From politics to the pen: David Chernushenko reinvents himself again

Detail from the cover of David Chernushenko's novel Burning Souls.

Retired or defeated politicians like to write books, but usually it’s a memoir. But former Capital Ward councillor, David Chernushenko, is trying something different. He’s written a speculative thriller and will launch it on Monday at 7 p.m. at Southminster United Chucrh, 15 Aylmer Ave. He answered some questions from ARTSFILE about this turning of the screw.

Q. You are rising from the ashes of politic life. How did you recover from the last election?

A. I sulked for 30 minutes, thanked the wonderful people who supported me and worked with me, and then turned a new page. Literally, in this case, a new chapter. I realized I was free to try something completely different.

Q. Did you enjoy your time on city council? What did politics give you?

A. The answer I always gave, and which is honest, is ‘Most days, yes!’ Every day was different, and so there was never a problem getting motivated to do my work. But the work is never-ending. You are almost always on duty, and expected to answer for everything from the potholes to the bad driver who nearly hit someone’s child. So it can be hard if you take it too personally, and don’t find time to recharge and step away or turn off your devices.

What I received, though, was an introduction to a phenomenal breadth of people and groups all working to improve their community. You think you know a lot when you run, but then you discover even more about your neighbourhood and neighbours. Not all of it is good, mind you, but most is. I learned greater compassion and empathy, and I came to see just how stacked the cards are in favour of the privileged and influential, and against those with few means or influence.

David Chernushenko.

Q. You were a businessperson before being elected. Are you back to business?

A. My “business” was always of an entrepreneurial nature: small consulting firms, public speaking, green building advice, documentary films and non-fiction books. So, by publishing and now marketing my own novel, I am very much back in business. My launch and cross-Canada tour are pretty much of my own making. It is hard work, but I expect it to be very rewarding.

Q. Why did you want to write a novel? Why not a memoir as Clive Doucet has done? Did he give you any writing tips?

A. I respect Clive’s dedication as a councillor, and his creativity as a writer and poet. I turned to others in my own circles, however, for advice on writing, editing (especially editing!) and publishing. Why a novel? I was literally sitting under a tree in the south of France after a long bike ride and a good lunch, jotting down notes for a memoir-type book, when it came to me that this would be a great setting for the opening and closing of a novel. Tires on the gravel driveway in the dark of the night. A woman is lying awake in bed, reliving her life, and now startled by sound. “Who the heck is this, and why is she here?” It took off quickly from there. Though my writing was limited to bursts from 9:30 p.m. tp 11:30 p.m. and Sunday afternoons for the first two years. Then I lost an election, and won the time I needed.

Q. Tell me about the book. What was the inspiration?

A. As I have watched the natural world (species, climate, oceans, forests) deteriorate over my lifetime, and so many people either deny or refuse to face the reality and the urgency, or others look away out of fear or paralysis, I have been increasingly seized with the question of what does it take to get humans to care and to act? Why are we so bad at dealing with big, slow-moving problems? This is what is concerning me personally, and at the heart of the book. Can we make a difference? What happens to us when we try? My book is not a lecture (people hate it when a book is sold as fiction but is really just a diatribe) but the reader will learn a lot about behaviour, science, politics, religion and more. At its heart, though, Burning Souls is a story of courage and integrity in a time of social and ecological breakdown. Sound like the world we are living in?

Q. What is the story without spoilers?

A. Four young adults from different backgrounds and countries meet and by happenstance become fast friends while pursuing graduate studies at Cambridge University in the ’90s. They head out to make their mark, and change the world. Simone, the Canadian journalist, Jiro, the Japanese lawyer, Sagan, the black American climate scientist and Jenny, the Malaysian engineer. Each will face increasing challenges as they try to bring about change, and they will rely on their friendship to help them through. The book starts and ends in 2025, when things have gone very badly. The reader will (I trust) want to know what happened and why, and what it means for us and the urgent choices facing us all in our “real” life.

Q. What did the experience of writing a novel teach you?

A. Stop writing when you have enough, or you’ll spend more time cutting than creating. And it will be far more painful! Actually, that was just one of many lessons. I learned about pacing, dialogue, character development, establishing a clear setting for the reader to be able to picture the characters and action, maintaining a single “point of view” in each scene and so much more.

Q. Will you write another? Got an idea?

A. Spoiler alert: not everybody dies! For certain, I will write more. I have both a basic plot for a sequel (more psychological/spiritual), and an outline for a shorter, autobiographical book I am calling On the Bleeding Edge. But I’d better sell a lot of this first book, or the pressure to hurry back out there and get a “paying job” will become too strong.

Q. What’s next for you apart from your next book? The Green Party seems to be on a roll, would you seek office at another level?

A. I am taking it month by month. I’ll devote the summer to marketing Burning Souls and speaking in towns across the country. In a perfect world, I could make a decent living (I try to lead a modest lifestyle) through speaking engagements related to the themes in the book and the issues about which I am knowledgable (urban sustainability, ecological/spiritual exploration) as well as some project-by-project consulting. I chose to take the time to better understand not just what I can do now, but what I feel called to do. That process is still underway. But I am open to offers. As for elected office, my answer is short. Not in the near future, but I think it foolish to say never again.

Q. Can you provide book launch details, where, when etc.

A. The big launch is Monday May 27 at 7 p.m., Southminster United Church, 15 Aylmer Avenue, Ottawa. Entry is free, but bring wads of cash or a credit card. The summer reading season is looming. If you can’t make it, check out for information on other book events, how to purchase, and my western tour. Events are coming together from Almonte to Victoria, so please tell friends, and let me know if you have contacts that might wish to host me and my electric car Belle the Bolt or a launch/signing event.

Q. Anything else you would want to say that I haven’t asked?

A. A friend recently wrote to say he loves how I reinvent myself. I realized he was right. About every eight years I embark on something new. From consulting in sustainable sport, to green building, to Green Party politics, to documentary making and professional speaking, to municipal politics, to fiction writing. I guess that is what I need to do to stay motivated and healthy, and I am lucky to have the privilege and the support of family and friends to do that reinventing. I’d love to support others who wish to do the same, and may not be quite so lucky.

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Peter Robb began his connection with the arts community in Ottawa in the mid-1980s when he was the administrator and public relations director of the Great Canadian Theatre Company. After a long career in journalism with the Ottawa Citizen where he served in a number of different posts he returned to the arts when he became the Citizen's arts editor.