There’s a funny thing which can happen in this world between the wires – you can find that in spite of never having met the people you hang out with online, you get to know them very well indeed, and often have a better idea of the state of their heart and soul than the people who are close to them physically. In this case, though I have encountered a rather peculiar dichotomy in that my interviewee today was first known to me as a Real, Published Author, and when I reached out and asked her (stars freshly sparkling in my eyes) whether she would consider an interview on A Slip of the Lit, I had no anticipation of (and was therefore utterly delighted by) the graciousness and enthusiasm with which my request was received. Which just goes to show that either even Real, Published Authors are human too, or that Andra Watkins is a particularly stand-up gal. Or perhaps a combination of the two. Whichever way, I’m grateful. Let’s proceed:
*walks in, emanating confidence and competence, and sits down in the chair opposite Andra, legs crossed neatly at the ankles, ready to begin*
I’ve just finished Not Without My Father – the memoir of five weeks you spent walking the Natchez Trace, supported by your dad – and I feel as though the book offered the chance to delve inside your thought processes and personality, as well as documenting your journey. You definitely affected me, and there are some moments which I could almost imagine were occurring in front of me, they were so effectively described. You’re an accomplished wordsmith, but when did you first realise that your writing had an effect on others?
Several years ago, I wrote a blog post about death. Children have no concept of what it means to die. I was different. I lost a schoolmate to a brain tumor when I was ten.
He had a crush on me from kindergarten until he could no longer attend school. He followed me everywhere, telling me how much he loved me. In fact, he told my parents he was going to marry me when he grew up.
But he never got to grow up.
And like most people of any age, I never realized how final death was until I couldn’t tell him I was sorry for ignoring him, for mocking his sweet sincerity, for treating his adoration like a scourge. I wrote about how my mother forced me to stand over his casket and face him in death. I can’t remember any detail today but his lifeless face. Every time I pray, I ask God to tell him I’m sorry.
People called me on the telephone sobbing over that piece. Mothers wondered how I could tunnel into their deepest fears of losing a child when I wasn’t a mom. Months later, people still told me how much that story haunted them.
Wow! I can only imagine that a story like that would really tug at the heartstrings and speak into people’s core motivations and fears. You questioned your own motivation for completing the Nachez Trace walk, repeatedly, and in the end found answers which gave you peace, but as far as challenges go, what is the biggest you’ve faced with regard to writing and publication?
My writing and publication story isn’t unique. Google the topic, and one can read my story ten thousand times in what’s already shared online.
I’ll name my deepest truth and hope nobody hates me.
Americans have an obsession with celebrity. We don’t value talent. We sneer at hard work. We glorify mediocrity again and again and again. I’m not asserting that everyone who achieves fame is mediocre. Many celebrities are gifted souls who toiled endless years in the trenches to have what they have. But we aren’t interested in that. We want the shortcuts.
Look at how many books are being published by celebrities today, and one might understand how challenging my path is. I’m a writer. I need to write. If I go too long without bringing fake people to life, I become unhinged.
But I also have ambition, not to strip naked every night and wallow in my bottomless pile of money, but to touch readers with my words. To make them think about their lives and relationships. To burst from my stories, grab readers in a stranglehold and take them on unforgettable, even visceral, adventures.
It doesn’t matter that a handful of online folks I’ve never met claim my books are a worthy investment of both money and time. For someone without an established name or a vault of money to spend, I can only find the next reader by convincing existing readers to share my work, to endorse it with passion, to describe for anyone and everyone how my words make a reader feel.
In a world where we’re afraid to open our computers because the assault of information is like putting our faces in front of a fire hose set to STUN, my biggest challenge is finding a way to seep into the soul of readers who crave something different, yet try the loudest things hoping to eventually find something that lives up to the hype. Reader, if I’m speaking to you, please try my books. If they don’t deliver what I promised here, I’ll refund your e-book monies with proof of purchase sent to email@example.com.
Of course, I’ll take praise there, too. 🙂
I hope you get LOTS of praise! Positive feedback is one of the most encouraging things any writer can hear. Which writers would you praise? Do you have any strong literary idols who influence your writing?
Without the late Stephen Ambrose’s Pulitzer Prize winning book Undaunted Courage: Meriwether Lewis, Thomas Jefferson and the Opening of the American West, I wouldn’t be a writer. He reintroduced me to fusty, dusty history and turned it into a raunchy, flawed and glorious live-action movie in my own mind. I can’t wait to see the HBO special inspired by this book. It’s showing next year and is produced by Tom Hanks, Brad Pitt and Edward Norton. Casey Affleck stars as Meriwether Lewis. If I could spend an hour with anyone on earth today, it would be Casey Affleck. As someone who’s spent years burrowing inside the head of Meriwether Lewis, I’d love to hear what that was like from another artist’s perspective.
I wept when Gabriel Garcia Marquez died. Some people deserve to make words forever. I cried because I can now only read what’s left of him over and over and over again. I hope he knows how much his talent means to me, how I hope the tears I bleed into his words somehow become one with him.
Elaine Stritch wasn’t a writer. She was an actress with an almost eight-decade career. I was lucky to snag a single seat at her one-woman Broadway show. It was March 2002, a few months before I encountered Stephen Ambrose and his book. Elaine Stritch strolled onstage in a white button down shirt and black tights. In less than sixty seconds, I forgot I was jealous of how she rocked that getup at almost eighty. She wove stories that transfixed five hundred people for two hours. I sometimes write to the cadence and rhythm of her voice in my head, and I use her as a role model for inhabiting every stage when I’m fortunate to snag a spotlight.
And to live by example, I worship at the altar of Brian Doyle (although that statement would make him squirmy.) Invest in his books. Convince libraries to carry them. Not only is he a gifted writer. He’s also a scribe who’s generous and caring. Dive into his stories. Give them pride of place and move them to the front of your To Be Read list. You won’t regret it
*stage whispers to Andra* You do know that this is YOUR interview, right? We’re meant to be promoting YOUR book, and you’re here recommending other people’s! Are you bonkers? I mean… (*blushes*) …dude, it’s your interview and you can do with it as you will, but shall we try to get people re-engaged with what YOU wrote? Why do you feel that ‘Not Without My Father’ is an ideal present for Father’s Day?
Plenty of stories celebrate parenthood. Mothers and daughters. Fathers and sons. Even mothers and sons.
But few books laser onto the father/daughter relationship. To Kill a Mockingbird is probably the last great book in that category. While Not Without My Father and even my novel To Live Forever are not in Harper Lee’s league, they are both books that throw confetti on dads. My books show how fathers sometimes struggle, bungle and fumble their roles, yet still end up being our heroes.
Not Without My Father is a love letter to fatherhood, to making memories we can hold in our hearts when our fathers are gone. Whether one is a father, has/had a dad or connected early with a stand-in for a dad who wasn’t there, readers everywhere should pick it up and read it between now and Father’s Day. I guarantee you’ll spark Father’s Day conversations you wouldn’t have otherwise.
I can vouch for your guarantee – it’s certainly given me lots to think about. One of the things I thought is, given you were walking 15 miles a day and exhausted at night, how did you write NWMF – did you make notes as you went? Write it all from memory once you got home? How did it work?
Five hours alone on a highway feels like fifty-five when repeated for more than a month. It’s the most solitary thing I’ve ever done. To pass the time, I took pictures. Those photographs became my journal. I wrote Not Without My Father from the scenes those images conjured when I scrolled through them. A slice of those pictures are now available as a paperback collection: Natchez Trace Tracks in Time.
What unexpected obstacles and delights did you find in the process?
I found an unparalleled appreciation for duct tape and epsom salts, and I will never, ever be without toilet paper again.
I never knew how hard it would be to spend a chunk of five weeks in my own company. I never liked myself very much. I had to walk almost five hundred miles to learn to love myself, to accept my parents as they are, to realize we only have finite time to make memories.
Because my mobile phone didn’t have reception much of the time, I was forced to see the world, to experience moments, to appreciate the sights and scents and symphonies we often miss in a world blocked with screens. I don’t torture myself when I let my mind wander instead of reaching for my device. I still try to find ways to leave my phone behind and venture into the world without it, because I always return from those minutes or hours feeling vibrant. Powerful. Truly alive.
That’s beautiful, and very true. I think one of the things we lament (on Twitter or Facebook) is how much real Time gets frittered away in these gigantic forums, and how connections to others via wires will still never be as fulfilling as those in real life – the people we can hear and touch and see. That said, there is lots of damn good writing which is brought to us courtesy of technology, so I fancy we’ll never lose it altogether. Would you show off your writing and give us a couple of paragraphs to Make Us Feel!
I’ll give you a peek of the sequel to To Live Forever: An Afterlife Journey of Meriwether Lewis. Please purchase Your True Love Lives: An Afterlife Journey of Theodosia Burr Alston. Available everywhere September 15, 2015.
“I couldn’t lose my father. Not so soon after my boy’s death. I, Theodosia Burr Alston, would perish if Aaron Burr no longer occupied my side of the scrim.
Another wall of water vaulted into me. I planted my feet and slid my body through its suffocating assault. On the other side, I sputtered into open air just in time to hear a shout from the lookout.
“Ship to starboard! Ship to starboard! We’re being rammed! Brace yourselves for collision!”
Before he finished his dismal declaration, the ship levitated and splashed into a churning whirlpool. Rope scissored my hands as rain lashed my face. We spun. And spun. And spun.
I closed my eyes and wondered whether I was experiencing death. If in its throes, we drilled ever downward to the earth’s center, beyond the furthest star, like my great-grandfather Jonathan Edwards used to pound from every pulpit. I scoffed at his mythical notions of heaven and hell, the saved and the damned.
Until my son’s chest finished its rattle and I closed his eyes myself. If I could see those eyes alight again, I’d believe any fairy tale. I peeled my hands from the railing and beseeched the sea to devour my body, to free my soul, to guide me to my son.
Rough hands ripped my shoulder seams, tore my sleeves. When I wheeled around to face my attacker, a bayonet sliced my bodice just below my breasts. Raindrops and blood soaked my palms as I fought to hold myself together.
An English accent emanated from a head haloed by the sun’s disk. I squinted to see the face of Death. “Sharks, they like their meat bloody.”
I didn’t have time to wonder when the storm ceased, where the marauders originated, what happened to the crew. Death picked me up and heaved me over the railing, into the water I claimed I never feared.
It slid over my head and embraced me in a bloody cloud. When I surrendered, a substance older than Time powered its way into my lungs. Currents teased me toward a glowing disc of light. I stretched into its fiery heat, closed my eyes and let hydrogen and oxygen smother me.
I drowned believing my unresolved death would give me the life I always wanted.
A world that included my son. I opened my eyes, expecting to find him there.
I found Nowhere instead.”
Wow! Okay, I’m hooked and want to know what happens next. HOW far away is the release date? Dang! Okay, in the meantime, how can we best support you as an author?
Authors want to communicate directly with readers. While readers may think following an author on Facebook or fanning them on Amazon or Goodreads helps an author, we don’t control those platforms. On Amazon and other retail sites, I never know who buys my books. I can’t send them a personal thank-you note. On Facebook, the ever-changing rules mean I constantly send out messages that may never be seen, let alone received.
Of course, buying my books, requesting them at your libraries, and actually reading and sharing them helps me find new readers.
But if you really want to know what’s coming, please connect with me directly. My e-newsletter zaps into your inbox every month-to-six-weeks. It takes less than a minute to read, but it’s the best way to find out how my books are performing, what books are coming and what I’m reading these days. I also give snippets and outtakes readers won’t find anywhere else. And if a reader ever takes a picture with me, they’ll likely see themselves there, too. Please click here to subscribe
SOLD! *subscribes immediately, gets email wrong, somehow manages to subscribe twice*
Well, WOW…Andra, thank you so much for agreeing to come on over. I feel as though this little feature of mine is beginning to find its star in the ascendent, courtesy of a ride on your coattails (though perhaps not the full 444 miles!) I hope that your words inspire all who come here to read, and that my wonderful people all subscribe to your newsletter to keep up with what you’re doing.
Andra Watkins lives in Charleston, South Carolina with her husband, Michael T Maher.
A non-practicing CPA, she has a degree in accounting from Francis Marion University.
She’s still mad at her mother for refusing to let her major in musical theater, because her mom was convinced she’d end up starring in porn films.
She’s the author of three books and counting. Her acclaimed first novel To Live Forever: An Afterlife Journey of Meriwether Lewis was published by Word Hermit Press on March 1, 2014. Natchez Trace: Tracks in Time is a book of photography, shot during her 15-mile daily hikes on her 444-mile Natchez Trace walk. Not Without My Father: One Woman’s 444-Mile Walk of the Natchez Trace is a memoir about her dysfunctional family adventure.
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