Shannon Burke is the author of Safelight and Black Flies. He has been involved in various films, including work on the screenplays for the films Syriana and the upcoming film Blink.
Two exchanges from his January Magazine Author Snapshot:
When did you know you wanted to be a writer?Read the complete snapshot.
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.
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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.
The Page 69 Test: Black Flies.