Tending the Fire Inside
Nearly 20 years ago, Nancy Burke was writing in her journal when this flood of words poured, almost unconsciously, onto the page: “The women began to spontaneously ignite, bodies bursting into miniature mountains of flame across the suburban landscape.” Burke GSN’11 couldn’t shake the words or the imagery they evoked. “It just sort of came out of me and I thought, ‘Oh, this sounds like an intriguing idea,’” she says.
Burke, a writer of fiction, nonfiction, and plays, knew she had to explore the haunting premise in a novel. Her latest work, Only the Women Are Burning (Apprentice House Press, 2020), is part sci-fi, part suburban mystery, part magical realism. The novel centers on Cassandra, the mother of three daughters. While Cassandra doesn’t regret forgoing a career in anthropology to be a stay-at-home mom, she feels neglected by her husband, Pete, and unfulfilled intellectually.
When women in Cassandra’s New Jersey town, including one she had been close with several years before, begin to burst into flames and burn to death, Cassandra decides to investigate the tragedies. But like her Greek goddess namesake, Cassandra has a hard time getting people to believe her and what she discovers. As she delves into the lives of the victims and hypothesizes how and why they all met the same fate, she also uncovers some truths about herself and her marriage. A flame inside her, long smoldering, begins to catch and spread.
As Cassandra pieces together the circumstances that caused the women in her town to burn, she is emboldened to make some changes in her life: “It was possible to pull back out of this life with Pete and resuscitate all the parts of me that I’d let go,” Cassandra thinks. “I was exhausted…and it had burned part of me to ash.”
Burke says the book’s central metaphor of fire represents the longing women have to be listened to and taken seriously and not relegated to roles that society deems acceptable. She adds that women often have “a feeling of helplessness, where you can’t do something about a situation, and there’s a fire inside you. So you burn off the pieces of yourself that you don’t use or don’t get recognized, and when life burns off those other pieces, it can take the whole of you as well.”
Burke has published two other books, a nonfiction account of a Holocaust survivor, If I Could Paint the Moon Black, and a novel, From the Abuelas’ Window. She began writing after leaving a corporate career, then decided she wanted to teach writing at the college level. She enrolled in Rutgers University–Newark’s renowned creative writing program, where she earned a master of fine arts degree. She credits her professors in the program with shaping her as a writer.
“They were all wonderful,” she says. “Tayari Jones, my thesis adviser, can look into your writing and get glimpses of your soul. Jayne Anne Phillips was great at helping us sharpen our pieces. James Goodman, my nonfiction professor, helped me get my second book written and helped me define how that story was going to get written, because I was an outsider to someone else’s journey.”
Burke says she may write more fiction with Cassandra at the center. “Cassandra keeps calling me back,” she says. “I feel like I could put her through another phase of her life, through another quasi-science mystery caper.”
Burke will talk about her new book in an online conversation sponsored by Watchung Booksellers in Montclair, New Jersey, on Wednesday, October 7, at 7:30 p.m. For more information and to register, click here: https://www.crowdcast.io/e/burning