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My Writing Life: The Perfect Life by Nuala Ellwood

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By Nuala Ellwood

For as long as I can remember, stories have been my way of making sense of the world. The books I read as a child served as signposts, helping me navigate my way through the maze of childhood and were my constants in both the good times and the bad. From shy Tolly finding his voice through the stories of his long dead ancestors, in THE CHILDREN OF GREEN KNOWE, to Mildred Hubble struggling to fit in at Miss Cackle’s Academy for Witches in THE WORST WITCH, for every question or problem I had, there was an answer to be found in my beloved books.  Growing up, I was surrounded by words. My father was a journalist who had a love of stories and language that permeated the house as well as a study packed with books. Dad’s study was my favourite room in the house and, when I was six years old, I spent an entire summer cataloguing all the books with my own, homemade, library cards, a system that exists to this day. Yet, my world expanded when I joined my local library and got a real library card, which for me was a ticket to mysterious and exciting new lands. It was there that I discovered THE CHRONICLES OF NARNIA and THE SECRET GARDEN, MOONDIAL and THE DARK IS RISING, books that I would go on to read again and again. It was also, at one of the round tables by the window, where I began to write my own stories and started to dream that one day, just maybe, they might be published

However, as the years passed, though I continued to find solace in books and words, my writing came out ‘song-shaped’- and, after graduating from Durham University, I spent my early twenties working at the Chelsea Arts Club by day and writing songs and performing with jazz groups by night. I lived in Soho, in a tiny studio flat, directly opposite Ronnie Scott’s jazz club. Though the flat was cramped and basic, it was an eyrie, a place to observe the comings and goings of the people who passed by. All of life seemed to be represented in Soho and as I sat looking out, I would jot down ideas for novels and stories, inspired by the scenes on the street below. As time went by, I found myself spending more time with my notebook than at the piano. It was then I realized that my life was going in a different direction, though it would take a few more years, and the arrival of my baby to reach my destination.

When my son was born, I moved from London to North Yorkshire and settled in York. Being a parent to a young baby leaves little time for writing and I often found myself scribbling down ideas late at night or first thing in the morning when my son was sleeping. I knew that if I wanted to develop the ideas that had gestated in Soho, I would have to carve out some time to write. So I enrolled on an MA course in Creative Writing at York St John University, which, looking back, was one of the best decisions I have ever made. While at first, the prospect of workshopping my writing in front of the class was daunting, I soon found that the feedback I received from both my peers and tutors, as well as the pockets of time to write, was invaluable. By the time I graduated, I had a first draft of what would go on to be my debut novel.  A few months later, I submitted it to Madeleine Milburn at the Madeleine Milburn TV, Film and Literary Agency and was offered representation. In 2015, after spending a year writing and researching, I signed a two-book deal with Penguin. My debut thriller, MY SISTER’S BONES, which told the story of a female war reporter suffering from PTSD, was published in 2017. The novel went on to be a bestseller, was optioned for film by Bill Kenwright Films and I was chosen as one of the Observer’s ‘New Faces of Fiction 2017’.

Since then, I have written four more novels for Penguin, including the bestselling DAY OF THE ACCIDENT and THE HOUSE ON THE LAKE. My latest novel, THE PERFECT LIFE, which is out now, explores the children’s stories, and their authors, that shaped me as a child. The novel tells the story of Vanessa Adams, a troubled young woman who finds solace in viewing houses she cannot possibly afford. For Vanessa, escaping into other people’s lives via their houses, is rather like escaping into a fairy tale. It gives her the same sense of stepping out of time as reading her favourite stories did when she was a child. However, she soon finds her life coming apart when she goes to view a grand Hampstead house, owned by Geoffrey Rivers, a reclusive but well-known children’s author. Shortly after Vanessa leaves the house, Rivers is found dead and Vanessa, as the last person to see him alive, becomes the prime suspect in his murder. As truth and fantasy become increasingly blurred, Vanessa must fight to prove her innocence while, unbeknown to her, someone is watching her every move. The novel is both a love letter to the stories I read as a child as well as an exploration of the darker side of some our most beloved children’s authors.

If I could give one piece of advice to aspiring writers, it would be to step away from the desk, every so often, and explore. Be curious. Listen to people; take note of their voices, their mannerisms, their quirks. Absorb yourself in landscapes, be they rural or urban, listen to what they are trying to tell you. My novels have all been inspired by a particular setting that I wanted to capture in a story. From the light altering shingle beaches of the North Kent coast to the watery marshland of East Sussex, I believe that landscapes hold stories under their surface. Those stories have always been there, and it is our task, as writers, to bring them out into the light.

(c) Nuala Ellwood

About The Perfect Life:


Vanessa has always found it easy to pretend to be somebody different, somebody better. When things get tough in her real life, all she has to do is throw on some nicer clothes, adopt a new accent and she can escape.

That’s how it started: looking round houses she couldn’t possibly afford. Harmless fun really. Until it wasn’t.

Because a man who lived in one of those houses is dead.

And everyone thinks Vanessa killed him…

‘A gripping, poignant novel … I read it in one sitting’ Rosamund Lupton

‘A clever, twisty plot that takes psychological mind games to a new level. Nuala Ellwood has done it again!’ Jane Corry

Order your copy online here.

About the author

Nuala Ellwood is the author of three bestselling novels: My Sister’s Bones for which she was selected as one of the Observer’s ‘New Faces of Fiction 2017’, Day of the Accident and The House on the Lake. Nuala lives in York with her young son.

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