Wednesday, October 15, 2008

Interview with Shannon Burke, author of Black Flies (with giveaway)

Black Flies by Shannon Burke is one of the best books I've read this year, and it ranks among my all-time favorite reads. I reviewed Black Flies back in July (you can read my review here and a more recent one by Serena of Savvy Verse & Wit here), but the story of Ollie, a Harlem paramedic, the horrors he sees on the job, and the mistake that took a toll on both him and his partner, Rutkovsky, stayed with me. The book was a fast-paced, quick read, but I couldn't just place it back on the shelf and easily turn to something else.

I was thrilled when Shannon Burke agreed to let me interview him. I had so many questions to ask, and he generously answered them all. Thanks so much, Shannon!

I read that you were a paramedic in Harlem like Ollie, the main character in Black Flies. How much of this book is based on personal experience?

Well, in the broadest sense I guess all of it is based on personal experience, but I think you're asking if the stuff in the book really happened. Well, no. It didn't. I was a paramedic in Harlem. I know that world intimately. And many of the events in the book, most of the events probably, are based on actual events. What I'm saying is that some version of those events happened in real life and were the germ for that section. So, the building blocks of the book are similar to real events. But the overall story--I mean, Ollie's journey, the deterioration, the baby job, his relationship with Rutkovsky, what happens to Rutkovsky--all that is fiction. None of that happened to me. So, the building blocks of the story were at least partially based in reality, and I have to say also, that the overall general message or intent is true to my experience as a medic, but in that middle ground of character and plot, it's all fictional. Many people have asked this question, and in a way, I'm flattered, because I think it means that the narrative was convincing.

Were the characters based on people you worked with or encountered on the job?

For the most part I'd say the characters were types or combinations of people I knew. Like most fiction, I think, there may have been a starting point in real life for the characters, but after a time the characters took on a life of their own and became very different from the people they started out representing. Also, all along there was a clear intent to cover the spectrum of characters that you find in an EMS station. Ollie is the rookie, Verdis is the do-gooder, Rutkovsky is the burnt out veteran, etc. At some point I realized each of the characters would have to fill one of those slots, but I would say these guys started as characters in my mind first and foremost, so hopefully they filled out these broader roles or types inexactly and veered from the stereotypes in a human, realistic way.

The characters in Black Flies have different ways of coping with the things they saw on the job. What were your coping strategies? Is writing part of that?

Writing and reading were definitely part of my coping strategies. In Safelight, my first book, the main character shields himself from the horrible things on the ambulance by taking pictures of what he sees, and that is an obvious metaphor for writing. For all that time I was working on the ambulance I'd come home and write about the things I saw, and once I started writing about them I'd start making things up, and in the process of fictionalizing the events they became stories and lost some of their power. When my sister read the first draft of Black Flies, she said, "I bet you were some combination of Ollie and Hatsuru." Hatsuru, you remember, is the pre-med student who sits in the corner always reading his book. And she was right. I always had a book when I was at the station, and I did tend to sit in the corner reading, looking up from time to time, a part of the station, but separate from it, too. Reading and writing were an escape for me, and also a way of dealing with the things we experienced as medics in Harlem.

Black Flies touches on poverty, race issues, and a medical mistake, among other subjects. What inspired you to write this book?

It's true, the book does touch on poverty and race issues. It was a tricky balance. I wanted it to be about life on an ambulance and the changes that happen to people in extreme circumstances. That was my intent. But there was this other thing I was hoping to get in, if not overtly, at least obliquely. I grew up in the suburbs of Chicago in a place that was pretty homogeneous, and when I moved to New York City and started working in Harlem I felt like I hardly knew anything about urban environments or the racial mix in cities. I'm forty-two right now. I think I was the last generation that grew up in this very segregated world, where even the TV shows didn't have racial mixes, where it was possible to grow up close to a city and still go to an all-white public high school. When I started working in Harlem I guess I expected one thing--the ghetto or whatever you want to call it--and it was around nine months before I really saw it for what it was--that is, a working-class neighborhood, an ordinary place, for the most part. Later, after I'd been up there for awhile, I couldn't believe it took me nine months to see it clearly. I was either particularly unperceptive, or I was just so conditioned by TV shows and movies to see it one way that it took a long time for those preconceptions to fall away. Slowly, gradually, the stereotypes broke down and I ended up being pretty much a Harlem enthusiast. I lived in Harlem for my last three years in the city, and it was a huge change in my thinking. I was hoping to put that gradual shift in perspective into the book. For the most part, it's just an undercurrent, though, at the end, in the meeting with the grandmother, it comes to the forefront for a moment. Again, it was a tricky thing, because I wanted to get race in there, but I didn't want it to take over the book. I hope I succeeded, because I worked on that balance for a long time.

Could you explain the title, Black Flies?

When I was first constructing the book it was a series of episodes without a clear progression, and at that early stage I felt there was some metaphoric connection between the disparate, brutal episodes of the novel and the black flies that you always find at dead bodies. When you come across a dead body that is more than, say, a day or two old, it is always surrounded by a cloud of black flies. I don't know how these flies get there or where they come from but they are always there, hovering around the corpse, and I think I felt this cloud of flies had some metaphoric connection to these disparate, chaotic scenes in the book--nasty things born from the corpse, or something like that. There were other meanings that occurred to me later, but this metaphoric one was the real basis. As the book progressed I thought the title became less accurate and I almost changed the title to First Breath, which is a much more upbeat title, and maybe, in its final form, a more accurate title. My wife really wanted me to call it First Breath, but when you've lived with a title for awhile, sometimes, for better or worse, that becomes the title in your mind. And so, yeah, it stayed Black Flies. Looking over what I've written, I'm not sure that explains it completely. But I can say that though I find it a little grim, I've always felt that Black Flies was the right title.

Have you received any feedback from the people you worked with in Harlem? I've read some Amazon reviews of the book that say Black Flies was spot-on with the situations paramedics face.

I have received some feedback, and it's been pretty positive, which I've been particularly relieved about, because medics are going to know better than anyone whether it rings true or not. My intent was to write a book about the experience of being a medic in a hostile, urban environment, and the positive responses from the medics who've read the book are the most satisfying responses I've received.

As a writer, I'm always interested in the writing process, how every writer has his/her own way of doing things, their favorite place to write, etc. Can you tell me about yours?

I write everyday. It doesn't really matter where it is as long as it's quiet and I'm alone. It can be a closet (and it has been that, at times), as long as no one bothers me while I'm in it. When I was working as a medic I wrote from nine till four everyday and then worked on the ambulance from 5 p.m. to 1 a.m. I still keep the same schedule. I work in the morning, and then I read or go out at night. My process for writing a novel is to outline obsessively at first. I'll write a 30,000 word outline for a 60,000 word book. The outline will have bits of dialogue, descriptions, notes on the events that are supposed to happen, reminders to myself, anything that I can think of. Finally, when I feel I'm ready to write, I write the book quickly, probably in a month or two, not really looking at the outline that much, giving myself room to improvise if I feel like it. Then, once I'm done, I tend to prune everything down and edit and rearrange for a long time. I'm really, really aware of the reader's attention span, and I want to make the book true, but also readable, and I want the style to be clean, spare, surprising, and literary. I want the characters to be understandable, but idiosyncratic, and to feel like real people. I keep thinking I'll be able to shorten my method and write a novel without the extensive preparation and the endless revision, but it has not happened yet.

What authors and books do you like to read? Any favorites?

I tend, mostly, to read the great authors: Tolstoy, Chekhov, Turgenev, George Eliot, Dickens, Austen, Fielding, Richardson, Flaubert, Stendhal, Hamsun, Twain, Hemingway, Faulkner, Cather, Bellow. I have a soft spot for adventure and melodrama like Stevens or Dumas or Zola. Of the more recent writers I like Roth, Morrison, Cormac McCarthy, James Kelman, Ian McEwan, Ishiguro, Coetzee, Sebald, Garcia Marquez, and Iris Murdoch. I think the best novelist of all time is either Tolstoy or Eliot.

Are you working on another book?

I have drafts of three other novels. I know this sounds crazy, but I tend to work on more than one book at a time, keeping the books around for awhile, polishing them, working on them intermittently, putting them aside, working on them again. Both Safelight and Black Flies were complete for awhile before I sent them in. Incidentally, the new novels are not EMS novels. I'm not saying I'm done with the subject, but I am leaving it for awhile.

Thanks again, Shannon, for taking time out of your schedule to answer my questions! I wish you the best of luck in your writing career!

Excerpts from Black Flies and Safelight can be found here.


Readers, would you like to read Black Flies? Shannon is generously offering a copy of the book to a lucky reader!! (Thanks, Shannon!)

1. Just leave a comment on this post for one entry.

2. For another entry, comment on my review and let me know why you want to read the book.

3. For a third entry, blog about the giveaway and post the link here.


Deadline is Wednesday, October 22.


Anonymous said...

I would love to read this. Please enter me!

Serena said...

Great interview. I don't need to be entered obviously. I cannot wait to get my interview questions back and see what else Shannon had to say. LOL

Julie P. said...

Count me in! Your interview questions were really good. His answers were great too!

Sandra said...

I'd like to read this book very much. And I have read your review and detailed interview. Good job. Please enter me. Thank you.

Anonymous said...

Ooh, sounds like a good one!

wordlily AT gmail

Anonymous said...

Well all right, I can't pass up a contest, and I would definitely like to read this book. I'll read your review and comment that's 2 pts. And I'll announce your contest giveaway on my blog to, so earmark 3 pts for me pretty soon (smile)

Great interview. I like this guy. I relate to his method of formulating characters a lot. Most of mine are eclectic syntheses of actual people in my life experiences.

Marvin Blogs at Free Spirit:
Eye Twitter 2 -

Jeannie said...

Hi Anna! Please enter me in your contest. I'd love to win this book because I have a ton of respect for paramedics, firefighters, police, etc.

Anonymous said...

Great interview! I'd love to win Shannon's book.

Dawn said...

Hi Anna!! I've had you on my mind a lot lately and hope you're feeling better now?

I know this book is a departure from my regular reading but I'd like to enter too! ;O)

You have to tell me how you're managing to read all these books so dang fast? LOL! I need to take lessons! My library list is growing fast thanks to YOU! And I really enjoy your interviews with the authors very much!

(((Hugs))) and hope you're feeling much better!!! :)

Susan Helene Gottfried said...

Hey, Anna. No need to enter me (she says with great pain); I'm just dropping in to let you know I've got this posted at Win a Book.

Anonymous said...

wow 3 other novels. I wonder how he doesn't get confused with the characters.

Please enter me.

Anonymous said...

Nice interview. Definitely interested in reading your works.
You don't look familiar to me, but I only spent about a month working midnight's in Manhattan, and that was way back in 1985....the rest of my medic years were in Brooklyn, then Lieutenant in Brooklyn and Communications.
Lt. Penina Mellen (now Scullion)

Me... said...

This sounds good. Right along the lines of what I'm used to!

daq_17 at hotmail dot com

Unknown said...

Sounds like this can get very intense. Completely different from my little world. Please enter me. Thanks!

Keyo said...

oh pick me..i would love to read it.

a real librarian said...

Thanks for the chance to win!!!


Wendi said...

Great interview and giveaway! Please include me :)

wbarker (at)

I'm also hosting a giveaway of a trilogy by Jacqueline Carey here:

~ Wendi

darbyscloset said...

I would like to read this book...I like the authors straight forward approach.
Thank you
darbyscloset at yahoo dot com

Beatrice said...

Sounds interesting. I used to love the show ER, and I'm a sucker for forensics shows. Sounds like this would be up my alley.


Shooting Stars Mag said...

Great interview. He really gave a a deep look into his thoughts and feelings about the novel. Very nice.
Please enter me.
I blogged about this as well:


lauren51990 at aol dot com

Anonymous said...

I don't need to be entered Anna, but I wanted to tell you and Shannon how much I enjoyed the interview. This is definitely going on my wish list with such high praise from you Anna.

It's so interesting that he does a 30,000 word outline. Wow. Impressive. I like what he says about being very conscious of the reader's attention span.

Wrighty said...

This sounds really good! You did a great job with your interview as well. Please enter me in your contest. I'd really like to read this book! I'm also posting a link on my blog. Thanks for the offer.

rb said...

Please enter me for your contest. It's a great review and I really like to read this book.

Unknown said...

I have done my share of book reviews and my share of writing. This looks to be a very interesting book. Love the title.


avalonne83 said...

Sounds really interesting!
Please throw my name in the hat. Thanks.

avalonne836 [at] yahoo [dot] it

tanabata said...

Great interview! I don't think I've ever read a story that has focused on EMS paramedics. It sounds fascinating!

I've mentioned the giveaways here.

(tanabata2000 at gmail dot com)

Joyce Anthony said...

Wonderfully, insightful interview!!! I'm heading over to the review now, but this already looks like a book I'd be interested in reading-and reviewing on my Books and Authors Blog at
I'm always looking for quality books to share with my readers--Thanks for the grat interview!!!

Chesh said...

This sounds like a really great book. I loved the interview.

angelleslament @

Anna said...

I'm excited about all the interest in Black Flies! Thanks everyone for the kind comments about the interview. I'm sure Shannon appreciates them as well!

Unknown said...

Count me in, too. It was a great interview.

djecse at yahoo dot com

Asylumgirl said...

Great interview. It's nice to see that somebody reads the classics. LOL

Please enter me!


Ruth Schaller said...

Sounds interesting. Can you enter me please? LOL

Have a great day!

Gwendolyn B. said...

Sounds good -- please enter me and thank you for the chance!

geebee.reads AT gmail DOT com

Karin said...

Please enter me--thanks!

Wendi said...

:) Wendi

Your interview has been added to

About the Author - An Author Interview Index

Anna said...

Thanks, Wendi!