Burns worked for the Atlanta Journal and wrote under the pseudonym "Amy Larkin". She married Andy Sparks, a fellow journalist. In 1971 Burns began writing down family stories as dictated by her parents. In 1975 she was diagnosed with lymphoma and began to change the family stories into a novel that would later become Cold Sassy Tree. The novel was finally published eight years after it was begun, in 1984. Burns received so many letters pleading for a follow-up novel that she began writing Leaving Cold Sassy. Burns died of heart failure in 1990, at age 65, in a hospital in Atlanta, Georgia, before finishing the manuscript, and the uncompleted novel was published in 1992 along with her notes.