Interview: Natalie Taylor – Signs of Life
Natalie Taylor is the author of the memoir, Signs of Life, in which she examines losing her husband, Josh, at the age of twenty-four while five months pregnant with their son, Kai.
She is deeply honest and brave in this book, detailing her journey through grief, family dynamics, and new motherhood. As a high school English teacher, Taylor enriches her own writing with references and musings on authors whose words have touched her. This book is a must read and I hope you will enjoy our wonderful interview:
Why did you want to share your story in a memoir and how were you able to get this book published?
I wanted to share my story because one of my biggest challenges in grieving was that I constantly felt like I was alone. I felt like I was the only 24 year-old widow on the planet. That makes it hard because grief can make your brain to all sorts of weird things and if you go through those things by yourself, you start to think you’re crazy. But if you learn about other people who are going through the same thing, you start to realize you’re just being human. I so badly wanted other people to know that if they had talked to thin air, stared at a calendar suddenly mystified by the concept of time passing, or broken out into tears at the Home Depot check-out line, they were not crazy.
I was able to get this book published because I am a very lucky person. I gave it to my brother who is a screenwriter in L.A. and he handed to these guys who handed it to this other guy and that guy handed it to a book agent. She called me and a few months later, we found an editor. Every step along the way I kept thinking, “if it only goes this far, I’ll be happy because it means someone out there other than my mother really believes in this book.” And then it just kept going until a box of hardcover books showed up at my door one day with my name on them.
How did you balance writing, motherhood, and your career as an English teacher?
This is a two-part answer. 1. For the first two years of Kai’s life I was so incredibly scared to have any free time, I worked until I was too tired to close my lap-top. After Kai fell asleep, I could not handle the idea of walking out into a empty house and thinking, “now what?” And really, I could only clean the kitchen so many times. So I made a project and decided to write a book. As exhausting as all of it was, it was better than watching television by myself.
As a writer, what is your schedule and process?
A lot of times I think of stuff when I drive or when I’m in the shower, which may sound bizarre. But usually I think about something until I really feel like if I don’t write it down, I’ll forget about it. Sometimes I only have about 30 seconds to type an idea into the computer before my son comes up to me with 16 questions about Egrets. But then later when I have some time to myself, I go back and write for a while until the thing that was in my head is on a screen where I can shape it and trim it up the way I want to.
In terms of a schedule, I set a lot of deadlines for myself or else I’d never get anything done. As an English teacher, I have papers to grade every few weeks, so I typically write in waves and then when papers come in, I dedicate all of my time to those and then eventually get back to the writing.
What were the inspirations behind the cover images on the hardback and paperback versions of your book?
We wanted something that said, “This book has a sad premise, but it’s going to be okay in the end.” It’s hard to convince people to read a book when you say, “It’s about this pregnant woman whose husband dies.” So we wanted a hopeful, uplifting image to help the reader understand that it wasn’t a dark story, because it really isn’t. It’s more about life than death.
Describe the response of your students when you became a published author.
They asked the best questions. “Are you going to be on Oprah?!” “Can we Google you?!” “Does this mean you are a millionaire?!” Bless their heart for thinking an author could be a millionaire. For the most part though, it was business as usual in room 270.
How has becoming a writer influenced your work as a high school English teacher?
As an English teacher, I constantly say, “Authors make choices.” Often times we get so wrapped up in the story we forget that there is a puppeteer behind every character and that puppeteer is deciding where the action goes. Sometimes that is tough to get across to students that someone would spend so much time thinking about these small details in a text. “What if Fitzgerald just felt like making it rain! Why does there have to be a reason!?” They always ask stuff like that. But there is a reason! Now I can speak from experience that authors really do make choices. Of course, I am not an author of literature, but after going through the editing process with an editor, it made me realize how every single detail really does speak to “the work as a whole,” as we say in Lit class. But, at the same time, these are teenagers and no matter how much experience I do or don’t have as an author, I am still an adult to them, which means I have no idea what I am talking about.
You were candidly honest in your book. What was the reaction of the real life characters who were depicted in your story?
Incredibly supportive. That’s the long and the short of it. I had numerous conversations with people as I was writing the book to make sure I could include the events that I included, names, etc., and all I got was love and support.
As a bibliophile, I felt a kindred spirit in your numerous literary references. Can you share some of your most favorite authors and titles?
This is a hard question! Ranking my favorite books is like ranking my friends—they all bring something wonderful and different into my life. If I had to say, I absolutely love The Color Purple. Right after Josh passed away I remember thinking, “no one knows how I feel, no one has ever felt as bad as I have felt,” and then I thought about Celie and her life is way worse than mine. But Walker is so good that by the end she gives us hope. I also love The Grapes of Wrath. I think ever American citizen should read it. I sincerely believe Barack Obama should lead a book group on The Grapes of Wrath. (Or Maybe Michelle should do the book group now that I think about it). But the list is endless. Every time I read The Great Gatsby I think to myself, “How could one man think of this all by himself.” I am reading One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest for the first time and I can’t put it down. To me, reading classic literature is like watching the Olympics. You just sit back and think, “Wow. Look at what our species is capable of.”
What is life like since readers last read the epilogue in Signs of Life?
This is so hard to describe because the last time people saw me, the sun was just rising for me, but I still had a long way to go. Now, life is amazing. Life after death has given me an appreciation for living that I never had before. I just like to soak up the little moments like walking Kai in to school, listening to him play with his toys, watching him sound out letters. We spend a lot of time with our family and friends. They are still solid as a rock for us.
What are your current writing projects and do you hope to publish another book?
I have a current project right now, but I’m going to keep it quiet. But I can tell you that I feel really good about it. Having a project is fun and I definitely feel at my best when I have something cooking.
**Thank you to Emily Stinson for sharing this amazing book with this me- Jenny R.