10 Questions for… Will Entrekin

Will Entrekin is a Pittsburgh-based writer and the founder and director of Exciting Press, an independent publisher of digital literature.

He and I first became acquainted in the summer of 2011 when I published my first novel, Inside the Outside, and was seeking ways to help bring attention to it. Will was tremendously generous both in his praise of the novel, but also in using his various promotional platforms to help shine a light on it. But not only is Will a great guy, he's also an outstanding writer, as evidenced by his most recent novel, The Prodigal Hour (which I wrote about HERE).

Born and raised in New Jersey, Entrekin studied fiction and screenwriting at the University of Southern California’s Master’s in Professional Writing program with best-selling authors Rachel Resnick, John Rechy, and Janet Fitch and filmmakers including Irvin Kershner, Syd Field, and Coleman Hough. He wrote The Prodigal Hour with the guidance of Shelly Lowenkopf and Sid Stebel, an author Ray Bradbury called “The greatest writing teacher ever,” and received the 2007 Ruth Cohen Fellowship, as well as a 2008 lectureship position teaching composition.

As both a writer and a publisher, Will is pretty busy these days, but I managed to pin him down long enough for the following interview. So, without further ado, here are 10 questions for Will Entrekin:

1. What would you like readers to know about The Prodigal Hour?

It’s an action-adventure novel about time travel and September 11th. Chance Sowin, a young survivor of those tragic events, moves back home hoping for a new beginning and ultimately gets way more than he imagined. It’s about faith and loss and grief and love, but I think mostly it’s about that hope that when you encounter a life-changing or world-changing moment, you realize that it’s not about right or wrong but rather about doing the best you can.

I wrote it at USC, with the guidance of Irvin Kershner (The Empire Strikes Back) and Janet Fitch (White Oleander). It’s only five bucks, and it’s in the Kindle Lending Library, so if you have Amazon Prime you can borrow it free.

2. Who are some writers that have affected your storytelling sensibilities?

I grew up on Stephen King and Dean Koontz, then discovered Neil Gaiman, Shakespeare, and Fitzgerald in college. I can’t forget Marvel writers Scott Lobdell and Fabian Nicieza, nor whoever was writing The Hardy Boys back when my grandmother used to give me those novels for Christmas and my birthday every year. Also, Madeline L’Engle, Quantum Leap’s Donald Bellisario, Jim Henson, Rachel Resnick, Janet Fitch, Sid Stebel, Syd Field, and Shelly Lowenkopf.

3. Religion and science play out as primary themes in The Prodigal Hour. Does this particular juxtaposition of ideas come from a personal place?

Probably. I was raised Catholic but left the faith in high school. Then a Jesuit college offered me a scholarship, so I went there to study pre-med. While there, I took a theology course with a Jesuit priest who was also a Zen roshi . . . I have a lot in common with Chance Sowin, one of the protagonists of The Prodigal Hour, in terms of that formative background.

I think Chance is going through a much deeper crisis of faith than I ever did, though. Both Chance and I moved back to New Jersey homes shortly after September 11th, but my family was there to help me. Not only does someone murder Chance’s father in the opening chapter, but his mother’s long since deceased, and then his house explodes, so he’s a homeless orphan; Chance had thought he’d survived the worst of it, only to have the rug pulled out from under him. That’s a really tough position for him to be in, and a lot of the action of the second act comes from that place of losing faith but seeking something to believe in anyway, and wanting all those questions that inevitably come up answered. Why do bad things happen to good people? What’s “God’s Will”? Those sorts of questions. Not saying the novel answers them, but I think it explores the mindset of a person asking them. Chance seeks a lot of things: closure, faith, truth, love, action, family, security . . .

4. What methods and strategies have you employed in order to promote both yourself as an author, as well The Prodigal Hour?

Ah, yes. Promotion. Hard question. Because I think the most important aspect of promoting--and the aspect most likely to be skipped in much of the promotion I’ve seen--is writing a good book. I use Twitter a lot, and I play with pricing and make teasers for my books, but to be honest, I’ve lately been trying to move away from the mindset that equates sales with success. I think a lot of people get caught up in how many units they can move, how much traffic they can drive, all those sorts of things. When I was teaching at USC, one of the most common composition essays we encountered was called the well-wrought void; it was, technically, a fine essay, and seemed to be competent, but when you got down to it there was nothing of substance.

I think the most effective promotion an author can have is to produce a solid body of work. The Prodigal Hour is my most recent novel, but I’ve got several different short stories, essays, and collections--as well as another novel, Meets Girl--all available, and I haven’t sold as many books as John Locke or Amanda Hocking or James Patterson (yet?), but I’ve gotten really nice emails from readers and great reviews, and I’m damned proud of what I’ve got out there. I’m only just getting started.

5. Writing a book is such a complex exercise that I imagine no two authors do it exactly the same. Can you summarize your process for me?

Well, it’s different every time. I finished the first draft of The Prodigal Hour in December 2000, a full eleven years before I published it. I rewrote it a bunch of times, and then I went to USC and rewrote it again. Twice. While at USC, I studied with Syd Field, a famous screenwriting teacher, and I adapted the novel into a screenplay with Irvin Kershner, and I think that was most effective in breaking me out of old habits and forcing me to throw out everything but the story I was trying to tell.

It’s still different every time out, but I know, after studying with Syd, I tend to think of stories in terms of either 3-act or 5-act structure (I think most people who believe in “4-act structure” are just mistaking a mid-point plot event for an act break, which it’s not). Sometimes I outline for structure; I had to with The Prodigal Hour, for example, because by the time I got fifteen chapters in, I was juggling no fewer than four separate timelines, so I had to not only figure out where the characters were in each one but also how the timelines affected each other, and then make those effects subtle rather than totally explicit. It’s very tightly plotted in that regard. As a for example, Race and Leonard can’t get a view of Chance and Cassie’s timeline until Cassie activates her time machine.

And I’d tell you more, but spoilers.

6. Having studied fiction and screenwriting at the Master of Professional Writing Program at USC program under some impressive authors, such as Janet Fitch and Rachel Resnick, what part of that experience most influenced The Prodigal Hour?

I wouldn’t have been able to write The Prodigal Hour successfully if not for USC, and there was no single part of my entire experience in LA that didn’t affect the work. As I wrote the screenplay, I started to get a better feel for structure, plot, and pacing, and started to write a good book, but then taking an advanced workshop with Janet and really paying attention to language just took my work and the book to a whole other level. Rachel helped me to really explore more things and take greater chances. Sid Stebel was my thesis advisor, and I honestly hope I grow up to be like him; puckish and insightful and a great teacher and writer.

I think I can mark the screenwriting workshop with Syd, where I studied structure, and the fiction workshop with Janet, where I studied language, as the ones that were most important for me as a writer. Going back to your second question, I feel like the books I grew up reading gave me access to talent, but my experience at USC and those two classes in particular finally helped me realize my real potential as a writer. There’s a glimmer of potential in my collection, but now I feel like I’m operating on a whole different level.

7. What drove you to write The Prodigal Hour?

Wanting to tell the best time travel story ever. I grew up watching Quantum Leap, and thinking about paradoxes and alternate realities. I’ve always been fascinated by those ideas. Like the Age of Apocalypse storyline in the X-Men comics that came out when I was in high school. And I just kept wanting to tell the story of the ultimate time travel paradox.

It wasn’t until Hurricane Katrina that I realized I had to ground the story more firmly, and it wasn’t until that moment that I realized September 11th was its foundation. By that point, I hadn’t yet written about what I’d seen that day, but writing about those experiences helped me understand what was going on in The Prodigal Hour story. Why someone would want to use a time machine, and what would be so life-changing as to consider that the chance to make a difference might be more important than life itself.

8. Where do you see your writing career five years from now?

I want to have an Amazon author page I’m ludicrously proud of, and I want to be some part of helping other authors have exactly the same thing. I’m not sure I think of writing as a career; there’s little in the way of security or stability in it, and most writers never actually make their living from it, anyway. I’m pretty sure Shakespeare sold real estate, for example. Which isn’t to say I think of writing as a calling or a higher purpose or really anything besides a means to tell the stories I want to tell. My sincerest hope, I think, would be that in five years, I’ll have had some hand in helping many, many readers find new stories they love.

9. What are you currently working on?

Specifically, I tend not to talk much about projects while I’m working on them. In a general sense, I’m working on a few different projects, mostly shorter work like stories, essays, poetry, and even a couple of novellas and a couple of projects not easily classifiable.

But what I’m really working on is major news, specifically that over the summer I completed the paperwork and established Exciting Press as an independent digital publisher. I never really thought of anything I was doing as “self-publishing”; I always just saw it as using any and all tools available to get people reading stories, and now I’ll be working with other authors in a similar capacity.

Late last year, legal paperwork out of the way, Exciting Press signed bestselling Australian author Nick Earls to a major 16-book deal (the press release was for a dozen, but there were four still in the works at the time). I spent the time after Thanksgiving readying six titles, and we have several more on the way to roll out in the spring and summer. Nick’s one of my favorite authors, and I’m terrifically pleased to be helping him get his backlist to Kindle, Nook, and the iBookstore. He’s been a joy to work with.

10. What advice would you give to an aspiring author who hopes to see their work published one day?

Stop aspiring.

Forget about hoping to see your work published and concentrate solely on writing the most amazing, stunning, jaw-dropping book you possibly can. Amazon and Kindle have made publishing far more simple, and from word processing to layout to photo editing, there’s free software somewhere that can help. So nowadays, anyone can publish, just like anyone can write.

Which is all the more reason you have to do it well. Focus on story and craft. Understand plot mechanics and character development. Read screenplays with great dialogue and listen to people around you so you know what conversation sounds like. Learn coding and design so you’re not just slapping an amateur cover on a badly laid-out e-book. Hire an editor, and when you do so, hire a real editor, with real qualifications as an editor. It’s tempting to just go to your friend who reads a lot and knows the difference between “its” and “it’s,” but there’s a lot more to editing than fixing apostrophes and comma splices.

Stop aspiring and write something you believe in, and feel confident about standing behind it, and then do so.

And there you have it. I'd like to thank Will Entrekin for taking some time to hang out on Inside Martin. If you'd like to learn more about Will and his writing, you can visit Exciting Writing. You can also connect with Will on Twitter, as well as Facebook.

The Prodigal Hour

The Prodigal Hour is an ambitious novel, to say the least.  It is both strange and complex and for all the right reasons. The author, Will Entrekin, somehow figured out a way to intertwine the tragedies of September 11, the crucifixion of Jesus, and the possibility of time travel into a single narrative.  And he does so admirably.  I already feel like I've revealed too much, but it’s difficult to talk about this book without mentioning some of the ingenious and inventive twists and turns Entrekin comes up with.

On the surface, The Prodigal Hour is something of a thriller.  You have a physicist who has accidentally invented time travel and you have the government agents who want to take it from him.  You have the son, Chance Sowin, who wants to do right by his father and his work, but who is reeling from the still-recent attacks on the World Trade Center, not to mention the passing of his mother.  It is, in fact, the passing of Chance’s mother that propelled his father’s work:

“You come home to a big, empty house that once upon a time contained the laughter of your wife and your child but now reverberates with silence, and you build a small, secret room within it, a place that’s yours, a place where you can try to work through the pain and where you can hope the pain won’t find you.  You conceal a part of yourself from the world, and you attempt to preserve it the best way you know how.”

-Will Entrekin, “The Prodigal Hour”

There is also Leonard Kensington, who travels through time on behalf of an agency called CIRTN. Chance and Leonard don’t know each other and have never heard of each other.  But it’s clear, by the clever way in which Entrekin paces their dueling narratives, that it’s only a matter of time before their paths cross—and more clear than that is that something big will happen when they do.

And, along with all the thrills and science fiction, there is also a love story (a couple of them, really). Entrekin is clever enough to know that time travel and love go hand in hand.  How often is love paired with regret? And how often have any of us looked back on past loves and wished for an opportunity to do it again? To do it better. Or just to do it at all:

“The world could spin around them and all of time could continue ever onward and ever backward in endless permutations from their present moment, but there and then Chance could kiss her, and that alone could be constancy enough. If the entire universe had come into existence and all of history led up to the moment of his lips on hers, it might well have been meaning enough.”

-Will Entrekin, “The Prodigal Hour”

The prose in The Prodigal Hour is confident, which is clearly an extension of its author. That’s not to say the prose is cocky or has a too-high opinion of itself. It simply reads like it knows exactly what it’s doing and, more importantly, why. I enjoy getting lost in books, especially when the story is adventurous and daring, a story with so many moving parts that I can’t possibly keep track of all of them.

It’s in those stories where the hand of a sure and confident author is needed. The Prodigal Hour is a daring story with big ideas and loads of moving parts and yet there was never a moment when I didn’t feel comfortable in Entrekin’s prose.

I could sense, without ever really knowing, that no matter how strange the story got or how far out the plot went, Entrekin always knows exactly where he is and where he's going and, most importantly, how to guide his reader to where they need to be.