Having worked as a paramedic for ten years, Joe Connelly is no stranger to stress. But in the few days since the auspicious debut of his semi-autobiographical novel, Bringing Out the Dead, he’s barely caught his breath. No longer driving an ambulance on the night shift, he’s now changing his three-month-old son’s diapers, mapping out his second novel on index cards, launching a series of readings, and trying to make sense of his sudden success.
Despite the impressive first printing, now running into a second, and the enviable reviews, he says he didn’t quite believe he’d succeeded until the day producer Scott Rudin optioned his story for $100,000. (Martin Scorsese signed on to direct.) Now, after years of “walking around with this writer head,” he finds himself struggling to remain a regular guy. “I’m still a paramedic,” he insists. Instead of embracing the life of the urban literati, he’s considering abandoning the city altogether. “Too much vice in it for me,” he says. “Too much trouble.”
After dropping out of Colgate, Connelly eventually moved to New York, where, for lack of anything better, he started working on ambulances and taking writing classes. Coming home from a long shift and heading straight to the computer was an exhausting routine, but Connelly viewed his job as a kind of real-life fiction workshop. “Sitting in someone’s apartment writing up the paperwork,” he says, “I’d notice what was in their kitchen, the one suit in their closet, how they organized their lives along the dresser.” As for the less contemplative moments, he says, “working in an ambulance in Times Square is one big lesson in irony. I’d get to a call and say, ‘Now I’ve seen everything.’ Pretty soon you stop saying that.”
He rarely visits St. Clare’s, the hospital where he worked and where his name is still on his mailbox. But at a recent reading at Rocky Sullivan’s bar, twenty of his old co-workers – some of them working on medical novels of their own – circulated among the adoring editors and agents.
Afterward, they sat around reminiscing about the terrifying routine that gave Connelly his rich material. There was the summer night they pulled passengers from a subway car that was crushed like a can, and the time the stabbing victim died whispering to Connelly as he tried to hold her insides together. They know the temptation to see themselves as heroes; they, more than anyone else, appreciate the restraint with which Connelly brings these vivid stories to life. “There’ll be a lot of medics who have such a different image of the job and their place in it,” says a former partner. “But it’s very rare you can think of your role so neatly and say, ‘oh, I just helped.’ Joe knows it’s complicated.”