With her first novel about to drop – and it’s getting rave advance reviews – on the heels of a play she feared might never see the light of day, Natalie Symons is having a pretty great week.
“I tell everybody it’s my 15 minutes,” laughs the St. Petersburg-based scribe. “This is a writer’s dream come true.”
On Sept. 17, Symons’ comic drama The People Downstairs opened at American Stage, after 18 months of pandemic-fueled dormancy (it was originally to bow Friday, March 13, 2020, the very day theaters everywhere shut down).
Coming Tuesday is Lies in Bone, the New York native’s first novel, from Boyle & Dalton.
This extraordinary book is narrated by a teenaged girl named Frank Coolidge, who’s navigating life (or some semblance of it) in a dirty Pennsylvania steel town.
Frank is smart, snarky, and very protective of her younger sister, Boots. They’ve moved to Slippery Elm, in a house with their toxic grandmother, because it’s where their father grew up … and where something bizarre and tragic happened to him as a youngster.
“I needed to tell this story, because I love mysteries,” Symons explains, “but I’m also a big fan of coming-of-age stories. So I wanted to do both. I really wanted it to be a character-driven mystery, very much driven by characters and language. I didn’t want to write a genre mystery.
“I wanted to write a story about this dysfunctional family, and it just evolved. But I knew I wanted a mystery – I mean, all good fiction has some sort of mystery in it, otherwise you wouldn’t turn the page – and it became more of a mystery than I thought it would.”
Over the course of Symons’ narrative, the growing-up saga (Frank’s obsessed with the songs of Bruce Springsteen, which should tell you something) and the mystery intertwine, overlap and re-define one another.
“I think Frank is who I wish I was,” says Symons. “Because she’s got more guts than I do. And she speaks her mind, and she’s funny. She’s rougher around the edges maybe than I am, but I always wanted to be that kind of teenager. Or the kind of woman that she grows into. Because I feel like she’s just got so much heart.”
She’s not an anti-hero, although she’s not entirely heroic, either. But Frank is a fascinating character.
“When I first started to get this published, it was before MeToo. Agents would read the manuscript, and I got the exact same response from I don’t know how many: That Frank was ‘unlikeable.’ I saved all my rejections. One agent actually said ‘Can you make her more loveable? Nobody will root for her because she’s not loveable.’ And I thought, my goodness, they would never say that about a male character.
“I did not. I refused to. I really believed in it. And I also believe that characters that are flawed are the characters we care about the most. Because we relate to them.”
The protagonists of The People Downstairs are likewise imperfect. And it’s their flawed personalities, the interior damage visible on the outside, that makes Mabel, Miles and Todd so compelling.
“The fact that Mabel is an agoraphobic woman who doesn’t want to leave the house, because she has such low self-esteem, and she believes that the world is hard, it’s almost like I wrote it for coming out of the pandemic,” Symons says.
But she didn’t. Read more about the show here.
Between Symons, director Chris Crawford, the American Stage brass, the cast, the crew and the ticket-buying supporters, no one was ever 100 percent sure that The People Downstairs was going to come back at all. “We’re all so emotional,” the playwright explains, “this entire creative team and this cast, it’s just been cathartic.
“This is the single biggest gift of my life. It really has changed me in ways I could never explain. After all that we’ve been through with this pandemic, and with all the people in the world that feel alone and isolated, and ache for human connection and laughter … I’ve never had an experience where art has imitated life, and life has imitated art.”