Some stories just need to be told, including this one about Jean Ellen Whatley and her book, Off the Leash. It’s a great story with a great message. Because I had so many questions for her, I’m breaking this interview into two posts because I don’t want to leave out anything. Thanks, Jean, for being so generous with your time and information!
1) Tell us about your book “Off the Leash”
On the surface, Off the Leash is a story about a summer-long road trip I did with my rescue dog Libby, a Great Pyrenees mix, but really it's about freedom. Off the Leash is about freeing ourselves from thinking that our lives are destined to be hard, or sad, or screwed up and the power of letting that all go. Off the Leash is about being quiet enough to hear your inner voice, and sometimes watching your dog send you messages too important to ignore. It's about taking action in spite of the risk.
I quit my job with no more than $3,800 dollars to my name. Because I knew too painfully well that time runs out, I loaded my car and took off to revisit every significant purpose and place that had influenced my life. I had lost two brothers and my mother in a few short years, and there was a half-brother who I had never seen, and didn't really know if he existed. So I set out to find him. What I found in the course of eight weeks and 8,600 miles was myself -- seen from deep within me and the eyes of long lost family, friends and wonderful people I met on this life-changing journey. All this inspired by my dog.
2) Where did the original idea of a cross-country road trip with your dog come from?
Off the Leash was borne out of regret and a message from the universe channeled through my dog, Libby. In August 2010, on a sunny, early Sunday morning, I was sitting on my front porch drinking coffee. Libby was laying on the porch, her pays hanging over the top step. I was thinking about my brother Don, who was in his final days, pancreatic cancer was about to take his life. I'd been to visit him several times in Albuquerque during his eleven-month illness, and had just arrived back in St. Louis after saying goodbye to him. I was crying, knowing that he had little time left.
I was steeped with regret that I had not been able to take my big brother on a goodbye tour of all the places we'd lived as kids -- in Texas and California. I had meant to, but jobs and obligation and his rapidly declining health prevented it.
All of a sudden, Libby jumped up off the porch and raced to the edge of the yard, barking like mad, but she stopped short, where my lawn meets the neighbor’s, barking and yelping and writhing in doggie torment. She wanted to chase the neighbor cat, the black and white kitty sandwich not twenty feet away from her. But she dared not go after that cat, because of the Invisible Fence around our yard. I sat there staring at her, thinking, "Damn silly dog ... she doesn't even know the batteries in her collar are dead."
That was my epiphany. What was the chokehold around my neck? What would prevent me from going after the writer's life I so desperately wanted to engage in? What really held me back from going back to all my childhood haunts? It was time and money -- of which I realized far too well I'd never have a surplus. I called the dog back to the porch and laid my head of her shoulder and said, "Thank you, my darling mutt, for showing me to myself." It was at that moment, the idea of hitting the road and taking the dog took hold like a low-grade fever that never subsided until I backed out the drive a few months later.
3) What makes this book different from other travel books?
I wouldn't want folks to think of Off the Leash as a travel book, it's not. Off the Leash is the story of a lifetime, a lifetime that I've come to discover contains many of the same hopes and fears that so many of us share -- it's about family secrets, loves gained and lost, it's about enduring what feels like unbearable hardship at times and the joy of getting to a place in our lives where all that pain ceases to matter because of the glory of simply being alive. It's about our human condition - and how we're connected as the family of man in ways that don't seem obvious until you leave yourself open to the discovery.
For example, the book begins and ends with a fateful meeting between me, a middle-aged woman who's driving across America with her dog, and a young man who is walking across America! We meet out in the middle of nowhere, and I mean NOWHERE, on U.S. Highway 50, called The Loneliest Road in America. I pass him as he's walking along the highway pushing a baby jogger full of provisions. My curiosity gets the best of me. I turn around to investigate this stranger on the highway. It was profound, this meeting.
4) What lessons do you want readers to take away from this book?
As for lessons, I tend to give my dog Libby a lot of the credit for what Off the Leash taught me. She taught me five things that become some of the central themes of this book: to go along for the ride, to live in the moment, to not hold a grudge, to love with abandon and at the end of the day, or the ride, or your life, and to ease someone's fear. Sometimes the fear you ease ends up being your own.
One could argue that my life has been a bit challenging at times. A divorced mother of four, after my "we had it all" marriage and picket fence (yes, we had a picket fence) life collapsed like a house of cards, insult was added to injury when my former husband was sentenced to seven years in prison for sex crimes. My children were in mid-school up to college at that point, I was living a thousand miles from any family, the instant reaction was to pack up and get the hell out of town (STL) but we toughed it out, through a lot of media, what I thought were endless tears, turned to rage, turned to resolve to protect my children and not have them pay the price for his shame -- which all eventually got sorted out and settled, as I dripped tears like an oil leak across America on this solitary journey of healing and peace.
Even though people have not experienced precisely what I may have gone through, most people have wounds. Most people have unattended longing to do that one thing they've always wanted to do, to see that one person they've been longing to see, to rise to their own definition of personal greatness. My message is this: do it today. Do it as soon as possible. Call people you love today, tell them you love them. Book the trip, make the call. Do it now.
5) I understand the publishing process for this book is two-fold – traditional and ebook. Tell us how this works, and the benefits and drawbacks of combining the two.
I self-published the ebook and was picked up by an indy publisher for the print edition. Having an imprint on the spine of your book helps get you distribution and some degree of credibility. But even with a publisher, the heavy lifting on marketing and promotion is left to the author. Readers can get Off the Leash at any book store, if they don't have it in stock, they can order it and have it sent to your house. You can also order if from my publisher, Blank Slate Press and you can get it on Amazon and Barnes and Noble.
To be continued Thursday –