Author Interview: Amy Willoughby-Burle and The Lemonade Year

It seems like eons ago that I met Amy Willoughby-Burle, at a little writers’ workshop and retreat nestled in the mountains of North Carolina. That two-week period was an experience that changed the course of my life. There were budding writers like myself and Amy, big-time published authors, and everyone in between. Sometimes it’s hard to believe that over fifteen years have passed since then, but here we are. I still remember reading Amy’s short story then—and thinking it was amazing—and overhearing the workshop leader telling another teacher, “She’s the real deal. She hears the voices.”

Amy writes stories that grab you with ferocity and don’t let go. She’s currently out on a tour for her new novel, The Lemonade Year, but when I tugged on her sleeve and asked her a few questions, she was happy to chat. 

Lauren: What inspired you to write The Lemonade Year?

Amy: Generally everything I write starts with a line of dialogue that I either overhear in real life or hear originally as fiction in my head, or the same way with an image or something that I see as I’m walking or driving. It’s hard to explain really how that “thing” sticks out and then sticks around in my brain. I don’t ever have an idea for a plot—you know like, “I think I’ll write a story about a woman at her wits’ end.” Those lines or images just start wiggling their way around in my head, and I end up writing random lines and scenes until I realize that they go together, and then I start working on figuring out the story and the characters from there.

LF: Who is your favorite character in The Lemonade Year? Who was the hardest character to write?

AB: My favorite character is Oliver. He ended up being quite a surprise to me in the writing stage. I had him pegged all wrong until I really got to know him. I think he provides a certain undercurrent to the story and a new way of thinking that surprises the main character, Nina, as well.

The hardest character for me to write was probably Nina’s mother. She’s not very forthcoming in the novel—at first anyway—and as a character she kept her cards pretty close to her chest. She’s living in a bit of a fantasy world and that caused it to be difficult for me to find the truth of her.

LF: You also write short stories (and they’re wonderful). Do you ever get so attached to characters in your short stories that you write them into novels?

AB: Well thank you, and this is really funny, because yes! Nina, although I might not call her that in the story, appears in my collection, Out Across the Nowhere. She’s in the story “The Conscious Absence of Knowing.” If you read that story and read The Lemonade Year you will see that shared experience. I also have another story in the collection that I turned into a novel as well. it’s not published yet, but hopefully will be one day.

LF: When you get an idea you want to write about how do you decide to shape it into a short story or a novel?

AB: I always say that I have about two lengths of story that I write: they are either about 1000 words or 100,000 words. I just start writing, and when I get to that first milestone I can tell if I’m going to have to keep writing a novel or if the story is told enough as is. Even if I end at the short story length, I never really put those characters away. I wouldn’t be surprised if any of them started chatting with me again. It was several years after Nina shared the version of her life in the short story before I actually wrote the novel version. Sometimes the characters are done sharing with me at short story length and sometimes not.

LF: Who are some of your favorite authors? Or favorite books? What do you love about them?

AB: I have loved Ron Rash for the last twenty some years. He’s my literary, “I told you so.” I have been telling people to read him for two decades and now he’s pretty well known. His work is amazing. I love the language of it. I’m a character driven reader and writer for whom the sound of the sentence is just as important as the information it delivers, so I’ve got Ron on a pretty tall pedestal for doing just that. I also really enjoy Joshilyn Jackson. She’s great at writing quirky and endearing characters, and just when you think you’ve got her story figured out she blows it wide open.

LF: As a reader, what makes you fall in love with a book? What makes it memorable or moving?

AB: Characters and their relationships. No matter what the world of the story is or what set of circumstance the characters are in, it’s always the characters themselves and the way they react to each other that grabs me. Maybe this is crazy to say, but I care less about the plot than I do the characters. Their struggle to understand each other, come together on something, get over a heartache, fall in love…that’s what becomes the plot to me. Case in point is the book Warm Bodies. The guy is a zombie and it’s a post-zombie apocalypse, but I’m completely taken with his desire to connect to someone more so than how these people are going to survive the next level of even worse zombies. It’s all about the love story for me—which I think is the real story, of course.

LF: What genre(s) do you read most often? 

AB: I don’t really have a most often genre. I tend to gravitate toward contemporary fiction with a literary bent, but I also love to read a good fantasy, and I will totally get lost in a fun love story. I go highly on recommendation, so if a friend says they loved it, I’ll give it a whirl. If I see a movie that I like, I always try to find the book to get the rest of the story from the original storyteller. I guess I’m a pretty equal opportunity reader.

LF: For you, what’s the most rewarding thing about being a writer? What’s the most challenging part?

AB: The most rewarding thing is to have a reader tell me how much they loved a scene or a certain character or how much they connected to the story. That’s the whole reason I read as well, so when my own work is able to do that for someone else, it’s pretty wonderful. The most challenging thing is to try and get the story right. I worry that I’m leaving something out or not doing a character justice. They usually tell me if I’m headed in the wrong direction. That and the waiting… the waiting really is the hardest part. I’ve got two other books being shopped around right now and I’m just waiting to hear from editors and waiting to see what they think. it’s a lot of waiting. That’s when I usually start writing something new—while I’m waiting.

LF: What are you working on right now? Any hints about your next book?

AB: Right now I’m actually working on a  sequel to The Lemonade Year. Fingers crossed that the editor will want it. I could write these characters forever. Of course, they’re going to have to fight it out with a plenty other characters who are already making their voices heard. I actually have an idea for a hopeful dystopian (I know, right?) series for young adults, which isn’t usually the type of story I write, but these characters are fighting hard to get out. I’ve already got a pile of those random scenes I mentioned written, so I guess we’ll see what happens.

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You can get a copy of The Lemonade Year wherever books are sold, including on Amazon. And while you’re at it, check out Amy’s short story collection, Out Across the Nowhere. To learn more about Amy Willoughby-Burle, visit her website and see if she’s coming to read at a location near you. 

Amy Willoughby-Burle grew up in the small coastal town of Kure Beach, North Carolina. She studied writing at East Carolina University and is now a writer and teacher living in Asheville, North Carolina, with her husband and four children. She writes about the mystery and wonder of everyday life. Her contemporary fiction focuses on the themes of second chances, redemption, and finding the beauty in the world around us. Sara Gruen says of The Lemonade Year, “When life gives you lemons, read this book. It’s a delicious glass of humor, heart, and hope.” Amy is also the author of a collection of short stories entitled Out Across the Nowhere and a contributor to a number of anthologies.