Welcome to BookView Interview, a conversation series where BookView talks to authors.
Recently, we interviewed author David W. Berner, the best-selling author of WALKS WITH SAM and the award-winning author of A WELL-RESPECTED MAN, OCTOBER SONG, ACCIDENTAL LESSONS, ANY ROAD WILL TAKE YOU THERE, THERE’S A HAMSTER IN THE DASHBOARD, NIGHT RADIO, and the memoir THE CONSEQUENCE OF STARS, about his writing and his recently released Sandman, A Golf Tale, a poignant story of a young boy grappling with identity and finding his own place in the world. (Read the review here.). David has also been the Writer-in-Residence at both the Jack Kerouac Project in Orlando, FL and at the Ernest Hemingway Birthplace Home in Oak Park, IL.
David W. Berner is the best-selling author of WALKS WITH SAM and the award-winning author of A WELL-RESPECTED MAN, OCTOBER SONG, ACCIDENTAL LESSONS, ANY ROAD WILL TAKE YOU THERE, THERE’S A HAMSTER IN THE DASHBOARD, NIGHT RADIO, and the memoir THE CONSEQUENCE OF STARS. He has been honored and won awards from the prestigious Society of Midland Authors and the Chicago Writers Association. David has also been the Writer-in-Residence at both the Jack Kerouac Project in Orlando, FL and at the Ernest Hemingway Birthplace Home in Oak Park, IL.
David moved from Pittsburgh to Chicago to work as a radio reporter and news anchor for CBS Radio and later pursued a career as a writer and educator. His first book ACCIDENTAL LESSONS is about his year teaching in one of the Chicago area’s most troubled school districts. The book won the Golden Dragonfly Grand Prize for Literature and has been called a “beautiful, elegantly written book” by award-winning author Thomas E. Kennedy, and “a terrific memoir” by Rick Kogan (Chicago Tribune and WGN Radio). ANY ROAD WILL TAKE YOU THERE—a 2013 Book of the Year from the Chicago Writers Association—is the author’s story of a cross-country road trip with his sons and the revelations of fatherhood. The memoir has been called “heartwarming and heartbreaking” and “a five-star wonderful read.” His novel, A WELL-RESPECTED MAN was a 2019 honoree in the fiction category of The Society of Midland Authors Awards.
What was an early experience where you learned that language had power?
I loved listening to the radio as a young boy, hearing the voices and the stories about music and the world around me. Sometimes I would rest in bed late at night with a transistor radio up to my ear, listening to far away radio stations. Those voices and what they had to say had a profound effect on me. The power those stories had.
My mother was also a voracious reader and she bought me books at a young age, books about sea adventures and dinosaurs. I love those.
I never dreamt in those early years that I would craft a career out of words. Didn’t know one could do such a thing. My family came from working class stock, being a voice on the radio or a writer seemed like scripts for Hollywood movies. But I did know that words meant something to me. And that stayed with me forever.
How often do you base your characters on real people?
Some of my work is memoir, and of course, those are real people. But in fiction, nearly all my major characters are at least partially based on real people. I have a background in journalism and observation. So, taking portions of people’s personalities or lives seemed natural to me. Hemingway did the same. Many other writers have. There are dozens and dozens of incredibly interesting people all around you, why make it up? The real thing is right there in front of you.
Jimmy, the main character in my novella, Sandman: A Golf Tale is based on a real person I had encountered over the years at a golf course where I regularly played. He was the inspiration for the character. It’s not his story specifically, but part of him is Jimmy.
Is writer’s block real?
I think writer’s block is a fallacy. Writing is a craft, it’s a job. Just do the job. Yes, some days are better than others. Some days you are more productive and creative. Some days more motivated. But this is the case with all crafts. If you wait around for inspiration, you’ll be waiting for a very long time. Put yourself down in front of a keyboard and start writing. It may not be very good sometimes, but that’s okay. You must trudge through the muddy trail to get to the beautiful meadow.
What authors do you like to read? What book or books have had a strong influence on you or your writing?
I was influenced early on by writers like Jack Kerouac and Ernest Hemingway. More recently I’ve found Karl Ove Knausgaard and Patti Smith to be inspirations. M Train I have read maybe five times. I also love Jim Harrison, especially his poetry. Rachel Cusk is incredible. Her recent book Second Place is wonderful.
How do you begin a book?
It’s not very flashy. I just get after it. Pick a scene and start writing. Or maybe I will think of a certain kind of person or character, put them in a particular place of conflict or transformation and begin exploring that. I do not outline. Never have. I may have an idea of where the story is going to go, but there are no hard plans. I believe that stories are always there, you just have to discover them through the process of writing. That’s what works for me.
What’s more important: characters or plot?
I think that depends on the genre, mostly. In Sandman: A Golf Tale my novella, it is definitely character that stands out as the main focus. My main character has a lot of backstory, plenty of emotional baggage, if you will. That baggage is what fuels the narrative. I love stories that are character driven. I find them more interesting. Plot-driven stories sometimes feel contrived and forced unless the plot is quite unique. But then again, many books driven by plot have narratives that do not ring true because the plotlines have been manufactured rather than developed organically.
Who and what ultimately inspired you to become a writer?
Firstly, my mother. She was always reading. It seemed natural that I would find words to be so appealing. But later it was songwriters. People like Bob Dylan and Stephen Stills and Joni Mitchell, and more recently Jason Isbell and Colin Meloy of the band the Decemberists. They are true poets. I love the lyrics of their songs—complex and emotional. The motivation for my first book came from my two sons. I had not planned to write it. I was working as a teacher in a troubled school outside Chicago and coming home every day with stories to tell. My sons asked if I had been writing these stories down. I hadn’t. But I soon started to. Those notes became the basis for my first book, the memoir Accidental Lessons. Sandman was inspired by a real person, but also my love of the game. Inspiration comes from so many places.
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