An Interview with Anne Burt
- By Diana Friedman
- October 17, 2023
The debut novelist talks Bosnia, Greek tragedy, and finding her voice later in life.
Drawing inspiration from Antigone, Anne Burt’s debut novel, The Dig, introduces readers to Antonia King, a driven young woman with a fierce sense of justice. Unwilling to tolerate the constraints of her small hometown, Thebes, Minnesota, Antonia — adopted as a child, along with her brother, from Bosnia — escapes at 18 to pursue an elite education and a high-powered legal career. But when her brother disappears, she is pulled back to Thebes. While searching for him, Antonia uncovers secrets about her adoptive parents that force her to reconsider the meaning and value of family.
At 55, Burt joins a growing cadre of older debut novelists that includes Delia Owens (Where the Crawdads Sing) and Bonnie Garmus (Lessons in Chemistry). Here, she reflects on the pitfalls and benefits of hitting her stride in her “flowering fifties,” along with her thoughts on integrating moral and ethical issues into a modern-day novel.
When did you decide that you wanted to be a novelist?
I have wanted to be a novelist since I was 6. I have vivid memories of [learning] how to read a story with many pages and lots of characters, thinking it was the coolest thing ever. I wrote my first novel at age 6: The Good King and the Bad King.
What happened in between?
I went for an MFA in creative writing and had a classic literary trajectory: graduate school, a novel, an interested agent. I was working on that novel when my marriage ended, but as a single mother with a 3-year-old, I had to rethink my financials, my work, everything. I kept writing but found that longform fiction was almost impossible to dive into the way that I wanted to. I couldn’t see my way out of the realities of my lived life and into the imaginary worlds of fictional characters. [Eventually], getting the kids out of the house [to college] meant finding that brain space.
How do you feel about being a 55-year-old debut novelist?
I feel grateful for being 55 and making this happen. When somebody says they liked this book, I feel gratitude and excitement to be in conversations sparked by having a book in the world…it feels wonderful, natural, and beautiful. Twenty or 30 years ago, my anxiety about whether I was smart enough or could compete would have kept me up at night. The harder thing is a simple awareness of time. This isn’t the start of 10-12 books that lie ahead of me. But I’m still trying to make my ideas matter.
In The Dig, we have a retelling of Antigone set in Minnesota with a protagonist who is a Bosnian refugee. What drew you to these disparate ideas, and how did you fuse them into one story?
The first time I left the United States, it was 1987. I was 19 and singing with the Yale Slavic chorus. We landed in Sarajevo, where I saw synagogues, mosques, and churches next to each other, people visibly dressed in different faiths interacting with each other. I felt like I had landed in a storybook, harmonious world. I was naïve, because we all learned quickly about the enmity between the warring factions in the Balkans, and shortly thereafter, the Bosnian genocide. But because of that passionate allegiance to this beautiful place and beautiful music, my heart tore open.
Antigone is about a young woman who has to make moral and ethical choices based on whether she is going to follow the law of the state (represented by her uncle) saying that her brother could not be buried, or, for her, the right thinking of the gods, which today we would translate in our post-Freudian, contemporary, modernist world as, “What is my ethical and moral center?” In 2018, Antigone was in the zeitgeist because of the Black Lives Matter movement. Places were reviving Antigone to use the story of who gets buried properly and who does not as a metaphor for whose life matters. I wondered how to make this work with survivors of the Bosnian genocide as the Antigone characters. There was a wave of Bosnian immigrants to Minnesota a generation earlier, so it was plausible that these characters would have existed there. I grew up [partly] in the Midwest and felt comfortable with the ethos, the landscape.
You’ve written about other crime novels that seamlessly thread issues of social justice throughout their propulsive narratives. Is that how you perceive your book?
That was very much a North Star for me. I’m not a genre reader of mystery, but I love a novel that shows you the world in a way that turns your thinking upside-down. More than the puzzle piece of a mystery, the whodunit, it’s the puzzle of the human heart, addressing what can be the worst in human behavior but also the best.
Threading social justice in fiction is a noble effort but raises the risk of lecturing. How did you avoid speechifying?
Because The Dig is first and foremost a novel, it needed to have the conventions of a novel. I’m not starting with a point of view that I’m trying to prove. It comes back to the characters and the conventions of successful novel writing, making sure that conflict is filled with dialogue [and is] between characters, as opposed to [being merely] an opportunity for a character to make a declarative speech saying, “Here’s what’s right in the world, and you’re wrong.” Putting extremes into play creates an opportunity for characters to make choices and behave in ways that create a propulsive mystery.
Any inspirational words for women writers in their 50s and beyond who now have time to take the plunge?
Yes! Don’t not do it. One of the biggest issues women have is that our whole lives, we’ve been told (or told ourselves) we have to do everything perfectly. If you’re pursuing a creative endeavor now, release yourself from the binary of perfect and terrible. Get that monkey off your back [that says], “I’m not good enough because I didn’t do it when I was under 30.” When that creeps in, say, “Hi, I see you, but you have no place here. You’ve been nudging me to be a perfectionist my entire life, but you’ve met your match with my age.” The 30-year-old me was not a match for those powerful feelings. But the 55-year-old me is much better at it. And that’s what I hope for the future — that I’ll keep getting better at that.
Diana Friedman’s fiction, articles, and essays have appeared in multiple publications, including Newsweek, the Baltimore Sun, Huffington Post, New Letters, and Whole Earth Review, among others. She is co-editor of Ole Blue Claw, a fiction anthology of short stories set in and written by residents of Maryland. Diana also facilitates/leads writing retreats at Zigbone Farm Retreat Center, just outside of Washington, DC, and at Pyrenean Creative Writing Retreats in northern Spain.