9/11 - An Interview with Will Entrekin

Earlier this year, we had the pleasure of first discovering Will Entrekin’s work while reading his self-titled book, Entrekin, for one of the first reviews for this blog.  In his book, Will has an essay called “What I Saw That Day,” which recounts Will’s personal story of being in Manhattan on the day of the World Trade Center attacks seven years ago.  Recently, we visited with Will again to interview him about that essay and to talk about his plans to blog it on the anniversary this year.

Tell us briefly about your essay entitled “What I Saw That Day” which is currently available as a free download on Lulu.

When I first moved to Hollywood and started classes at the University of Southern California, one of my first assignments was to write an essay. I had written about September 11th before then, and in fact once blogged about it when I maintained a blog on MySpace, but I expanded that account for my class. It was a bit of a personal achievement to do so; I had just moved out of my family’s house, where I’d lived since I moved back home shortly after that day.

In the essay, you mention that you did not “mentally record” that day since you, like all of us, had no idea how different that day would end up being. Do you find yourself now, seven years later, recalling more or less about that day?

I think I have to say more, if only because, to write the essay, I revisited those memories in ways I hadn’t before. Not to be melodramatic about it, but I remember that, as I wrote what would become the version I published, I had to do so in portions, with frequent breaks, because I cried a lot. It was cathartic, in a way, and in another it brought up a lot of memories I hadn’t revisited in a long time. I don’t know that I actively blocked them, but I realized as I wrote it that there were certain aspects that I hadn’t given thought to, perhaps sensing that they were too painful.

You also mention how your employer’s front desk attendants just waved you by that morning without checking your ID, but never again after that. What else has changed for you on a personal or professional level that sticks out in your mind now?

God, where to start there? I mean, what hasn’t changed, really? On a personal level, I moved back home, stayed for five years while overcoming depression, then drove cross-country to study, and now live in Denver. On a professional level, I taught and trained, then edited, and then went back to school, and then again became a professional writer.

But I think what’s more important is what I see has changed on greater levels. For example, I think we, as a country, are more naïve now than before. That might seem counterintuitive, but before that day, I think we would have laughed at a color-coded emergency-response system. I think we would have been outraged at the idea of illegal wiretapping, and I think we would have, rightly, run our collective leaders right out of office (I mean, heck, we impeached one guy for a blowjob, but not another for misleading our country into war?). I think that day was the first time we, as a nation, realized we could be hurt, that we are, in fact, mortal, and I think it scared the hell out of us, and I think we’re still recovering from it. Now, the people who attacked us are still at large, and we’ve demonstrated our utter inefficacy to fight them on a massive scale.

You couldn’t see the building from where you worked so you watched it on television like most of us. Do you remember the last time you might have seen the towers before that day, or the first time you saw Ground Zero after it? What did you think or feel?

I’m not sure I do. I remember one night a friend of mine and I went dancing until dawn, and I remember we watched them golden in the sunrise on our way home. I remember actually being inside the towers a few times, but then only on the concourse.

The first time I saw Ground Zero was one of the last days I was in Manhattan, and all I remember is that it looked like a construction site, complete with a chain-link fence and black plastic sheeting in places. The next time I saw it, I did so from inside, at the new PATH/subway station.

You mention your dreams being haunted by Nostradamus’ predictions mentioned in a book called The World Book of Knowledge? Did you experience any dreams like that after 9/11? Do you still today?

I did, in fact, and yes, I do. I never thought of those dreams as precognitive; I think what happened was that, as I grew older, I started to associate anything that gives me anxiety with what scared me most as a child. I don’t have those sorts of dreams often, but usually they come when I’m in a lot of stress, for whatever reason.

Describe to us again your emotions when you stepped out of your office building that day to venture home. What did you see or hear or smell? Briefly describe your surroundings or the people around you.

I didn’t see or hear much. What I still remember is that it was so quiet. I was on Madison Avenue, and I started walking west on 40th street with a coworker and her husband, and I remember most the preternatural stillness. I’m sure there were other people around, but it was like all of Manhattan was a church or a library or a funeral. And I remember the way it smelled. In Manhattan, there’s always construction going on somewhere, and it smells gritty and dusty, and that’s what I remember.

Obviously, this essay is very personal to you. When you go back and read it now, what do you think about or what catches your attention?

Honestly, what I think about is that it still feels inadequate. I don’t know; maybe one day, in the near or distant future, I’ll figure out why, and how to change that, and I’ll revise it. But for now . . . it’s such a massive thing, both in my life and in the global sense, and it doesn’t feel adequate. I’m not sure it feels like I did it justice, or if justice is possible. Like the essay says, it’s the best I’ve got.

One sentence in the essay that caught my attention is the following: It was the first time in my entire life I felt like the best I had to offer wasn’t enough. How have you changed since then?

Well, partly, at least, I’ve come to realize that sometimes the best you’ve got isn’t good enough, but trying anyway is important. That old cliché that the journey is more important than the destination. That I may not be completely happy with the essay, as it stands, because how could I be, but I still gave my all to writing it, and hundreds of people have read it, and that’s got to count for something, I think. Often, I think, too, it counts for everything.

As writers, we often hear to write what we know. Has that day affected your writing in any other way?

It has, in fact. It shaped my novel, The Prodigal Hour, which I wrote as my thesis at USC. It originally didn’t, but I realized, about a year before I started school, that I had to set my novel, that I needed a concrete place and time for it to have occurred. This was not long after Hurricane Katrina hit New Orleans, and I started to realize that I couldn’t just keep revising the novel after every major historical disaster. That I had to focus it in. I set it, then, on Halloween 2001, and realized that the main character, Chance Sowin, had a past and background somewhat similar to my own; moved back home just a month or so after the attacks. He was older, then, than I was at the time, and it was never really autobiographical, semi- or otherwise, but finally settling on that concrete time and place opened the novel up in ways I’d never seen before.

And I’m very proud of the result. Because, as it’s a time-travel novel, it’s not just a post-9/11 novel but also a pre-9/11 novel. A lot of the novel, in fact, occurs on 9/10, and all that really helped me to figure out how to tell the story.

Now, however, it also shapes it because, though it helped me write that story, I am now conscious of it. Those events figure into one of the short stories in my collection, too, and I’m now perhaps too much aware that I don’t want to be that guy who’s always writing about September 11th, which makes me consciously try not to. I’m not yet sure how that will affect anything, as I only just finished my novel.

Tell us about the proceeds you donate from the sale of this essay. How is that working for you? Also, tell us about your plans to blog this essay on the anniversary tomorrow.

Lulu tracks very well, and in fine detail, what has sold, and how. Basically, when I published my book, I pledged one dollar from every sale, as well as all the proceeds from the essay itself, to the United Way NYC. I chose the United Way, by the way, mainly because it benefited all of Manhattan, and because, as I grew up, my father volunteered often for them.

When I first published the book, I planned to make the donation that following September. However, life intervened; I got a job teaching at USC, gave up my MySpace blog, and, for a while, took my collection off the market. All that mainly because I was just learning how to be both a teacher and a writer, and my students were my first priority. Because of the teaching, and also because the book was no longer available, I didn’t make that donation last year.

I’m changing that this year. I’m still teaching, but I think I’m learning ways to balance writing and teaching, and I feel comfortable doing both now. This year, I’m making the massive push I would have wanted to last year. This year, for the entire month of September, I’m pledging all sales of the download of my collection, as well as two dollars from every sale of the hard copy, to the United Way, for whom I will write a check at the end of November (the delay because it takes a while to track the sales and such).

So what I’m planning is to make everyone aware what’s going on, and post the essay to my blog on this year’s anniversary. Because one of the reasons I wrote the essay was my belief that it’s a worthwhile story to share, that it’s both cathartic and therapeutic to talk about it, and for people to know about it. For people to hear an account from someone who was, in a way, there, and in another way, not (as you noted, I watched it on television, just like everyone else, despite that I was actually in Manhattan). I don’t know if reading about my experience will make a difference, but it might, and so I feel like I have that obligation. And given that feeling, I think it’s worth posting, and making available, free. But also given the nature of it, that afore-mentioned feeling of inadequacy, I think a small donation can make a world of difference, not just for those who receive it but also in those who donate it. So, basically, it’s my way of giving back, of contributing, and it’s my way of giving other people a chance to do so, as well.

Which is why I’m so deeply grateful to everyone who’s contributed, whether by donating money or time. Together, I think we’re making a great difference. To each other, and to the world.

Visit Will in the World at his blog right here on WordPress to read the essay and to learn more about Will as an author.

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