Half a century ago, Mike Scardino served as an ambulance attendant for St. John's Queens Hospital. In the late '60s, working an ambulance didn't require training beyond what the Red Cross (or in Scardino's case, the Boy Scouts) offered. The job paid better than anything else a young college student could earn on breaks, but it was brutal, physically and emotionally.
Scardino spent 50-60 hours a week, waking and half-asleep, dealing with thousands of emergency scenarios, ranging from massive, multi-vehicle car accidents to crib deaths, failed suicides, "psycho" calls, and a man tied to a chair and beaten to death by the mob. When he returned to Vanderbilt University (Nashville) each fall, he transitioned from trauma worker to storyteller, regaling his girlfriend (now wife) Barbara and friends with the most horrific or tragic or otherwise memorable calls of his summer.
The experiences, both the individual details and the larger issues surrounding life and death, crawled around Scardino's young mind. "I would go on all these calls, and I would analyze everything I was seeing and smelling." He and the other attendants and the cops occupied a strange, liminal space between the individual in crisis, their friends and families, the ER doctors, and the outside world; bearing witness to the often-surreal moments of dying and immediately beyond. His brain churned during his long shifts, during the stretches between, during the many years after, as he pursued a career in advertising and raised a family. But he never tried to grapple with his experiences on paper until a decade ago.
"I memorized them all," Scardino told Spine in an interview last spring. "I've told these stories over and over again." Even so, he couldn't make them come out right, though he tried again and again, over the course of ten years. "It always ended up being a seesaw between now vs. then. Now emergency medicine does this, and back then … ." The approach didn't work, Scardino said. "I look at it now, and I cringe."
Writers often talk about That Thing, which opened up their manuscript for them, allowing them to push forward in a direction that felt right. For Scardino, That Thing was the German film Der Himmel über Berlin (Wings of Desire), about invisible angels who come to earth and meddle in the affairs of mortals. The story was less the point than the mode of telling for Scardino, who was half asleep, only paying half attention, when narrative lightning struck: "I realized I could tell this thing any way I want."
Set free by the angels, Scardino wrote like the devil. His biggest challenge, once he'd figured out his approach, was returning to a mindset he no longer held. "These stories have got to reflect my ignorance at the time," he explained. "I was very naïve about a lot of things, and certainly about death and suffering, having not experienced it really up until that point."
Mentally returned to that place, with some help from a cache of letters to Barbara, Scardino settled into a conversational style and the stories flowed. "Once I started writing, it only took four months," he said. "It was 85-90 percent the shape it's in now."
Book nearly done, Scardino began "messing around with agents," a process he describes as "a pain. Everyone wants something different — three pages, ten pages, a synopsis." Formatting and re-formatting to meet each agent's preference, Scardino sent out between 30 and 40 submissions a week, all the while contacting old friends via LinkedIn and email. A friend from Scardino's advertising days suggested he contact a mutual colleague, the wildly successful author (and retired ad man) James Patterson. Scardino tells it best.
"I got in touch with Mary Jordan, Jim's personal assistant, to see if Jim might steer me to an agent and she said Jim wanted to read a couple of chapters. He did, and liked them, but said he didn't know how he could help — but to let him know if I came up with something. I thought about it for a week or so. Then I asked if he could maybe write a blurb when the book was done, provided he liked it, and he agreed.
"A year later, I sent him the manuscript and he gave me a wonderful endorsement and offered to pass it through to Little, Brown, and said it was only the second time he had brought them something. Not promising anything, he said, just getting it there. They wanted to buy it and he called with the rough details. Of course I immediately said yes. That's pretty much the long and the short of it.
Jean Garnett, Scardino's editor at Little, Brown, worked with him to fine-tune the book, transforming his collection of related narratives into a single, tight story, with a beginning, middle, and end. "A lot of credit goes to Jean in terms of the emotional build," he said.
During his Spine interview last spring, Scardino was looking ahead to the book's July launch, sounding a little like his summertime, college-era self, going wherever the ambulance boss sent him. "I owe them a minimum of 14 days, and I'll go where they tell me," he said. "I think it's in the contract."
Joking aside, Scardino's been impressed with the results of publicity efforts —as of May he'd already received a positive review from Kirkus and a coveted star from Publisher's Weekly. "They seem to be getting some good exposure," he said.
Bad Call hit bookstands last month. Find Mike Scardino at his Goodreads author page.
Spine Authors Editor Susanna Baird grew up inhaling paperbacks in Central Massachusetts, and now lives and works in Salem. Her writing has appeared in a variety of publications, including Boston Magazine, BANG!, Failbetter, and Publishers Weekly. She's the founder of the Salem Longform Writers' Group, and serves on the Salem Literary Festival committee. When not wrangling words, she spends time with her family, mostly trying to pry the cat's head out of the dog's mouth, and helps lead The Clothing Connection, a small Salem-based nonprofit dedicated to getting clothes to kids who need them. Online, you can find her at susannabaird.com and on Twitter @SusannaBaird.