Monday, June 4, 2007

Author Interview: Will Entrekin

Will Entrekin is the author of Entrekin, a short story and poetry collection. He is a student in the graduate writing program at University of Southern California.

You're in the screenwriting program at USC. What's it like? What are the people like? The professors? Do you have a group of friends from the program and meet regularly to discuss ideas, stories, and so on?

I'm going to answer these few in a shot. I'm actually studying both fiction and screenwriting. You know those Mastercard commercials? Well, tuition and housing are a little expensive, but studying with the director who put your very first memory on film? That's priceless.

The people are spectacular, and the professors are terrific. Very varied and diverse. Meaning, for instance, for fiction, there are some professors who concentrate on short fiction, while others concentrate on novels. Some classes are workshop intensive with a lot of writing, while others prefer to discuss planning and outlining at length before any actual writing is performed. As for screenwriting, my first class was taught, in tandem, by Irvin Kershner (The Empire Strikes Back) and Coleman Hough (Full Frontal), so immediately you see the diversity there.

I've made a lot of friends and we get together often. I think if you put any group of writers together, eventually they'll start bouncing ideas off each other and talking about writing, but that's never the goal of getting together. It's sort of funny that we go out to blow off steam and end up talking about stories, anyway.

What is it like to study with such renowned writers? Are you intimidated by their talent? Are you under pressure to stun them with your work?

It's been terrific, but not at all intimidating. During my first ever screenwriting class, Kershner showed us The Third Man, and basically gave us a director's commentary through it. It was surreal. There was the guy on whom Yoda was based, just kinda talking at length about it. Besides Hough, last semester I also studied with Syd Field. None of them have been intimidating; they've all been among the most gracious and supportive people I've ever met. Syd, especially. His mantra for the semester was "Just tell the f&*#ing story." (without the character symbols, of course)

There was no pressure. They just wanted to encourage us. There's been an awesome trend that they all look at what you write and don't try to change that. Some of us were writing socio-political stuff, some sci-fi, some horror, some indie drama. They paid attention to the stories we wanted to write and commented accordingly.

What's a screenwriting class like? How many people attend? Is there a lot of competition between the students?

It was a lot like a fiction workshop, though there was less critique from the other students. Ten pages at a go, and the teacher would basically go over what's working and what wasn't. Most of my classes were about 12 strong, but we didn't compete with each other. Never do.

Do you write toward the commercial market or toward the independent sector? Are people more interested in writing the next blockbuster or the next Oscar winning film?

I personally tend toward the former, in both instances. My first screenplay was an adaptation of the novel I'm currently revising, which is sort of a cross between "Jurassic Park" and "The Last Temptation of Christ."

We all know about the notorious screenwriting manuals, such as STORY, but what books, if any, do you use in your classes? Which, if any, books on writing craft do you like the most?

Well, like I said, Syd was my teacher. While in class, he sometimes referred to "the other screenplay book" (meaning "Story"), as he wrote what has generally become the bible of screenwriting, being "Screenplay." So we used all his books. In addition, Sid Stebel had us use his book about the unconscious and creative power, and Shelly Lowenkopf has us reading a couple books by one of his colleagues, Barnaby Conrad. Rachel Resnick had us read "The Guide to Narrative Craft," and Madelyn Cain "On Writing Well."

Personally, I've always liked "Story," as well. But also "On Writing," by Stephen King.

What is your writing process like? Where do you start when you start a story? How do you stay motivated?

I try to do it every day. Process... I just kinda do it. I write a ton of crap before I know what I'm doing, generally, but I'm not a big fan of outlining very closely or elaborately. I usually start at the beginning. Who was it who said you start a scene as late as possible? I believe in starting everything as late as possible, and getting out before you need to. So I start from an idea, a premise, and try to figure out where that story needs to begin.

I just keep my ass in the chair.

Where does the inspiration come from?

Oh, I got this great deal from this little factory just south of Fargo... no, but really, from my background. I went to Catholic schools, broke from Catholicism, then studied natural science at a Jesuit college. Along the way, I studied global theology with a Jesuit priest who was also one of the first Zen roshis in the US, and who had three doctorates (in psychology, theology, and philosophy, I believe). After that, I produced commercials at a major ad agency, then taught in a high school and edited a journal about psychiatric disorders.

Given all that, there's no shortage of inspiration, really.

What are the obstacles to writing?

Getting it done to a point one is happy with. After that, the dwindling marketplace, which was largely what my book, and the way I published it, was a reaction to. One of the great aspects of my program is that we have to submit our stuff, but when you start to, you realize the market has basically dried up. I mention it in the book, but it seems like, unless your names is Chabon or McEwan, you're not going to get into The New Yorker or Harper's, and beyond that you've got the genre magazines (like The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction on one side and Glimmer Train/Zyzzyva on the other). After that, you get the even smaller magazines that you only see in University libraries, mostly published by MFA programs.

And it's not just short stories. Publishers think they're in big trouble, because less people are reading and buying books in the stores. I think a lot of them are scared of self-publishing. Sometimes I look at publishing like the music industry: there's salvation out there, but they're so locked into their old business practices that they're scared to embrace iTunes (or its equivalent).

What other projects are you working on?

Right now, a revision of a novel a few agents have expressed interest in. After that, probably a screenplay or two, and I have several ideas for longer fiction, though I'm not certain of their place in the market. At this point, I'm considering what I think of as the Matt Damon philosophy of publishing: do a blockbuster that gets people into the seats and watching and makes a bunch of money, and then do a smaller, more indie project.

Who is your favorite writer?

Neil Gaiman. Used to love Stephen King. I'm also on a Chandler kick at the moment.

What are some of your favorite books?

Pretty much everything by Neil Gaiman. Needful Things, by SK, made me realize I wanted to write. Harry Potter. The Time Traveler's Wife. Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance; The Great Gatsby; The Big Sleep; The Tao of Pooh and The Te of Piglet; Nerve's Guide to Sexual Etiquette, Rift...

In a number of your stories in Entrekin, you deal with rejection. How do you deal with rejection?

I think there's only one way a writer can deal with rejection: keep going anyway.

Whenever I'm rejected, I think of the novels I never liked. Of which there are many. And I realize that, if I were an editor, I would have rejected those. So it's not like they're infallible. Editors accept barely literate manuscripts all the time.


Anonymous said...

Well, we've had a gushing critique of the book, the obligatory interview, anyone want to bet who'll get the Book of the Month Award?

Anonymous said...

I dunno; there's still a whole lot of June left.

Me, I'm just very grateful for the mentions.

-Will Entrekin