Check This Out—Natchez Trace: Tracks in Time

Howdy! Yes, I know that this is Children’s Book Week. I will happily address the theme of this special week at length later. In the meantime, it’s fitting that on the blog today is the child of Roy and Linda Watkins—the always gracious Andra Watkins.

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You probably know Andra from her blog and from her books: Not Without My Father, a memoir of her historic Natchez Trace walk (click here for the interview post) and her novel, To Live Forever: An Afterlife Journey of Meriwether Lewis, both published by Word Hermit Press. She’s here to answer a few questions about Natchez Trace: Tracts in Time, the photo book of her Natchez Trace walk (March 1 to April 3, 2014). This book was published on March 15 (Word Hermit Press).

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As you undoubtedly recall, Andra’s goal was to be the first living person to walk the Natchez Trace—from Natchez, Mississippi to Nashville, Tennessee—to promote her novel about Meriwether Lewis. Her father Roy served as her wingman. After I talk to Andra, I’ll tell you about a giveaway of Natchez Trace: Tracts in Time, which debuted March 15.

El Space: What made you decide to release a separate photo book of your Natchez Trace journey?
Andra: I finished my walk with hundreds of pictures. I took them to pass five-hour days, and I planned to share them online with readers. As I posted them, readers kept telling me I needed to publish them as a complete book. It makes the perfect companion to both my novel and my memoir. While I don’t plan to publish additional books of photography, it is a quality stand-alone collection for anyone who loves the outdoors. I’m really proud of it.

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El Space: You’ve been talking about making memories for some time now. (Click here for one of Andra’s blog posts on making memories.) When you look back at the photos in this book, which memory stands out to you most vividly? Why?
Andra: My last day walking alone. People do solitary things, and so much of the time, we wish it away. I streaked through fifteen-mile days to finish, and I missed the magic of a solo highway trek. Midway, I lay in a daffodil field and realized I was wasting the lessons of my Natchez Trace walk. On my last singular day, rain splotched my face. I realized I was spending my last five hours alone. The Trace saw my thoughts, because at that moment, I came around a bend and encountered a muddy field spangled with thousands of daffodils. I squished into that field, oblivious to mud and thunder. I snapped a selfie with what’s become my favorite reminder to slow down, to experience Life, to notice minutiae: the daffodil.

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Photo copyright © Andra Watkins

El Space: Your photos always have so much life in them. What do you look for in a good photo op?
Andra: I learned from my architect husband. My best pictures happen when I look up, even if that means I’m lying flat on the ground to get the shot. I also like juxtapositions of light and shadow. Clouds versus blue sky. I have no professional training, and I don’t know how to use Photoshop. My pictures are minimally worked with filters and capture the truth of what I saw. I don’t look for perfection. I’ll leave that to people who know what they’re doing.

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El Space: Any advice for people who want to record their journeys through photographs?
Andra: Photographs are shorthand. Even when I decided to pen a memoir about my Natchez Trace walk, I used pictures to journal. I couldn’t stop to record conversations or deep thoughts, but I could snap photos. When I scrolled through them, I recalled the way my pinky toes turned into pulpy stubs. I remembered the hay fragrance that wafted from a field when a bull chased me. I felt the wind transmogrify my body into a funnel cloud. I don’t think people should experience the world by looking through screens, but they can capture memories they don’t want to forget. The key to the best shots, for me, is really seeing what’s happening around me, without first experiencing it through a screen.

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Thanks for stopping by, Andra!

If you’re looking for Andra, she can be found at her website, Twitter, Facebook, and Tumblr.

Natchez Trace: Tracts in Time can be found at Amazon.com and Barnes and Noble.com. I’m giving away a copy of Natchez Trace: Tracts in Time to a commenter. So, you know what to do. . . .

Winner to be announced on May 7.

Author photo courtesy of Andra Watkins. Natchez Trace cover from her website. Other book covers from Goodreads. Daffodils from brokenbullhorn.wordpress.com. Camera image from freepik.com. Sky photo from publicdomainpictures.net.

Check This Out: Not Without My Father

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!

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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!

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

Thanks, Andra, for being my guest today! And thanks also to those of you who stopped by. You can find Andra at her website, Facebook, Twitter, and Tumblr.

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.