Local author Andra Watkins doesn't mince words, especially when it comes to how she feels about her mom and dad. "I grew up in Florence. I came here after college to get further from my parents," says Watkins, sipping coffee at The Daily's window-facing counter.
Watkins' memoir, Not Without My Father, is a New York Times bestseller and 2015 National Book Award nominee. It follows Watkins as she walks the 444-mile long Natchez Trail, a task she couldn't have completed without the help of her father.
The title is misleading at first, especially when Watkins introduces her father as an ornery old man. The reader wonders why she would choose to take him on the trip in the first place. Their initial conversation about the trip takes place two pages into the memoir, and it doesn't sound promising, "'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 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.'"
But after failed attempts asking her husband and friends to join her on her expedition, Watkins concedes that her father — an overweight octogenarian — will have to do.
Not Without My Father was never even supposed to be written. Rather, Watkins embarked on the Natchez Trail with the intention of following in the footsteps of the protagonist of her first novel, To Live Forever: An Afterlife of Meriwether Lewis. Despite rave reviews from friends and family, Watkins initially struggled with getting her literary career off the ground. While she eventually found success through self-publishing platforms like CreateSpace and KDP, she spent many fruitless hours attempting to get her book published the traditional way. "It is a gargantuan task to get anyone to read your book," she says.
So, she decided to go the 'ol gimmick route: she would travel the trail Meriwether Lewis embarked on over 200 years ago and put up social media and blog posts about her journey, stopping in cities to sign books. "I thought, 'I'm so smart, no one's ever done anything like this,'" laughs Watkins.
"I had no concept of what that would do to me," she says of the 444-mile journey, which she'd calculated out to be 15 miles a day if she were to reach her end destination, Nashville, in time for a designated book signing party. She did know, though, that she would need a travel companion, someone who could keep an eye on her and drive her to her daily starting point at the beginning and then back to the hotel at the end. Enter: Roy Lee Watkins, Jr.
Watkins includes her father in her memoir not just as a chatty, befuddled older man, but as a character in his own right. There are chapters, marked by italicized words, where Watkins recounts her father's stories, and imagines some thoughts he may have, like this passage: "I remember the first time I bought an old piece of furniture. Linda and me was just married, and we didn't have much money. But I knew she liked finery even then, so I took her up to the furniture store and told her to pick out some things. I gave her a budget and all that, but of course she went over. Picked out a house of too-much-what-all."
While the made-up-thoughts of her father are jarring at first, they come to serve as a link between the reader and the old man — a buffer that allows him an independence that Watkins' biased, frustrated point of view cannot. She is generous in this way, giving her father a voice he may never have had.
But that doesn't mean she liked the whole daddy-daughter trip. "At any age, you don't want to live with your parents for any length of time," she says. She talks about the tiffs she and her father had throughout the journey: "One day he forgot to pick me up. We were fighting all the time."
Watkins talks more about her parents, "When I was in my 20s, I thought my parents would live forever. My dad had a health scare a couple years before the trip, and it was the first time I thought he might die. I didn't really know my dad, and it [the trip] was awful most of the time. But we ended up connecting on a level we never had before."
Roy Lee Watkins spent the majority of the trip happily chatting up people in the towns he and his daughter passed through, selling her books as he went along.
He did have one issue with the book, though. "He told me, 'I wish you hadn't said goddamnit.' He didn't care about the 'fuck me,'" she says. And Watkins' mother? Well, she was initially so mad about some of the memoir's content, namely an insinuation that Watkins' parents had been through a period of marital strife, that she wouldn't speak to her daughter for two weeks. "Then my mom went to church and people were receptive and wanted to talk about their problems too," she says.
Strangers from around the country were affected in the same ways her mom's church friends were. For some, it helped them reconnect with family. "One woman emailed me and said, 'I've been wanting to take my grandma to lunch," says Watkins. "That woman ended her email with, 'I made the reservation, I'm going to do it.'"