I wrote to protect myself from some of the horror of the events

Black Flies

Shannon Burke is a novelist and used to be a paramedic in Harlem. His experience led him to write Black Flies.

The tone of the novel is rather dry, devoid of any pathos—is this your intrinsic writing style?

I would say that became my writing style for this novel. The situations were so incredible that I felt they spoke for themselves. Also, that minimal style mirrored the stoicism of the medics. I wanted the descriptions to be almost clinical in their specificity and brevity. That style felt true to the landscape and circumstances.

The reader can feel that every page is drawn from experience. Is there a documentary aspect to this novel? Could you tell us what led you to write Black Flies?

Many of the events in the book either happened to me or were told to me. There was absolutely an element of the book where I was just trying to report on real events and to recreate these events accurately and dramatically.

As for why I wrote it, I was a writer before I started working as a medic so it was natural that I wrote about what I saw on the ambulance. Also, the writing was cathartic and a protection from the events. When you write about something it becomes partly a work of art, and so some of the power is taken out of it. So I wrote because I am a writer, and that’s what I do, and I wrote to protect myself from some of the horror of the events.

Is it required to be insensitive in order to work as an ambulance driver in neighborhoods such as the one depicted in your novel?

It’s probably required to be a little insensitive to be a paramedic at all in any neighborhood, but particularly in Harlem in the years I was there. The city had basically given up on Harlem and there were many, many avoidable deaths and injuries during the time I was up there. The population was really frustrated with the neglect, and sometimes took their frustration out on us. We did our best, for the most part, but you cannot be in an essentially hopeless and tragic situation without closing yourself off a little. It is necessary to be insensitive to go on doing your work.

You thank a lot of people at the end of your novel. Could you tell us a few words about the revising work you did between the first time you submitted your manuscript and the publication of the novel?

I had a draft of the novel in 1997 and it was about eleven years between the time I finished the first draft and the book was published. When I first wrote the novel I’d been through many of the experiences that ended up being in the book, but had none of the distance or understanding of what those experiences meant. In the first drafts, as I began to try to form the events into a coherent story, I began to moralize and explain and it sucked the life out of the book and it personally made me feel uneasy to work on it, as I felt I was not getting at the truth of the events. I was on a false path. I ended up putting the book away. Five years went by. Then, one day I was talking to my mother on the telephone. I was working on another book, and she said, “Whatever happened to that book Black Flies?”
“I threw it away,” I said. “I couldn’t make it work.”
“I always liked that book,” she said. "Your brothers liked it, too. You should look at that again.”
I told her it was hopeless, that I’d worked on it forever, that I couldn’t make sense of it, but she persisted, and so that afternoon I went to find the book. I only had one copy. It was behind the house in a shed. There’d been a flood in the shed and there were mushrooms growing out of the top of the cover page. I brushed the mushrooms off and started to read and after five years away from the novel the story was much clearer to me. Over that time I had processed the events. My job after that was trying to keep the surreal, jagged quality of the events, but shape them into a coherent narrative. After I got the book into working order I had many friends read it, including paramedics, trying to make sure I was being truthful and accurate.

Are there any books which had a lasting and memorable impact on your personality?

Obviously, as a writer, that list is going to be pretty long. Hemingway was hugely important to me as a young man. Also, Tolstoy, Turgenev, Twain, Knut Hamsun, Kawabata, Saul Bellow, Peter Matthiessen’s non-fiction. I was reading the early novels of James Kelman at the time I wrote the first drafts of Black Flies. Also, my girlfriend at the time spoke French and for all the time I was on the ambulance I was reading classic French literature, in French. So, Stendahl, Dumas, Flaubert, Balzac, Zola, Camus, almost all of Sartre, Robbe-Grillet, and Duras, among others. So, early in my life I was influenced by the great American writers, and later I was reading widely and randomly. It all had its effect on the book.