A Literary Double Threat

By Margo Hammond

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Natalie Symons
A Literary Double Threat

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Double threat: n. a person who is skilled at two things

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Meet Natalie Symons. Like a running quarterback on the football field, she is a double threat in the literary world – an award-winning playwright and a top-of-the charts literary thriller writer.

Last September Symons’ play The People Downstairs premiered at American Stage after its opening had been delayed by the COVID shutdown. It’s her “masterpiece,” declared Peter Nason in Broadway World, a theatre news website based in New York City covering Broadway, Off-Broadway, regional and international theatre productions. In 2021 The People Downstairs had received the Broadway World Regional Award for Best Original Script of the Decade.

Also last September Symons published her first book of fiction, Lies in Bone. The literary suspense novel won a slew of book awards, including The Royal Dragonfly Literary Award, the 2021 Best Book Award from American Book Fest, the Eric Hoffer Literary Award, the NIEA Award. The book also was the 2021 Somerset Grand Prize in literary and contemporary fiction at CIBA (Chanticleer International Book Awards).
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Last May when Lies in Bone came out as an audiobook, it soared to Number 1 across all categories on Audible, besting such blockbusters as Where the Crawdads Sing, Viola’s Davis’ memoir Finding Me, Matthew McConaughey’s memoir Greenlights and Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone — and became an international best-seller on Amazon.

When she was a little girl growing up in Buffalo, did Symons dream of being a playwright or a thriller writer?

“Neither,“ she laughed when I reached her by telephone. “I wanted to be an actress.”

Her pursuit of a career on the stage eventually did lead to her successful career as a writer for the stage, but it took a pandemic and a theater shutdown to turn her into a thriller writer.

I first saw a Natalie Symons’ play at an “after hours” performance at American Stage in 2013 with a posse of friends that often travel together (the woman who launched the group dubbed us the Wild Women and the label has stuck). The play, Lark Eden, which had been workshopped at Seattle’s Theatre Schmeatre in 2011, certainly offered the Wild Women an appropriately wild journey.

Lark Eden traces the lifelong friendships of three Southern women, described in the playbill as “girls with skinned knees catching frogs who turned into wizened grandmothers.” In our production the trio was played by Bonnie Agan, Roxanne Faye and Monica Merryman.

Written in epistolary form with the women writing notes, letters and telegrams to each other over the years, from the Depression era through the early years of the 21st century, the work had us crying and laughing, often at the same time.

“It sneaks up on you,” wrote the Seattle Times at Lark Eden’s premiere there. “What begins as a pleasant romp gradually activates more and more emotions.” Critics compared it to Thornton Wilder’s Our Town.
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Symons’ next three plays — The Buffalo KingsNaming True and, her most recent, The People Downstairs — have all been comedies, some darker than others, but each one carrying a similar emotional punch in the gut as Lark EdenThe Buffalo Kings and The People Downstairs are set in Symons’ hometown of Buffalo while Naming True takes place in a Florida motel room, but all three, like Lark Eden, offer audiences the healing power of laughter. Laughter, it would seem, is Symons’ trademark.

Natalie Symons, the playwright, that is.

Not so for Symons, the thriller writer.

When I picked up Lies in Bone, I was expecting to find the same quirky humor that runs through all her plays. But laughter isn’t what drives the narrative in this gothic story of dysfunctional families set in a grim, fictional Pennsylvania steel town called Slippery Elm. What pulls you in is dark suspense, the intriguing story of an unsolved case, the sudden and unexplained disappearance of a child 20 years before the novel begins.

Lies in Bone does include some scenes reminiscent of the striking images Symons uses to such great effect on the stage. The opening scene of the novel features two brothers, the eldest dressed as Spiderman, the younger one in a goofy Huckleberry Hound costume, bicycling through a toxic fog on Halloween eve (one of them becomes the cold case of the novel). The novel also has its share of the kind of quirky characters that memorably people Symons’ plays. But while the exchanges between the narrator of the story (a girl goes by the name of Frank) and her wry, gay friend Ray are amusingly snarky, they never have you laughing out loud like Estelle does in The Buffalo Kings or Miles does in The People Downstairs.

Why such a stark difference in the use of humor in her plays versus her first novel?

“When I have a play read, even if there are only five people in the audience, or just the director and a lighting operator, I can see if it’s landing, especially the humor,” explains Symons. Not so with her novel. She wasn’t there when her beta readers read her book.

“Beta readers,” Symons says, are what she calls the people who agreed to read her book in progress and offer gentle criticism (“I can’t take anything too harsh,” she laughs). When her beta readers were reading those first drafts, unlike at her live play readings, she couldn’t see if a scene was “landing” or gauge when and if her readers were getting bored. She had to rely on what they told her they liked or didn’t like. She admits, based on that feedback, she did kill “a few darlings” from those first drafts. But she was never compelled to add humor.

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Perhaps writing the novel in isolation during a pandemic drew Symons into a darker place. But despite the lack of humor in Lies in Bone, the literary thriller does have one element in common with all her writing. Like her plays, it celebrates the resilience of the human spirit. “To me, they are all life-affirming stories,” says Symons.

Symons also points out an important commonality that links her first play with her first novel – the presence of a dog.

“I can’t get enough of dogs,” admits the playwright/thriller writer. She and her husband Jim Sorenson just added a second rescue dog, which they named Ted Danson, to her household. “We don’t know what he is (a pocket-sized Leonberger? A pocketberger?) but he’s ridiculously sweet and he has even helped Chloe get over her thunder anxiety!” she wrote in her newsletter to fans.

Does Symons plan now to toggle between playwriting and book writing?

She certainly isn’t planning to abandon her first literary threat. She is co-writing a play titled Nightsweat with actor Matthew McGee and is developing a limited series for television. Next February The People Downstairs will have its Western premiere in Seattle.

She admits, however, that her current passion is to pursue more novel writing and is working on her next novel.
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Natalie Symons and Jim Sorenson

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Hopefully, she says, that novel will snag a New York publisher who could help her drum up maximum buzz for the work. With Lies in Bone Symons says getting the word out was a lot of work. She had to handle most of the publicity push since she opted for a small publishing house (Boyle & Dalton) with a limited budget.

Despite the extra work though, publicity director may be Symons’ third super skill in the literary world. I counted no less than 17 blurbs included in the paperback copy I read, an impressive number for a publicity novice. There is a rave review from Pulitzer-Prize winning journalist Lane DeGregory on the cover (“I didn’t know Lane, but I admired her work, so I asked her to read my book. She was incredibly generous”). Inside there are six pages of praise from St. Pete Catalyst editor Bill DeYoung, then-duPont Registry Tampa Bay editor David Warner (now City Editor, 6AM City), fellow authors Lori D. Shannon, Paul Wilborn, Hannah Benitez, Diane Chiddister and Greg Fields, fellow actors J. Elijah Cho and Matthew McGee, fellow playwright and actor Roxanne Fay, Beauty & The ‘Burg podcaster Cindy Stovall and feature writer Julie Garisto as well as positive reviews from Kirkus, Readers’ Favorite and Broadway World, and Independent Book Review.

And then there was that Number # spot her first novel grabbed on Audiobook, a PR dream.

On second thought, make that Natalie Symons, triple literary threat.
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