The murder mystery in her backyard

Nina Burleigh's NYT investigative murder story reads like fiction. But it isn't.

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.