The murder mystery in her backyard

Nina Burleigh's NYT investigative murder story reads like fiction. But it isn't.
By Alicia Anstead, Writer Editor-in-Chief | Published: April 14, 2014

Paul and Catherine Novak in 2007.  PHOTO: Public court records of Sullivan County.

Paul and Catherine Novak in 2007. PHOTO: Public court records of Sullivan County.

You could tell from the title that Nina Burleigh’s story “The Paramedic Murderer of Narrowsburg, N.Y.” was going to be a suspense thriller.  The Sunday New York Times Magazine piece is a classic work of investigative journalism with solid storytelling structure at its core. The first line – “In the hills around Narrowsburg, N.Y.” – is about as close to “Once upon a time” as you can get without overstepping. The full sentence sets up the story: “In the hills around Narrowsburg, N.Y., where second-home owners tend gardens and the Lenape once roamed, people don’t forget a mysterious death.” Nearly everything you need to know is in that one sentence. But, of course, a good sentence is a like a gateway drug: You can’t stop. When the next paragraph begins – “We own a house near Narrowsburg” – the plot thickens: The voice behind the story becomes part of the story. And then the characters unfold:  Paul and Catherine Novak, a team of paramedics, a beautiful young woman and the eerie events of a murder, the likes of which could take place in your neighborhood. The likes of which did take place in Burleigh’s neighborhood.  We asked Burleigh about creating the arc of the true story, the influence of fiction and her editor, and her advice about writing. Our exchange follows.

Your story has a “life is stranger than fiction” style to it. How did you map the structure and were you influenced by fictional techniques? 

Nina Burleigh PHOTO: Courtesy author

Nina Burleigh PHOTO: Courtesy author

I think I am always influenced by fictional techniques, but they are buried so deep inside me, from a lifetime of reading, that I am unaware of the sources. For crime, influences probably Nancy Drew, Simenon, the great nonfiction writers working today, like Charles Graeber, whose excellent book The Good Nurse helped me think about the medical profession and how it might affect the behavior of already pathological people. As far as structure, I am probably more influenced by my own years as a magazine writer. I have learned – through years of practice –  how to take my material and create a narrative arc within the 4-5k word length. I can’t explain it here, I teach a whole class on that at Columbia and it takes a long time to learn how to do it. At least, it took me a long time.

How did your editor Ilena Silverman have an impact on the piece? How was her role helpful to you?

Ilena is a fantastic editor, one of the best, and I know this because I have worked with many. She is one of those editors who can look at a piece and quickly assess what needs to be done and express it clearly and economically. She had me revise the story completely two or three times. I wrote one version focusing on the paramedic culture and another focusing on Catherine and Narrowsburg. Then I revised it again. The finished product is a combination of those two very different approaches to the story. I don’t think it would have been as good if I had started out focusing on the blended narrative.

You are a subject in this story. What advice can you give to other nonfiction writers about a first-person approach that includes the writer and also shows restraint?

Have a good editor! There was more of me in earlier versions of the story, and I was instructed to cut myself back. Restraint is usually better, unless you are writing a memoir.  But since I knew Catherine, and had even interacted with her about the Novak’s affair some months before she was killed, I had to be in it, because I was in the story.  I am a big believer that restraint is better in writing in general. Kill most your darlings, then resuscitate just a few of them. But your readers probably already know that.

  • nina burleigh

    There is one thing I’d like to hear from other writers. I never used to read or reply to the comments to my stories, until I got burned when trolls ran away with my words (see my other 2006 story on Narrowsburg, which Rush Limbaugh read pieces from, out of context, inviting more haters to email me, which they did).
    In this story, the chief critique seems to be that I described the physical attributes of the women. None of the commenters noted or seems bothered by the fact that I also described the men by their physical appearances. Is this identity politics gone nuclear, or should I have left off the physical descriptions of the females, out of feminist solidarity?

    • pamelakeogh

      I didn’t have any problem with the physical descriptions of the men or the women (after all, you described every person in the piece, as well as the land, the road, the weather, the burnt out house)… you had to try to picture them in your mind. It’s not a movie, or a television segment.

      In general, I don’t engage w trolls, but that’s just me. What was it Capote said — “the dog barks and the caravan passes.” Great piece. I felt to sad for that poor woman who has such a crappy life.

  • Have you written an article about the trolls? If so, I would love to read it. I hope to publish soon, and I am hoping I can learn from what happened to you. My sister has agreed to read all posts and look at all rankings and let me know only what she thinks I need to know.