Author Jerry Ellis, a Fort Payne native, is planning to celebrate the 30th anniversary of his nonfiction book “Walking the Trail: One Man’s Journey Along the Cherokee Trail of Tears” with a special book signing at the Ider Public Library on Friday, April 9, from 11 a.m. to 1 p.m.
Ellis is also planning his 13th annual writing seminar on Sept. 4th. He will be joined by his sister, actress Sandra Lafferty. Fellow writers Neal Wooten and Jane Simpson and other guests for the all-day event will be served a full lunch consisting of Italian and Cajun food. The cost to participate is $150.
Although Ellis has written many books, his great commercial triumph remains “Walking the Trail.” The book about his two-month journey from Oklahoma in reverse of the historic 900-mile march the Cherokees took in 1838 has sold more than 250,000 copies and was nominated for a Pulitzer Prize and a National Book Award. It has been required reading in several schools nationwide.
The idea came to him in 1985 during a low-point as Hollywood’s flirtations with turning his New York plays into films failed to pan out.
“I was living in a cracker box room that overlooked Paramount Studios, but they wouldn’t let me in the studio,” he recalled. “To them, I was nobody. It was a miserable experience for six months. I slept on a mattress that someone left in the alley. I wrote a script about a man in New Orleans whose ghostly grandfather appears to him and told him that in order to redeem his soul, he had to walk the Trail of Tears to honor his ancestors. There was no interest in that script.
“I felt so down and out, but I had an epiphany that I was the man in the story. It gave me hope to take a leap of faith and ultimately walk the Trail of Tears. There was no book deal. It was done purely on speculation. It changed my life, not merely as a commercial success but also in terms of doing something meaningful.”
The impact of “Walking the Trail” continues to be felt globally because of the sincerity and depth of his respect for the estimated 4,000 Cherokees who died during the forced migration.
Ellis was the guest speaker three years ago at Guttenberg University in Germany. A Sicilian doctor took the initiative to not only translate it to Italian but also found a European publisher for it.
Hollywood continues to express interest in adapting his work. He recently spoke with a producer/director who told him that with streaming services investing in telling stories, “it’s easier than ever to get things produced yet also more complicated,” Ellis said.
“Seeing ‘Walking the Trail’ adapted would be an extension of the dream of this story reaching more people. I’ve been commercially successful and I’m beyond the ‘I gotta make it’ stage. I would just love to see that before I pass on from this world.”
All this time later, people continue to tell him of the joy his words bring, reflecting the kindness of people he encountered on his long trek.
“Without them, there would have been no book,” Ellis said. “People say it wouldn’t be the same if I walked it today. I still believe in the goodness of people, although there’s no denying there are some really dark, lost people right now.”
He still sells autographed 1991 editions paired with pouches of homegrown Cherokee medicine.
“One man told me that he and his wife have re-read it multiple times aloud to one another,” he said.
Ellis lost his own wife, Debbi, 15 months ago to cancer. Although initially “traumatized” by the experience of watching her health decline, he said he now mainly feels “memories of joy and gratitude for having known her.”
Ellis remodeled the cottage where the couple lived for a decade, calling it a “shrine to our love.”
He enjoys gardening and has Native American folk art in the new Mentone art gallery. He also continues to write, working on a collection of stories about growing up in the South tentatively titled “Breaking Bread with the Human Heart: A Wanderer’s Map of Words to Get Back Home.”