Can an epic adventure succeed without a hero?
Andra Watkins needed a wingman to help her become the first living person to walk the historic 444-mile Natchez Trace as the pioneers did. She planned to walk fifteen miles a day. For thirty-four days.
After striking out with everyone in her life, she was left with her disinterested eighty-year-old father. And his gas. The sleep apnea machine and self-scratching. Sharing a bathroom with a man whose gut obliterated his aim.
As Watkins trudged America’s forgotten highway, she lost herself in despair and pain. Nothing happened according to plan, and her tenuous connection to her father started to unravel. Through arguments and laughter, tears and fried chicken, they fought to rebuild their relationship before it was too late. In Not Without My Father: One Woman’s 444-Mile Walk of the Natchez Trace, Watkins invites readers to join her dysfunctional family adventure in a humorous and heartbreaking memoir that asks if one can really turn I wish I had into I’m glad I did.
Andra Watkins lives in Charleston, South Carolina. 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. In addition to her writing talent, Andra is an accomplished public speaker. Her acclaimed debut novel To Live Forever: An Afterlife Journey of Meriwether Lewis was published by Word Hermit Press in 2014.
Her latest book is the memoir, Not Without My Father: One Woman’s 444 Mile Walk of the Natchez Trace.
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Has Your Dad Ever Offered You Pee-Stained Nuts?
People hear about Not Without My Father: One Woman’s 444-Mile Walk of the Natchez Trace, and they love to ask questions. “What was it like to spend five weeks with your 80-year-old dad?” “Did he really fart as much as you describe in the book?” “Did you ever want to drop your quest to become the first living person to walk the ancient Natchez Trace as the pioneers?”
I answer those questions in my memoir. You’ll just have to read the book.
Please enjoy my answers to the most common general questions I get about writing, my projects and life as a writer. And PLEASE ask me anything in the comments!
- Tell me something about yourself. When did you know you wanted to be a writer? Was there an aha! moment?
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 Make a Memory, 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. Everyone should read Not Without My Father, because it will force them to Make a Memory they’ll cherish forever.
- 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 at 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.
- What gave you the original idea to use Meriwether Lewis’s ghost as a character in your novel? What advice would you give other writers?
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. No marker or other means to identify the grave of an American hero. In 1848, the legislature for the state of Tennessee earmarked funds to purchase the marker one sees today if they visit his grave. Those people found it appalling that an American hero was buried in their state, his contributions to our nation totally forgotten.
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.
For 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.
- How has life changed for you since writing your first book?
I’m a full-time writer now, and I love the crazy, mixed-up world of writing and promoting. Not Without My Father launched mid-January 2015, and I embarked upon an ambitious book tour. I was in Nashville, New Orleans and other points in Louisiana and Mississippi to start. I returned 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? If so, 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 question that I didn’t ask would you have liked me to ask?
How does Dad 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.
Book Excerpt #1:
ROAD TO NOWHERE
The journey is a long slog with an unpredictable number of mileposts.
One can make the trip alone, but why not share it?
As I traversed familiar mile markers and pulled up in front of my fa- ther’s house, I could predict where I’d find him.
In his recliner, his belly a shelf for a vat of popcorn. At eighty, he whiled away days feeding his face and shouting at the television. Whenever his throne was vacant, I eschewed all temptation to occupy it.
Because I imagined how many times he farted into the velvet upholstery.
Sometimes while naked.
I could hear the television when I stepped from the car. “Why am I do- ing this again?” I whispered as I slipped through the back door.
“Andra!” There he was, sprawled in his recliner. A jagged scar played peek-a-boo through his open pajama top. “What’re you doing here?”
I opened my mouth and clamped it shut. Once I uttered my request, I couldn’t take it back.
I needed a wingman while I walked the 444-mile Natchez Trace from Natchez, Mississippi to Nashville, Tennessee. I planned to launch my debut novel and be- come the first living person to walk the 10,000-year-old road as our ancestors did. Nobody could convince me that an unathletic woman and her mid-life paunch were incapable of walk- ing more than a half-marathon every day for a month.
Even though my aversion to exercise was as spectacular as my father’s. I wanted my walk to redeem my novel’s hero, American explorer Meri- wether Lewis, one-half of the Lewis and Clark duo. He died of two gun-shot wounds on the Natchez Trace, seventy miles south of Nashville.
He was only thirty-five.
Was it suicide? Or murder? His death is one of America’s great un- solved mysteries.
To walk a forgotten highway for five weeks, I needed a wingman who could shuttle me to my first daily milepost and pick me up fifteen miles later. Someone who wasn’t busy. Someone available. Maybe this person even craved an adventure.
I scrolled through a list of prospects. My husband Michael couldn’t be absent from work for five weeks, especially since his job paid for my predilection to write. My friends all had children. Husbands. Gainful em- ployment. I discarded people for an hour, my list a scribbled mess that highlighted one harrowing name.
My father wasn’t doing anything. He was available to go on a five-week jaunt through Mississippi, Alabama and Tennessee.
His stomach pooled over his thighs and his triple-chin jiggled as he leaned into his response. “Go on a five-week trip? Just you and me? I don’t want to do that, Andra.”
“Why not?” I shouted even louder to penetrate his VA-issued, cir- ca-1980 hearing aids.
“Well.” He chewed a handful of popcorn. “Because…….I got furni- ture to refinish.”
“It’ll be here when you get back.”
Dad dug his fingernails into the arms of his chair. “I cain’t be away from my Sunday school class for that long.”
“God won’t care if you miss church to spend time with your only daughter, Dad.”
“Well, uh…….I……..Linda might need me here.”
Mom preened into the room with his bowl of ice cream. I never understood why she didn’t just hand him the carton. She placed the spoon between his fingers and smiled. “I don’t need you here, Roy.” Her flawless makeup matched her leotard. “I’m going to the gym. Be home in four hours.”
She flounced out the door, leaving me with my jiggly arms and red hair I forgot to brush.
I sighed and turned back to Dad. “Why don’t you want to do this, Dad? I mean, you haven’t been anywhere since your appendix ruptured two years ago. You’re just sitting here in this recliner, waiting to die.”
Dad picked at his ice cream and avoided my gaze. “Spending five weeks with you don’t sound like much fun, Andra.”
Dad and I shouted down my teens, harangued through my twenties and seethed away my thirties. For most of my life, our every interaction disintegrated into hurtful words and pregnant silences. Yet, I was willing to cast our history aside and endure his company for more than a month, while he rejected me?
Wrong answer, Old Man.
I gnawed my tongue to regroup. Dad was my last hope to take readers into my book’s world. To help my scribblings make me somebody. In a uni- verse of words with little meaning and even less point, I believed I created something valuable, a story that could make a difference, a tale that would leave readers fundamentally altered and pining for the next installment.
All writers are convinced whatever they write qualifies, be it dreck or brilliance. Our words are sperm and egg on the page. Merge them together, and one can hold a physical chunk of the writer. It’s a shame a book can’t arrive covered in blood and filth from the birth canal, screaming and howling to breathe.
But to get anyone to care about a story, the writer must make it about the reader.
My breathing even, I flashed my most fetching smile.
“All right, Dad. Look at it this way. We’ll be riding near hundreds of tiny towns with lots of strangers who’ve never heard your stories. Think of all the junk shops and dive diners where you can enchant people. Don’t they deserve to meet you before you’re gone?”
Dad’s eyes took on a dreamy tinge. His yarns were Southern gothic legends, tales he rolled out for every stranger he encountered. I imagined myself spending the entire trip with a view of his broad back, regaling ev- eryone but me. He must’ve conjured the same scene. “I’ll do it, Andra. If the Lord lets me live ’til March, I’ll go with you.”
Dad would be my wingman on the Natchez Trace. Visions of literary stardom floated in front of my faraway eyes. Because my secret dream was The New York Times headline:
– Debut Novelist Walks Her Way to Blockbuster Best Seller! –
I basked in the mirage of that proclamation, in the glory of staggering to my Nashville finish line with crowds of people. News crews. Fans wav- ing my book and clamoring for an autograph.
My swelling imagination burst when Dad heaved himself from the chair, scratched his crotch and farted. “Yeah, Andra. This is gonna be real fun.”
What had I done? Besides self-scratching and legendary gas, his sleep apnea machine didn’t stifle his explosive snoring.
And the bathroom. I would have to share a bathroom with my father, whose hulking belly obscured all ability to aim. A sodden fact that seeped into my legs when I locked myself in Dad’s bathroom and plopped down on the toilet.
I didn’t want to spend five weeks with my father.
As I winced through a sink bath, I studied my face in the mirror. The beginnings of forehead wrinkles and crows feet. A hint of Dad’s bulldog jowl. I stuck my tongue out at my green-eyed self. “Welcome to Hell, you idiot.”