Lucy in the sky

Elizabeth Leiknes

Author and Carson Valley Middle School English teacher Elizabeth Leiknes recently published her debut novel, The Sinful Life of Lucy Burns. To order the book, or for more information, visit

Will you tell me about Lucy Burns, the character and the book?

Sure! She actually came from a short story I wrote in graduate school. I went to UNR. It was about an 11- or 12-page short story, and it was called “The Furnace,” and it was about Lucy Burns. She was the protagonist, and in a sort of Faustian henchwoman way, she led really, really bad people to the portal to hell, which was in her basement, in Reno. Because, you know, where else could it be? [Laughs] No, I love Reno. I’ve been here a long time, I just thought that was pretty fun. So she was really tough and kind of cool. The writing prompt in graduate class was “What job would you hate?” and I think I had “dental assistant” and “being in charge of who goes to hell.” I just thought that would be stressful. … And once I decided to do some back story on her, and figure out who she was and maybe if she did this for an organic, pure reason, I thought that would be more interesting. That’s when I decided to continue it into a full-length novel and have Lucy do it to save her sister’s life, and then it all sort of clicked.

I read the first few chapters last night. I loved how she accidentally made the deal by addressing a letter “To Whom it May Concern,” and that ends up being the devil.

Yeah, she certainly didn’t know that was where it was going to go. It was truly an innocent … you know, I have four sisters, and it’s sort of that love-hate relationship sisters have, where you love them, but you sometimes wish horrible things on them and then regret that. And that’s what happens to Lucy—I don’t want to give anything since you haven’t finished it yet. Really that’s the danger in thinking evil thoughts.

On the back of the book you have a blurb from Jane Green, which is pretty cool—

Super cool!

It describes Green as “one of chick lit’s pioneers.” Do you embrace the term chick lit? Is that something you would apply to your book?

Here’s the thing. I don’t have any big creative license on how I want it to be perceived. I hope that this story entertains people. I hope it makes them think a little bit, and I certainly hope it makes them laugh, and so far it has been doing that. As long as you read this book, I don’t care what damn category you put it in. … But you know what, if chick lit means funny and smart, I’m fine with it.

So your day job is teaching middle school. Do they get extra credit for reading your book?

No. [Laughs.] Because we live in a very lovely, conservative community, I had to be real careful with what I talked about with this book, in fact I was so nervous … I have every right to do whatever I need to do outside the classroom. But, having said that, I didn’t want parents to think I was pedaling Lucy Burns in a seventh grade classroom, because that would be pretty grossly inappropriate for a whole host of reasons. [Laughs.] … There’s a mini-celebrity that comes with teaching, and I have a pretty good rapport with my kids, but once one of the ninth graders found out, it just spread like wildfire …

That you’d written this scandalous book about a hot devil worker?

That’s right! And for them it would be pretty sexy, because she’s pretty sexy. And then of course middle-schoolers can’t really make the leap between that’s your first-person narrator and you. So it was like “Oh my God, Ms. Leiknes, you’re Lucy Burns!” And I was like, “You know what? No way, Jack! I wasn’t 5-10 and legs up to here, and I wasn’t sending people to hell!”