In “Answer Creek,” award-winning author Ashley Sweeney follows the story of Ada Weeks, an intrepid 19-year-old from Indiana who journeys across the country with the infamous Donner Party, seeking a better life in California. “Answer Creek” came out in May and has been met with positive reviews. I devoured the book, and loved every page of it.
What inspired you to write “Answer Creek”?
After a book tour in Alaska in 2016 for Eliza Waite, my husband and I went to Talkeetna, Alaska to unwind. Just outside of town, you pass over a riverbed named Answer Creek. As soon as I saw that name, I knew it would be the title of my next book, even though I didn’t have a story to attach to it until months later. In the novel, Answer Creek is a fictional tributary to the American River in the foothills of the Sierra Nevada Mountains of California.
The main character, 19-year-old Ada Weeks, is so wonderfully rendered. She’s tough, deep-thinking, and remains hopeful despite enduring so much tragedy throughout the book. What was it like writing her? Is she inspired by any real people, historical or present-day?
I love Ada fiercely, and no wonder as she’s loosely based on the personality and traits of a dear junior high school friend, Ann Thomas Aylesworth. Adopted at birth, Ann is a feisty, determined, and adventurous woman who embodies living life at full tilt and having no regrets about it. Ada is her own creation, but I did find myself asking Ann many questions along the way, i.e. “What Would Ada Do?” I am indebted to Ann for answering questions fully and honestly and helping me with some pivotal decisions for Ada. I also use a writing technique where I daydream about my characters, placing them in a certain setting and watching what they do. Then I write the scene.
When researching this book, you retraced the Oregon Trail, with a car instead of a wagon. What was that trip like? Do any locations stand out?
There’s no substitute for standing in the footsteps of your characters, especially when writing historical fiction. As an author, you have to get it right, both for the integrity of the manuscript and so that readers believe the story. So traveling nearly 2,000 miles mirroring the Donner Party’s route was a necessity. I-80, which bisects the U.S., is basically the same route emigrants took crossing the country in the mid- to late-19th century on overland trails.
For our trip, we overlaid frontier maps, Donner maps, and contemporary maps, and went off-road as much as was allowed to stand not only in the footsteps, but in actual wagon ruts that still exist along the trail route. I was taken with the beauty of high plains; in particular, I was moved by standing in Beaver Creek at Ayers Natural Bridge outside Casper, Wyoming and spinning 360 degrees at the crest of the Continental Divide at South Pass, Wyoming. Both those experiences are detailed in the novel as Ada soaks at Beaver Creek on July 4 and as she reflects about crossing the backbone of the continent, an allegorical no-turning-back point for her.
“Answer Creek” came out in May, just when the pandemic was heightening. What was it like publishing a book during an international crisis? What lessons do you think the book can teach us about living through a moment such as this one?
My publicist and I had to take a hard left turn just before publication, as most of my scheduled events were cancelled. We designed a robust virtual campaign on the fly, so I’m now quite proficient at Zoom events and book clubs. I’m filling my 2021 book club schedule now (check my website at ashleysweeneyauthor.com for details). As to what lessons the novel can teach us, I wrote a piece for the local weekly here in La Conner that if Ada Weeks could survive 124 days in a windowless cabin existing on shoe leather and blankets, we don’t have much to complain about with electricity, plumbing, food, books, and Netflix. Not to diminish the severity of COVID-19, but it does put sheltering-in-place in perspective.
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