Andra Watkins lives in Charleston, South Carolina, and has an accounting degree from Francis Marion University. Her first novel, To Live Forever: An Afterlife Journey of Meriwether Lewis, was published in March of 2014. She is still mad at her mother for refusing to let her major in musical theater. Her mom's excuse is that she was convinced Andra would end up starring in porn films.
Read Pat Bean's review of Not Without My Father for StoryCircleBookReviews.org.
Interviewed by Pat Bean
Posted on 01/15/2015
Tell us something about yourself, please. When did you know you wanted to be a writer? Was there an aha! moment? Etc.
I re-evaluated my whole life in the wake of the 2008-09 economic crash. I was forty. And basically unemployed. While I could've come up with ways to reignite a consulting practice I didn't enjoy, I was stuck. "What did I really want to do with my life?" I asked myself. Over.
I started writing again as a way to process my failure, never intending for writing to become my vocation. It was fun, something about which I was passionate. I loved making words and never viewed it as a job. Now that I've decided to pursue it full-time, I still see it as a challenging, fun way to spend my time. Maybe I found my way to what I should've been doing all along. Writing was my mid-life crisis, but it led me to a richer life. Not in terms of money, but with connections, with relationships, and with satisfaction.
Did your walk on the Natchez Trail accomplish the goals you set for yourself? Did the trek change you, and if so, in what way?
I finished, so yes, I accomplished that goal. I hoped the walk would garner a broader audience for my debut novel, and I don't believe that happened, though many people tell me it did. I had such lofty dreams for what walking 444-miles in a month might accomplish. Unrealistic goals, really. I never fathomed how hard it would be to get someone to choose my books over other offerings. I went into it thinking I'd do something bizarre, and people might be interested.
While I never had the goal of repairing a dysfunctional relationship, it was a happy by-product of my walk. My parents and I have a deep, meaningful relationship now, something I wish we could've had throughout my life. Many people don't get the opportunity to fix these relationships before a person is gone, or they are offered a way but refuse to take it. I'm grateful to my parents for agreeing to have this adventure with me, because my shredded feet pounded a path to healing. The experience made me determined to inspire others to grab a loved one and do something meaningful before it's too late. And because we're not guaranteed tomorrow, we never know when it may be too late.
The trek temporarily changed my mid-life figure. I'm blessed, because my body sprung back from the daily abuse within a month or so. My biggest challenge now is making myself exercise. My experience on the Trace also made me appreciate waning time. We all think we have time to have adventures, to connect with others, to do that thing. We put those things off for "someday", and "someday" morphs into "never" in the overwhelming crush of Life. I hope my experience taught me to seize the opportunities Life offers to connect with people who matter. People need those messages, that challenge to shift focus on what's important.
How did the time spent with your father change your relationship? Would you walk the Trace again with him as your companion?
I never really felt like I knew my dad. He was this figure who lectured me and told me what to do. I dreaded every second with him. Growing up, he was the classic uninvolved dad, the man who went to work, who came home, who never talked to me. When I turned thirteen, he decided he hadn't taught me anything, and he spent my teens starting every sentence with, "Andra, you need to learn..."
Not exactly the best approach for a teenage girl.
I couldn't stand my father. He lectured me through my teens, compared me to my more successful friends in my twenties and early thirties. Sometime in my mid-thirties, he started to see me as an adult, and his approach altered in that he treated me like all other adults in his life: He told stories, usually the same ones over and over, to try to form a bond. I rolled my eyes and put up with it, and when I started writing, I used him and his stories often for comic relief. Still, I never felt a deep bond with my dad or understood who he was.
And since he was eighty, I was running out of time.
The walk changed all that. Finally, I experienced him as a human being, an adult who wants to be remembered. We laughed and cried, argued and excelled, and redrew the bounds of our connection. No one will ever be able to rob me of the memories we made on that trip. When he's gone, he'll live in those experiences. I can't imagine spending five weeks on the Trace with anyone else.
How does your father feel about these books?
He's ecstatic, so proud of these stories that capture his essence. I'm glad I was able to get them to market before he's gone. He may be able to see what impact his life has on readers before he dies, and that's an incredible thing to give a person.
Dad also sees himself as my top book salesman. He spends his days in the community, meeting strangers, regaling them with stories, and selling them books. I'm glad to see him up and about, out of his recliner and living again. I won't say my decision to write saved his life, but it has enriched it. I'm thrilled to give him that gift in his life's twilight.
What gave you the original idea to use Meriwether Lewis' ghost as a character in your novel?
Meriwether Lewis died a tragic death, a mysterious end that will remain unsolved for all time. For readers who don't know, Meriwether Lewis was one-half of the Lewis and Clark expedition to the Pacific. He completed his expedition at thirty-two. At thirty-five, he was dead of two gunshot wounds on the Natchez Trace, seventy miles south of Nashville. He was an American hero, more famous than Katy Perry or Lady Gaga. America's First Scientist, renowned and respected beyond the bounds of the United States. Yet, he had no federal funeral. For almost fifty years, he was buried in an unmarked grave, with no marker or other means to identify the grave of an American hero. In 1848, the Tennessee state legislature earmarked funds to purchase the marker we see today when we visit his grave.
I pondered the notion of the legacies we leave behind. We all want to be remembered, to have someone know we existed after we're gone. It's the only way we can really live forever.
With Meriwether Lewis, I wanted to give him a different ending, something else to do to round out his short life. I wondered what he might do if he could live again. I read everything he ever wrote, followed many of his footsteps, even communed with him at his grave. I hope he would be proud of the new tale I wove for him. To Live Forever is imbued with his spirit.
Has life changed for you since writing your first book?
Yes! I'm a full-time writer now, and I love the crazy, mixed-up world of writing and promoting. Not Without My Father launches mid-January 2015, and I'm embarking upon an ambitious book tour. I'll be in Nashville, New Orleans and other points in Louisiana and Mississippi to start. I return to North and South Carolina in February. In March, I travel north, because this Southern girl needs her cold weather fix. I'll be in Chicago, Massachusetts and New York for events.
I love writing, making words into stories. But I really love meeting readers. Hearing how my books cause people to make changes in their lives is one of the most fulfilling things in life. I never wanted to craft books that didn't touch people. I'm grateful for readers who reach out and tell me how my books matter.
Are you currently working on a new book? What would you like to share about it?
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.
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.
I'm very busy. And I love it.
What advice would you give other writers?
Don't give up on your vision. My books live by the sheer force of my will. "No" NEVER means "no" in this business. It just means I have to reframe a lot of opportunities, have the strength of a bulldog and never, ever give up. The world of publishing is a place where you can shine. Don't short-shift your vision. Don't take no for an answer. Never, ever give up.
For more information on the author and her books visit Andra Watkins' website.