There are all kinds of reasons to pay attention to history, both world history and our own family history. And guest Tamera Alexander helps us see some of the most important reasons of all. She shares how history can inform and enlighten us in our lives, our writing, and our faith. So listen in to this poignant episode as she shares what God has taught her about living, loving, and dying well.
About Tamera Alexander
Tamera Alexander is a USA Today bestselling novelist and one of today’s most beloved authors of inspirational historical romance. Her works have been awarded numerous industry-leading honors—among them the Christy Award, the RITA Award, the Carol Award, Library Journal’s top honors—and have earned the distinction of Publisher’s Weekly Starred Reviews. Her deeply drawn characters and thought-provoking plots have earned her devoted readers worldwide, including Germany, the Netherlands, Poland, Portugal, Slovakia, and Romania. Tamera and her husband reside in Nashville, Tennessee, where they live a short distance from Nashville’s Belmont Mansion and Belle Meade Plantation, and Carnton—the settings of Tamera’s #1 CBA bestselling Southern series. Learn more about Tamera at her website tameraalexander.com.
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Erin: Welcome listeners. Welcome to the deep. We’re so excited today! We have a guest. Yay! It’s Tamera Alexander, who’s written all kinds of great historical books. We’re going to let Karen introduce her.
Karen: I met Tamera Alexander, better known as Tammy, gosh, how long has it been, Tammy? Sixteen years?
Tamera: Oh, sixty-five years, maybe? No, just kidding.
Karen: Yes, sixty-five. You were still in the womb when I met you. So was I, for that matter. As you can tell, Tammy and I have an odd relationship. An odd and wonderful relationship. She’s odd and I’m wonderful.
Tamera Alexander is the USA Today bestselling, award-winning author of just amazing Southern historical novels. Her novels from the very first one—I remember reading that first one—they’ve taken readers by storm. Great quality, great emotion. Everything that I tell the people I edit, everything I tell them they should do, she does.
She was inspired to become a writer by her mother-in-law, Claudette, who gave her a book that she took one look at and thought, “Mmm, I’m not interested.” But being a Southern gal, she thanked her sweet mother-in-law profusely and then shoved the book for a later date.
A few weeks later, Tammy got a phone call saying that her mother-in-law had died very suddenly of a brain aneurysm at age 58. In the following months, Tammy happened upon the little book again. She sat down and read it cover to cover and discovered that her long-ago, tucked-away love of writing was, it says on her website, was “given new life.” And the book? Love Comes Softly by Jeanette Oke.
Beautiful, beautiful story. You know, Tamera is a true southerner. She can insult you with the sweetest smile on her face. And she writes what she knows, and that authenticity shines in her work as does her faith. Her greatest hope is that when her reader turns that final page, she prays that they will have taken a step closer to Christ, and I guarantee you that happens with her books.
Tammy and her husband live in the Nashville area. They enjoy life with their two adult children, both of whom are wonderful, and Murphy and Bailey, two rambunctious and utterly adorable Australian terriers. So Tammy, welcome.
Tamera: Thank you, Karen. Thank you, Erin, and thank you for having me here with you guys. I’ve long enjoyed your podcast. So to be a part of it is a real special treat, even though Karen is here. Erin, you and I will just try to have a great time and we’ll try not to let Karen, you know—
Karen: She says that out of jealousy.
Erin: We’ll kick things off here by asking you, Tammy, what does the deep mean to you?
Tamera: Writing from the deep or the deep to me, and actually my word—I’ll, go ahead and share this is—deeper. I’ve been with a group of writers. We meet every summer in Coeur d’Alene. One of those members said, “I focus on a word every year.” So my word this year is deeper.
What the deep means to me, specifically in this place and walk in my life right now, is closer. It’s being closer to the Lord, being more in tuned to his will, being immersed in his Word. Being more attuned to the Holy Spirit.
We were talking about that before we came onto the podcast, about walking in the Spirit, and being in sync, and listening. Basically living life postured in a way to hear. And to hear from the Lord. To live expectantly, not just waiting, but to wait expectantly. Watching and praying.
Erin: I love that. We just had a podcast, by the time this airs it might be a few podcasts ago, and it’s all about hearing God. Sometimes we have trouble hearing because we’re not expecting. We’re not walking in that posture of listening. So I love that.
Tamera: Exactly. Very good.
Karen: So we’ve been emailing back and forth about what we’ll talk about on this podcast, and one of the things that you mentioned was discovering in your writing journey about the lessons we can learn from our ancestors. For instance, I’d like you to tell us about your dad’s situation and the struggle that came because of that and what God finally helped him realize.
Tamera: Oh yeah. My dad was diagnosed with dementia about ten years ago, and then Mother passed about that time. As a matter of fact, they were with me down in Orlando, and the very first time we found out about it, it was time for the Christie’s. They were there for the award.
He went out on a walk, and he called Mom and said, “Junebug,”—that’s what he used to call her, her name was June. And he said, “I don’t know where I am.” And June, my mom said, “Well, honey, you’re in Orlando…” Anyway, Mother then passed about a year after that. She passed in ’09. So dad came to live with us for a while, and the dementia was a slow walk at that point.
Dad got remarried. His path crossed that with a wonderful woman, Esta. Oh and listen to the full name: Esta Maude Higgins. Do you not think that’s gonna go into a Southern novel someday?
Esta and Dad had been friends when they were really young. So they were married. Dad was 80. She was 79. I love that December romance.
She was a nurse. I pulled her aside and I made sure. I said, “You know that there is the—we don’t think it’s Alzheimer’s, but it could be—we just don’t know.” And she said, “I already see it. I love your dad. I’m all in.” So they married. They had about two, two and a half years.
Then Dad was just no longer able—she couldn’t care for him at home anymore. So we found a memory care center there in Atlanta. I kept the roads hot for the last couple of years. I would just go home every couple of weeks or every week and see Dad. Thankfully, Nashville’s a hop, skip, and jump, not four hours maybe from Atlanta. So that was wonderful.
But, just to watch him—I told someone the other day—watching him, walking him home, was honestly the last great gift that he gave to me. I often say that Mother taught me how to live well, and she taught me how to die well. And Dad just taught me what it meant. Even as he was so strong in his faith early on in his life, and the faith turned very childlike the longer down that road it went.
I’ll never forget—I was talking to him once toward the end, probably two or three months before he passed—I was hugging and kissing him and about to head out, and I was telling him that even as God was going to be with me as I was driving back to Nashville—I would call Dad on our echo show, where we could see each other, I gave him one and I had one so we could talk back and forth that way. I said, “Even as God is with me, he is here with you, and he can be in both places at once.” Because Dad was afraid because I had prayed that God would be there with him, and Dad wanted God in the car with me, too.
It was the sweetest thing. And he said, “Who taught you that?”
I said, “Well, Daddy, you taught me that.” And he just, his eyes teared up. That was just one of the greatest gifts to me. Walking him home and reliving. Definitely the parent becoming the child and the child becoming the parent.
For anyone out there who has a parent who has dementia or Alzheimer’s, it is a hard, hard road, but it is a road with incredible blessing along the way. So I’m just, I’m really thankful to Dad for that.
Erin: How do things like that make it into your writing? Obviously they affect you profoundly. How does that translate for you on the page, or when you’re even trying to write and going through those emotions?
Tamera: When Dad was first diagnosed, I have to turn several books back, it was the second Belmont Mansion book. I actually wrote that, wrote the heroine’s father having dementia. But in the mid 19th century, they did not know about dementia. They thought it was insanity.
They had insane asylums. In the Belmont Mansion book, A Beauty So Rare, Adelicia Acklen, the richest woman in America, she was the one of the secondary characters in that book. Her husband was the director of the Nashville insane asylum. I really wanted to explore what life was like, so I went back and studied all the insane asylum history that we had and how they treated them.
Nashville was actually a model asylum. They would bring people here ’cause you can imagine—if you know anything about that history, I mean, they were chained. They were just shoved off. It was horrific. So that was my first story to really explore dementia and what it would mean. Her father during the course of that story—you know, it’s one thing to write about it, and it’s another thing to live it. But God met me on the page just like he did about six months before my mother passed. I was in the middle of a book. It was Within My Heart. That was one of the Colorado territory books.
The whole premise of that book was, what do you do when God chooses not to heal? Then Mother’s diagnosis of gallbladder cancer came up. From diagnosis to when she passed was six months. God met me on the page in a big way with that one because not only was I, you know, not only was I walking with her but writing the book.
It came to that point where we realized very quickly that she was not going to be healed. But again, one of the most important lessons I learned, specifically from that time and was reminded again with Dad, was the person dying gets to choose.
There comes a time, especially with Mom, with cancer, where you stop forcing them to try to eat, or strongly encouraging, quote unquote. You just want so much for them to linger, to stay here, until you finally realize, this is not about me.
God is going to strengthen me to walk them home. And that is my job. The person dying gets to choose. It needs to be at their pace, and I need to give them free rein for, when the Lord calls them home, for them to just run after him. So that’s what I started whispering to Mom.
In the last two to three days, I would just lean down and whisper, “As soon as you see Jesus, you run for him for all your worth. You just run for him.” She was really worried about leaving Dad with the dementia, and I said, “Don’t you worry. We will take care of Dad.” And I said, “We’ll be right behind you. You’re going to turn around soon enough and we’ll be there.”
I whispered the very same thing to Dad. I feel so incredibly blessed to have been there when both of my parents passed because I’ve found out that’s not a common thing in this day and age where we’re so spread out.
That was a gift that God gave to me. Maybe something within me needed that and God knew that, but I was just so grateful to be able to be there with them both of those times.
Tamera: Sorry to be so heavy.
Karen: No, no, that was great.
Erin: These are the things we deal with. This is life. Life is also death.
Karen: Erin walked the road with me when Daddy was in his last few weeks from the stomach cancer he was diagnosed with in ’15 and then we lost him in ’16. She came during those last weeks. She was there and such an incredible emotional support for me and for dad.
And she actually, she and my husband Don, were with Daddy when he finally passed. I was so tired. I went to bed and Don came in and woke me up with a kiss and said that Dad was gone. So they were there with him.
Tamera: How precious.
Karen: It is, and you know, that whole situation of letting go—I so wanted Dad to stay.
My mom died in 2002. I had always told Dad, “I’ve had to do this gig without Mom. I’m not doing it without you.” And so when it was clear that he was leaving, I still wanted to fight.
The hospice worker took me aside and she said, “He’s in hospice. You need to let him go, and to give him the freedom to go.”
Once I was finally able to do that, once I went to God and I said, “What do you want of me here?” and realized that that’s what needed to happen, it was terrible. Because I knew the end was coming. But it was so much better. Like you, there were so many blessings woven into that whole time.
I still sometimes just sit and think about it and weep both for the loss and for the joy of what God did.
Tamera: And also to realize—I was sharing this with a friend not long ago—when a believer passes, I do remember the death days. If you look through the Bible, more often than not, they don’t tell you when a person is born. They tell you when that person passed into eternity: He lived this long and then he died.
So I do remember death days. My husband used to think, and he kind of still thinks, that’s really morbid and kind of strange. But I look at it, I mean, that’s the graduation day. That’s the day. That’s the goal of your salvation. You see Christ Jesus face to face.
I’ve read the Bible cover to cover, and there are certain verses you think, “So does this mean this? Does this mean that?” But without a doubt, we know when Paul says it is so much better to die and to be with the Lord, I don’t know what exactly that means. All I know is we’re with Jesus. Done! Done.
Tamera: That’s what I remember about those. And I celebrate those death days.
Something else in writing historical fiction, that also then impressed me going through my dad’s things just this past fall and clearing things out, is that we all leave something behind. That’s true as I’ve read and written about these real people in these Southern mansions and the real battles, and read just scores of diaries and accounts. We all leave something behind.
Yes, some of the physical things we leave behind do say a lot about us, but I’ll tell you what: I treasure the letters. I treasure letters from my grandmother, my grandparents, to my parents back and forth, and I treasure my dad’s Bible, my mom’s Bible. It makes me ask myself, “What am I leaving behind if I were to die right now?”
The conversations, and of course in this day and age, the emails, the verbal texts. What am I leaving behind? And is that going to be enough to point people who are coming behind me to Christ? It’s not about remembering what I’ve done. That just pales. You want to point people to Jesus Christ because that’s where the saving grace and the strength is.
That’s something that resonates throughout, when I write these historical novels, is looking at them and thinking, you had no idea that 150 years later, this crazy woman in Franklin, Tennessee, is going to be reading your intimate love letters and writing your story. Hope you’re okay with that! But yeah, looking at what you left behind and the heritage of faith.
Erin: I think on one hand that’s great, but it’s also challenging because today we have all these things—social media and texting—and man, there’s probably a lot of words that I might be leaving behind that I don’t want to. I hope that’s a challenge for us to not just look at what kind of good legacy we can leave, but also let’s curate ourselves, you know? Let’s think before we put something out there in the world.
Karen: Something I used to do, well, I still do it, but I delete things right away, is write something when I’m angry or frustrated or, whatever, I write it in a Word document or I write it in an email to myself and then go through it again and see what really should come out. This kind of conversation reminds me that I need to go back and get rid of some of those things!
Tamera: Oh yes. Here, let me have your laptop for just an hour, Karen. Just an hour. I’ll hold that for you.
Karen: I think not.
Erin: It’s the lost letters of Karen Ball!
Karen: And then there are some of the pictures that I have of Tamera Alexander…
Tamera: We’re friends. I’ll be good. I’ll be good.
Karen: The other thing that I did a number of years ago, because of traveling so much—and Tammy, I’m sure you do the same thing, or if you haven’t, you should—is that I wrote letters to everybody that matters. They’re in a fire safe. I will go in and I will revise those letters as the years go by.
So if anything happens to me, people don’t think, “Well, I didn’t even get a chance to say goodbye.” Because I can say the things that I should have said in those letters, and they’re there waiting for them.
Tamera: That’s good. And I have done that, but that does remind me as matter of fact, I’m writing a note right now, is that Joe and I are going to go through our will. It’s time to do all that. It’s time to do all of that stuff. But I’m just going to write, “letters, update,” here because I need to do that.
Something that happened, I remember when Mom was in her, probably the last two or three months. I was in Atlanta and I had just gotten back home, 45 minutes drive from the hospital and Dad and I had traded off, so he was staying with her for the night.
I just walked into the house, into their condo and the phone rang. He said, “Mom’s dying. You need to hurry up and get back.” So I immediately went back. The whole time I thought, “I just want to see her again. I want to see her again. I want to say I love you again.”
But what hit me before I even got to the room was, we had learned to live with everything said. That’s another lesson through this. With the people right now, people that you love, people that you’re friends with—this strikes a little bit to don’t let the sun go down on your anger—if there’s something that you have against someone or that you know that they have against you, go and reconcile.
Live with everything said. There is such a peace in that.
There’s such a blessing just to know that if, you know, if on my way to Walmart, I’m gone, everything’s been said. There’s no deep dark secret that I needed to apologize for or anything. I would wish to tell you I love you one more time, but you already know that. That’s something that I learned through those journeys as well.
Karen: Well, Tammy, it has been so great having you here. Thank you so much for all the wisdom and the wonderful truths that you’ve been sharing with us. I can’t believe how fast time has gone, so thank you.
Tamera: I really appreciate what y’all do.
Erin: Before you’re all saying thank you, let’s just put her on the spot one last time here. Or maybe you have one last final word of wisdom from all your collected historical study. Anything you’ve learned from history or whatever that you want to share and leave our listeners with.
Tamera: I’ll just encapsulate it to one. It was really how my writing journey started out. I had gone to a conference. Someone said, “Would you send us the full of this?” So I sent it. I sent the full manuscript in and then you’re waiting.
That Sunday, as I get home—I was on the praise team—and we’re praying, and I hear God as clearly as if I’m just hearing you and Karen in my head right now, “Would you write this book if you knew you were writing it only for me?”
At first I thought, “Aaah, voice of God.” I mean, I’ve heard that on maybe one hand. And then it happened again. “Would you write this book if you knew you’re writing it only for me?”
In that moment I knew that if I did, number one, God had my writing career in his hand, and that whether my books sold or whether they didn’t sell well, I was to write for an audience of one. Period.
This was about him. It wasn’t about me.
For all the writers out there, really meet with God on that. We want our books to sell well, but the bottom line, it is about writing for the audience of one. And would you write this book if you knew you were writing it only for God?
And I very humbly, but also with one eye open, said, “Yes, I will, Lord.” But the very human side of me wrestles with that again. And he keeps pulling me back, keeps pulling me back to, “You’re writing for me alone, and don’t worry about all the other stuff. Just write it for me.”
So that’s my constant plea, my constant prayer. To write for him alone.
Karen: The Scripture that we can leave you with today is Exodus 19:5: “Now if you obey me fully and keep my covenant, then out of all nations, you will be my treasured possession.” We are his treasured possession.
We see that in Tammy and her walk of faith in her life and in her faith and obedience in her writing. And we see that in the deep. We see the ways that he refines us and he touches us and he teaches us. So good to know we’re not alone on this path. So thanks, Tammy. Really appreciate it so much.
Tamera: Thank you! God bless.
Erin: Thank you.What has God taught historical fiction writer Tamera Alexander about living, loving, and dying well? Come find out! @tameraalexander @Karenball1 #amwriting Click To Tweet
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