An interview with Mark Rusin

Mark Rusin with President Bill Clinton

Mark Rusin with President Bill Clinton

Mark Rusin was born and raised on the south side of Chicago.  He attended Quigley South High School and Western IllinoisUniversity, where he majored in law-enforcement administration (and ice hockey.)   Mark is a former Las Vegas Metropolitan Police Officer and retired ATF Special Agent.  During his law-enforcement career, Mark witnessed and investigated several major fire scenes, homicides, bombings, and other high-profile cases, which serve as inspiration for his stories.  He is a Chicago sports junkie and a published writer. This is his first crime novel.  Mark lives in the Chicago area with his wife, Marcie, where he continues to write stories and still dreams about playing hockey for his hometown Blackhawks.

How long have you been writing? 

I started writing short stories and poetry as far back as I can recall. In grade school I had a crush on this one cute girl in my class.  I wanted to impress her so I wrote her poems.  Turns out we dated for a long time but as we got older my poetry skills ultimately lost out to some older guy with money.

I also wrote my mom and dad poems over the years for their birthdays, anniversaries, mothers’ and fathers’ days and just to tell them how much I loved them.

Then when I was a Las Vegas cop we had to dictate our reports and they would get transcribed for us.  I saved copies of all my reports and just elaborated with more detail as I prepared for court.  It also served to help me “vent” any time I was involved in any dangerous or overwhelming situation like a shooting where I almost got killed to homicides, suicides and the MGM Grand Hotel fire from where I pulled dead bodies.

In fact, I have kept a log of short stories or vignettes of the twenty craziest, scariest, funniest, saddest most unbelievable calls I handled in my four years of patrolling the Las Vegas strip.  These stories are all told in first person as I responded to the scene.  They all intended to put the reader in the squad car with me or even in my shoes.  It is some very real, dangerous, funny and emotional stuff.

Believe it or not when you live and experience trauma first hand it is easy to write about, that is if you like to write.  Lucky for me, I love to write.

Then as an ATF Special Agent from 1983-1988 when I worked the street, I had to type out all my reports as these were pre-computer days.  I got pretty good at that as well.  I also kept great notes and a diary for which I used to draw stories from, like my crime novel JUSTICE FOR DALLAS.


At what point did you reach a place where you felt successful as a writer?

I have always thought that I can tell a good copper story with the best of them.  With over 30 years in the law enforcement business I have seen some stuff.  That is why I have a unique perspective from which to tell my stories.  I was there.  It’s not a cop telling a writer a story and then he or she writes about it.

My wonderful wife Marcie, who I have written a few poems to over the past 28 years, has been supportive all along and very adamant that I could write well.  I always thought she was just saying that because she loves me and didn’t want to hurt my feelings.

Some say I look like a cop, act like a cop, walk like a cop and talk like a cop.  I am a cop for crying out loud.  What did you expect?  I also write like a cop and basically give the facts without the fluff.  I guess that is what a ghostwriter is for.  I am a writer all right, but not a ghost.

In 1980, I experienced one of the most traumatic tragedies in our lifetimes.  I helped pull dead bodies out of the MGM Grand hotel fire in Las Vegas.  It was a night I will never forget.

In 1990, some ten years after the fire I wrote about my observations from that night.  It was a very vivid “first responder” recollection of my actions and emotions as I worked the scene.

I let my wife read it and a few close friends and I got the same reaction I wanted.  Everyone who read the article cried, including me!

In 2005, on the 25th anniversary of the tragedy I sent the article to The Las Vegas Review Journal Newspaper and they called me and flew me out to meet with them.  They decided to dedicate a pull out section of the Sunday paper called “In Depth” about the fire and mine was to be a lead story.  I was very proud of that and still am to this day.

That is when I thought I had arrived as it was my first published article.  Needless to say my wonderful wife Marcie framed up the article very nicely and it proudly hangs in our home today.




Is the writing life what you expected when you started out? If not, how is it different?

It’s too early to tell.  I will say this however as a brief observation that I find amusing.  As soon as someone finds out you wrote a book they want to be your friend and they want a signed copy of the book and hopefully for free.  I could just be some jerk sitting at a bar or on a bus and nobody will even look at me or give me the time of day.  Then they hear you are an author and they want to shake your hand and be your best friend. It’s crazy.

Not to take a slam at authors but I would hope people would want to shake my hand and say “thanks” once they hear I am a retired law enforcement official who routinely put my life on the line for people like them and other strangers.  With that they could care less.  But they hear you are an author and they want to be your friend and say they know you.  It’s the damnedest thing.

Then of course all my buddies break my stones and want me to sign a bunch of books that they can then sell and make a few bucks on.  See, I really am from Chicago.

The general public seems to think authors are relatively wealthy. Without prying too much, has your writing income lived up to expectations?

I can tell you that thus far I have not made dime one on this project.  In fact, I am out approximately $20,000 to date because I had to hire a ghostwriter and a publicist if I wanted to get published.  I also had to pay for a professional cover designer, website professional and formatter up front.

This is my first book and I learned publishers won’t talk to you if you aren’t represented by an agent.  Agents won’t talk to you because you are not yet a published author.  It is a vicious circle and I learned you have to self-publish your first book to prove you are “sales-worthy.”  If you are, agents who know publishers will follow.

If you think about it they all minimize their risks as most authors who think they can write don’t sell.  However, if they come to an agent with a proven sales sheet, the agent minimizes their risk as they now are representing a known “money maker.”  It doesn’t even matter if the author can write or not as sales are all that matter.

I can tell you that I am confident in my ability to tell a story and I believe I have a unique perspective and experiences to draw from.

In fact, there is no doubt in my mind that this novel will eventually become a screenplay and then a movie as soon as the right people discover it.

In the meantime will readers want to pay to hear my story?  I guess that’s the exciting part and remains to be seen.

Early on, so much focus is given to getting published. Now that you’re published, how has your focus changed?

I would really like to get this novel written as a screenplay and turned into a movie.  If you think about it this story has it all.  A biker related quadruple homicide, arson, witness intimidation, knifing, attempted murders and good old fashioned police work. 

How long did it take you to get published the first time?

It took me about 10 years to write the story.  I then found a ghostwriter/editor (Priscilla Barton) who helped me get it “published ready.”  After entering several contests to no avail and discussions with several publishers to no avail, we decided to self publish.

Priscilla did her homework here and found a great cover designer and formatter.

Also to be very candid, I am not sure how the sales will go on this project so we decided to do it ourselves and see where it leads us.  The very least we felt we needed was to invest in a great publicist so we got the best in PJ Nunn from Breakthrough Promotions.

Once we decided to self publish it took just over a year.  This includes rewrites, cover and web design, formatting and printing of the advanced reader copies and their feedback.

Would you do anything differently if you had it to do over again?

I would take the time to find someone locally who is multi-talented to include writing, editing & publishing who has a certain amount of time to dedicate to the project.  For instance we need to meet face to face to exchange ideas and discuss expectations, deadlines, problems and any other issues that are relevant.

I believe it is possible to do things via email, however working remotely caused me too much frustration and down time. 

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?

 I need hands on assistance in naming a goal and then executing a game plan to achieve that goal.  Otherwise it is a “hit and miss” operation that I am not comfortable with.  As I stated earlier I believe in the team approach very personal and hands on to look together to accomplish a goal or due date.  This approach also leads to the freshest ideas in writing from those involved.

What is the single most exciting thing that’s happened to you as a writer?

 I am looking forward to seeing how our promotions and sales go once the book is released October 15.  This will serve as a good indicator whether or not people will part with their hard earned money to read what I have to write.  At the very least I will soon be able to check “write a book” off my bucket list.

What is the single most disappointing thing that happened to you as a writer?

I really thought that what I had to bring to the table would have publishers jump at my project.  Not to even get a nibble was very humbling to me.  I always thought they would like to hear from a retired Federal Agent and Author but it’s not that easy.

What’s the most memorable thing (good or bad) that’s happened to you while promoting your work?

One lady told me it (JUSTICE FOR DALLAS) was the best book she has read since The Firm.  She said she couldn’t put it down and if this doesn’t make the New York Times best seller list she will eat her hat.  That was pretty cool.  I said, “Thanks a lot, mom.”

Actually that quote came from Ms. Nanci Wudel of Mesa, AZ.

With more books being released each month now than ever before, what do you believe sets your work apart from the others?

I am very confident that my writing style has a unique way of bringing the reader into the story or crime scene.  As far as I know there aren’t too many Retired ATF Special Agents who are currently Authors.  The fact that ATF is such a controversial Federal Agency should also work in my favor I believe.

There is no doubt that I have witnessed a lot of stuff in my 30 plus years in law enforcement.  Some crazy, some scary, some dangerous, some funny but rest assured I always tried to do the right thing.  I couldn’t help but get emotionally involved at times and just living through it and witnessing it gave me a different perspective on life.

The most exciting thing about being a cop remains that when the bell rings you go and you often go alone.  All cops are heroes no matter what anybody says.

What would you like to share with writers who haven’t reached the point of publication yet?

Don’t give up…don’t ever give up.

What do you feel is your most effective tool for promoting your published work?

My experience and background allows me to discuss the scenes in detail because they are all inspired by actual events.

Share with us an elevator pitch (no more than 30 seconds) of your latest title: Justice for Dallas

Butch Crowley

He ruled the Iron Cobras

No one could touch him

No one could stop him

Until ATF Special Agent Marko Novak

And his small force of men

Swore they’d bring him down.

Where can we buy it?         after October 15, 2013

What last thing would you like to share with us that nobody knows about you and your work?

I still dream about playing hockey for my hometown Blackhawks

An interview with David W. Berner

davidwberner2David 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,,, 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.

David holds a Masters in Education/Teaching from the Aurora University and a MFA in Creative Writing from Fairleigh Dickinson University.

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 theAccidental Lessonsfirst 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?

The Book CellarDB: I love The Book Cellar in Chicago.

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)

Share with us an elevator pitch (no more than 30 seconds) of your latest title:AnyRoad

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!