David W. Berner - A Man, His Dog, and Unexpected Discoveries
David W. Berner is an award-winning author, broadcaster and journalist, whose career honors include the position of Writer-in-Residence at the Jack Kerouac Project and the Ernest Hemingway Foundation. He lives outside Chicago, Illinois. As our Author of the Day, Berner tells us all about his book, Walks With Sam.
Please give us a short introduction to what Walks With Sam is about.
At its essence, Walks with Sam is about a man walking his dog over the period of the summer months. But it's more than that, I hope. It's about the contemplative and meditative journey one takes when walking with a good friend; it's about how dogs remind us of our humanity, and it's about awakening to the world around you through the eyes of your dog. The walks were purposeful. I was getting older, had some difficult struggles with the death of a sister, and wanted some meditative time to consider what had been, what was, and what would be. These walks—in the best tradition of other legendary walkers: Thoreau, Dickens, and others—turned into far more than I had imagined. Through Walks with Sam, I hope the reader will discover their own solace and humanity.
What inspired you to write this book?
I had started a blog for fun about my dog, Sam. It turned into posts about our walks and as it grew, I thought I had something bigger. But when you get right down to it, it was Sam who inspired this book.
Why, would you say, does a walk with a dog make you reexamine your life?
It's about the contemplative nature of a good hike. Plus, when you do this with your dog, there is a natural pull to stay in the present. I think walking can do that, but mostly your dog is the guide. Animals are always in the present. They do now worry about the future or fret about the past, they are all about the here and now. And every deep thinker will tell you that staying in the present is one of the most freeing things one can try to accomplish. With this, it is easy to reflect and examine. It's almost impossible not to.
What aspects about Sam's personality do you find the most delightful?
It's that "staying in the present" part of her makeup. It forces me back to that space. But she is also highly attentive—the nose, the eyes, the awareness. She is keenly tuned in to her surroundings. Sam is also innately kind, inquisitive, and loyal.
You also included some humor in this book - why did you take this approach?
How can there not be humor in your life with your dog? Dogs are such joyful animals and what is more joyful than a good laugh or a smile. But that said, I never forced the humor. When something was funny on our journeys, I noted it. If I laughed, I documented it. Life is funny. It just is. And Sam knows that, too.
Besides writing, what other secret skills do you have?
Now there's a loaded question. LOL. I'm not sure I would call them "secret skills" but I play guitar. I make a good omelette. I can do a pretty good Scottish accent.
Would you encourage others to go on more, longer walks with dogs and why?
Absolutely. Most people, including myself, default to taking their dogs out only to allow them to do their business. That's a necessity and a chore. I encourage people to spend time, to walk around the block, walks in the woods, to let your dog remind you to stay in the moment, to look at the trees, hear the birds, watch the moon. Walks and dogs can be a good combination to help ground us and help us find solace. My dog did that for me.
What is your favorite line from the book and can you explain what that means to you?
That's a tough question. But there is one line that several people brought up to me who read early drafts of the book. It's not really a "line" but more a description of Sam. Sam is "the most mindful monk I know." That registered with a number of readers. What I meant by this is that dogs, and especially Sam, are extremely mindful beings and we could learn something from them.
Do you consider yourself a disciplined writer? Do you have a schedule that you stick to, or is it more in the moment?
Yes. I think I am reasonably disciplined. I write most days. I have a small writer's room -- a shed in my backyard -- that is a space of my own. I love it there. I was inspired by the sheds of great writers, especially Dylan Thomas' boathouse in Wales. It's my sanctuary. I do find that I can't spend a lot of time writing. Two hours is a limit, usually. Mornings are best. I like the light.
Did you write all of this from memory, or did you make notes directly after your walks?
I'm a note keeper. But mostly to remind myself of feelings, ideas, and thoughts. Not necessarily to document as a journalist might. I carry a little notebook most everywhere. It's full of random notes and scribbles, a short poem or two. I write a haiku every Monday that I publish on the blog site, MEDIUM. It keeps my writing mind working. If I miss a Monday I am very upset with myself and write a Tuesday haiku just to keep the streak going.
To what degree do you believe authorial intent determines how a work should be interpreted?
Certainly, I have a particular intent when I write something. I want it to be thought of in one particular way. But after it becomes a readable entity, I have no more say in that. It's the reader's and the interpretation is all theirs. I like that about writing, that the writer can do a little dance, if you will, with the reader. I can write something through my own lens, but the reader can read the same thing through theirs and see something quite different. I love that aspect of the art.
If you had a book club, what would it be reading — and why?
Oh, my book club would be full of books most book clubs would probably never consider. Poetry and books of essays. My book would not be on the bestseller list, I'm certain. To pick one for now that might be considered a bit more mainstream would Patti Smith's The Year of the Monkey. I love her writing and her take on the world. Her observations are beautifully rendered.
What are you working on right now?
I have two things going. But I try to stay on one thing at a time, as Henry Miller always suggested. I'm not good at that, though. First, this spring, I have a novel coming out from Adelaide Books. Things Behind the Sun is the story of a father-son road trip through the American West that reveals secrets—both the father's and the son's—and an exploration of whether the deep emotions that brought them together in the first place are more important than what could tear them apart.
I'm working on a memoir/essays about aging. And also beginning the process of a new novel about an older man who travels to Spain to reinvent his life after his wife's death and befriends a younger woman who is running from her past.
Where can our readers discover more of your work or interact with you?
I write a regular blog at the website MEDIUM called The Writer Shed. It's about writing and the creative life. I also have a blog about my dog Sam, linked to the book: www.walkswithsam.com. And of course, my website: www.davidwberner.com. You can find all of my books there. Readers can also follow me at my author page at Amazon. Reach out. I love hearing from readers.