Check These Out: Books for a Thrilling Christmas

Greetings! With me on the blog today are two authors already known to many of you: the fabulous Andra Watkins and the equally fabulous John Howell.

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They’re here to talk about the latest books in their series. Click here and here for series information.

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Hard to Die was published by Word Hermit Press. Our Justice was published by Keewaydin Lane Books. Stick around later for the giveaway info.

El Space: Four quick facts about yourself?
Andra: 1. I’m afraid to answer FaceTime, because my parents like to call when they’re either naked or scantily clad.
2. Once I break the seal, I eat SweeTARTS until my mouth turns raw. I cannot stop.
3. My favorite movie of all time is The Princess Bride. My husband thinks that’s inconceivable!

Vizzini, Inigo Montoya, and Fezzik in The Princess Bride

Vizzini, Inigo Montoya, and Fezzik in The Princess Bride

4. I love to meet my readers. The furthest I’ve traveled to meet a reader is Australia. She was delightful. But all my readers are.

John: 1. I have written a thousand words a day for seven days a week since 2012.
2. I began writing after turning seventy, five years ago.
3. I love to write poetry but won’t show it to anyone.
4 I live with my wife and three rescue pets on an island in the Gulf of Mexico.

John lives somewhere on this map. Perhaps you see him waving.

John lives somewhere on this map. Perhaps you see him waving.

El Space: What was the inspiration behind your series?
Andra: What if you disappeared? Or no one knew exactly how you died? And because nobody knew what happened, you couldn’t fully die?

I’ve always been fascinated with unresolved deaths. Somebody, somewhere, knew what happened, at least for a little while. Both Hard to Die and To Live Forever give real people with unresolved deaths new adventures. It’s speculative fiction at its ‘what if’-iest. If you’re skeptical about giving me a try, here’s what real readers say about this series:

“One of the most imaginative books I’ve ever read.” Jen Mann, NYT best selling author of People I Want to Punch in the Throat
“I LOVED this book!” Nicole Knepper, author of Moms Who Drink and Swear: True Tales of Loving My Kids While Losing My Mind
“Absolutely thrilling read!”
“My new favorite.”
Hard to Die is hard to put down.”
“Riveting.”
“One of the best reads I’ve seen in a long, long time.”
“A magical tale.”

John: My sister and I were touring the Aircraft Carrier Lexington moored in Corpus Christi. [Photo below.] Our father was a naval aviator during World War II and served on the Lexington. We wanted to walk the halls and in some way get a sense of his experience. While standing on the flight deck, it occurred to me that this symbol of American military strength was unarmed and vulnerable to anyone who would want to destroy this treasure. Although my series is not about the Lexington, it did set the stage for the subsequent terrorist quest to embarrass America.

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El Space: Which authors inspire you?
Andra: Several books informed my Nowhere Series. Carlos Ruiz Zafón’s The Shadow of the Wind was a white-knuckled tour through Barcelona. I loved the fantasy, the inventive ties to forgotten books, and the homage to the landscape. I hope Zafón taught me how to keep a reader turning pages.

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Sum: Forty Tales of the Afterlives by David Eagleman, a neuroscientist, is a slim gem of speculative fiction. His short afterlife tales are so tight and inventive. He first made me think about what an alternative afterlife could be.

The Silence of Bonaventure Arrow by Rita Leganski is a grounded fantasy tale I wish I’d written. Gosh, the writing is gorgeous. I love how she chose to deal with loss, death, and the afterlife, all through the eyes of a mute little boy. I’d read this book over All the Light We Cannot See.

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John: I am inspired by Nevil Shute and his book On the Beach. I was impressed in the manner that he could make up a fictional situation and characters and craft the position so that it seemed real and did not have a happy ending. Kurt Vonnegut inspired me in several books by how he could use actual situations as backdrops to a fictional story. John Irving gave me the courage to write about whimsy, and did it with a boldness that allowed the reader to believe the appropriateness of a sometimes outrageous situation to the storyline. Finally, Andra Watkins continues to inspire me through her determination to bring her stories to life in spite of all challenges to her personally.

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El Space: What’s the best writing advice you’ve received recently?
Andra: Keep writing. 2016 has been tough for many people. It’s been especially hard on me. I launched a book a week before the election while I was afflicted with a significant illness. I don’t think I need to tell anyone how that launch turned out. I’ve cried and raged and questioned myself ten thousand times, but in the end, writers must write, even when writing makes no sense. Especially when writing makes no sense.

John: A talented writer, Craig Boyack, wrote a post on how to add suspense to a story. Although sometimes we don’t think of adding suspense in certain situations Craig pointed out a way to add a small portion even though it has no meaningful outcome to the story. The reason I thought this was great advice is we often think of suspense elements as some core plot elements and not a way to raise the enjoyment level of a story. I think his opinion changed that concept for me.

El Space: What will you work on next?
Andra: I Am Number 13 is the third book in the Nowhere Series. It will be available in Spring 2017. I have at least three more characters lined up for future installments, though I no longer say how many books that will be. These characters become their own very insistent people. Hard to Die wasn’t supposed to be part of my Nowhere Series. That’s how insistent Theodosia Burr Alston is. And the male narrator, Richard Cox, wasn’t in the first three drafts. I look at Hard to Die now and can’t imagine it without him.

John: I am currently wrapping up the editing on a book titled “Circumstances of Childhood.” It is a story about a guy who is very successful until he runs amuck with a Security Exchange Commission audit. He needs to rely on a childhood pal for help but the question remains can the friend help him. The book goes to beta readers in January.

I have also started a thriller about a couple who find a cell phone on the beach. The phone contains some valuable information encoded into the contact list. The guy who lost the phone has been punished and now the boss wants his phone back. The chief of police is right in the crosshairs since he turned the phone over to Homeland Security since he thought some of the photos looked suspicious. The first draft should be finished by May.

Thank you, Andra and John, for being my guests!

Looking for Andra? You can find her here and here.
Looking for John? You can find him here and here.

Looking for Hard to Die and book one in the series? Check Amazon and Barnes and Noble.
Looking for Our Justice and other books in the trilogy? Check Amazon and Barnes and Noble.

Another place you can look is your front doorstep, because I’m giving away a copy of Hard to Die and Our Justice to a commenter. The winner will be announced on December 15.

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What is Kitty up to? No good, I suspect. Stay tuned. . . .

Author photos courtesy of the authors. Book covers from their websites and Goodreads. Still image from The Princess Bride from moviereviewland.blogspot. Gulf of Mexico map from worldatlas.com. USS Lexington at Corpus Christi photo from tourism-review.com.

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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.

Check This Out: To Live Forever

Hello! Today, my guest on the blog is the awesome Andra Watkins. You may know her by her equally awesome blog, The Accidental Cootchie Mama.

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Andra is here to chat about her novel, To Live Forever: An Afterlife Journey of Meriwether Lewis, which is historical fiction/paranormal suspense (Word Hermit Press). Here is a synopsis:

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Explorer Meriwether Lewis has been stuck in Nowhere since his mysterious death nearly two centuries ago. His last hope for redemption is helping nine-year-old Emmaline Cagney flee her madame mother in New Orleans and find her father in Nashville. To get there, Merry must cross his own grave along the Natchez Trace, where he duels the corrupt Judge, an old foe who has his own despicable plans for Em.

Cool huh? The cover and book illustrations were done by Helen Rice. Two of you will win a copy of that very novel. Even cooler, huh? Glad you agree. So, let’s talk to Andra.

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Meriwether Lewis

El Space: Four quick facts about yourself?
Andra: I don’t wear underwear. I detest cilantro. My most embarrassing moment was peeing my pants in front of my second grade class. I stood my husband up on our first date, and I’m lucky he married me anyway.

18633602El Space: All righty then! Your book has a very intriguing premise. Please walk us through the process of writing a ghost story involving the famed explorer. How did you first decide to write the book? You introduced part of it through a short story, “Bad Deal,” which was published last year in the book Echoes in Darkness.
Andra: When a ghost tells you to do something, you do it, right? I’ve always admired Lewis, and I wondered what might happen if he were given the chance to rewrite his life by erasing its last few unfortunate months. Would he be remembered differently? Would he take that chance? Would I? That’s what got me started.

El Space: How is Emmaline like you? Different from you?
Andra: Well, my mother didn’t try to sell my virginity to the highest bidder when I turned 10, so that’s different. Ha.

El Space: Glad to hear that!
Andra: Em is curious about the world, and she craves adventure, in spite of her restrictive home life. I remember devouring books at her age, because it was the only way I could see the world.

El Space: Although you’re here on the blog, right now you’re actually walking the Natchez Trace—the site of Lewis’s death. That’s a 444-mile walk from from Natchez, Mississippi to Nashville! You’re walking fifteen miles a day! What do you hope to discover on this challenging hike?
Andra: That I can do it, and that I can spend five straight weeks with my father [Roy] without killing him. I came up with this idea to give my dad, who’s almost 80, something to look forward to. An adventure in the twilight of his life. A few interesting stories along the way would be a bonus.

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Natchez Trace Map and Sunken Trace

El Space: As I’m sure you know, one of famed author Jack Kerouac’s well-known quotes from On the Road is this:

70401The ones who are mad to live, mad to talk, mad to be saved, desirous of everything at the same time, the ones who never yawn or say a commonplace thing, but burn, burn, burn like fabulous yellow roman candles exploding like spiders across the stars.

Do you agree? Disagree? If you agree, how does your writing show this?
Andra: I don’t think that sentence would be published today. It’s incredible. I’ve loved it for a long time. I hope my writing shows how much I value living life, how important it is for every person to live life instead of letting life live them.

El Space: How have your travels been inspiring to you recently?
Andra: I was in Spain recently, and we were joking about this walk being my Camino de Santiago. Everyone was calling it the Camino de Andra with many laughs. Laughter is always inspiring to me. I hope it will get me through the hardest mile.

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Camino de Santiago Pilgrimage Routes

El Space: You write fiction, maintain a popular blog, you’re well traveled, and you’re a CPA. Obviously you’re good at multitasking. What advice do you have for someone who needs to juggle several activities, but wishes to avoid stretching herself/himself too thin?
Andra: You didn’t realize I used to be a stage actress? I’m good at looking like I can juggle things. The reality is I’m no better at it than the next person. I’ve become much better at saying no, and that’s a real key to balance.

El Space: What writing project are you working on now?
Andra: I’m working on a sequel to my Meriwether Lewis story, and I hope to get a book out of my walk.

Thanks, Andra, for visiting the blog! Take care of your feet!

Check out Andra’s blog, Goodreads, Google Plus, Twitter, Tumblr, and Facebook. Andra is hosting a contest in honor of her novel’s release. Check that out here. For more information about Andra’s walk, go here. To Live Forever: An Afterlife Journey of Meriwether Lewis is available here:

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Comment below to be entered in the drawing for a copy of To Live Forever: An Afterlife Journey of Meriwether Lewis. Two winners will be revealed on March 7. When you comment, feel free to share something to encourage Andra as she walks the Natchez Trace. Or, describe a challenging hike you undertook recently. As always, thanks for visiting!  

Sunken Trace photo by Andra Watkins. To Live Forever cover and author photo also courtesy of Andra Watkins. Other covers from Goodreads. Camino de Santiago map from Wikipedia. Natchez Trace map from legendsofamerica.com. Meriwether Lewis painting from Wikipedia.