David W. Berner is an award-winning journalist, broadcaster, author, and teacher. His first book, Accidental Lessons was awarded the 2011 Royal Dragonfly Grand Prize for Literature. His broadcast reporting and audio documentaries have been aired on the CBS Radio Network, NPR’s Weekend Edition and a number of public radio stations across America. David has been the recipient of awards from the Associated Press, RTNDA (Radio and Television News Directors Association) and the Broadcast Education Association.
David was awarded the position of Writer-in-Residence at the Jack Kerouac Project in Orlando, Florida for the summer of 2011. His writing, both reporting and personal essays, have appeared in publications and online journals such as Under the Gum Tree, Chicagoland Journal, PERIGEE, Tiny Lights Journal, Shaking Like a Mountain, Travelgolf.com, Worldgolf.com, Golf Chicago Magazine, The Sun Newspapers, and Write City Magazine. David is also a performer. He’s a regular on the Chicago storytelling circuit, reading his personal essays at events such as 2nd Story, Story Club, Essay Fiesta, and This Much is True. As an associate professor at Columbia College Chicago, he teaches radio narrative, audio documentary, and writing. He has presented writing workshops at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee and for numerous literary organizations throughout the Chicago area.
And with all of this, David still finds time to play guitar and watch as much TV coverage as possible of his beloved Steelers.
PJ: David, how long have you been writing?
DB: I wrote my first “book” when I was seven years old. It was an assignment for an elementary school class. It was called “The Cyclops,” a story about a deep sea monster that ate ships and ocean divers. I evolved, if you will, when I began writing news for radio in the early 1980s. I was writing journalism, writing a regular column on golf and other matters for a local paper, when I was in my mid-30s. I wrote a lot of bad fiction that ended up in a desk drawer somewhere in my late 30s. In my 40s, I began to write more seriously and began writing my first book, Accidental Lessons, in 2004.
PJ: At what point did you reach a place where you felt successful as a writer?
DB: I don’t ever feel “successful” as a writer. It’s always a journey; it’s always a struggle. Success to me is about the final artistic product. So, next week I could feel successful as a writer and then the week after, I may not.
PJ: Is the writing life what you expected when you started out? If not, how is it different?
DB: I expected nothing. Honestly, I wrote because I loved a good story. Money, success (whatever that means) was never, and still is not the reason I write.
PJ: The general public seems to think authors are relatively wealthy. Without prying too much, has your writing income lived up to expectations?
DB: I never had expectations. Still don’t. Don’t plan on having any. It’s funny, most people think of other kinds of artists (painters, actors) as “struggling” — but for some reason, authors are rich. Why is that? LOL. Most writers are far from rich, even some of the best struggle financially. And in a perfect world, writers should NEVER be rich. It has a tendency to corrupt.
PJ: Early on, so much focus is given to getting published. Now that you’re published, how has your focus changed?
DB: I do workshops a lot and tell participants: “You have to ask yourself, do you want to be published or do you want to write?” They are two different things. If you want to be published, and that’s all you really want, then write something about vampires, because that’s what sells at the moment, just to make a point. But if you want to write, then write about things you love, interest you. And maybe eventually, if you learn to tell a good story about those things, you may…may…get published. For me, I think only about writing. Publishing is a by-product. Do I want my work out there? Certainly. But I’m not going to write just to get published.
PJ: Very good points. How long did it take you to get published the first time?
DB: It took six years to write my first book. It took five months to get a publisher. I was lucky. That is not the norm. Getting published in online journals, magazines, or newspapers was different. I got an assignment, wrote it, edited it, and it appeared. Different process.
PJ: Would you do anything differently if you had it to do over again?
DB: No. My bad writing led to my better writing. My mistakes led to my good decisions, good ideas. All of that had to come first before I got better. And I’m still learning. I’m sure I’ll make more mistakes.
PJ: Writing new material, rewriting, submitting new work, waiting, promoting published work…the list is large. How do you manage to divvy up your time to give adequate attention to all needed areas?
DB: That’s a struggle. I teach at college, I also do a lot of broadcast work and journalism. So, I’m always juggling. I haven’t been writing a lot lately and I don’t like that. I’ve been working getting a new book out there. I also have a novel with my agent, a novel I finished last summer. I’m sure I’ll be working on fine-tuning that novel this summer after my agent gets a close look. She’s a good judge and critic. I try to take a couple days every month to submit shorter work. I try to mix my writing days with my submitting days. That doesn’t work for me. And I also do a fair amount of storytelling projects, live literature in Chicago like Essay Fiesta, 2nd Story, and Story Club.
PJ: What is the single most exciting thing that’s happened to you as a writer?
DB: My first book. There’s nothing like holding that in your hand.
PJ: What is the single most disappointing thing that happened to you as a writer?
DB: “Disappointing” may be too strong a word, but it was tough to get rejection letters over and over and over again for my current manuscript, not because they didn’t like it, in fact many said they loved the story and the concept, but rather because it just wasn’t “right for them right now.” That’s usually code for, “we know this isn’t going to sell a million copies and the publishing world is a rocky place and we are not prepared to take a risk on this, even if it’s good.” That’s frustrating, but it’s reality.
PJ: What’s the most memorable thing (good or bad) that’s happened to you while promoting your work?
DB: The first time someone came up to me at a reading/signing and said, “Your book changed me.” I actually had that happen, in so many words, a number of times. But thefirst time is amazingly humbling. Accidental Lessons, my first book, is a story about a year of teaching in a troubled school wrapped around a very personal story of discovery and life-changes. Knowing that this personal story resonated so strongly with the reader is incredibly satisfying.
PJ: With more books being released each month now than ever before, what do you believe sets your work apart from the others?
DB: Admittedly, I am a little uncomfortable talking about what makes my writing different. I think that’s up to the reader to say. But I can tell you that I have had many people say that my stories – especially the memoir/creative nonfiction writing – makes them laugh and cry, and illuminates something in their own personal life.
PJ: What would you like to share with writers who haven’t reached the point of publication yet?
DB: Keep writing. Don’t worry about publishing. Write because you love it. And submit, submit, submit. Send material to journals, your local newspaper, whatever. Writing is like working out — to get better and published you have to keep writing, like you have to keep working out to lose weight, get in shape. It must be part of your life.
PJ: What do you feel is your most effective tool for promoting your published work?
DB: Personal appearance, readings. I love talking to potential readers.
PJ: What area of book promotion is the most challenging to you?
DB: Probably the same as what I think is the most effective – personal appearance, readings.
PJ: Do you have a local independent bookseller you’d like to mention?
Give us a list of your published titles in chronological or series order:
Accidental Lessons: A memoir of a rookie teacher and a life renewed.
After Opium: Stories.
Any Road Will Take You There: A journey of fathers and sons. (to be published in 5/2013)
A middle age father, hoping to rekindle a new fire in his life, re-reads Jack Kerouac’s iconic road trip story, On the Road, and uses it to take the 5000 road trip he never took as a young man. This time though, he brings along his two sons and discovers a deep appreciation for his role as a father, and is forced to come to terms with all the fathers who came before him.
Where can we buy it?
Amazon is the best place to find it. But bookstores, if they don’t have it, can order it. Just ask them.
PJ: What last thing would you like to share with us that nobody knows about you and your work?
DB: I worked hard to be a good writer. It’s work. And I’m still working on it. And when I read great writing, I question my abilities. But in the end, I get right back at it because I am, eventually, inspired. I just re-read the first 300 words of Denis Johnson’s award winning book Tree of Smoke and was just blown away, again. I am inspired everyday by good writing.
Another thing someone might not know about me — I cry at movies, and every time I hear Bob Dylans’ Girl from the North Country, I tear up. I can be a softy.
And one other thing – I may live in the Chicago area…but I’m a Steeler fan. Always will be. Sorry, Bears.
David, thanks for taking time to share with us! I love Any Road Will Take You There and strongly encourage everyone to get a copy!