Processing the Journey: An Interview with Andrea Lani

Each author interview holds a special place in my heart, but some linger there differently. Today’s interview with author, Andrea Lani, falls into that category. We’ve both donated our time to the online literary journal Literary Mama for years, during which I’ve learned from her and about her and her writing. In addition to being a writer and editor, Andrea is a Maine Master Naturalist, and nature influences her writing and art. Her debut memoir, Uphill Both Ways: Hiking Toward Happiness on the Colorado Trail, is a lovely combination of both and is also a compelling read, one full of nuggets of wisdom—about life, love, parenting, happiness, nature, family, hiking, and more—and reminders to live in the moment.  Aaron Hamburger, author of Nirvana is Here, agrees, saying of the book, “In language both witty and lush, [Lani] vividly portrays this remarkable terrain while also sharing a personal story of self-examination and persistence. Uphill Both Ways gripped me from its hopeful start to its jubilant finish.” Like all the authors I interview, Andrea maintains a life full or responsibilities, so I’m grateful she took the time to answer my questions so thoughtfully.

Christina: So many congratulations on the publication of your book Uphill Both Ways: Hiking Toward Happiness on the Colorado Trail! The book emerged from your family’s experience hiking the Colorado trail in 2016. When you set out on this experience, did you envision that it would end in the publication of something like this book? What’s the biggest message you hope to send to your readers?

Andrea: Thank you so much, Christina! I’m beyond thrilled. People say that publishing a book doesn’t change your life, but I feel like mine changed the moment I talked to the acquisition editor on the phone.

I did have a book in mind when I started the journey—it was an idea that popped into my head more than two years earlier when I was finishing up my MFA program. I’d spent the previous two years writing short stories, but they weren’t getting any traction as far as publication, and I didn’t feel any closer to understanding the form than when I’d started. I was also working a terrible, terrible job that was killing my soul, and it was winter in Maine, a long, bleak time. Also my kids were in those in-between ages (8 and 12), when the physical work is less demanding than when they’re little, but it’s just constant negotiation from sunrise to sunset and the rewarding parts—the snuggles and cuteness—are pretty much absent. I was frustrated with every aspect of my life and homesick for Colorado, where I was born and raised. I looked back over my adult life to try to figure out how I got to this place and realized that the last time I’d made a truly deliberate decision was in 1996, when I invited my new, long-distance boyfriend to hike the Colorado Trail with me. I thought that if I could go back and revisit that hike that it would be like hitting a “reset” button on my life and that being out on the trail would help me figure out how I wanted to live and give me the clarity to move forward more deliberately in the future. The 20th anniversary of that hike was two and a half years away, and I thought that returning after two decades and comparing what had changed in that time within myself and along the trail would make for a great book premise. That said, I don’t want to give the impression that the trip was contrived to make a book. I took notes about the hiking experience, but never did the expectation of writing a book influence that experience.

What I hope readers take away from Uphill Both Ways is that life doesn’t end with kids. When I was younger, I’d always envisioned a really adventurous life, filled with wilderness and world travel. Instead I ended up married with a mortgage and three kids. We didn’t have a lot of money for travel beyond road trips and camping, and I think we got lulled into a sense of security with a comfortable life. Disrupting that security to, say, travel the world, would have taken a level of bravery that I didn’t have. It took hitting rock bottom to release my death grip on the regular paycheck and health insurance and all that and strike out into the wilds. And it was such an amazing experience to share with our kids. We didn’t see a lot of families along the trail, but when we did, I felt like we were passing on a gift, the realization that adventure and family life are not incompatible. I hope that this book reaches many more parents and passes on that same gift to them.

Christina: A project like this relies on meticulous notetaking and journaling, doesn’t it? Can you walk us through your process? How did the whole thing morph from experience to manuscript? Did you stumble across any memories that you’d forgotten? Was there anything you couldn’t include?

Andrea: I started the process well before we went on the hike by typing up the journal I had kept during my first Colorado Trail hike in 1996. While we were on the trail, I journaled every night in the tent before going to sleep, writing down everything I could remember from the day. The days were just constant hiking for me because I’m such a slow hiker, so taking notes wasn’t feasible, but I got good at storing up scenes, descriptions, impressions, and even snippets of dialogue in my brain. I spent the first two months after we returned typing those notes up and converting the tense from recent past to present. I also added in things I remembered but that hadn’t made it into the journals, bits from my kids’ journals, and details from the video logs my husband made along the way. Then I dropped scenes from the first hike into roughly the correct place, geographically, printed the manuscript out, and started over again, typing from the printed manuscript, rewriting and researching historical, natural, or environmental information as I went. It took about two years from the start of our hike to completed manuscript. Over the following two years, I got feedback from writer friends and revised several more times. During that process, and after it went to the publisher, I cut a lot of words, most significantly an entire first chapter that gave a lot of background about the why and how of both hikes, but which slowed down the narrative. I love the revision process, and the scavenger hunt of finding words, sentences, and scenes to cut is as exciting as the writing for me. I don’t feel like anything important got left out; the final book is exactly what it needs to be.

Christina: Nature plays an enormous part of your life and the book, and you’ve included hand-drawn illustrations throughout the narrative. What was your purpose for including them? Do you have a favorite drawing? What do you hope someone takes away from the art?

Andrea: I’m a huge admirer of Ann Haymond Zwinger, a Colorado artist and naturalist (and mother!) who created a huge number of delightful books about natural history in the West during the latter part of the twentieth century, all illustrated with her beautiful artwork. The drawings are a bit of an homage to her. And they’re my way of sharing the beauty of the flora and fauna of Colorado with an audience that might not be familiar with the flowers and creatures I mention in the text. I also hope that seeing the images in the book will encourage people to slow down and pay closer attention to nature when they’re out hiking or exploring. Making the drawings was another way for me to process the journey. Drawing is so much more physical than writing and uses a different part of the brain, and it was fun for me to relive the moment I snapped a photo of a flower or insect while connect more deeply with the tiny details of a butterfly’s wing or a flower’s petal.

I think my favorite one is the elephant’s-head louswort. The flowers literally look like tiny pink elephant heads, complete with big ears and curling trunks, climbing up the stem of the plant. It’s one of my favorite wildflowers because it’s so utterly delightful to look at. Even its Latin name is a delight–Pedicularis groenlandica. This flower is also an important element of the narrative, because the first time I come upon one in the book is a touchstone moment, when the sight of the flowers makes me smile but the act of smiling reminds me it’s something I haven’t done in a long time.

Christina: What about nature do you find so compelling, both in general and to write about? Also, nature itself can be overwhelming. What are some tips for listening to what nature has to tell us and learning from it?

Andrea: I grew up in the suburbs of Denver and spent most of my childhood in the playing in the backyard, roaming local parks, or trying to follow the narrow path behind the City Ditch without falling in. When my family vacationed, we went picnicking and camping in the mountains, and I loved playing in the dirt, exploring the forest, wading in the streams. I was a shy little kid, and never felt comfortable around groups of other kids or adults, but in the mountains, I could let my imagination go and not feel self-conscious or embarrassed. And I was never scared in nature. But I didn’t know the names of the trees or most of the flowers. Ironically, it took going far from home, to a college on the coast of Maine, for me to learn about nature. I spent my first week here on an outdoor orientation sea kayaking trip, and I devoured all of the information that our leader could share about the names of birds, seaweed, and shells. It had never occurred to me that there were different kinds of seagulls! It was a reawakening of my sense of wonder. Having little kids was another moment of reawakening, because they’re fascinated by and excited about every bug and stick, and their enthusiasm is contagious. I’ve actively worked at keeping that sense of wonder awake by spending as much time in nature as I can, learning about the natural world wherever I go, and becoming a Maine Master Naturalist to share nature with others. Having a deeply immersive experience in the natural landscape of my childhood, and sharing that with my own children, was a huge motivating factor for returning to hike the Colorado Trail.

Ever since I learned to read, I wanted to be a writer, and as soon as I discovered that nature writing was a genre,  I wanted it to be my genre; it was the marriage of two of my favorite things. I devoured all the nature writers I could find in college and in my twenties, and my go-to response for what I wanted to do with my life after I finished college was, “Go canoeing and write about it.” Now I’ve gone hiking and written about it, which I’ll call a success.

Learning about nature can help to counter the overwhelm of a natural landscape. I write in the book that knowing the names of the trees, flowers, and animals made them more visible to me than when I’d done the hike twenty years earlier, and allowed me to greet them as old friends, rather than a blur of green stuff. I teach nature journaling workshops, and it’s a practice that I find beats all others for calming the mind, silencing the internal chatter, and connecting one deeply with the natural world. Taking the time to truly focus on a single object from nature through a series of drawing and writing exercises helps you truly see and build a relationship with that particular item, and it helps you see other natural objects as unique individuals, rather than a confusing wash of green. Part of the process I teach also involves reflecting on your emotional response to the natural object and the memories it triggers, as well as the metaphors it engenders. Every time I teach these workshops, students astonish me with the insightful and deeply moving poems and paragraphs they create from something as simple as a rock or a glass of water.

Christina: Catherine Newman, a celebrated author in her own right, wrote of the book, “If you put Terry Tempest Williams and Cheryl Strayed and Kelly Corrigan in a room together, this is the book they would write. I loved it.” How does it feel to be compared to such literary powerhouses? If you could compare the book or the style of writing to someone, who would you choose?

Andrea: I cried happy tears when I received that blurb! It will be engraved on my tombstone. I’m a huge admirer of Catherine Newman, who I consider the gold standard for writing about motherhood, and a person of such humor, compassion, and generosity. I only know her in that I’ve read her blog, Ben & Birdy, and various columns for years, and she once commented on my blog, and yet she took the time to not only read my book but write the most beautiful, complimentary endorsement for my book that I can imagine. I’m so honored and humbled that she did that. Terry Tempest Williams was the first nature writer I was introduced to, when I came to college in Maine, and she’s one of my favorite writers and a deeply beautiful human being. I read Cheryl Strayed’s Wild while on a camping trip with five families and eleven boy children the summer it came out, and I believe that book put the first inkling of the idea to go out and do another long distance hike into my head. Kelly Corrigan is another deeply compassionate, thoughtful, insightful human being and writer. I’m still stunned to be compared to any of these women.

As far as who I think my style compares to, I really don’t know. When I read my journals from our first Colorado Trail hike, I see a lot of Edward Abbey in my writing, probably because that’s who I was reading most of that trip. Maybe in twenty years I’ll look back and see who I was being derivative of this time around.

Christina: Every author’s journey to publication differs. Can you tell us a little bit about yours? How long did it take, what was the query process like, and how did you choose Bison Books to help you tell this particular story?

Andrea: After I completed my manuscript and revised it a few times, I sent queries out to a handful of agents but didn’t hear anything back. Not long after, I returned to work at a seasonal job because one of my kids needed braces and a single income wasn’t quite cutting it for our family, so I put the whole book process on hold for the winter. Over those months, I decided to instead try submitting directly to small publishers, and the next summer, while revising the manuscript a couple more times, I wrote a book proposal and sent it out to a few presses, again with no response, and again I went to work for the winter. The following spring (and a couple revisions later), in the midst of the first wave of the pandemic and the dire predictions for publishing, I started sending it out again to about one publisher per week. I’d passed over Bison Books, which is the trade imprint of the University of Nebraska Press, once before because I’d thought their focus was on books about the Midwest. Then one day, after spending hours preparing my proposal for another press (because every publisher has very specific guidelines which are totally different from every other publisher’s), I realized that that press wasn’t accepting memoir submissions at the time. I decided to give Bison Books’ submission guidelines another look, and it turns out their reach encompasses everything west of the Mississippi, so I retooled my proposal and sent it to them. This was a Friday afternoon; on Monday I got an email from the acquisitions editor and on Wednesday I got that life-changing phone call. The editor was almost as enthusiastic about my book as I was, and it felt like the right fit from the start, for which I feel so grateful.

Christina: Some of the most interesting aspects of authors concern their hobbies, and I love that you collect Fiesta dinnerware! How large is the collection? Do you have a favorite piece? Do you use the pieces or just collect them, and—most importantly—do you plan to pass these on to your boys at some point?

Andrea: Haha! I love this question. I’ve loved Fiesta dinnerware since I first saw it as a young teenager. I’m all about bright colors. I bought my first vintage pieces–a chipped plate and two ring-handled teacups missing their rings–from a junk shop near my college in the early 1990s. My husband and I registered for cobalt and chartreuse Fiesta for our wedding in 1999, and we have complete place settings for eight and many of the serving pieces in those colors. Over the years I’ve added more colors, sizes, and shapes of contemporary Fiesta and picked up vintage pieces when I’ve found them in antique stores for good prices. After the pandemic began, one of my coping mechanisms was trawling eBay for additions to my collection, both vintage and modern, and I recently bought a friend’s grandmother’s set. I have no idea how big my collection is (my family would say too big!)–it fills a big and a small hutch and several of our kitchen cabinets as well as overflow storage in the basement. I love every piece, but chartreuse is still my favorite color, and creamers are my favorite shape. I have eight vintage creamers (seven ring-handled and one stick-handled missing its stick), one in each of the vintage colors except gray and ivory (working on it), and 22 individual creamers in colors that have come out since manufacturing restarted in 1986. It’s a bit ridiculous, but I love the array bright colors, especially in the long Maine winters. We use the modern plates, bowls, mugs, etc. everyday, but I rarely use vintage pieces because I’m not sure which might have lead in the glaze, and I definitely have not used all 22 creamers. I tell my boys that the Fiesta ware is their inheritance, but the only one who’s shown any interest likes boring colors like slate and black.

Andrea can be found in multiple places!
Instagram: @andrea.lani
Twitter: @AndreaELani
Facebook: @andreaelani

Thanks to Andrea for agreeing to this interview! If you know of an author who’d like to be featured in an interview (or you are an author who would like to be featured), feel free to leave a comment or email me via my contact page.

Leave a Comment