Although I will be promoting and reviewing The Path Keeper on 23rd Feb, I’ve managed to grab a pre-publication chat with Natali. Among other things, we’re talking about her life, her writing and, of course, that all important debut novel…
Good morning Natali and welcome. Can I start by asking you a little about yourself?
Hi Jo. My name is Natali Drake but I write as N J Simmonds. I’m a proud north London girl but I’ve lived all over the world including Australia, Spain and The Netherlands. When I’m not busy being a YA author I’m a freelance writer and brand consultant. I live in Delft, a very arty, cute town in Holland, with my husband and two daughters (6 and 8). Although due to my husband’s work we may be moving on somewhere else in a few years…who knows where. I’m a perpetual wanderer and a creative nomad. I love it!
When did your writing career begin?
Writing has been a passion of mine since I was a young girl. It sounds trite but becoming a published author has been a dream of mine since I first learned to read. Professionally I have been writing since the age of 18 when I began working for various corporate publications and then moved on to marketing and advertising…but it really kicked off in 2014 when I began submitting articles to online magazines and newspapers and became a freelance writer. In 2015 I co-founded an online magazine called ‘The Glass House Girls’ which now has tens of thousands of followers worldwide and really gave me the confidence to complete my novel. By 2016 I had received a three book offer from Accent Press for ‘The Path Keeper’ series and that’s when I knew I was probably a ‘proper’ writer.
Your debut, The Path Keeper, due out on 23rd February, is a YA novel. What was the inspiration behind the story?
Firstly I never set out to write YA (when Accent Press told me that they wanted ‘The Path Keeper’ for their Young Adult division I had to Google what that actually meant). My book centres around the life of a 19 year old girl, but it’s not your usual coming of age romance – so don’t expect another Twilight! The story came to me (and I shall quote my favourite YA author here, John Green) like sleep, slowly at first then all at once. I watched a TV documentary about a girl so fixated on wanting to be loved that she didn’t realise that her ‘boyfriend’ was actually her best friend dressed up, it was crazy and it got me thinking back to my days as a teen. I thought back on what it felt like to be so wrapped up in the drama and intensity of first love, that all-consuming obsession with someone unobtainable, that the person themselves ceases to actually matter. In fact, you only see what you want to see. That was the starting point that I wanted to explore. Then I had to make Zac more than just unobtainable, he had to be extreme and unique – and once I realised just how different he should be (no, he isn’t a zombie or vampire) the story took on a life of its own. Then one day the characters popped into my head fully formed and haven’t left since. I had to write down their story because they were driving me mad!
Is this a stand-alone or are there more books planned in the series?
I always intended for ‘The Path Keeper’ to be a trilogy – why write one first novel when you can write three? I like to challenge myself! The book works fine on its own, but it doesn’t have a neat ending because I always knew what would happen next. My stories are not linear; they flit about through time and from character to character demonstrating the complicated links and threads that bind us and push us through our life journey. The book is multi-layered and doesn’t begin from the very beginning, for that you have to read the second one ‘Son of Secrets’ which is out later in the year. Then the third pushed you forward in time and who knows, perhaps there will be spin offs after the third? At the moment I’m two chapters away from completing the sequel ‘Son of Secrets’ and have already started planning the third. I don’t think Ella and Zac will be leaving my head for a while – they have taken permanent residency in there!
Who are your favourite authors and have any of them influenced your writing?
I’m terrible at answering questions like this because I think ‘do I answer in a way that makes me sound highly intelligent and well read, or do I answer honestly?’ I’ll go for honesty. I don’t tend to have favourite authors as much as I have favourite books. I like a book to shock me, question myself and give me an effortless ride. If I want to be educated or take my time wading through complicated passages I will read non-fiction…but for a good story, I want to be entertained. Terry Pratchett was a genius and made me howl with laughter, as does Ben Elton’s satirical books. Roald Dahl taught me from a young age that words were magic. Stephen King has the ability to use simple words to build terrifying worlds. Isabelle Allende was the first writer to make me sob uncontrollably. And now that I’ve stepped into the realm of YA I am devouring books by John Green, Jennifer Niven, Rainbow Rowell and Nicola Yoon…they cover important themes in a light and real way, much like Judy Blume did during my childhood. But the books that actually stick in my mind and made a huge impact on me are ‘We need to talk about Kevin’ by Lionel Shriver, ‘The Time Travellers Wife’ by Audrey Niffenegger and ‘Killing Me Softly’ by Nicci French. The first book made me really think, really THINK, the second mixed fantasy with romance in an effortless way and the third gave me an enigmatic main character and a raw passion that I found really powerful. So the emotions those three bring out of me every time I read them are the emotions I aimed for when writing ‘The Path Keeper’.
What would your advice be to aspiring writers?
I love giving advice, it’s my favourite hobby…here goes.
1. Read. Read EVERYTHING. All genres, old and new, easy and complicated. Immerse yourself in other worlds, look at the way writers use words and punctuation to add drama and ambience, study books – especially the ones that make you feel something. How do they do it? Where does the magic lie?
2. Write. Then write some more. And if you think you can’t write any more…keep writing. Journals, blogs (aspiring writers are so lucky now that they can set up a free WordPress site in an hour and get their words in front of the world so quickly, I never had that growing up), submit articles to websites and magazines, volunteer to guest write for someone else’s publication. It doesn’t matter where you do it…just write. Don’t do it to impress or make money (seriously, leave now if you think writing will make you rich), do it because you can’t go a day without writing. It has to hurt. Does it physically hurt when you go a day or two without writing anything? Yes? Good! You’re on your way…
3. Don’t give up. I got over thirty rejections for my first novel, but I didn’t give up. It wasn’t an option. I wrote my book so others could read it, so it was my duty to keep pushing to get it out there.
4. Grow a thick skin! I penned an article once for The Independent that resulted in three days of Twitter death threats until I shut down my account. I changed the entire ending of ‘The Path Keeper’ because my beta readers thought it was ludicrous. I was told that writing my book was a pipe dream and self-indulgent, that not just anyone would be a writer. At any point I could have got upset, but I didn’t. Today is my launch date, tomorrow I may get my first hideous review…it’s simply part and parcel of what we do. Take it on the chin, accept criticism graciously, learn from the feedback and move on.
5. Keep the day job. If I can write three novels while running a business, emigrating abroad where I knew no one and raising two kids in a foreign country then I’m sure you too can write your first novel in your spare time. Don’t give everything up to write unless you already have a steady income because it won’t make you rich…at least not for quite a few years. I also believe that the more sacrifices you make to find the time to work on your masterpiece the harder you will work to make it a success.
Many thanks for stopping by to talk and good luck for publication day.
Any time…I had fun!
NATALI’S SOCIAL MEDIA LINKS
THE PATH KEEPER IS AVAILABLE TO PRE-ORDER – CLICK THE LINK BELOW FOR DETAILS