When Black Flies (Soft Skull Press), Shannon Burke’s second novel, was published this past May, the New York Times gave the book a rave and reviewer Liesl Schullinger referred to Burke’s two “searing and morally resonant novels.” Considering the tough path Burke took to publication, the Times review would have been a moment to cherish.
In today’s January Magazine Author Snapshot, Burke candidly discusses the dozen years the author spent on his road to publication; a road that was studded with disappointment and near misses.
“It took me a really long time to sell the first book and it was a huge relief when it happened.” Burke says that part of his personal challenge was the fact that he was self-taught: it meant he had to find his own road.
“I didn’t go to writing school or anything,” says Burke, “so for a long time I was just wandering around in a fog, trying to figure out how to do it on my own.” A growing fan-base is happy Burke made his own path.
The author of two novels, Safelight and Black Flies, he has also written for the screen, including work on the screenplay for the film Syriana.
Burke was born in Illinois but currently lives in Knoxville, Tennessee with his wife, Amy Billone, and their two sons.
A snapshot of… Shannon Burke
Most recent book: Black Flies
Born: Wilmette, Illinois
Reside: Knoxville, Tennessee
Birthday: September 11, 1966
Web site: shannonburkewebsite.com
What’s on your nightstand?
I don’t really have a nightstand, but the bed is between wall-to-wall bookshelves. On my right, the closest bookshelf is sort of the on-deck circle for my books. Looking over, I see the Paris Review Interviews Vol. 1, Goodbye to Berlin, Oscar and Lucinda, La Fiesta del Chivo, Diary of a Bad Year, Tom Brown’s School Days, La Vie Mode d’Emploi, Selected Writings of Emerson and Ravelstein.
What inspires you?
Travel. When I was first trying to write I moved around a lot. For four or five years I moved every six months. I had jobs washing dishes or in the Pizza Hut or selling T-shirts or driving a cab.
When I finally settled in New York and started to work as a paramedic and had to stay there 10 or 11 months of the year, I’d get really restless, and in my free time I’d take off to Guatemala, or Pakistan, or Cameroon. Just random places where I’d hike around for a month. Now that I have kids I still take off for the mountains at least once a week and we still travel quite a bit. We live in Knoxville. We spend summers in Chicago. We go to New York, California, wherever.
Tell us about your process.
I tend to work on several things at once. The first stage is I get an idea and I start to read about it and research. For example, if I’m writing about New York and I haven’t been there for a while, I’ll go back. I’ll start talking to people from New York, reading everything I can find on the subject. Bits of dialogue will start coming to me, descriptions of the places I’m going to write about, descriptions of people, anything at all that seems relevant, all of it sort of comes to the surface bit by bit and goes into a document.
Pretty quickly, while I’m doing this, the document starts to form itself into scenes and those scenes begin to form themselves into a rough plot. Characters are being shifted around at this point, combined, split apart, added, thrown out, but all along the thing is taking shape and a general plot is being put together and the screws tightened until all the character and all the plot points and all the scenes are at least sketched out. This process can go on for a year. Sometimes longer. I’m usually working on something else but I’m thinking of this other thing in the back of my mind. Eventually, the outline starts getting really long. A 50,000 word novel might have a 30,000 word outline.
At some point I’ll just feel like I’m ready to write. Then I’ll put the outline to the side, not look at it very much, and just write the book.
I’ll write between two and three thousand words a day. So, you can do the math. A 50,000 word novel will take 25 days. Now, understand, this is just a draft. And it will be added to and cut down and bent every which way. But I have this belief that to maintain stylistic and tonal consistency, it’s better to write the original draft as quickly as possible. Everything else can take time, but I think the book tends to work better if I prepare for a long time, then write the initial draft quickly. After that there is line editing and the adding and subtracting of scenes.
I keep thinking there will come a day where I don’t have to massively edit a book, but it hasn’t happened yet. The editing goes on until I feel it’s in a lean form and finally, one day, I’m so sick of it and everyone around me is so sick of it that I finally hand it in. So, for better or for worse, that’s my method.
Lift your head and look around. What do you see?
Well, I’m in my bedroom. I always write in bed or on the floor. For all that time when I was learning how to write I was moving around a lot and living in all kinds of random places, the worst places you can imagine. One boarding house had homeless people sleeping in the bathroom at night. Another place had a wasp’s nest behind plastic packing tape. During the day you could see the silhouette of the wasps on the other side of the tape and you could hear the buzz at all times. It was pretty unnerving.
Anyway, I never had a desk to work on, so I learned to write in bed, or sitting on the floor with my back against a wall, or even outside, leaning against a tree or a rock. But never at a desk. And so I got used to that. And now I still work in bed, lying almost completely flat, with the computer on a wooden bed desk. The bed desk has one of those flaps of wood that can be propped up. It’s at about a 30 degree angle. There are nails pounded into the base of the bed desk to keep the computer from sliding off. So, I’m lying flat in bed and I see my computer propped up at an angle. On either side of the bed are floor-to-ceiling bookshelves with many many tattered and water-stained paperbacks stacked up and piled on top of the shelves. I like having all the books right there.
Behind me is a long window, maybe five feet wide and six feet high that has a view over a small ravine with trees and leaves, very still now, against the gray blue sky at dusk. It’s a pretty nice room. I spend most of my time here.
When did you know you wanted to be a writer?
It probably wasn’t until I was 19 or 20 that I really knew that’s what I would try to do. As a kid I was always writing plays and little poems, and I really, really liked music in high school and college. I used to write song lyrics. But, if you don’t play an instrument and you don’t write music, then song lyrics are poems. And gradually I just stopped pretending they were lyrics and started writing poems. This happened slowly when I was 16, 17 and 18 years old.
I started reading a lot of poetry. I read fiction as well, but indiscriminately. I’d read First Blood or Dean Koontz or Stephen King or whatever happened to be lying around. I wasn’t selective at all. And then, maybe I was 19 or so — really late, I think, for a writer — it was summer, and I read The Honorable Schoolboy by John LeCarre, and the next book I read was For Whom the Bell Tolls by Hemingway. I had some trouble with both those books. I mean, they were a little advanced for me. And I’d never really read books like that before, except maybe a few times in school. It was like I was just beginning to understand something and it took me a while to sort through it.
That was the summer between my sophomore and junior year of college. And then, that fall, someone gave me The Sun Also Rises and The Stranger and it was like my mind exploded. It seemed the most important thing in the world.
I loved those two books. I read them over and over. And then I started to read all the great authors: Hemingway, Faulkner, Steinbeck, Bellow, Twain, George Eliot, Virginia Woolf, Dickens, Fielding, Flaubert, Dumas, Zola, George Sand, Tolstoy, Dostoyevsky, Turgenev, Chekhov. And I understood that’s what I wanted to at least try to do.
If you couldn’t write books, what would you be doing?
I’d probably be a doctor. I was a paramedic for five years and I really liked it. I liked treating patients. I liked the daily mystery of diagnosing patients. And I liked the feeling that we were doing something worthwhile. There’s a French philosopher who said the only certain good one can do is to aid in the immediate relief of human suffering. And every once in a while as a paramedic we’d do some little thing in the right way and… yeah, you felt pretty good after that. There was no question about whether it was worthwhile. I like that about medicine.
To date, what moment in your career has made you happiest?
It was probably the sale of my first book. It took me a really long time to sell the first book and it was a huge relief when it happened. I didn’t go to writing school or anything, so for a long time I was just wandering around in a fog, trying to figure out how to do it on my own. And it was years before I could even write a readable scene and it was some ridiculous amount of time before I sold my first book. It was 12 years or something like that. When I think back on it now it’s hard to believe. Twelve years!
That apprenticeship went on for so long that I really started to feel like there was something wrong with me. I knew I was putting in the work. I mean, I’m very diligent. I couldn’t understand what my problem was. I wrote three books that were terrible and didn’t show to anyone. Then, I got to that fourth book and I thought it was a little better. But what I hadn’t thought of was the market. The novel, Safelight, was a very spare, initially severe story about a disaffected paramedic who falls for a patient with HIV. The story does not immediately invite the reader in and requires a little patience, which, given today’s climate for literary fiction, is not the best way to attract attention.
Anyway, after those 12 years, despite the slow beginning, I thought I’d finally written a decent book. So, I decided to try to sell it. I got an agent and we sent the book out to, I don’t know, 15 or 20 publishing houses. And there was real interest from Viking and from Penguin, but in both cases it was from young editors who were shot down by the marketing department. Dan Menaker, the editor-in-chief at Doubleday also liked it, and he made a tentative offer, but then he was dissuaded by the head of marketing, same as the other two editors, and after much internal struggle at Doubleday, Dan was forced to withdraw his offer, too. There weren’t any other offers, and so the book was dead. And, I felt terrible. It would have been one thing if I just hadn’t sold it. But there was the initial offer that fell through. It was a big disappointment. I felt I was cursed.
I am a creature of habit, and in general I’m pretty resilient, so I was going on, writing every day as usual, but there was definitely a feeling of desolation and just of resignation. I’d been writing for over 12 years. I didn’t know what more I could do.
A few months passed, I’d started a new book, and then one morning, really early, my agent, David McCormick, called and said, “Did you read The New York Times today?”
I was on the West Coast so he called at like six in the morning, thinking I was on the East Coast. I said, “No, I just woke up two minutes ago.”
“Well, read the paper. You’re in it,” he said. Apparently Ann Godoff, the editor of Random House, had been fired, and it was announced that day that Dan Menaker would take her place as editor-in-chief at Random House. In the article about the new editor of the world’s largest publishing house, Dan announced that the first thing he would do as editor would be “to publish a first novel, Safelight, by Shannon Burke.” After 12 years of working relentlessly with no encouragement, to suddenly have my book sale announced in The New York Times… Well, it was great. Aside from the birth of my kids and getting married it’s probably the happiest moment of my life.
Recently I had the cover review in the Sunday Times. It was a great review and that was really nice, too, but I think that first realization that I’d sold my book, that was my happiest moment in publishing.
For you, what is the easiest thing about being writer?
It’s what I’d do whether I got paid for it or not. So, to actually make a living doing this thing that I’d do anyway, well, that’s nice.
What’s the most difficult?
Keeping things lively. Writing is a lonely business. I tend to sink pretty deeply into the stories. I have to make sure to get out into the world.
There’s a push and pull to this. You need to be at some remove to write and to think about things and you need long hours of unbroken solitude and silence to get things right. But if you go too far into solitude you lose touch with the world, and that’s not good either. So, it’s finding that balance. It’s difficult sometimes.
What question do you get asked about your writing most often?
Did that really happen? People ask that all the time.
What’s the question you’d like to be asked?
Uhm, what books do you like? I’m not that comfortable talking about my own books, but I love to talk about other books.
Please tell us about Black Flies.
It’s about a rookie medic’s first year in Harlem. I was a medic in Harlem, so, yeah, I knew what I was writing about.
I had all these crazy stories built up from that time. I wrote a lot of them out in that first year I was working on the ambulance. I thought it would be simple to turn them into a novel. And it was easy to copy out what had happened. Writing the stories took a few months. It took ten years to see the larger story and to understand the implications of what had happened.
The book is about the psychological changes that came about when you confront and are continually surrounded by death, and also, of the possibilities for ordinary people, in bad circumstances, to act horribly.
It’s about going to the dark side of human behavior and then trying to return to the ordinary world. And all of it taking place in the world of a few ambulance crews working out of Station 18 in Harlem.