Hello! You’re just in time to help me welcome to the blog the fabulous Andra Watkins, who is here to talk about her memoir, Not Without My Father: One Woman’s 444-Mile Walk of the Natchez Trace (Word Hermit Press), which debuts today!
This awesome photo of Andra was taken on the roof of the Duomo in Milan by Michael T. Maher.
After I talk to Andra, I’ll tell you how you can have your very own copy of this memoir. So let’s get started!
El Space: Four quick facts about yourself?
Andra: (1) I’m married to the most patient man alive. I’ve been willing to write/say/announce that everywhere, something he’ll be able to hold over my head for all time. (2) I’m afraid of heights. Yet, I climb as many mountains as I can find. Life is empty if we avoid things we fear. (3) I don’t wear underwear, a fact that doesn’t need an explanation. (4) Writing books and flinging them out there is the most vulnerable thing I’ve ever done. It’s sometimes hard to see what comes of that effort or what doesn’t.
El Space: What made you decide to walk the Natchez Trace?
Andra: During my research for my debut novel, To Live Forever: An Afterlife Journey of Meriwether Lewis, I discovered that no one had walked the Natchez Trace as the pioneers did. A 10,000-year-old footpath was paved over by the federal government in the 1930’s to make way for the automobile. No provisions were made for walkers along the Trace.
I thought walking 15 miles a day for 34 days would be a fun way to launch a novel . . . which shows how stupid I am. I trained, but I never considered the toll pavement would take on my joints and tendons. It was the hardest thing I’ve ever done.
El Space: How have people responded to your novel as a result of this grueling walk?
Andra: More people read my novel because I walked the Trace. Not as many as I hoped, but does that ever really happen for an author? We always want a few more and a few more and a few more. I think walking the Trace helped readers connect with the story in a deeper, more powerful way, because through my own self-torture, I immersed them in an ancient place. The Natchez Trace is one of our great treasures as Americans. I’m proud of how many people I’ve taught about a place we should all revere and cherish.
El Space: What was the most challenging aspect of working on this book, besides the frustrating audiobook recording sessions?
Andra: The most challenging aspect continues to be finding new ways to promote my work and find a broader audience. My publicist queried over 600 outlets. It’s daunting to look at the return on that and see how few people actually open and read emails from strangers these days. Several national and international publications requested the book, but we’ve struggled to convert those connections into stories. There’s still time. But the competition for space is the Mount Everest of this business. I still haven’t cracked it.
El Space: I loved your memoir, especially how you wove your dad’s story throughout it. How has this walk been a game changer for both of you?
Andra: I have a functional connection to both my parents as a result of this experience. For readers who struggle with dysfunctional family relationships, Not Without My Father is a roadmap to clarity. Readers won’t walk almost 500 miles on asphalt to find that epiphany. Instead, they’ll read the story and see how they can take an hour, an afternoon, a weekend or a week to Make a Memory with someone who matters. Through making this story, I realized the memories I make with my loved ones are what I’ll have when they’re gone. We all need a reminder to stop, to think, to embrace the moments that will matter, because life is finite. Tomorrow isn’t a guarantee for anyone. I wove a collection of experiences with my parents that I’ll have for as long as I breathe. I turned “I wish I had” into “I’m glad I did” before I lost that opportunity. I hope Not Without My Father inspires readers everywhere to be the game changer, to embrace the messy glory of the relationships in their own lives.
Andra and her dad, Roy
El Space: What nonfiction books, if any, inspire you?
Andra: I’ve never been a big reader on nonfiction, and I never, ever intended to write a memoir. Still, the nonfiction books that most inspired me are these: Undaunted Courage by Stephen Ambrose and Without Reservations: The Travels of an Independent Woman by Alice Steinbach.
I read Undaunted Courage, Stephen Ambrose’s Pulitzer Prize-winning account of the Lewis and Clark expedition, and it changed the way I viewed history. In history class, we memorize facts, an exercise that turns historical figures into black-and-white non-entities or people we imagine as the color of money. I viewed history as a living, breathing thing for the first time, and it transformed how I saw everything. I experienced places by imagining how real people saw them. I read words and conjured the voices who wrote them.
I found Without Reservations at a time of transition in my own life. Alice Steinbach found herself divorced at mid-life, struggling to give meaning to her existence. She took a break from her life to find herself, and her experiences were profound. When I believed I might be single until I died, I embraced that book and started forging my own reality. Traveling on my own. Discovering what mattered. She probably helped me become the person my husband fell in love with. I really should reach out and thank her.
El Space: What are you working on now? Do you think you’ll write another nonfiction book anytime soon? Why or why not?
Andra: My book Natchez Trace: Tracks in Time will be available February 1, 2015. It’s a collection of pictures from my Natchez Trace walk, the perfect accompaniment to both To Live Forever and Not Without My Father. It will be available as an 8 x 8 paperback everywhere books are sold. I’m really proud of how it’s come together. People will be able to walk the Natchez Trace by turning pages. I hope the images are a tribute to an ancient, incredible place. And I guess it qualifies as a nonfiction book. So yes! I’ve written another nonfiction work.
I also have a short story coming in the spring. “Hard To Die” is a short prequel to To Live Forever. It’s set in New Orleans and Mexico City, and it follows characters from To Live Forever. I enjoyed a trip to Mexico City recently for research, and I hope it makes the story pop.
Your True Love Lives will be available Summer 2015. It’s a full-length paranormal romance. Set in England, it follows a group of Americans as they volunteer in a sailing-for-the-disabled program. I hope the book will shine a light on programs that enable disabled people to achieve mobility around the country. Several years ago, I was lucky to volunteer in such a program, and I met precious people who came out to sail, day after day, to feel like they could walk again, to experience memories they couldn’t grasp any other way, or to escape a bed.
And I Am Number Thirteen, the sequel to To Live Forever, will be available November 2015. Surprising readers is a tall order, but I’m excited about the drafts I’ve produced. The book will follow Emmaline Cagney into her life with her father, an achievement that didn’t quite turn out the way she hoped.
El Space: Woo hoo! Glad to hear there will be more books from you.
Andra: I guess I really avoided your question about writing another nonfiction work, though. At this point, I don’t say never. If I find another true story that might inspire readers to change their own lives, to embrace people who matter, to Make a Memory, I would absolutely write it. I’m happy to use my own stupidity as a means to inspire others to avoid the same mistakes.
Not Without My Father is available at Amazon, Barnes and Noble, the Garden District Bookshop in New Orleans where Andra will appear on January 21. But one of you will win a print copy of Not Without My Father. Just comment below to be entered in the drawing. Winner to be announced on January 20.
Author photo and photo of Andra and Roy courtesy of Andra Watkins. Natchez Trace map from touringdepot.com. Book covers from Goodreads. Book birthday image from romancingrakes4theluvofromance.blogspot.com.