About the Author: “Natalie Mae is an ex-programmer, dessert enthusiast, and author of young adult novels. She has also been a freelance editor and Pitch Wars mentor, and feels it notable to mention she once held a job where she had to feed spiders. Her work has been acclaimed by People Magazine, School Library Journal, Kirkus Reviews, USA Today, YASLA and HuffPost. She now writes full-time at home with a bag of dark chocolates in one hand and a leopard cat on her lap. She is most definitely not checking Instagram right now.” (Bio taken from the author’s website. Headshot taken by Sarah Bohne.)
Wendy Waltrip: First off, congratulations on a wonderful debut! What can you tell us about the world and characters of your novel, The Kinder Poison?
Natalie Mae: Thank you so much! The Kinder Poison is an enthralling fantasy adventure that follows Zahru, a sixteen-year-old girl who is chosen to be the human sacrifice in a deadly game between three heirs who will do anything for the crown. Zahru is a dreamer who often lets her mouth get ahead of her brain, and the heirs she has to contend with are Prince Kasta, a secretive boy with the power over death; Prince Jet, a charismatic swordsman who can bend and manipulate soundwaves; and Princess Sakira, a troublemaking party girl who can create almost any type of magic with a paintbrush. The enchanting desert world of The Kinder Poison was inspired by ancient cultures like Greece, Egypt, and Rome, as well as a dash of modern culture, and of course a generous sprinkle of magic.
WW: You’ve held a lot of different jobs in the literary world, from being a freelance editor to a Pitch Wars mentor. How did you find your way into the literary world? Have you always wanted to be an author, or is that something that you found out later in life?
NM: I didn’t actually think being an author was a job possibility until I was several years out of college. I just had no idea how that worked at all, like maybe authors just existed out there? Like stars? Anyway, I was working as a computer programmer, but I’ve always loved to write since I was very young, and one day I just thought, “With all these random bits of stories I’ve written over the years, I could have finished a book!” – And that was it. I looked into the process for getting published, which led me to the phenomenal author community on Twitter, which drew me into the communities for Pitch Wars and eventually my job as a freelance editor. Writing has been my life ever since.
WW: When approaching this fantasy novel, how did you decide what to include in the kingdom of Orkena and the world around it? What can you tell us about your writing process?
NM: When building the kingdom of Orkena, I started with a document detailing what I felt were the basics for a civilization, like—how people dressed, what they ate, where they lived, how they built and sustained cities, what religion(s) they believed, class structure, and their relationship to their rulers and other kingdoms. And of course in this case, what kind of magic they had and what that determined as far as class and privilege. But when I wrote the actual book, my goal was not to cram in every detail from that document. Rather, I kept those details in the back of my mind as I drafted, only filling in the necessary pieces as the story demanded it. And sometimes the story itself would challenge me to think deeper about my world, and so Orkena grew and changed as I wrote.
And actually, that’s a good way to describe my writing process in general. I always start with a basic outline of the characters and story, then start writing, and adjust and expand as I go. My first drafts are often tens of thousands of words shorter than my finals, which can sometimes translate to over a hundred new pages in revisions!
WW: How did you first come up with this idea? What characters and events in The Kinder Poison were inspired by the people and events of your life?
NM: The idea for the story came from an article I read about archaeologists finding the bones of children on a mountain, who were clearly ritual sacrifices, but who didn’t appear to have suffered or struggled in any way. That got me thinking about what it would be like to live in a time when sacrifice was accepted and/or revered, and especially what it would be like to be chosen for such a thing.
As to characters and events inspired by my life, I’m happy to say that none of the events that happen in the book come from experience (yikes!), but I do put pieces of people I know and love into each of my characters. Dear friends inspired the characters of Zahru, Sakira, and Hen, and their friendships are based on real friendships I have, as well.
WW: Family is an important element in the book, both to Zahru with her father and to the three royal siblings. What would you like readers to take away from the presentation of family in this novel?
NM: Family is all about the people who shape us – both in positive and negative ways. I also love the concept of found family, which Zahru also forms in the book! But I think it’s interesting to explore what kind of pressure love puts on us, whether it’s to do better or maybe even to go too far. Hopefully readers will take away the positive pieces of these family bonds, and without spoiling anything … maybe go easier on each other? As sometimes the case may be…
WW: Throughout the novel, Zahru struggles with comparing herself and her ability to the other characters and their abilities. How did you approach Zahru’s inner struggle? What message are you hoping to pass onto readers through Zahru?
NM: Honestly, Zahru’s inner struggle comes from personal experience. I’ve always been petite and looked much younger than my age, and therefore always been acutely aware of the differences between myself and my peers – especially in school, when I looked like everyone’s way younger sibling. Seriously, as a senior in high school, one of my teachers asked if I was supposed to be in eighth grade. And so I watched my glittering fellow students who looked like adults and were so much more confident/able/everything than me, and I often felt like I had nothing to offer in comparison. I wasn’t strong, wasn’t beautiful, wasn’t athletic, and super shy. I could write … I didn’t know yet I could do anything with that. But a lot of Zahru’s struggle is from that. And hopefully this book will show readers that they are still powerful even if they don’t have any of those traditionally celebrated strengths.
WW: If you could pick any of the abilities from the book, which one would you most like to have and why?
NM: While it’s very tempting to pick Influence, which is the mind-controlling ability the sacrificial knife awards to the winner at the end of the book, I think I’d have to pick the Speaker’s power, which is the ability to master many different types of magic, and comes with a three-thousand year lifespan. I’d love to have that much time to travel and see how the world changed over centuries.
WW: What were your favorite moments in The Kinder Poison to write? Were there any that you found more difficult to write?
NM: Action scenes are my jam, so the transitions between the heirs and the fight scenes were some of my favorites to write. I also really like two of the characters together–I won’t say which, lest I sway anyone away from their faves–and so those scenes were always a joy as well.
For me, it’s internal thought – tracking Zahru’s emotional journey over the book – that I always find the hardest to put into words. Without the help of my brilliant editors, I tend to be all over the place or to go very abruptly from one state of mind to another. It takes many revisions for me to make sure that transition happens gradually.
WW: Having now gone through the entire publishing process, if you could give any advice to the version of yourself writing the first draft of The Kinder Poison (or to any aspiring authors out there), what would it be?
NM: Oh man, I think it would have to be: Just Keep Going. There were so many times I wanted to quit, so many times I freaked out that I couldn’t do the revisions being asked or that I was making the book worse, and before I had my book deal for The Kinder Poison, there was always that doubt whether I was even good enough to be published. But those wise people are not kidding when they say the only way to fail is to quit. Keep going, make connections with other writers who are at your same stage, keep cheering each other on. I did this knowing nothing about publishing. You can do this too.
WW: Finally, what’s next for you? Can you tell us anything about the sequel to The Kinder Poison?
NM: While I can’t share details yet about the other projects under my belt, I can assure you revisions are heavily underway for The Kinder Poison II! I can tell you we have a title, that the kingdom tensions built up in the first book reach deadly breaking points, and that an unexpected challenger for the throne sets everything into absolute chaos. I can’t reveal much else without spoilers, but rest assured that certain beloved characters will reappear in the second installment, and that political intrigue will abound!
PRR Writer, Wendy Waltrip
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