Ritual question to start my interviews, can you define you in three words, just three?
Reckless, independent, curious.
Why did you choose the noir-fiction genre to write on the paramedic job in Harlem ?
Truthfully, I didn’t know I was writing in the noir genre. When I started writing the book I was just trying to represent reality as I saw it. As it turned out the world I was living in at the time was in the noir genre.
You had yourself the same occupation, in the same conditions. What’s your personal experience part in this story ?
To some extent I lived this story. I did not go as far as Cross does down the dark path, but every emotion he feels is one I felt myself at some time on the ambulance, and every part of the book either happened or could have happened.
There is nothing that is far-fetched. Hopefully, it is the opposite. My intent was to capture the tone and rhythm and the jagged quality of working on an ambulance and also to capture the essence of the EMS culture.
The strength of the story lies not only in the descriptions of on-site interventions, but also in its amazing characters. Did you inspire yourself of people you really met during this job?
Absolutely. I would say that every character is at least based on someone real. As the book went on the characters took on a life of their own, but I would say, at least when I started, each character was based on someone I knew, or, in a few cases, on a group of people.
Original cover French cover
The other main issue of the novel is Harlem, described along the lines of poverty and racial problems…
For the most part I tried to keep racial problems out of the book, but it’s impossible to write about Harlem without touching on racism. And I don’t want to be misunderstood. I think Harlem is actually a pretty nice place. The residents have a real sense of history. They are at the very center of African American culture. And I personally liked it. I worked there for five years and lived there for three years and I ended up having an affection for the place.
Now, having said that, I don’t want to pretend there weren’t problems. Like anywhere in America, there was racism and prejudice and misunderstanding on both sides, and mutual distrust at times complicated our jobs, and was something we had to work around.
Your writing style is really forward, nearly clinical, which makes this story even more realistic. Was it a choice from the beginning ?
When I started writing this book I was in my first year of working as a medic and I was literally taking notes on the back of trauma dressings in the back of the ambulance right after I’d worked a job. I mean, I’d be taking notes while there was still blood and used needles lying around.
At that point I was only worried about capturing exactly what had happened, without exaggeration or embellishment. Later, when I tried to convert these disparate events into a story I ended up rounding off some of the rough edges. That was a mistake. Eventually I realized that the jagged, matter of fact style that I used initially matched how the events were actually experienced. So, yeah, I used that style from the beginning, almost instinctively, because it felt the most truthful.
The story takes place in the 90’s. Do you think the job and the local situation have changed since?
New York has definitely changed a lot since then, and Harlem in particular, and yet, I imagine the job is still pretty much the same. In the early nineties there were something like 2400 murders a year. Now there is less than a quarter of that number.
So the city is safer and less violent, but that just means there are less ambulances. For the people who are working they are probably still getting a lot of the same jobs, but are just covering more area. My impression is that being a paramedic is probably pretty similar all over the world. And though there is less violence right now in New York City, I think there is, if anything, more social problems than ever, and medics are still on the front line.
Your novel, published in 2009, comes at last in France. A few words on this new adventure?
I’m really pleased that the novel has come out in France. I have traveled to France I think eight times, and during the time I was working on this novel I was almost exclusively reading French novels. I taught myself French during the down time when I was working on the ambulance. I literally starting out reading The Red Balloon with a French Dictionary.
My partners thought I was crazy. They’d be reading the newspaper or talking with other medics and look over at me with a book in French and a French dictionary and just laugh at me. “You’re never gonna learn French, Burke.” But bit by bit I did learn, and I pretty much read straight through the canon of French literature, from La Princesse de Clèves through Stendhal and Dumas and Flaubert and Zola and Sartre and Duras. Just a ton of French novels.
I also watched a lot of French movies. I was basically fanatical about French culture when I was writing this book, and so I am particularly pleased that the book has come out in French.
I have a historical novel called Into the Savage Country coming out in English in February. It takes place on a trapping brigade in the 1820’s. It’s a fun book, an adventure. After 911 I wanted to write a more expansive and warm-hearted novel, though of course one that is exciting and engaging and has a good story.
This blog is made of words and sounds. Is music involved in your creative process?
When I first started writing it was because I could not play an instrument. In high school and the first year of college I wrote song lyrics and realized, bit by bit that what I was actually doing was writing poetry.
I migrated from poems to short stories and then to novels, but the genesis of my writing was with music, and music is still very important to me. If I had an aptitude for playing an instrument I probably never would have become a writer.
You have the choice between give us your final word or talk about your favorite dessert …
Mousse au chocolat!
Catégories :Interviews littéraires