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Nine years after that terrible day, I’m still at a loss to describe my feelings. This is a hard thing for a newsman to admit, but we were a few hours into it before I became aware of what was happening. It was my day off, and for whatever reason, instead of idly flipping on the TV, as I would usually do, I just puttered around the house. Nobody called, not even the office. When I finally did turn on the TV and see the image of the plane looping around and then crashing into the tower, I just went numb. A few seconds later, I saw the second one and my knees went out from under me. And there I stayed.

A group of my friends, guys who have been in a fantasy football league together since the early ’90s and gather yearly for a draft and convention, were in the city that day, and at some point, I scrambled to a computer in an effort to find out if they were all safe. They were, thank God. And then it was back to the TV.

The litany of horrors — towers pierced and then toppled, a plane crashed into a field in Pennsylvania, yet another plowed into the Pentagon — was almost too much to comprehend. I watched and watched. I prayed. I burned with anger, confusion, frustration. Just like everybody else.

I also felt distress on a deeply psychological level. For as long as I could remember, I’d had a specific death dream. I was in an airplane, flying low. It would slide under overpasses, above city streets, until it was aimed directly at an insurmountable obstacle and … I woke up. I couldn’t begin to count the number of mornings I awoke, sweaty and with choppy breath, as a plane I rode in my subconscious headed, yet again, for a collision with some object rooted to the earth.

9/11 was the reality of my most common nightmare, multiplied by 2,996.

To say I’d always been a reluctant flyer is to cheapen the word “reluctant.” As it turned out, I had a ticket in hand for a trip to Texas in November 2001, and in the wake of 9/11, I had deep fear that I wouldn’t be able to bring myself to step onto the plane. Flying, for me, had always been a triumph of selfish pragmatism — the ease of movement eventually winning out over my fear of putting myself at the mercy of a pilot I didn’t know and machinery I couldn’t trust. Rationally and statistically, I knew my objections were silly. But rationale doesn’t hold a lot of currency when your dreams send you continually crashing into buildings and you’ve just seen that same horror play out in the conscious world.

My day of travel arrived, and I sucked down liquid courage in a bar at the San Jose airport before boarding. A funny thing happened next. I slept — deeply. I didn’t feel the plane take off, and I didn’t pull out of it till the wheels touched the ground at D/FW. When I went home a few days later, the same thing occurred. On the dozens of flights since, I’ve either slept or sanguinely sat through my ride. No more white knuckles. No more thumping day-of-travel fear.

I cannot explain it. Don’t really care to have an explanation. On a day that took so much from all of us, I somehow retrieved a small scrap of my fear and stashed it for good. I would give it back, in a heartbeat, if it meant that the losses of that day went away. The galvanizing national experience of 9/11 manifests itself in our lives in so many ways, and for me, one of those is what I remember every time I get on a plane.

The 9/11 victims.

At my stage of life, it’s best not to wish for your days to slide by any more quickly than they will anyway. Still, I’d be lying if I denied that I’m eagerly awaiting September’s approach and my trip to the East of Eden Writers Conference in Salinas, California.

I’ll be presenting a workshop called “When to Self-Publish,” a subject I’m particularly interested in, as that’s how the original iteration of 600 Hours of Edward came into being. In the year since I set up my book with CreateSpace in a pique of naivete and started flogging it, the publishing landscape has shifted dramatically. Those who wish to go direct to market have more choices than ever, more access to distribution channels than ever and more competition than ever. Enterprising independent publishers are forming their own imprints, banding into collectives and, in impressive numbers, challenging the assumption that all self-published novels are irredeemable dreck. (Now, let’s be honest: Many are, for reasons that are easy enough to figure out. But what excuse do the big publishing houses have for their own trash?)

In other words, something is afoot. When established authors like J.A. Konrath realize that self-publishing their out-of-print backlist makes more financial sense (and cents) than some of their in-print titles, it’s hard to dismiss self-publishing as some passing affliction on the book world. When folks like Lisa Genova and Dan Suarez ride self-publishing to big-time deals with major publishers, it’s hard to dismiss it as a dead end.

My own experience with self-publishing will provide plenty of how-not-to fodder, which is valuable, too, in its own way. So, be warned, Cheryl Anne Gardner and Zoe Winters and Henry Baum and R.J. Keller: In the coming months, as I prepare my workshop, I’ll be knocking on your door for advice.

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So, about Salinas …

I lived there once, for 12 months in 2000-2001. I moved back to California after my crazy 10 months away, when I pingponged from San Jose to San Antonio to Olympia, and had the misfortune of trying to squeeze into the Bay Area when rental capacity was something like 99.7 percent and the only place I could find was a shithole in Hayward at $1,400 a month.

So I looked south to Steinbeck country. For a solid year, five days a week, I drove the 60 miles to San Jose for my night shift on the Mercury News sports desk. (In a stark display of just how battered all sectors of publishing have become, the Mercury News no longer has a dedicated sports desk.) At 1 a.m., I headed home down the 101, through the garlic haze of Gilroy, skirting San Juan Bautista (this is your hint to (re)acquaint yourself, right now, with Vertigo), along one of the most dangerous stretches of highway in the state (every day, on the way to San Jose, I’d pass a sign on private property warning motorists of “Blood Alley”).

I put a ton of miles on my Nissan Altima and ceded a ton of hours to my commute, but oddly enough, I didn’t mind. It’s such a gorgeous drive, for one thing, and for another, I always traveled during non-peak hours. I had a lot of time to think and to wear out my car’s CD player.

In my off-time, living in Salinas was, at best, a mixed bag. I grew up revering Steinbeck, and so I was enchanted with the opportunity to go to the National Steinbeck Center any time I wanted (Rocinante is there! Rocinante!), eat at Sangs Cafe, visit the Steinbeck house, sneak off to Monterey and Pacific Grove, where he spent so much time. The black earth and the vast fields of lettuce that are evoked so beautifully in Steinbeck’s writing are still there, and are every bit as awe-inspiring as you would imagine.

But …

But Salinas is not the town it was in Steinbeck’s time. And while it might be unfair to expect it, or any other place, to hold to such a standard decades after the fact, the truth is, I yearned for San Jose. So when the dotcom bubble burst and rentals tumbled in my direction in availability and affordability, I moved along. The subsequent few years were some of the most remarkable of my life, and though I’ve found my best home yet in Montana, I miss California something fierce some days.

It will be good to see it again.

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