Olive Ann Burns was born in Banks County, Georgia, in 1924. Burns attended the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill and began a career as a journalist after graduating. Burns worked as a staff writer for the Sunday magazine of the Atlanta Journal and Constitution from 1947 to 1957. From 1960 to 1967, she authored an advice column called “Ask Amy” for a local newspaper, using the pseudonym Amy Larkin. After being diagnosed with cancer in 1976, Burns began her first novel, Cold Sassy Tree. The novel, which was published in 1984, took almost nine years to complete. Upon its publication, the novel was both a critical and a commercial success. In 1989, Turner Network Television released a film version of Cold Sassy Tree starring Faye Dunaway and Neil Patrick Harris.
Of her career and upbringing, Burns once said, “It has been said that growing up in the South and becoming a writer is like spending your life riding in a wagon, seated in a chair that is always facing backwards. I don’t face life looking backwards, but I have written about past times and past people.” Tales of the past make up Cold Sassy Tree, and Burns models these tales on stories from her own life. Although Cold Sassy Tree is not a biographical account of Burns’s own family, Burns draws upon the colorful history and idiosyncrasies of her father and his family to evoke Georgia at the beginning of the twentieth century. Burns said of the writing of Cold Sassy Tree, “What I was after was not just names and dates. I wanted stories and details that would bring the dead to life.” Will Tweedy, the protagonist of Cold Sassy Tree, bears many things in common with Burns’s father, William Arnold Burns. William Arnold Burns was the grandson of the owner of the general store in Commerce, Georgia; Will Tweedy is the grandson of the owner of the general store in Cold Sassy, Georgia. Will Tweedy is fourteen years old in 1906, just as William Burns was. Burns loosely based the character Rucker on her great-grandfather, and she modeled the fictional town Cold Sassy on her hometown, Commerce.
Following the unexpected popularity of Cold Sassy Tree, Burns found herself flooded with mail requesting a sequel to the novel. In 1987, Burns underwent a second round of chemotherapy, which led to congestive heart failure and left her bedridden for more than a year. In February 1988, Burns began to dictate the sequel to Cold Sassy Tree, which she planned to title Time, Dirt and Money. In this second novel, Burns intended to base the story on her parents’ life and marriage during the Great Depression. The manuscript was unfinished at the time of her death on July 4, 1990, but the completed chapters, together with Burns’s notes, were published in 1992 as Leaving Cold Sassy.
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