Ambulance Chaser

Knoxville novelist and former paramedic Shannon Burke leaps from literary obscurity to the front page of The New York Times Book Review

One evening in the middle of May, Shannon Burke drove down from Knoxville to New Orleans, where he had lived in the early 1990s. Burke was making the trip to research a new novel he's writing, but he was spending a lot of time thinking about a book that he'd finished after 10 years of on-and-off work. Burke's second novel, Black Flies, was about to be released, and he was looking forward to the event with a mix of apprehension and optimism.

Optimism because his previous novel, Safelight, had received great reviews in 2004. It was praised in the national press as "a minimalist tour de force," an "exhilarating standout," and a "dark, tender debut." But it only sold a few thousand copies. That was the source of his apprehension. He'd had a hard time getting Black Flies published after his first novel's commercial failure—the low sales of Safelight, he says, made him even less appealing to editors and publishers than he would have been if he'd never had a book released at all. He finally settled with Soft Skull Press, a small New York publishing house that specializes in provocative, often transgressive, fiction, radical politics, and underground culture.

His wife had just flown to London for an academic conference, so Burke had his two young sons—2-year-old Charlie and then-8-month-old Nicholas—in the car with him on that trip to New Orleans. Around dusk, he stopped near the Alabama-Mississippi border to use the bathroom at an unoccupied picnic area.

"I'm walking to this drainage ditch and I step into these vines, right onto a board with nails in it," Burke says. "One of the nails went through my shoe and into my foot, and as I'm standing there I get a phone call. I've only got, like, half a bar of reception out there so it doesn't even go through, it just goes straight to my voice mail. After I get the nail out of my foot, I'm standing there with my foot bleeding, and I can barely hear the message, but it's my agent. He's saying, ‘It's the cover! It's the cover!' I almost didn't understand what he was talking about."

Burke's agent, David McCormick, was talking about Black Flies, which he'd just learned would soon be on the cover of The New York Times Book Review. More than a million and a half people across the country would see the Sunday tabloid insert on May 25 with Burke's book on the front, and even more would see it as the featured review on the Times' website. Aside from being selected for the Oprah Book Club or winning a major prize, there are few seals of approval more prestigious than the front page of the Sunday Times book section.

"When I got back in the car, Charlie was awake," Burke says. "I said, ‘Charlie, I think something good just happened. I'm not sure, but I think something good just happened.' Then I immediately got paranoid."

Burke called his wife and asked her to check his e-mail from her London hotel room, knowing that the Times would have sent an advance version of the review. They had. Liesl Schlesinger described the book as "searing and morally resonant" and praised Burke's candid depiction of a young paramedic in Harlem in the 1990s.

"As she was reading it, I kept thinking, ‘Oh, my God, this is awesome," Burke remembers. "I knew this would change everything for my writing career."

In the space of a single, 1,400-word review, Burke would go from just another unknown novelist with an unremarkable, even sketchy, publishing history to a recognizable name with the imprimatur of the country's most widely respected newspaper book review section. After almost 20 years of serious fiction writing, much of it scratched out in crummy apartments and, recently, a small cottage in Old North Knoxville, Burke had finally achieved the kind of widespread acclaim that most novelists dream of.

What would it mean for him and his career?

EVERY NOVELIST PUTS SOMETHING of himself into his books. That's especially true for Burke, whose experience on an ambulance in some of the roughest parts of New York during the 1990s provides the material for Safelight and Black Flies. As an EMT for a private emergency service in 1994 and '95 and then as a paramedic with the New York Fire Department from 1996 to 2001, Burke endured something that resembles combat: a numbing accumulation of routine calls punctuated by sudden life-or-death situations, many of them accompanied by sometimes violent and often gruesome death. He also encountered a crumbling infrastructure and political neglect on a daily basis.

Safelight and Black Flies both follow college-educated rookie paramedics as they face a growing sense of disillusionment. The protagonist of Safelight, Frank Verbeckas, an amateur photographer, falls in love with a woman he meets on a job who is HIV positive. The story traces their relationship through her illness, with Frank's increasing indifference and ultimate redemption as the backdrop. In Black Flies, Ollie Cross becomes a paramedic after flunking his medical school entrance exam. The tone of Black Flies is more deadpan than in Safelight—its prose is almost numbingly stripped-down and straightforward—but Ollie is a more dynamic character than Frank. The more misery he sees, the more he embraces the macho, military mentality of his colleagues, until he spirals almost out of control.

Burke wrote most of both books in Knoxville. He moved here in the summer of 2001, just after he married Amy Billone, a Princeton graduate who had just accepted a job in the English department at the University of Tennessee. Burke had just finished working with filmmaker Steve Gaghan, the director of Traffic and Syriana, in Montreal as a script consultant for the 2002 movie Abandon. Burke wrote Safelight and finished the first draft of Black Flies at about the same time, while he and Amy lived in a house on Scott Avenue in Old North Knoxville.

"Knoxville's been good for me," Burke says. "New York was good for material and seeing things, but it's such a hard life. It's quiet here. I can think and process through what happened.... Eighty percent of being a paramedic is giving somebody a ride to the hospital. It's sort of fun. You go into somebody's house. They didn't expect you. They tell you about themselves, their medical history, but it's not that focused. They'll tell you anything. You see their house, see the pictures on the wall. I miss that. As a writer, it's awesome. You see people and places you wouldn't see in any other situation."

But Safelight, published by Random House, sold poorly, even for a first-time work of literary fiction. When Burke revisited Black Flies—he'd stored the only draft in a duffle bag in a shed in his back yard, and found it had not only water damage but mushrooms growing on it—he finished it quickly but couldn't sell it to Random House or to any other major publishing firm. He did manage to sell an option on a film version of the novel, and finally sold the book to Soft Skull Press, an independent house owned and managed, at the time, by Richard Nash. (The company has since been sold to Counterpoint, a conglomerate of Soft Skull and two other formerly independent presses.)

"Shannon's book would typically be considered too dark," Nash says. "It's not happy or quirky enough. Books that are too dark are something I'm not afraid to do. Our stock-in-trade is books that are too ‘blank,' books that are rejected because they're too extreme in some kind of way. We're not doing it to be marginal, but we take books that people think are too marginal. With Black Flies, part of the motivation was that I believe there's actually an audience for it."

Nash had previously had success with another of McCormick's clients, the novelist Matthew Sharpe, who came to Soft Skull in circumstances similar to Burke's. His first two books got good reviews but didn't sell; Sharpe's Soft Skull debut, The Sleeping Father, was selected for The Today Show Book Club and became a bestseller.

Nash says his company has shipped 15,000 copies of Black Flies to retail and wholesale outlets since May. "I can say there was a huge surge in the first couple of weeks, and that it has tailed away somewhat, but is still solidly in the 100-200 copies a week range now."

It may seem strange to credit a single review with the book's unexpected success, but Liesl Schlesinger's piece on Black Flies in The New York Times has probably done more to help Burke's career than any other press he's gotten. The paper's Sunday circulation is 1.6 million, and its book review is regarded as the pinnacle of American newspaper criticism. The appearance of Black Flies as the featured review on May 25, however, was a stroke of happenstance that depended on one reviewer's habitual attentiveness.

"I get a lot of books sent to me unsolicited," says Schlesinger, a freelance writer and frequent contributor to the Times book section. "I feel too much debt and responsibility to the writer to ignore them, so I always open the book and always check it out. Every now and then I get caught by a book. It's not that often, maybe four times a year. That's what happened with Black Flies. I thought, ‘That looks dark and macabre.' I opened it up and started reading and I was immediately hooked. It was disturbing and emotional, and I liked the seeming detachment. I liked the voice. Pretty early on, it gets into some gruesome incidents."

Schlesinger says she was reminded of both Sidney Lumet's 1973 film version of Peter Maas' book Serpico, about a good cop fighting corruption in the New York Police Department, and Michael Herr's Dispatches, a 1977 account of the Vietnam War. Black Flies, Schlesinger says, is about a man trying to do good who ultimately overcomes the corrosive influence and cynicism of the system around him. She was also impressed with the book's form, which presents the grim and gritty day-to-day routine of paramedics in spare, unvarnished prose.

"A lot of people don't like representations of such uncomfortable realities," she says. "That's not me. It was new to me. I thought it felt fresh, and I read a lot. Nothing in it felt false. I felt I was getting insight into a kind of mind that doesn't say what it thinks out loud."

BURKE TOOK A WINDING PATH to becoming a critically acclaimed novelist. He was born and grew up in a comfortable suburb of Chicago and attended the University of North Carolina, where he was an English major. He initially planned on going to law school, but after graduation, in 1989, he took a year off to travel. That turned into several years of restlessness, during which he read hundreds of novels and decided he wanted to be a writer. He spent time in Arizona, Los Angeles, Chicago, New Orleans, and Texas. He even spent five months hiking in southern Mexico and Guatemala.

"I moved around to places where I didn't know anybody," he says. "I was washing dishes, selling T-shirts, just minimum-wage jobs where I could work at night and write during the day."

Then, in New Orleans in 1992, Burke saw a woman murdered in the French Quarter. He was leaving a movie theater at about 1 a.m. and heard gunshots. A man with a gun in his hand walked past him on the sidewalk, got in a car, and drove off, headed the wrong way down a one-way street.

"Then I saw this person lying in the street," he says. "She was with her fiance then. She was a British fashion designer, 27 years old. I tried to bandage her arm with a T-shirt. She was vomiting a little, and the only thing I knew was not to move her neck. The ambulance came but she died that night.

"I felt guilty. I was at loose ends anyway, and I had a friend who's a doctor, he was in medical school at the time, and he suggested I go to work in an emergency room. There wasn't a grand plan, so I took an EMT class. It was half practical—I could work at night and write during the day, when I'm sharp—and half seeing this person killed. And New York seemed like the most extreme place to do it."

After two years as an EMT with a private ambulance service, Burke earned his certification as a paramedic. He joined the New York Fire Department and immediately volunteered for the Harlem station. Like Frank in Safelight and Ollie in Black Flies, Burke was something of a mystery among the veteran paramedics he worked with.

"I was surprised he was working there," says Tony Fabbri, one of Burke's partners during those years, who's now a police officer with the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey. "He was such a smart guy. I expected him to be a surgeon, not a paramedic. He was a super-smart guy. He could have been anything he wanted."

Fabbri had hints that Burke was doing more than just riding the ambulances. But his suspicions weren't confirmed until after Burke left the fire department. "I wasn't surprised," Fabbri says, when Safelight was published. "After he left, before 9/11, we'd talk once in a while, and he told me it was always his intent to write."

One story, about an event that happened near the end of Burke's tour in Harlem, illustrates the way that compassion, callousness, boredom, and adrenaline intertwine for paramedics. Burke and his partner heard a radio call about a man who had climbed to the top of a church spire at a monastery and was threatening to jump. Burke's partner suggested they go to the scene, in part to be on the site if they were needed, in part to watch the inevitable spectacle.

"My partner's like, ‘Let's go,'" Burke says. "It's the end of my career; I don't want to go. I want to do the best job I can but I'm not eager to go see some fucked-up thing I don't have to see."

It was February in New York, 30 degrees. Burke and his partner arrive at the scene and see the man dangling several stories up. Mattresses have been placed underneath the tower, but they're right next to a spiked iron fence. "It's the spiked fence or the mattresses," Burke says.

"You know it's going to happen," he continues. "When it does, it's fascinating and horrible. Every instinct is saying, it's horrible, don't do it.

"I was the first guy in. He landed on the mattresses and bounced four feet in the air. He was lying there, his eyes rolled back, and really slowly his arms started to draw in. He starts having a seizure. He has a skull fracture, brain trauma, and a broken pelvis, but the guy ended up living. It started off as sort of a joke, something fun, then not fun, then you're there just doing your job. Then everybody's high-fiving each other. We did everything right. We were good medics, in the right part of town, and we saved this guy's life."

Even though he had known all along that he was storing up material for a novel, Burke says he was anxious about the response from his former colleagues. "I was a little self-conscious about how the medics I worked with would take it," he says, referring to the months before Black Flies was released. "There are about 10 people who would know where everything came from. There are a few things in there where people will know exactly who I'm talking about when I say that. Those are the close peers, and I wondered if they'd feel betrayed or that I misrepresented the situation."

Fabbri, for one, says Safelight—he hasn't read Black Flies yet—is an accurate depiction of the world of paramedics.

Burke had one co-worker at the Harlem station with whom he shared his then-secret vocation. David Maher joined the fire department as part of the same class as Burke, and was assigned to the same station. "I don't know that I had any special feeling about Harlem," he says. "I do know I wanted to go somewhere and see action. When I learned I was going to Harlem, I was pleased."

At the time, Maher, who now lives in Hollywood and works as a story analyst for Focus Features, was trying to break into screenwriting. "Shannon kind of had me pegged as a writer, and I had the same sense about him. We both had the sense that we were writers. We figured that out about each other, and since we were assigned to the same station we became friends on and off the job. It didn't take long to figure out that Shannon has one of the more facile storytelling minds I've ever seen. Part of that is that he's the most well-read man in the universe. I don't know what he's up to now, but it must be 10,000 novels."

THE BUILT-IN SHELVES THAT LINE THE WALLS of Burke's small house on the edge of Sequoyah Hills attest to his comprehensive reading. Hundreds of tattered paperback novels—by Tolstoy, Flaubert, Nabokov, Dos Passos, Cormac McCarthy, Peter Matthiessen, and dozens of others—share the space with several copies of Burke's own books, including the British and French versions of Safelight, and smaller sections of art and travel books. A small bed sits in the middle of the room, underneath a big curtainless window facing southwest that allows in a muted morning light.

"This is the first time Amy and I have had more shelf space than books," Burke says.

Burke works here every morning, seven days a week. "I'm a creature of habit," he says. He wakes up and immediately starts writing. He writes in bed, on a notebook computer on a lap desk. He keeps a set of shooting range headphones in a pocket on the side of the desk; he used them in New York to drown out the noise in shared apartments. Nothing has changed since the success of Black Flies, just as the commercial difficulties of Safelight didn't make a difference for Burke's writing.

"It didn't affect my work," he says of the response to his first book. "There were definitely some moments—everybody knew it was being published and I had a lot of people rooting for me. When Safelight was published and got good reviews, it felt like an unbelievable success. Then people just assumed it was over."

So far, Burke hasn't seen much money from the increased sales of Black Flies. He recently got a quarterly earnings statement from Soft Skull. "They're really delayed," he says. "I got one that ends on March 31 a few days ago. I was really excited when it arrived. I thought it would be the new one. But it wasn't."

But the book's notoriety has already made a difference. "Sales are better, and it will make it easier to sell the next one," he says. (His next novel won't be about paramedics, he says.) "It makes writing easier. I got a lucky break. It's awesome that it happened, and it definitely makes things easier.... I'm wildly, unrealistically optimistic. I'm already setting the amount of money I can get for the next book. I think the next one will be so great it'll make $1 million on auction."

And finally, for a few months anyway, Burke will have tangible evidence of what he's been doing on all those lonely mornings.

"When I went to refresh my paramedic license the last time, they go around and ask everyone what you do. I said, ‘I was a paramedic in Harlem and now I'm a writer.' The instructor said, ‘Oh, so in other words, you're unemployed?' This was the guy who was grading me, so I didn't say anything. But that's the impression people get. You have a book, and five years before that you had another one. In between there's no proof that you were actually doing anything. Then you end up on the cover of The New York Times and people say, ‘Maybe he was working all that time.'"