Author Interview : Natalie Rodriguez, Author of Elephant
Elephant by Natalie Rodriguez is a YA psychological suspense book. It is the story of a teenage boy Matthew Jimmy Smith (Matty/Matt) whose life turns upside down with one event in his life.
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I recently got an opportunity to talk with the author Natalie Rodriguez. In this talk, Natalie talked about her book, inspiration behind writing this book, how she dealt with rejections, and mental health. At the end of this talk, she also gave valuable advice to upcoming authors.
Hello Natalie! Tell us something about you and your book?
Hello! My name is Natalie Rodriguez. Growing up, I used to struggle with reading and writing. I even attended a Reading Speech Vocabulary Program (otherwise, known as RSVP) in the first grade. Back then, my heart was settled more on becoming an actress, begging my parents to either relocate us to Hollywood or let me take classes. As I got older, progressing into my later elementary school years, I was assigned a project that would forever change my life.
The project was to write and create a story. For me, it was the earlier drafts of “Elephant.” Back then, it was called “The Strange Wind of Skull Hollow.” In order to pass the fifth grade and move onto middle school, I forced myself to start the project; but I ended up wanting to write the project every day after school as soon as I typed out the opening lines for the book.
“Elephant” was originally a children’s story. It was the birth of Matthew “Matty/Matt” Smith’s journey. And then for the next few years, I thought about Matty and his friends’ journey. I was OBSESSED with them.
How did the idea of this book strike your head?
Since the project was a mandatory assignment in the fifth grade at my school, I was sort of forced to come up with an idea. At the time, I was into drawing and coloring a lot of Halloween theme images such as pumpkins, witches, and skeletons (hint: skeleton was my inspiration to come up with the original title, “The Strange Wind of Skull Hollow). From there onward, working on the project, I kept imagining themes of friendship, family values, grief and of course, the ‘unspoken’ that goes in many households. We see the ‘unspoken’ being discussed heavily throughout “Elephant” in Matty’s story the most.
Also in the fifth grade, my childhood best friend and I used to joke about having a band - her and I. We used to discuss having two girls (being us) and two boys - the character, Derek, is actually based on a former childhood classmate of mine (named Derek). The ‘real’ Derek was known as the class clown and he was notorious for yelling and making comments during class sessions. He was a funny kid.
How long did it take to finish this book?
The book started as a fifth-grade project, so I was eleven years old when I first wrote the earlier drafts of “Elephant.” Today, I recently turned twenty-eight years old. So, it took around seventeen years from starting and finishing the book, including the edits my team of editors and I went through prior to its publication. This journey has definitely taught me patience and to also see that part of the process is rejection.
Did you face any rejections in the beginning? If yes, how did you deal with it?
Oh, YES - rejection was part of the process for this book when I was cold pitching (otherwise known as a query letter) to literary agents and publishers. At first, I was unsure of how I would handle that first ‘no,’ aka rejection. It was around a week before graduating high school when I received my first rejection letter. It was from the agency who represents some talented authors, including Nicholas Sparks (who wrote “The Notebook,” “The Last Song,” “Dear John,” and others). I bawled my eyes out, until a few minutes after opening the rejection letter I realized that it was Nick Sparks’ agents who told me NO.
I thought it was sort of cool that one of my favorite authors’ representative turned me down. With each rejection letter, I took that as a stepping stone on the forthcoming journey of getting a book published. Like a film or a TV show, it takes TIME for something to see daylight. The journey of “Elephant” has taught me patience.
I still have most of the rejection letters, both letters and emails. I used to look at them in the earlier days, especially when I wanted to quit, as a reminder to keep going.
It is interesting how failures and rejections inspire us in our lives. What was one of the most interesting things you realized while writing this book?
The most interesting thing I realized while writing the book was heaviness; it dealt with mental health and ongoing themes of standing up for yourself. It is a personal matter for me. For years, I, myself, struggled with finding my own voice due to a lot of chaos that went on growing up. Today, people might know me as an extrovert of a people-person but growing up, I was quiet and shy. We see most of these subjects throughout Matty Smith’s journey such as addiction, family secrets, and abuse (whether primary or secondary).
While reading and editing the latter drafts of “Elephant,” I felt very proud for not holding back on these topics. Like Matty Smith, a character whom I will forever hold dear to my heart, there are other people out there who have or share a similar journey as you. No one is EVER truly alone and I hope that is something the readers can take away: there is forever HOPE.
I agree! So, what was the most difficult thing related to writing about mental health ?
The hardest part about writing about mental health and related topics was the emotions going through it - while telling the story of these characters, especially the protagonist, Matty. In the earlier drafts of writing and editing the book, I listened to a lot of music to soothe my nerves and mind. Most of the music I wrote to was the work of Explosions in the Sky, Slipknot, and Jimi Hendrix. The music sort of distracted me in the earlier days.
As I got older, especially in the most recent months of editing the manuscript to prep for publication, I was quite HORRIFIED by the story. What shocked me the most was how much darker the book got over the years. Like some readers have mentioned in their reviews or to me personally, I FELT Matty’s frustrations, pain and overall, anxiety, throughout his journey. It was even getting me angry and upset at times, but that is NOT a bad thing.
When you are rereading something that can be so triggering, I knew taking breaks was going to be my new outlet while working on the book, in addition to having a music playlist and even having the TV on in the background for some noise.
Now living on my own, I also have the family eight-year-old cat (named Matty, after the book’s main character) with me. Matty the Cat has become a support animal for me and having him here during the edits has HELPED. Also, so has therapy, which I have been going to weekly since the quarantine.
This is great to know from the author's perspective because most of the time the process remains in the background and people always look at the outcome. Do you read your book reviews? How do you deal with bad or good ones?
I try not to read the reviews for any of my work. I am guilty of taking things too personal in the past but, what artist doesn’t! Lately, I have been reading the reviews that the wonderful bloggers and readers have been posting on their social platforms. It is very interesting to see what they both resonate with or even flat out dislike. I think that is the KEY to feedback is seeing what works and perhaps, does not come across as clear with the readers.
So true! As you are a filmmaker, have you thought of turning this book into a movie or web series?
YES, this is one of my goals but as you can imagine with everything going on right now - with studios and productions shutting down due to COVID - it is more of a waiting game. So stay tuned! I am shopping the book around to a few places.
Amazing! Looking forward to the film. As it’s a book series, tell us something about the next book.
Originally, “Skeletons” was part of book one, “Elephant,” until I decided to split the first book in half; therefore, by doing so, it created book two, “Skeletons.” My wonderful editor, Katie, who is also a writer herself just sent me the first round of edits of “Skeletons” earlier this week. I screamed and cried tears of joy!
Without giving too much away, “Skeletons” picks up four weeks after “Elephant,” where we continue with Matty’s journey on finding answers to the whereabouts of his family and even sanity.
Here’s my last question for you. What advice do you have for new writers?
Just remember that your work is YOUR VOICE, so never hold back on sharing a journey of a character(s) or even your own. Also, try and see a rejection (“no”) as a step closer to that first “YES”!
I cannot agree more on this! Thanks, Natalie for your time and candid answers. Looking forward to the next book and the film based on these books! Wishing you all the success.
Check out this book here :