Joe Connelly Bio
He was born in St Clare’s Hospital in Hells Kitchen
Manhattan, the same hospital his mother worked for, and went to nursing school
at, and where his parents met, at a dance in the basement. He grew up in
Queens, and then upstate in Orange County. After 12 years of Catholic school he
finished third in his class, and won a full scholarship to Colgate University.
He was the first person in his family to go to college, and three years later,
became the first to drop out. He traveled around the country, different jobs in
different places. He was tending bar in Dublin when he read a book called The
Razor’s Edge, by Somerset Maugham, about an ambulance driver in World War I. He
decided then to go back to New York City, and join EMS. He wanted to help
people, make a difference, but more important than that, he wanted to see those
big ideas of life and death he figured every writer needed to understand.
He worked up in Harlem first. The system was overwhelmed
then, ambulances broken, angry and overworked labor, patients waiting hours for
help. In 1987 everyone got a medal just for coming to work. During one
organized sickout he went looking for a job somewhere else, and found it with
the same hospital he was born at, driving an ambulance in the old Times Square,
He started writing the stories he was seeing, in the first
person, but there was another side of him, the paramedic side, that was doing
everything he could to wall those scenes off. It was the height of the AIDS
epidemic, the Crack epidemic. There were 2000 homicides in NYC in 1992, and he was
driving to someone shot almost every night.
He began taking writing classes at Columbia, and gradually
the book took form. In writing about a fictional character, Frank Pierce, a man
with no walls, no defenses, he was finally able to get back to the dark places
he’d walled himself off from. One of his teachers, Colin Harrison, the editor
of Harper’s, got him an agent. One of his classmates, Jenny Minton, was Sonny
Mehta’s assistant at Knopf, and she kept pushing the book until he bought it.
She became his editor.
Three months after the book came out he was high up in the
offices of a producer for Paramount, speaking about how great Tom Cruise would
be as Frank. He quit his job that day. A
few months after that he was working with Paul Schrader on the screenplay, and
just a few months after the book was published by Knopf, in 1998, he was on the
movie set in Hell’s Kitchen, a consultant on the movie being shot in the same
streets he’d worked for 12 years.
He started a second novel, Crumbtown, about a man who has
his life turned into a movie, a bank robber, who steals his life back again,
but he was having such a great time being a successful young writer that he did
very little writing. He ended up at a writing colony in the Adirondacks, Blue
Mountain Center, and worked well in the mountains, and moved his family there
shortly after. Two months later he watched the towers fall at 9/11, knowing his
friends were all there. He joined his local ambulance squad that week, and got
his paramedic license back, and realized how much he missed working with his
hands, the simple act of helping. A year later he was back on the streets of
New York, working for the same hospital.
In 2005 an earthquake hit Pakistan, killing 60,000 people. A
medic friend had been to Katrina a few months before, and said he was forming a
relief group. They were supposed to help out in a clinic in the Jelum Valley,
but the Navy helicopter pilot they bribed in Islamabad ended up dropping them
miles further upriver, in an area completely cut off from help. They hiked
through Kashmir, caring for thousands of injured. A crew from Sixty Minutes
found them in a small village near the Indian border, and the resulting segment
was shown and repeated and won an emmy. Hundreds of thousands of dollars poured
in. The group had to come up with a name, and called themselves NYC Medics.
Since then, he’s been to disasters around the world:
earthquakes floods and monsoons. This year the World Health Organization asked
the group to help in a war zone, and in February he spent a month operating a
Trauma Stabilization Point on the front lines of the battle for Mosul.
He runs the local ambulance squad in North Creek, where he’s
been volunteering and working as a paramedic for the past 15 years. It’s a
different experience helping your neighbors, people you know, so far from the
hospital and the social services available in the rest of the state. The trauma
he’s seen in his town, and in the responders he volunteers with, has become the
focus of his next book, called The Awful Grace.
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