By all accounts, 2020 has been a crazy year. For Knoxville-based author and screenwriter Shannon Burke, it’s also been crazy busy. In addition to co-creating the Netflix hit “Outer Banks,” he’s released a novel, “The Brother Years” (Pantheon), sold a second TV series, and is on track to have an earlier novel adapted for the big screen.
“I’m busy,” said Burke. “But for 30 years I’ve written every day. It’s what I like to do. Of course, there’s extra money and, to some extent, there’s recognition, though as a writer I’m pretty insular. Though I know people are watching the show, it doesn’t really affect me that much.”
He spoke from his Sequoyah Hills home in between Zoom meetings for Outer Banks, currently in production in Charleston with a skeleton crew due to the pandemic.
His new novel, released earlier this month, is the story of a rowdy blue-collar family that doesn’t fit into an upscale Chicago suburb during the late 1970s. It’s drawn from Burke’s unconventional upbringing.
The family is poor, lives in a former carriage house, and just doesn’t care what the neighbors think. The four kids share a room, and are indoctrinated into “The Methods,” a system of achievement and relentless striving, laced with near fatal sibling rivalry. They’re overseen by a determined, sometimes raging father from the South Side. Unlike their pampered classmates, the kids work adult jobs—often rising at 3 a.m. to help their father deliver newspapers, hang drywall, do janitorial work, all while being active in sports and getting good grades.
“In our family, there was none of this crap about everyone being a winner,” says Willie, the narrator, who loves fantasy novels and writing, pastimes considered unproductive by his bullying older brother. The book is funny, moving, and ultimately, a tale of survival.
“It’s my most personal book, and I think it has truth and nuanced characters and is a good story,” Burke said. “I hope people enjoy it.”
Writing about his family – or some fictional version of his family – made him a little nervous.
“I wanted to get things right,” he said. “I wanted to be emotionally truthful. I knew that some of the stuff I wrote about was going to make people unhappy, and so there was a real desire to make sure I felt what I was writing was emotionally truthful.”
Burke said that childhood helped with his chosen profession.
“It’s hard to be a writer,” he said. “You need talent, but you also need grit and perseverance, and I think my upbringing helped with that.”
Meanwhile, his critically acclaimed 2008 novel, “Black Flies” (Soft Skull Press), about a young New York City paramedic, is set to be made into a movie. He also needs to get to work on yet another TV show.
How’s he going to find the time?
“I have no idea,” he said, laughing. “But we’ll have to figure it out because we’ve sold another pitch.”
Terry Shaw is a writer and editor who lives in Kingsport. He is a former Knoxville resident.