Interview with Randy Willis

What is your writing process?
It's all about the story.
Do you remember the first story you ever read, and the impact it had on you?
Biblical stories were the first stories I ever read and they have had a profound impact on my life. To Kill a Mockingbird, by Harper Lee was my first novel I read. It still my favorite.
How do you approach cover design?
The interior of a book is the steak. The cover should to be the sizzle of that steak. With that said it still must represent the story inside.
What do you read for pleasure?
Horses and family...
What is your e-reading device of choice?
Kindle
Where did you grow up, and how did this influence your writing?
I was born in Oakdale, Louisiana, and lived near Forest Hill and Longleaf, Louisiana, as a boy. I grew up in Angleton, Texas. I currently reside in the Texas Hill Country.

As a teenager, I would work cows with my family there on the open range, owned by lumber companies. Seven generations of my family have lived there, beginning with my 4th great-grandfather--Joseph Willis. I would often ride my horse through my family's neighboring property, which was once William Prince Ford's Wallfield Plantation, not realizing the significance of my ancestor's connection to Solomon Northup and William Prince Ford.

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After writing the biography The Apostle to the Opelousas, Randy Willis got the idea for his novels Twice a Slave and Three Winds Blowing and the play Twice a Slave from his friend and fellow historian Dr. Sue Eakin. She contacted him after reading an article that mentioned he had obtained the Spring Hill Baptist Church minutes. The minutes had much information on two of its founders: Joseph Willis and William Prince Ford.
What's the story behind your latest book?
I'll answer that by taking an excerpt from my bio:

After writing the biography The Apostle to the Opelousas, Randy Willis got the idea for his novels Twice a Slave and Three Winds Blowing and the play Twice a Slave from his friend and fellow historian Dr. Sue Eakin. She contacted him after reading an article that mentioned he had obtained the Spring Hill Baptist Church minutes. The minutes had much information on two of its founders: Joseph Willis and William Prince Ford.

Ford had bought the slave Solomon Northup on June 23, 1841, in New Orleans. He immediately brought him to his Wallfield Plantation. Just forty-six days later, Joseph Willis and William Prince Ford founded Spring Hill Baptist Church, on August 8, 1841. Ford's slaves attended the church too, which was the custom in pre-Civil War Louisiana.

The plantation was located on Hurricane Creek, a 1/4 mile east of present-day Forest Hill, Louisiana. It was located on the crest of a hill, on the Texas Road that ran along side a ridge. Northup called this area, in his book Twelve Years a Slave, "The Great Piney Woods." Ford was also the headmaster of Spring Creek Academy located near his plantation and Spring Hill Baptist Church. It was there, in 1841, that Joseph Willis would live and entrust his diary to his protégé William Prince Ford, according to historian W.E. Paxton.

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Ford was not a Baptist preacher when he purchased Solomon Northup and the slave Eliza, a.k.a. Dradey, in 1841, as many books, articles, blogs, and the movie 12 Years a Slave have portrayed.

The first part of the Spring Hill Baptist Church minutes are written in Ford's own handwriting since he was the first church secretary and also the first church clerk. The minutes reveal that on July 7, 1842, Ford was elected deacon. On December 11, 1842, Ford became the church treasurer, too. It was during the winter of 1842 that Ford sold a 60% share of Northup to John M. Tibeats. Ford's remaining 40% was later conveyed to Edwin Epps, on April 9, 1843.

It was not until February 10, 1844, that Ford was ordained as a Baptist preacher. A year later, on April 12, 1845, Ford was excommunicated for "communing with the Campbellite Church at Cheneyville." But, Ford's later writings reveal that he remained close friends with his neighbor and mentor Joseph Willis.

Dr. Eakin asked Randy if he would help her with her research on William Prince Ford. He also lectured in her history classes, at Louisiana State University at Alexandria, on the subject.

Dr. Eakin wrote Randy Willis on March 7, 1984, "We had a wonderful experience dramatizing Northup and I think there could be a musical play on Joseph Willis. It seems to me it gets the message across far more quickly than routine written material." She added, "a fictional novel based upon Joseph Willis' life would be more interesting to the general public than a biography and would reach a greater audience."

Dr. Eakin is best known for documenting, annotating, and reviving interest in Solomon Northup's 1853 book Twelve Years a Slave. She, at the age of eighteen, rediscovered a long-forgotten copy of Solomon Northup's book, on the shelves of a bookstore, near the LSU campus, in Baton Rouge. The bookstore owner sold it to her for only 25 cents. In 2013, 12 Years a Slave won the Academy Award for Best Picture.

In his acceptance speech for the honor, director Steve McQueen thanked Dr. Eakin: "I'd like to thank this amazing historian, Sue Eakin, whose life, she gave her life's work to preserving Solomon's book."

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Jim Bowie was a neighbor of Joseph Willis when they both lived near Bayou Chicot. Jim's brother, Rezin Bowie, was a neighbor to Joseph's eldest son Agerton Willis and eldest grandson, Daniel Hubbard Willis Sr., for four years (1824-1827) in the village of Bayou Boeuf. The name changed to Holmesville in 1834, and is located near present-day Eola. It was at Holmesville, on Bayou Boeuf, that Edwin Epps enslaved (1845-1853) Solomon Northup for the last eight years of his twelve year indenture. It was here that Joseph's eldest son and Randy Willis's 3rd great-grandfather Agerton Willis met and married Sophie Story.
What are you working on next?
"A Close Shave on the XIT Ranch"
Who are your favorite authors?
Harper Lee, Laura Hillenbrand, Anne Graham Lotz, Truman Capote, Larry McMurtry...too many to list.
What inspires you to get out of bed each day?
Life
When you're not writing, how do you spend your time?
Kids, grandkids, and friends. Long walks, good movies and horses, too!
Do you remember the first story you ever wrote?
Yes, "The Apostle to the Opelousas."
What are your five favorite books, and why?
To Kill a Mockingbird, Seabiscuit: An American Legend, The Magnificent Obsession, Lonesome Dove, Everything Men Know About Women (all 400 pages are blank). Too many to list...
Published 2015-05-21.
Smashwords Interviews are created by the profiled author, publisher or reader.

Books by This Author

Louisiana Wind
Price: $0.99 USD. Words: 19,810. Language: English. Published: January 6, 2016. Categories: Fiction » Historical » Western & American frontier
“The best men I’ve known have been cowmen. There’s a code they live by—it’s their way of life. It starts with an abiding reverence for the Good Lord. They’re taught to honor and respect their parents and to share both blanket and bread. Their words are their bond, a handshake their contract. They’re good stewards of His creation, the land. They believe the words in His Book.
Twice a Slave
Price: $2.99 USD. Words: 97,760. Language: English. Published: July 6, 2015. Categories: Fiction » Christian » Historical
Twice a Slave | Randy Willis Author From master storyteller, Randy Willis...a novel about adventure, family, and faith. The son of a white man and a Cherokee, Joseph Willis must live as a slave on his own property. After his father gives him his freedom on his deathbed, an angry uncle prevents his emancipation and confiscates his property.
The Story of Joseph Willis
Price: $4.99 USD. Words: 13,420. Language: English. Published: May 21, 2015. Categories: Nonfiction » Biography » Adventurers & explorers
The son of a white man and Cherokee slave, Joseph Willis, gains his freedom and swims the mighty Mississippi on a mule. There, he preaches the first Gospel sermon by an Evangelical west of the Mississippi River.
Twice a Slave The Apostle to the Opelousas
Price: $3.99 USD. Words: 97,100. Language: English. Published: May 19, 2015. Categories: Fiction » Historical » Colonial America, Fiction » Christian » Historical
The Apostle to the Opelousas is the story of a Cherokee slave, a forbidden romance, and tragedies that build faith. One man who is determined to find his purpose and discover his identity becomes a slave a second time, and he changes the course of history in Louisiana.
Three Winds Blowing
Price: $0.99 USD. Words: 63,360. Language: English. Published: May 19, 2015. Categories: Fiction » Historical » USA
The son of a white man and Cherokee slave, Joseph Willis, gains his freedom and swims the mighty Mississippi on a mule.