts between them ring true. The various challenges and disappointments experienced by comfortably-middle-class women intertwine with the well-researched science and not-so-mundane events throughout the novel. Readers will pay close attention as Cassandra works through her hypotheses to solve the mystery of why Hillston women are burning.
Only the Women are Burning is dedicated to Burke’s dear friend, Joann Corrao Spera, who is in the fight for her life with pancreatic cancer. Burke connects her friend’s health to the novel: “It feels like she is one of the women in the story, but with a slow burning. She is trying to beat it back before it destroys her.” The Valerie Fund at Morristown Medical Center, with which Joann works to ensure children with cancer receive uninterrupted education, is hosting a fall fundraiser. Nancy Burke’s plan is to dedicate a portion of the proceeds from sales of Only the Women are Burning to the fund, and she asks all who read this, especially those who attend the book launch on October 7th, to consider making a donation. To donate, click here: The Valerie Fund.
Watchung Booksellers is hosting a book launch event for Nancy Burke’s ONLY THE WOMEN ARE BURNING on October 7, 2020. Register today to join this on-line event.
Baristanet spoke with Nancy Burke about her new novel.
ONLY THE WOMEN ARE BURNING reads like a crime thriller, science-fiction, family drama, and social commentary all at once. How did the idea come about, and what was the initial idea?
The idea of women burning as they walked through their daily routines hit me while I was sitting under a tree at the pool where I took my daughters when they were very young. I was scribbling in my journal, a stolen quiet moment. At first it was a bit of dark humor, then a recognition of a feeling that sometimes you could just burst into flame, and it would be an easier solution to some unresolvable tension and conflict than anything else. I thought, hmmm, what is this and what can I do with it? So I dug into the idea of women and burning and it kind of fascinated me – including the things I discovered about how women and fire are paired in many ways throughout many cultures.
The inciting action is shocking: women burn to the point of disappearing entirely, leaving only their clothing and accessories behind. How do you view the fire? Cleansing? Punitive? Passionate? Is the research Cassandra cites throughout the novel based on information you’ve found in your development of the story?
My first sense of the fire is of something welling up inside of the women, an energy that just has to take some kind of form, a strong emotion or a passion that has no channel for expression so it just kind of explodes out of them. The book asks the reader ‘how do you view the fire’ and Cassandra hears the answer from a number of different people in her town. Ultimately, the view I have of the fires comes out toward the end, so I don’t want to define it here. This question of “How do you view the fire?” is something I think women’s book groups would love to discuss. I imagine the answers would be varied and revealing.
Cassandra’s inquiry uses the research I did while developing the story. I knew it was important for the bursting into flame to be believable, since it’s such an extraordinary thing, so I did a lot of research. Could it happen? How could it happen? Why would it happen? What invisible things around us, that we don’t pay attention to, could make something the world doesn’t believe can happen, happen? It brought me a realization that myth and religion preceded science as a way to explain our world to ourselves. So I dove into research about mythology and fire as well as science. Then I had to decide what would be a satisfying answer to my readers. It’s a tangle of lots of things.
During some of the novel, the main protagonist, Cassandra, seems to be considered a suspect in the fiery deaths that occur. How does that factor into the development of the story and her character?
Cassandra is looked upon with a bit of suspicion, unfounded, of course, at first. The underlying issue this illustrates, and the initial response from the authorities that the women might be doing it to themselves is that of victim blaming, which we know is a society/patriarchal response to women who are victims of violent crimes like sexual assault…blame their behavior, blame their choice of dress, blame them for not being careful. Cassandra doesn’t accept that leap to a conclusion and that is what triggers her own efforts to answer the question.
Cassandra’s marriage is troubled, as is her relationship with her sisters. A lot of readers will likely relate to the “family drama.” Was it difficult to write about relationship complications in such an intimate way? Is it autobiographical or observational? Both?
It is difficult to write about complicated and troubled family relationships because you have to dig into your own experiences and then, for the purposes of fiction, you have to exaggerate them somewhat so they resonate with your readers, so the issues demand their attention, so the book will elicit an emotional response from them. I will say that I have four sisters and there are times when there is conflict and disappointed expectations among us. I tried to harness those feelings and blow them up to very large in the book. Same with marriage. We all have moments of misunderstanding and unmet expectations we have to deal with. So, yes, somewhat autobiographical in an emotional sense, also observational.
While the novel travels to Stonehenge and Bangalore, the majority of the action is in the fictional Hillston, a clear stand-in for Montclair. Street names and familiar landmarks are mentioned specifically. How did you settle on the location, and how did it influence the novel?
I was born in Montclair and grew up in Bloomfield. I’ve lived in Montclair since 1988. The baseline for my own experience is right here. It is a perfect place to live, to raise children, to have a nice undisturbed life with friends and family. For the book, I needed the setting to be very real, normal, peaceful, a place where it would seem like nothing bad could happen. While this book was brewing in my mind, I would think about it while walking through town, driving past familiar places. So, when I’d sit down to write, I could see the places where the fires occurred vividly. I worked for a while at The Newark Museum, so I took the train – so Cassandra does the same. That job was a great way for Cassandra to contemplate some of the ideas that emerge in the book. Writing teachers encourage writers to write what we know. My earlier books were set in places that required research. For this book, I didn’t have to research the setting, but I did have to research science and quasi-science and some lunatic fringe ideas like spontaneous human combustion.
There are several interactions in the novel that emphasize seeing past the surface. Cassandra’s pushback on a journalist who is a younger woman, her discoveries about her eldest sister, the surprise from various men that Cassandra is an academic and a scientist all push the reader to look deeper into and find empathy for their neighbors and even themselves. Why was it important to you to include this as a theme in the novel?
Oh, I’m so glad you recognize this element of the book. Yes, it is something that is an underlying theme that I believe all of us need to practice more in life not only at the personal level, but in the wider sense of society. I’ll get a bit deep for a moment. I just listened to a speech by David Foster Wallace at a graduation ceremony. In it, he warns the graduates that they need to be aware of what he calls our ‘default’ setting, which is the classic sense of the self as the center of our own respective universe. He challenges us to question our own default setting of ‘it’s all about me’ or that the world is here to serve our ego. It’s really important we consider that while we step through life, that it isn’t ‘all about me’ for that person we encounter, it’s, in their world, ‘all about THEM.’ So, if we all pause to consider that someone else may know something we don’t, or is struggling with something we know nothing about, we may stop jumping to conclusions that dismiss the other’s reality or their right to be in our world. We’d all be a bit kinder to each other. And, yes, it might stop that tendency toward conflict and rage we are witnessing in our world right now. The personal becomes the political, doesn’t it? So empathy on the personal level will heal lots of things.
Where do you like to write? What was your process for ONLY THE WOMEN ARE BURNING?
My favorite place to write is at my kitchen table. But, most of Only the Women are Burning was written in the early morning hours at my office at the college where I work. It’s hard to integrate writing into your life when you hold a full time job, so I got into the habit of getting up early, driving to campus in Elizabeth before the traffic, and getting to my desk at 7 AM with a cup of coffee. I lock my door and write until the work day starts at 8:30.
My process? Hmmm, I think every writer has their own way of working. I think a lot about scenes. A novel is a series of scenes, like a play, but interspersed with internal musings in the mind of the character, and of course, backstory. It also blends something that is defined as theme, which emerges as the work progresses. I don’t always know what something I’m writing is going to be until it is on the page. I have a vague idea of where the book wants to go. How it gets there is often the surprise for me as the writer, and then, that surprise is shared with the reader. It’s like an adventure for the mind, a journey, and I hope the journey is intriguing enough for the reader to stay with it until the end.
What do you hope readers will take away from the novel?
This is the takeaway: Cassandra has an arcane collection of scientific knowledge accumulated over a lifetime of exploration and inquiry, relationships that succeed or fail; she’s made choices for better or for worse. All of these things allow her to know things in ways the authorities investigating the fires couldn’t possibly know. Only her professor who gave her the ring believed in her. We can all name someone who did that for us. Like Cassandra, I want my readers to find theirs, twirl that imaginary ring, and never let anyone silence or sideline you because your existence and brilliance are inconvenient. Only you can insist on your own truth.