Smoke and Mirrors: An Interview with Stacy Trautwein Burns

by Maria Gayed and Francesca Root Read the Story June 20, 2016

Your story is about the White Buffalo Woman, a Native American legend, as she looks back on the fate of her people. Where did you get the inspiration to write this story? Did you see a buffalo or do you have a Native American heritage?

A little of both. I have Native American heritage on my mother’s side but not enough to qualify as Native American myself; I’ve actually been told (though I don’t know if this is true) that our tribe doesn’t exist any more. My husband, meanwhile, still has relatives living on a reservation. So, I’m in this interesting place where I do have that heritage but am more like an outsider with a ghost of the past. What prompted this story, however, was seeing a white buffalo penned outside of a casino during a family trip. It was a very sad image to me though, of course, my children loved it.

How did you keep the balance between writing about Native American culture and legend and staying respectful to that culture and legend?

I was terrified writing “White Buffalo Woman” because it deals with this Native American culture that I don’t feel belongs to me. Like I said, I have that heritage but only marginally; I’m not considered Native American. However, I think as long as you’re sympathetic to whichever culture you’re writing about—as long as you’re loving—that love will come across on the page.

Do you have common themes or specific messages in your stories?

Since taking this family trip and seeing the buffalo, I’ve found a lot of my recent stories play with this sense of people feeling alienated from their ancestry—from, specifically, this Native American perspective. Otherwise, I’ve written primarily about family life, young moms. This is likely a result of where I am in my own life. Most of my writing incorporates Midwestern rural landscapes; though I’ve lived in urban areas for the past eleven years, my upbringing in rural Kansas is hard to shake. I find its landscape both beautiful and desolate. It affects your soul in a very different way than cities.

Do you write the story close to your own experiences or just take one memory/image and then expand on that one? In the writing process, how do you draw out what the story is really about?

I usually start a story based on an image. One thing that has stuck in my mind. My writing is not autobiographical in general. “White Buffalo Woman” is closer to autobiography than most of my work, simply because I did stand at a fence looking in at a white buffalo outside of a casino and I felt strangely very much like the White Buffalo Woman narrator I use to tell that story.

As far as the writing process and drawing out a story’s meaning, I find that most early drafts are little more than a group of characters acting and speaking in random ways. The key is to ask why did my character do or say that? What is trying to emerge from this draft? I don’t think most writers are aware of the undercurrents of theme and meaning in their story until after the first draft.

How do you condense your larger theme in a form of flash fiction? How do you deal with complexity in a very short form?

You have to find language and images that work on multiple levels. Look for words that carry a lot of emotional weight.

About the Author:

Stacy Trautwein Burns holds an MFA in creative writing from Colorado State University. Her work has appeared or is forthcoming in Hermeneutic Chaos, Wyvern Lit, FlashFlood, Alligator Juniper, and Windhover. She is a member of The Quills, Story Talk, and Word Tango writing groups.

About the Interviewer:

Maria Gayed is currently finishing up her bachelor degree in international relations, political science and law at Amsterdam University College. Francesca Root studies literature at the University of Birmingham.

About the Artist:

A Best Small Fictions 2015 Winner, Dave Petraglia's writing and art have appeared in Bartleby Snopes, bohemianizm, Cheap Pop, Crack the Spine, Five:2:One, Gambling the Aisle, Hayden's Ferry, matchbook, Medium, McSweeney's, Necessary Fiction, North American Review, Per Contra, Points in Case, Popular Science, Razed, SmokeLong Quarterly, Up the Staircase, and others.