DAVID W. BERNER
Author of THINGS BEHIND THE SUN
Tell us a bit about yourself – something that we will not find in the official author’s bio?
I make a pretty good omelet. I planted tulips for the first time this past fall and they bloomed magnificently. I have a bit of a sweet tooth. Chocolate chip cookies come from heaven. Coffee is the nectar of the gods, and I’m admittedly a snob about my brew choices. It’s also kind of a hobby. I think I have three French presses and two moka pots. I’m a fan of Americana music. Love a good road trip. And there is nothing as sweet as the sound of baseball on the radio. There is something about the voice of a baseball announcer coming out of a tiny speaker on a spring day that tells you everything is right with the world.
Do you remember what was your first story (article, essay, or poem) about and when did you write it?
An elementary school teacher had our class work on a project; the students got to construct a book from scratch. We wrote the story, then created the cover out of paper mache and watercolors. We even did the illustrations. It was absolutely thrilling. My title was The Cyclops. It was a under the sea adventure that I am certain was born out of my early fascination with the Jacque Cousteau TV documentaries about the ocean and the all that incredible life far below the surface. I always considered this my very first story. It was such a fun and creative thing to do. I still have the book. It sits on my bookshelf.
What is the title of your latest book and what inspired it?
The title for Things Behind the Sun: A Novel comes from a song by Nick Drake, a rather obscure British singer-songwriter who died too young. The lyrics have been interpreted many ways, but to me, the song is about staying true to who you are despite what others tell you to be; it’s about following your heart and the urges in your brain no matter how others perceive this. In the book, each one of the characters, even minor ones, are trying to stay true to who they are and where they see themselves in the world. That process creates conflict and struggle and they all have to find the balance that gives them peace. That ultimately is the theme of the book. Find Drake’s song and listen to it. He was a wonderful lyricist, a real poet.
Things Behind the Sun is also a follow-up novel to an earlier book, A Well-Respected Man, which was honored by The Society of Midland Authors for fiction in 2019. The new book continues the story, but it remains a standalone book at the same time. I wanted to write more about the protagonist, Martin Gregory, the reclusive writer who takes on the challenge of his life—raising his adopted son.
How long did it take you to write your latest work and how fast do you write (how many words daily)?
I’m a relatively fast writer. It’s the drafting and editing that is the slower process. My first career is that of a broadcast journalist where speed in writing is important. The slow plod is not for me and would never do in that profession. That said, when I’m working on a manuscript, I can only write for about an hour or two at one sitting. After that, my motivation wobbles, my ideas sputter. I can come back to the writing, but will always need a break. I take a walk, read, do home chores, work on my teaching duties. I am not a planner or outliner. I write and hope to find the story as I go. This process works for me. So, to answer your question, considering all of these factors: I am a rather fast writer. In one sitting, I might write somewhere between 700-1200 words. Things Behind the Sun took about a year to get it where I wanted it.
Do you have any unusual writing habits?
Unusual? Maybe not that, but I have a unique place where I write. It is an outbuilding on my property. We call it The Shed. And that’s just what it is. It is 8×10 feet. I have enough power for a laptop and a lamp, books are all around me, one of my guitars is in there. I was inspired by Dylan Thomas’ boathouse and the “sheds” of writers like George Bernard Shaw, spaces all their own, spaces just for writing and creating. I built some of my shed on my own—placing barn wood on the walls, tiling the floor, painting—and that was a labor of love, creating my own space. It’s a sanctuary for me. I’m inside it almost every day.
Is writing the only form of artistic expression that you utilize, or is there more to your creativity than just writing?
I play guitar and write music. It’s mostly for fun now, although I was in a band many years ago. Nothing serious. But we had our good times. I’m hoping soon to professionally record some of my compositions just to see how they might sound with the right touch. A friend has a recording studio in his home and he’s produced some of his own work there. It will be a kick to give it a go.
Authors and books that have influenced your writings?
There are many—Jack Kerouac, Karl Ove Knausgaard, Ernest Hemingway, Jim Harrison, Henry Miller, Mary Oliver’s poetry, Billy Collins’ and Dylan Thomas’ poetry. I love Annie Dillard and Rachel Cusk, especially the trilogy she recently published. I don’t know how much influence on my style there has been from all of these writers. It is more their creative spirit that has moved me and continues to inspire me. Kerouac’s The Dharma Bums, may be his only true upbeat book, has always been an important book for me. More recently, I admire the seasonal series of books Knausgaard wrote—just gorgeous writing. One of the best books I’ve read in years is The Friend by Sigrid Nunez.
What are you working on right now? Anything new cooking in the wordsmith’s kitchen?
I have two projects. One is a manuscript on the process of growing older framed around the annual changing of the clocks from Standard to Daylight Saving. It’s a reflective, personal work that I hope will resonate with others. We all grow older. We’ve been doing it since the day we were born.
I’ve also started a new novel about a lonely widower who sets out on a long-awaited European trip and finds himself entangled in an unexpected relationship, in spiritual wonderment, and becomes an unforeseen accomplice to a fugitive from the law. It is early in the process. We’ll see where it goes.
Did you ever think about the profile of your readers? What do you think – who reads and who should read your books?
I rarely think about this. Maybe I should. This may sound selfish, but I write books for me, the kind of books I would hope to read and then hope readers will enjoy them as well. Writing to a particular kind of reader is not my approach. Many times when I begin to write, I don’t know where it’s going. It is as if the story is already out there somewhere and I have to find it.
The themes of my books have always been shaped around fathers and sons, travel, and finding one’s place in the world. But there was no plan to write in this way; it just happened.
Do you have any advice for new writers/authors?
Write. It sounds simple, but you just have to make time and write. Write a lot. I have been involved with conducting and speaking at workshops where the participants ask about what the secret is. I say there is none. It’s a process and you have to do it. Musicians don’t become proficient and then virtuosos by not playing their instrument. You have to play all the time. Write, even if you can find only a few minutes in the day. Make the time. There is no other way. Think of it like exercising. If I do it every day, I will feel better, and my health will improve. If I write every day, undoubtedly I will get better at it, as long as I stay critical of my own work. At the same time, if you want to be a good writer, you need to read good books. Read the classics. Read the masters.
What is the best advice (about writing) you have ever heard?
Many years ago, an early mentor of mine—Thomas E. Kennedy, a fabulous writer—told me to consider my senses. I had come from the journalist’s tradition of writing and I needed to spend more time and put more thought into including sensory language in my writing. He encouraged me to pay attention more acutely to what I hear, smell, taste, not only what I see. It changed my writing. It shaped it with a newness I didn’t know I had. I think what he was trying to tell me is that I needed to put more of a premium on the poetry in my head and find a way to meld it into my prose.
How many books you read annually and what are you reading now? What is your favorite literary genre?
Fifteen to twenty books a year, maybe. I read essays, poetry, and literary fiction mostly. I’m rereading Jim Harrison’s collection of poetry. I also love essay collections. Henry Miller’s The Wisdom of the Heart includes an essay that is the very best piece I’ve ever read on the art of writing. I also recently reread Annie Dillard’s Teaching a Stone to Talk. She is a master of observation and language. Oh yes, how can I forget. I’ve reread Patti Smith’s M Train and Year of the Monkey. She has the heart of a poet and observes the world with the skill of a journalist.
What do you deem the most relevant about your writing? What is the most important to be remembered by readers?
I think the only way to answer this question is through the eyes of the reader. It’s hard for the writer, for me, to see his material clearly through his own lens. A reviewer once said that my writing always contains “an enormous sense of humanity.” I am more humbled by that comment every time I read it.
What is your opinion about the publishing industry today and about the ways authors can best fit into the new trends?
I think the so-called “democratization” of the industry with self-publishing and hybrid publishers is ultimately a good thing. But this demands the reader to be more discerning. Gatekeeping by the pig publishers helps curate work, that’s the good side. The bad side is that the traditional gatekeepers can also censor new voices. I liken a lot of what is going on in publishing to the music industry. Artists can create their own work and offer it online in various platforms without ever signing a deal with a big record/music publishing company. Many of those artists are amazing; many are not. Listeners and readers beware. Along with this, comes great opportunity for small and medium publishers who are willing to take risks with new writers to shine and offer great work.
Writer in his shed.