How do you keep sane as a creative? An interview with our new columnist, novelist Natali J Simmonds
I meet Natali over Zoom from her house in the Netherlands. This is not our first online meeting — in fact, online is how I met her a couple of years ago, attending one of her Raindance film school courses on self-branding for creatives. This time it’s just the two of us talking one-on-one.
I’m keen to know the person behind the novelist, marketing consultant, and creative lecturer, now also a regular columnist on Inspire the Mind.
“I’ve always been interested in mental health”, she says. “All my books are about women who are struggling.”
But where does this struggle come from?
Natali’s full name is Natali Juste Simmonds, although she writes under the pen names Natali Simmonds, N J Simmonds and Caedis Knight.
“Readers prefer authors with short names”, she explains. “Plus Juste is constantly misspelled and mispronounced.” An irritating experience that I also know well.
Her English mother and Spanish father met in Spain in the 70s. Raised in Barcelona until she was 7, Natali spent most of her young and adult life in London, until she returned to live in the south of Spain when her daughter, now 14, was ten months old.
“I’ve always wanted to be a writer,” she says. “I’ve always wanted to tell stories, create worlds, and make people feel things.”
Natali wrote her first story when she was 5; her father (a graphic designer and artist) would draw pictures and she would write the story to go with them. She couldn’t speak English fluently until she was 7, and wrote her first ‘book’ when she was 9: an adventure about woodland animals which she illustrated herself.
She also kept diaries from the ages of 12 until 21, and during her two pregnancies. Although she jotted down plenty of story ideas during her teen years and twenties, she didn’t write her first novel until much later.
“I was accepted to study English and Film at the University of East Anglia but never ended up going,” she confesses. “Sometimes I’m glad I didn’t waste three years, other times I regret not having the experience many of my peers have had.” Although she appreciates the irony that she now regularly teaches on Masters of Arts (MA) courses, and she still managed to have the career she always dreamed of. “Instead of higher education, I was eager to start working in the creative industry as soon as I could.”
Based in London, Natali went on to work in editorial, advertising and marketing for glossy magazines, creative agencies, five-star hotels, and the travel industry. Moving to the south of Spain in 2010 meant she couldn’t continue her career to the same extent as she had in London, which is why she established herself as a freelancer. Being one of very few Spanish- and English-speaking, bilingual writers on the Costa del Sol, it meant she was able to write, art direct and provide marketing consultancy for various clients in the entertainment, wedding, and fashion sectors.
But with every year that passed, her writer’s itch was becoming stronger and stronger.
“I was driving for hours every day to work, and spending my nights awake looking after my baby daughters.” (She had two girls two years apart). “The only way I could stay sane during that time was by losing myself in a story I had started to create in my mind.”
This is how her first fantasy trilogy was born. From 2012–2015, Natali wrote The Path Keeper, the first of three fantasy romance books touching upon esoteric themes such as past lives and angelic realms. Her first novel found a publisher in 2016 and was published a year later, but what followed was a blunt awakening on the reality of being an author.
Her publisher’s fantasy imprint folded, and Natali learned her second and third books were never going to be printed. Pulling her book away, she spent another nine months searching for a new publisher to get her trilogy back out into the world. It happened, but her journey from then until now has not been plain sailing.
“It’s ironic that my first book was called The Path Keeper, because my path as an author has not been a smooth one,” she explains. “Thankfully the lessons I have learned along the way means I have plenty of material for my column in Inspire the Mind.”
Things for Natali really took off in 2019 after she decided she needed to focus on “creative diversification.” (More on this in her first column.)
Instead of worrying about the books she had already written she chose to branch out in as many different creative fields as possible. She went back to drawing and painting, wrote her first manga series, and self-published her co-written paranormal romance series. She also began teaching for various universities and creative institutions, and mentoring writers directly and through the Caedis Knight Romance Academy that she established with her co-writer, Jacqueline Silvester.
Touching upon many different creative outlets helped her hit upon the book that would change the course of her writing career.
“I suddenly realised the power of applying my marketing experience to my writing,” she says. “I asked myself: how can I summarise my next book idea in one sentence that’s exciting enough to hook a reader in as few words as possible?”
Using this approach with her latest book, Good Girls Die Last (a feminist thriller about a girl battling to get home during a London heatwave, while the city is terrorised by a serial killer) not only landed her a literary agent in record time but a top publishing contract with Headline. The book is out in June 2023.
Why a column in Inspire the Mind, then?
“Being creative and looking after your mental health go hand in hand,” Natali explains.
Over the years, she has struggled with various mental health concerns: from suspected postnatal depression with both her daughters, to OCD tendencies in her early twenties, to burnout when her first book faced so many problems.
Moreover, reading and learning about mental health — neurodiversity, dyslexia and ADHD (attention deficit hyperactivity disorder) — allowed her to frame recurring difficulties across different generations in her family.
“The mind of an artist is unique,” she says. “I come from a long line of creatives and understanding what I know now about how the mind works have helped me make sense of many things in my past.”
Natali struggles with hyper focus and retention. Hyperfocus is common in people who work in the arts, and can be useful, for example, “if you are painting for ten hours straight, or write a book without looking up for a week, something that creatives need to do to succeed”.
She also can’t function if there’s too much noise or input, getting easily overwhelmed. Upon investigating further she discovered she suffers from misophonia — a decreased tolerance to certain repetitive sounds, like those produced when people are eating.
But her interest in mental health is also about supporting the wellbeing of artists and creatives, whose careers and lived experiences are less than ordinary.
“Making a living from being creative is very hard”, she explains.
“The multitude of rejections, the unpredictability of success, the subjectivity of judgement and criticism, the absence of meritocracy, and the lack of regular payments, all add to what is already a taxing job.”
Natali talks about the financial instability of those working in the arts, and how it’s a major stress factor for creatives.
“I hate the narrative that being a poor artist is somehow romantic,” she says with passion. “Romanticism doesn’t pay the mortgage”.
This is why diversifying creatively is so important to Natali: “If you put all your eggs in one creative basket, and it goes wrong — as it often does — you are going to suffer both emotionally and financially.”
And this is why she wanted to write for Inspire the Mind.
“I use creative diversity to manage my workload and keep sane,” she tells me. “With so many aspects of my career that I have such little control over, I like to have many things on the go so I have peace of mind that if one thing doesn’t go to plan, another might.”
She has named her column “Creativity & Balance” — in the hope to bring the latter to those who have the former.
She wants to talk about the fact that “there is not a right or wrong way to make art, that there is never just one path to creative success, and that mistakes are simply learning opportunities and stepping stones to the next big thing.”
Her compassion for creatives is evident in everything she says: “There are so many twists and turns in this game, being kind to yourself is really important. Give yourself a break. The next thing will be better”.
I ask her to sum up what it means to be a writer, a creative who is always conscious of looking after her mental health.
She shrugs and smiles, “it’s important to remember that, at the end of the day, nothing I do for work is life or death. We creatives simply tell stories. None of this is real.”
I am looking forward to some amazing reading!