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Author Amy Jo Burns Debated Different Endings for ‘Mercury’: Burning Book Questions Answered (Exclusive)

Author Amy Jo Burns released her novel Mercury on January 2 — thanks to it being one of the January 2024 Book of the Month club picks — it quickly became a favorite among the Us Weekly staff.

Based on the actual town where Burns is from — Mercer, Pennsylvania — Mercury follows the story of Marley West and how she steals the hearts of two of three Joseph brothers, Baylor and Waylon — and maybe their mom, Elise. (Maybe not, but Us will leave that up to the interpretation of the reader.)

As Marley becomes entwined in the Joseph family roofing business, and acts as a surrogate mother to the youngest boy, lovingly called Shay Baby, years-long family secrets come to light and the stakes are heightened, as a discovery in the Mercury town’s church attic threatens to unravel the entire family.

“The characters in Mercury are all imagined. They come from my head, but the place is very real,” Burns told Us Weekly exclusively. “It’s got lots of real-life skin on it. I think because the book is really about loyalty and what it means to claim home, and all those things, I wanted to have some of my own skin in it. That’s why it’s set at home for me.”

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As Us broke down the book with Burns, the author shared that there were surprisingly some major plot points that were almost very different from the published product.

Author Amy Jo Burns Answers Us Burning Questions About Mercury —Reveals 3 Different Story Lines 291
Courtesy of Amy Jo Burns/Instagram

Keep reading for answers to all of Us Weekly’s burning questions about Mercury and, yes, there are spoilers ahead:

Us Weekly: Let’s jump right into some of the specifics about characters, how are readers supposed to feel about Baylor? We are conflicted overall.

Amy Jo Burns: He was the hardest and the best character to write because of that. The reason I put him in the book is: everybody has a Baylor. It doesn’t matter if you haven’t lived in a small town, if you don’t know any blue-collar workers, wherever you are, you have somebody in your life that has such goodness deep down and you’re really not sure if they’re going to be able to pull it together. … I wanted to write a character that you feel like, I kind of don’t like this guy, but then by the end you’re like, wait a minute, maybe I don’t like him, but I also love him.

Us Weekly: Was there ever a world in which Baylor and Jade ended up together?

Amy Jo Burns: I wrote a lot of different versions where, maybe, he and Jade do end up together. But at the end I decided that for him in particular, at that moment, he doesn’t deserve her. It is her “no” that kind of sets him on this journey to become the person that he always could be. Jade’s “no” toward him is extremely powerful, and it changes his life. Maybe not in the way that he would’ve wanted.

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Us Weekly: When it comes to Marley leaving Mercury, was there ever a version of the book where she didn’t come back or did you always know she would return to Waylon?

Amy Jo Burns: In my head, I always knew she was going to come back, but some of my readers — early readers who are writers, really good friends of mine — said, I think Marley deserves to get out. … When I was writing, it was important to me that, not necessarily, what Marley chose, but the fact that she believed deep down that she had the choice. And it was one that she could make. … To just give her that moment that says, this choice is yours. Because that’s something that a lot of the other women who are older in the book, they never got that chance to make choices for themselves.

Us Weekly: Can you tell us how you came up with the scene between Marley and Waylon in the jail cell?

Amy Jo Burns: I love that part. When I wrote it, I thought, ‘There’s no way this is going to make it into the final book because I wasn’t sure I could pull it off.’ I wanted something a little bit funny because this book is very serious, and a lot of very difficult things happen in this book. So, I wanted some moments of real levity. I think part of living in a small town is that the police station is — I mean, in my hometown, the police station is attached to the library. There’s a sort of just whimsical romance that just comes with that. I wanted to pull that into play when these two people who are really frustrated with each other need to work it out. … There was just something fun about putting them somewhere where we know they’re safe, they’re not in trouble, but they’re super annoyed.

Author Amy Jo Burns Answers Us Burning Questions About Mercury —Reveals 3 Different Story Lines 290
Macmillan Publishers

Us Weekly: Elise and her story line becomes such a huge part of the book. How did you go about deciding to write that scene in the church attic? Did you ever have the idea that Elise might have committed a murder?

Amy Jo Burns: When I started writing this book, I started with that opening scene: Waylon’s got a secret. I had no idea where I was going, so I just started putting things in. My dad had told me this story about going up into the church attic and having bats fly in his face. … I just started adding things. What if there was a body up there? And what if Marley knew something about it? And what if Elise was involved? I just kept adding these question marks for me to figure out later. I thought, OK, Elise was probably my No. 2 [choice] that she had killed someone because she’s kind of got that survival instinct. … She was a suspect for a long time.

Us Weekly: When you look back at something like Marley’s miscarriage scene, how do you go about putting a moment like that into words?

Amy Jo Burns: What I do when I have to write a difficult scene is set a timer for myself — say 20 minutes — I’m going to work on this, and then I’m going to step away. It’s very easy to get entrenched in the sadness and the logistics of what’s happening. You can get swallowed in that very easily. What that does is, it doesn’t allow you as the writer to give your whole heart to it. So, knowing that there’s this period of 20 minutes, I’m going to give it everything I have, and then I’m going to give myself a break, is sort of how I go about it. What that means though is that that was probably the scene that needed to be reworked the most.

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Us Weekly: Why did you decide to put that scene in the book?

Amy Jo Burns: It’s not just the loss of the baby that she’s going through, but it’s also everything leading up to it. It all gets tangled in this knot. So, I wanted to give something like that space on the page, because I do think so many women can relate to it. And so many women have asked themselves, “OK, this happens. And now what? I’m not sure how to grieve this thing that was, but wasn’t, I’m not sure if it’s OK to turn the page.” So, I wanted to give Marley that experience, but also do it in a safe place. She’s not in this house filled with men when it happened. She’s with her mom and her mom is there, and that is exactly what she needs.

Us Weekly: Was there a specific moment where you wanted readers to figure out that Shay Baby was in love with Patrick? Perhaps this line: “He and Patrick sank into each other when they watched the Texas Chainsaw Massacre.”

Amy Jo Burns: That’s perfect. I felt like I don’t need us to hold onto this thing and be like, ‘What is it with Shay Baby?’ I was sort of at the beginning, like, ‘Yeah, he’s in love with his best friend.’ That feels super relatable for anybody, any coming-of-age story, being in love with your best friend. But my very smart editor was like, ‘Why don’t we pick and choose when we reveal certain secrets throughout the book?’ So, we spaced them out. … I left little breadcrumbs so that you could look back and not feel completely surprised but could kind of see it leading up. But that line is, that’s exactly it. They’ve always had that closeness, but then when they’re alone, they don’t need that boundary that they need when they’re out in front of other people.

Mercury is available now.

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