Sadly I don’t have time to read all the books that come my way, but I thought October Song by David W. Berner looked so interesting that I invited David onto Linda’s Book Bag to tell me more. Thankfully, David agreed to come along.
In the vinyl era, David W. Berner played rock ‘n’ roll in a neighborhood garage band. Decades later at the age of 57 he enters a national songwriting contest and quite unexpectedly is named a finalist. But there’s more. He’s called on to perform the song live at a storied venue for Americana music. Grabbing his old guitar and the love of his life, David hits the road, hoping to live out a musical fantasy he thought had been buried long ago. October Song is a powerful examination of the passage of time, love, the power of music, and the power of dreams.
An Interview with David W. Berner
Welcome to Linda’s Book Bag David. Thank you so much for agreeing to answer some questions on my blog about your writing. Firstly, please could you tell me a little about yourselves?
My background is journalism, but I’m a lot of things, really. My “storytelling” days, I like to say, began when I was paperboy. As a kid, I had a paper route with 110 customers and I like to think I was delivering stories to readers even then. Much of my journalism work is in broadcasting, but I’ve written a great deal for arts magazines, travel websites, and a number of personal essays have been published in literary magazines and websites. I grew up in Pittsburgh and I am a die-hard Steelers fan, but I have lived in the Chicago area for many years and the Midwest has become my adopted home. I play guitar, have a dog named Sam (Samantha), and live in a great little house with my beautiful Leslie—my domestic partner, significant other, confidant. I teach at Columbia College Chicago and regularly work for CBS Radio in Chicago.
Without spoiling the plot, please could you tell us a bit about October Song?
It’s the story of dreams—when do we let them go? In the vinyl era of rock-n-roll, I played guitar in a neighborhood garage band. Decades later at the age of 57 I entered a national songwriting contest and quite unexpectedly was named a finalist. I was then called on to perform the song live at a storied venue for Americana music more 500 miles from home. So I grabbed my old guitar and the love of my life, and hit the road. The book is about that trip, that dream, and, I hope, a powerful examination of the passage of time, love, the power of music, and the power of dreams. I think it’s a relatable story. We all have dreams we must decide to live out or let go.
(That sounds a fantastic experience.)
When did you first realise you were going to be a writer?
I have been a writer of some kind—not always a good one, though—since I was a kid. I wrote a book in 2nd grade entitled The Cyclops. Our teacher helped us produce paper mache books. The story was inspired by the Jacque Cousteau specials on television in the 1960s, the ones about ocean adventures. As a teenager I started writing songs. Nothing special, but they were extensions of what I was feeling. I wrote for the school newspaper a bit in high school. Got into journalism after college and wrote for broadcast and radio. I was certainly not a “born” writer. I really wasn’t very good in the beginning, and I am still growing and working on my craft. I think in some ways I will always be “becoming” a writer. Believing I can still grow keeps me on my toes.
How do you go about researching detail and ensuring your books are realistic?
I write from my heart. Trust my realities and my gut. If I need details for a place for a particular person, I use my journalism skills and simply ask a lot of questions.
Which aspects of your writing do you find easiest and most difficult?
Easy and difficult are probably not the categories I would put them in. It’s more about what I like and what I love. Getting started is probably the hardest. I like it, but don’t love the process of beginning. However, I love, love, love re-drafting. It’s the best part of the work. Going back over a manuscript after allowing it to sit for a time, to percolate, and then to dig back into it and make it the best it can be is most rewarding.
(How interesting. Many authors tell me that the editing stage is the part they enjoy least!)
What are your writing routines and where do you do most of your writing?
I’m a coffee shop writer. But, I am currently building a writer’s shed on my property. It’s in the spirit of Thoreau and Dylan Thomas. It’s 8 x 10 and will be, I hope, a very special space for writing. I have written about the shed a bit in my blog here. But when I finally move my work to the shed, I still plan to have immediate access to coffee.
If you hadn’t become an author, what would you have done instead as a creative outlet?
I believe being an author as an extension of all the things I do—radio journalism, teaching, songwriting. It’s all part of me. My job is a storyteller. I wanted to be an oceanographer when I was young boy. Maybe I would have been that. Still, I am doing now what I always wanted to do, what I was supposed to do, even when I wasn’t sure what that was.
October Song is a memoir. How difficult or cathartic was it to write?
Most of my work is personal. Even my novel, Night Radio, the only fiction I’ve written, has elements of reality in it. And although I have been asked this question a lot, I’m still not sure how to answer it. “Cathartic” might be too strong a word. I can say every book, including October Song has been freeing and has helped me understand what it was I faced, experienced, went through. Like the great essayist and author Joan Didion, I really don’t know what it is I’m thinking or trying to write until I start to write. It’s like pulling away a curtain on something brand new for all to see, including me. In fact, I didn’t set out on the songwriting road trip with intentions of writing a book. I had no idea this was going to be a story to tell. But during part of the weekend, I started taking notes on the experience and the more I wrote the more I saw had I a unique story to share.
Much of your writing seems to consider personal identity. How important a theme is this to you?
Thanks for bringing this up. It’s great insight. And you are right, I have always been thinking about who I am, who we are? I think that’s a lifelong question and one with varied answers as we move thorough life. Our identity changes all the time—father, son, lover, worker, friend, enemy. We are many things and only one at the same time. It’s a fascinating subject to me.
Music is central to much of your writing. What do you listen to as you write?
Music has been the only constant identity I have had in my life. Playing it, recording it, singing it loud with the car windows rolled down. Lyrics, great ones, make me cry, especially Dylan. Beautiful melodies sooth and spark me. But despite this, I don’t always listen to music when I write. Writing Night Radio and October Song—my two most recent books and the most music-based—I listened to the music mentioned in the manuscripts. I didn’t play the songs all the time, but occasionally, yes. Night Radio has a Spotify playlist attributed to it. October Song will too when the book is released. And when all else fails and I’m in the mood for music while writing, there is always Miles Davis.
Creativity is obviously a central part of your life. What advice would you give to those scared to release their own creativity through writing or song?
Whatever you are going through, whatever the subject you are writing about, someone else is going through it or examining it too. Examining your life in fiction or non-fiction is a life worth living, to paraphrase Socrates. If your medium is music, or painting, or dance, it is still the same thing. It’s storytelling and that is part of our human condition. We are storytellers. Tell yours. I understand that being vulnerable isn’t always easy, but the good artists find a way to embrace vulnerability. They let it all out. Let it out. We are all in this together.
To what extent does writing October Song represent fulfilling your own dreams?
If you’re talking about writing a book, another book, then yes, it does. I love telling stories and I have found that creative nonfiction is a good genre for me. So, in that sense, absolutely the book is part of the fulfilling of a larger dream. And the subject and focus of October Song is really all about that question.
You believe that age is just a number. What can we expect next for David W. Berner?
I’m working on a manuscript about the notion or concept of home. What does home mean to us? Arriving, leaving, searching for home—how does that fit into our lives? And what is home? Is it a place, a feeling, an experience? I see the end product as a book of essays, creative nonfiction all related to this subject, stories of all kinds with that theme. As I have said before, I’m writing this to try to figure out exactly what I’m trying to say about the concept of home. It’s shaping itself as it goes along.
October Song has a cover that almost suggests the idea of the grass being greener on the other side to me. How did that image come about and what were you hoping to convey (without spoiling the plot please!)?
That’s a very interesting observation. I hadn’t thought of that. But, to carry that through, I think checking out the grass on the other side is fine, but be aware that it isn’t always greener. What is for certain is that no matter where that grass may be, it still needs to be mowed. You still must cultivate your passions to make them work for you. The grass is not always greener, but new experiences, new challenges, and opportunities to stretch creatively or to open your mind to something new is the medicine of life, isn’t it? So, maybe that “grass is greener” book cover says I lot more than I ever imagined!
If October Song became a film, who would you like to play you and why would you choose them?
This is a fun question. I could see an older Ethan Hawke playing me, maybe? The Ethan Hawke of the movie Boyhood, a little grey in the hair, some wrinkle in the forehead. He may be too handsome to play me. Plus, he has hair. I don’t. Leslie, my partner, is also in the book. Anyone who is warm and beautiful would be perfect. When I asked her, she thought maybe Catherine Keener. There appears to be a little hippie in her and that works.
When you’re not writing, what do you like to read?
Mostly creative nonfiction. Love Joan Didion, Annie Dillard, and Hemingway’s nonfiction stories like Death in the Afternoon. But I also read newer writers who are crafting stories in the tradition of these greats. I just re-read Thoreau’s Walden, but I also just finished Patti Smith’s M Train. Loved it.
If you had 15 words to persuade a reader that October Song should be their next read, what would you say?
I would simply ask this question: What dream did you once have that you wish you could still try to realize? I like that it’s a question, allowing the reader to have his or her own interpretation. I like that.
So do I. Many thanks, David, for agreeing to be interviewed.
About David W. Berner
David W. Berner is an award-winning journalist, broadcaster, author, and teacher. He has published three books (two memoir, one collection of essays) and will soon publish a work of fiction. David has more than forty years’ experience in broadcast journalism as a reporter, anchor, news director and program director. He regularly contributes to the CBS Radio Network and has contributed to public radio stations around the country, including NPR’s Weekend edition.
David’s first book, Accidental Lesson (Strategic) was awarded the Royal Dragonfly Grand Prize for Literature. In 2011, he was awarded the position of Writer-in-Residence at the Jack Kerouac Project in Orlando, Florida and his memoir – Any Road Will Take You There: A Journey of Fathers and Sons (Dream of Thing Publishing) – is a product of the three-months spent at Kerouac’s former home. The book won the Chicago Writers Association “Book of the Year” award in 2013. In 2015, David was awarded the Writer-in-Residence honor by the Ernest Hemingway Foundation of Oak Park and his collection of essays, There’s A Hamster In The Dashboard (Dream of Things Publishing) was named a 2015 “Best Book” by the Chicago Book Review. He has also performed live literature at 2nd Story, Essay Fiesta, and Sunday Salon around Chicago.