2020 Reading Challenge

2020 Reading Challenge
Jill Elizabeth has read 6 books toward her goal of 240 books.
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Guest Post: Title in Search of a Story by Ashley E. Sweeney, Author of Answer Creek

Today I’m pleased to introduce you to Ashley E. Sweeney, author of the new book, Answer Creek. Shaped by Sweeney’s thorough research and vivid prose, this memorable and moving novel of the Donner Party rises above the scandalous to deliver a compassionate portrayal of families pushed to the edge of their humanity and of a determined young woman carving her own path toward love and independence. Ashley was gracious enough to provide insight into her writing process and the background of her story. Enjoy!

Title in Search of a Story
by Ashley E. Sweeney

It’s my experience that stories find me. First as a journalist and now as an author, I see and hear things through a tightly coiled and ultra-sensitive antenna. It could be a snippet of a conversation or a detail I notice as I drive by that spurs me to take pen to paper. Or it could be a situation that proverbially smacks me in the face and I race home to get it on the page.

When I happened across a dilapidated cabin on a remote island in San Juan islands of Washington State in the fall of 2008, I knew within seconds that a novel was born (Eliza Waite, She Writes Press, 2016). In 2016, when a friend forwarded a story of a British barmaid traveling to Oregon at the height of the fur trading empire with a duo of Scottish fur traders, my work-in-progress grew legs.

Along the way, it’s a treat to audition a merry-go-round of titles for a novel during the writing process. I considered Pinch of Salt, Turnaround Tide, and After Cypress as possible titles for Eliza Waite. For my work in progress, I’m toying with Passion of Ink as the working title. What’s different in the case of Answer Creek is that the title found me before the story.

After a lengthy book tour in Alaska in 2016 for my debut novel, Eliza Waite, my husband and I traveled to rural Talkeetna, Alaska to unwind. Called the Gateway to Denali, Talkeetna is a tiny, historic town in the heart of Alaska that now runs on tourism. We stayed at the iconic Talkeetna Roadhouse and shared enormous sticky buns at a communal breakfast table with a fly fisherman from Pennsylvania. At the edge of the mighty Susitna River, we glimpsed Denali from afar. Over numerous pints of beer, we ate Alaskan-sized salmon dinners and listened to a great local band. Outside the Talkeetna Historical Society’s museum, we met a young couple who live off the grid outside of town. “I’m a long way from New York City,” kept flashing though my mind (even though I’ve lived in the Pacific Northwest since 1978, I’m still a New York girl at heart).

On our way back to Anchorage after three wonderfully relaxing days—and not knowing how or where my next story would find me—we crossed over Answer Creek. “Stop the car!” I yelled to my husband. It was a moment of sheer epiphany. I was so taken by the name of the creek, I told my husband at that moment that Answer Creek would be the name of my next novel, although I hadn’t yet settled on my next story.

Because I am committed to telling untold stories of women who traveled to and settled in the American West, I scour history to hitch heroines to historic events. Every writer centered on western narratives must decide at some point how to tackle the often overwritten parts of American history. As I grappled with whether I would consider an Oregon Trail story, I was confronted with myriad choices. Not just the Oregon Trail, but would I dare take on the most infamous narrative of the overland diaspora, the Donner Party?

Because I felt drawn (some might say convicted) to take up this challenge, I knew from the onset that I would need a fresh voice to recount the story. Instead of a salacious retelling of one of the nation’s worst tragedies, I approached the project from inside a fictional young woman’s head to tell the story from her perspective, considering the humanity of the emigrants following the trail west.

The character, stature, and demeanor of Ada Weeks, my courageous and hardscrabble protagonist, is based on a dear junior high school friend, a survivor of (among other things) abandonment, bad choices, and physical abuse. What’s she’s most grateful for is life (her birth mother—whose identity she does not know—gave her up for adoption at birth). I’m convinced my friend-turned-muse would have survived the rigors and horrors of the Donner Party ordeal.
Why the name Answer Creek? That will be for book club members to spar over for months to come. Deeper insight into the title will likely intrigue readers, especially as questions relate to the novel’s secondary character, known for much of the book only as “the man.”

Now it’s on to that work-in-progress, whatever the title might be. In the meantime, the world is spinning, spinning, spinning, rife with stories. I’m always listening.

About the Book
From the award-winning author of Eliza Waite comes a gripping tale of adventure and survival based on the true story of the ill-fated Donner Party on their 2,200-mile trek on the Oregon–California Trail from 1846 to ’47.

Nineteen-year-old Ada Weeks confronts danger and calamity along the hazard-filled journey to California. After a fateful decision that delays the overlanders more than a month, she—along with eighty-one other members of the Donner Party—finds herself stranded at Truckee Lake on the eastern side of the Sierra Nevada Mountains, stuck there for the entirety of a despairing, blizzard-filled winter. Forced to eat shoe leather and blankets to survive, will Ada be able to battle the elements—and her own demons—as she envisions a new life in California?

Researched with impeccable detail and filled with imagery as wide as the western prairie, Answer Creek blends history and hearsay in an unforgettable story of challenging the limits of human endurance and experiencing the triumphant power of love.

About the Author
Award-winning author Ashley E. Sweeney received the 2017 Nancy Pearl Book Award for her debut novel, ELIZA WAITE. Sweeney is a former journalist and educator. A native New Yorker, she now divides her time between the Pacific Northwest and Tucson, Arizona. ANSWER CREEK is her second novel. Find her online at the following:

  • website: ashleysweeneyauthor.com
  • twitter: @ashleysweeney57
  • Facebook: facebook.com/ashleysweeney57
  • Instagram: ashleysweeney57.

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