When Rotha Dawkins climbs out of her big blue rig to refuel at Petro Stopping Center in Mebane, N.C., plenty of folks take notice. It's partly her startling fashion statements—notably the 6-in. crimson stilettos that provided the title of her first novel about trucker love. And it's partly her growing literary fame. Since publishing her first book, Red High Heels, in 1997, Dawkins, 61, has become a star at truck stops up and down the East Coast. "Probably 10 to 15 female truckers come through a day," says 23-year-old Elton Mosely, a cashier at the Petro center's Iron Skillet restaurant. "But I can't say they look like Rotha. And she can write."
Dawkins's nine books range from Driving 'n Dreaming, a volume of poetry, to Red's Cookbook (No Road Kill), a collection of Southern recipes (including formulas for lye soap and white lightning). But the work that has won her a devoted following in the world of diesel fuel and pay showers is in a genre she invented herself: the trucker romance.
"Truckers get lonely," says Dawkins. "My books make them feel close to someone." Red High Heels details the business and love affairs of a woman trying to break into the male-dominated trucking industry. Early Bird (1997) tells the tale of a heroic and handsome rig jockey who hooks up romantically with the heroine of Dawkins's first novel. Her most recent book, this year's Red High Heels II, takes the couple further down the road of life.
Dawkins spends about $10,000 a book to self-publish her paperbacks, which retail for $12.95 each by mail order and at truck stops and trucking conventions. Her works sell between 5,000 and 10,000 copies. And they win rave reviews from readers like Jennie Wagner, 37, a waitress at the Iron Skillet eatery. "I've read every one of her books," says Wagner, whose father and husband are long-haul drivers. "She can tell the real story about truckers because she's lived it." Dawkins says she gets her material from both her own experiences and those of the truckers she meets on her travels.
Not that she started out a road warrior. Dawkins and her two older sisters—Virgie, now 66, and Gail, 64—were reared in Lexington, N.C., by Erwin, a lineman, now deceased, and Geneva Craven, a homemaker, 84. When she was 18, Dawkins moved to New York City to pursue her childhood dream of becoming a clothing designer. She attended the Mayer School of Fashion Design, graduating in 1960.
Over the next three decades she owned and ran several custom clothing businesses in California, Montana and Kentucky; designed lingerie in Greensboro, N.C.; married three times (divorcing two husbands and losing a third to cancer) and had two children, William Hunt, 37, a fire-fighter in Lexington, and Rebekah, 30, a hospital personnel recruiter in Greensboro. "Sometimes I think I'm just too much for a husband," says Dawkins, who has lived alone for the past 12 years.
In 1991 she opened a furniture store on Long Island, but she grew so frustrated by late deliveries that she taught herself to drive a semi. Two years later, at age 53, she began hauling the merchandise from North Carolina to New York herself. "I was so excited when I got my trucker license that I did a somersault right there in the testing place," Dawkins recalls. What started as a necessity became her passion and inspired her latest line of work. "You have a lot of time to think driving a truck," she says. "You meet people, and they've got stories to tell."
Dawkins decided she was the one to do the telling. In the mid-'90s, in her truck and at stops along the East Coast, she started writing her romance novels in longhand. After discussions with established publishers ("Everybody isn't right for my books," she explains), she formed her own company, Your Treasures Publishing, to print and distribute the books herself. Lexington jewelry-store owner Bruce Hayes helps defray her publishing costs. "She's a real hard worker, and when she sets her mind to something, she makes it work," says Hayes, 67, who has known Dawkins since childhood. "I want to help her get the recognition she deserves."
These days Dawkins has garnered enough success to cut back on driving, hauling only her own merchandise for the clothing store Vintage at Good Day she opened recently in Lindenhurst, N.Y. She's spending more time at her two homes, an apartment near her shop and a cabin she owns outside Lexington. But she refuses to relinquish the driver's seat entirely. "Truckers are the nicest bunch of people I've ever met," she says. "And I've got at least 50 more trucking novels in me."
Michaele Ballard in Lexington
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