This past Wednesday, I learned a little something about myself. “But Geralyn,” you might ask, “if you were interviewing Chicago author, David W. Berner, weren’t you supposed to learn something about him?” Of course, I learned a lot about this award-winning, multidimensional writer, but I also learned that I’m not very good at the interview process. I don’t think I can even categorize this experience as an interview. For goodness sakes, I didn’t even ask him about his goals for The Bleeding Typewriter, a new podcast series which he describes on iTunes as being “about the creative process, about writing, art, music, and sharing that passion.” With that said, my post title is accurate. That evening I talked with David W. Berner, a true storyteller.
So, who is David W. Berner?
Mr. Berner’s most recent recognition is being named the Ernest Hemingway Writer-In Residence, 2015-2016. Here, Berner is developing a creative nonfiction piece about a road trip on which he embarked to receive a song writing contest award. “It’s an examination on growing old,” he told me. The author/resident will offer writers’ workshops at the Hemingway Birthplace Home (339 N. Oak Park Avenue) in January and February, with topics including “How to Get Published” and “Creative NonFiction.” (Highly recommended, Oak Park area friends!!) At the moment, publication of his first fiction novel, Night Radio, is in the works with a publishing company in Pennsylvania. This story follows an up-and-coming music deejay who seeks redemption on his road to success.
If roads seem to be a personal motif for his writing endeavors, that shouldn’t be a surprise to anyone (like me) who has followed Berner’s literary career. He is an avid Kerouac fan and was named the Jack Kerouac Writer-In-Residence back in 2011. Berner describes his two-and-a-half month residency at Kerouac’s Orlando home (writing in the same room where the King of Beats wrote Dharma Bums), as one of the best experiences of his life. The culminating memoir, Any Road Will Take You There: A Journey of Fathers and Sons (Dream of Things Publishing, 2013), went on to win the 2013 Book of the Year Award from the Chicago Writer's Association for nontraditional nonfiction. I purchased that one upon its release, and I remember being taken by the author’s honesty in his retelling of simple life moments with his boys, which brings back memories of his relationship with his father. At one point in the book, Berner relates a discussion he has with his son, Casey, about Hemingway and other writers:
“Was there any writer who wasn’t screwed up?”
“Your dad,” I said, laughing.
“Oh, I don’t know about that,” Casey said.
“Come on, really? Do you see me swigging out of a bottle of Southern Comfort right now?”
“Give it time,” he said smiling. “Give it time.”
“I wonder,” I said, “do you think artists, true artistic geniuses, have demons? And are the demons necessary to be brilliant?”
I was given the opportunity to discuss that same concept with the author when sitting across a small table at a corner coffeehouse on a late afternoon. We talked about Jack’s alcoholism being a hindrance rather than a catalyst to his writing; whereas, other Beats’ drug addictions precipitated their literary subjects and structure. We talked about melancholic moods that permeated Jack’s works and agreed that Dharma Bums was an exception.
But there’s more than the Kerouac connection that returns me to Berner time and time again. His first memoir tells the story of his teaching at Cowherd, a troubled public middle school in Aurora. It was his sons who told him he should write down the stories that he brought home from the classroom each night, no matter if the stories were happy or sad, and so Berner did just that, and the result was the Golden Dragonfly Award for Literature, Accidental Lessons (Strategic Book Publishing, 2009), a title that, as a teacher, I can relate to on a daily basis. I also have a child who inspires me. Even tonight, when I came home from my “interview” and laughed at myself for thinking I could do this, when I noticed too late that the seasoned writer had been on a virtual tour this same time last year and was actually interviewed by a slew of real bloggers, it was my sixteen year old son who remarked, “So what? Did you get anything from it?” I did.
I learned that it was a radio job that brought him to Chicago in 1988, and he’s made this city his home ever since. I learned that he’s in the Radio Department at Columbia College where he was offered a position after just one year at Cowherd. I learned that he still has, hanging on an office wall, the emails from Suzana (a student with whom he bonded in East Aurora). I learned that his most recent book, a collection of essays about pet ownership (There’s a Hamster in the Dashboard, Dream of Things Publishing) was released this past summer. I learned that he enjoys music and plays the guitar, and when we talked about song writing and his affection for memoir, he explained, “I didn’t know how to write something that wasn’t true.” Of his creative nonfiction work, he stated, “I can’t possibly remember every detail from when I was ten, but I want to capture what’s called the essence of the truth.” This skill of capturing “essence” was nurtured through a MFA in Creative Writing from Fairleigh Dickinson University.
In addition to his writing and teaching, Berner has continued his broadcasting life with regular appearances at WBBM and WXRT, he has produced audio documentaries, and he has that podcast series, The Bleeding Typewriter. After listening to the first podcast episode, I’m left in awe at the diverse talents possessed by this man. “I can’t do all of them all of the time,” he says of the many hats he wears, but when asked which role the real David W. Berner is, first and foremost, he replied, “A writer. Every role and every job requires my writing. I’m a storyteller.”
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"Be in love with your life. Every detail of it." - Jack Kerouac