The idea for my novel Everything is Beautiful, about an artist who becomes a hoarder, came to me while I was pregnant with my second child. As my belly grew bigger and I found it more difficult to lift my toddler son, he started collecting objects in the park: twigs, empty bottles and wilting daisies.
He treasured these objects almost compulsively, I think holding on to his possessions in expectation of the changes that were to come. It made me think of an instinct many of us have – to hold onto things to help us feel secure – and what might happen if that spiralled out of control.
At that time I was back at my day job, pregnant and looking after a toddler, so I didn’t have time to write straight away. But the idea was percolating, the characters forming, and by the time my daughter was born I couldn’t wait to get started.
Luckily second time around I didn’t have first-time mum anxieties to drain my mental energy. My daughter was an excellent napper and my son was happily settled at nursery. I began.
I started off scribbling thoughts and ideas in a notebook. It was a sunny February so I’d wrap the baby up warm, take the pram and sit to write in the park. I didn’t do a detailed plan for the novel, but wrote a rough outline of what I wanted the story to be. It covered about two sides of A4.
Once I had the essence of the story, I moved my writing indoors so I could work at my computer. My daughter snuggled on my chest, sleeping happily while I tapped on the keyboard. I was surrounded by toddler toys and baby essentials littering the house as I created my protagonist’s crowded world. I ignored the mess and carried on typing – I wanted to finish the book before I had to return to work.
It became trickier as the baby grew– by the time she was six months old she wanted to type too, and I had to write only when she was asleep. But by then the idea had taken hold and it was easy to wipe the milk sick from my keyboard and keep going. Knowing that the baby could wake up and need attention at any time really focused my mind – there was no procrastinating.
Lots of the story changed as I wrote. What I found the hardest was getting the main character right. I wanted her to be a hoarder, but not the stereotypical kind you might see on TV shows. She’s not yet forty, has a respectable job and dresses smartly. You’d never imagine the state her house is in. But how she looks is a front she puts on for the world to hide how damaged she is. She holds onto things because she hasn’t been able to hold onto people – her best friend and boyfriend disappeared at the same time, years previously, and she’s never discovered the truth of what happened. Without closure, her grief has turned into an obsession with objects. Empty glass bottles, wilted honeysuckle, newspapers, cigarette lighters. Things that remind her of the people she loves. People who have left her.
Some elements of the story took research. I read a lot online about hoarders, I watched the TV shows and I met with a few to interview them. The research was why I decided to make my hoarder artistic – like an artist, the people I interviewed saw beauty in unlikely objects. Other ideas came to me in a flash of inspiration – for example, each chapter of the backstory is named after an object my protagonist collects and explores why it has become significant to her. That idea was a real ‘middle of the night’ moment – I had to drag myself out of bed to write it down before I forgot.
I knew I wanted children to have a role in my character’s recovery – probably because I was surrounded by them myself. The digger-obsessed child from next door who upsets my protagonist’s possessions, encourages her investigations and ultimately, understands her better anyone else, was the most fun to write and one of the elements early readers have told me they’ve enjoyed the most.
So I very much have my own children to thank for this book – for giving me the inspiration, the deadlines and some of my favourite characters. Two kids under two may not seem like ideal novel writing ingredients, but it worked for me. Having said that, I do hope I can write my next book without anyone needing a nappy change when I’m midway through a sentence.
(c) Eleanor Ray
Everything is Beautiful is out now in ebook/audiobook and in hardback on 25th March 2021.
About Everything is Beautiful:
When Amy Ashton’s world fell apart eleven years ago, she started a collection.
Just a few keepsakes of happier times: some honeysuckle to remind herself of the boy she loved, a chipped china bird, an old terracotta pot . . . Things that others might throw away, but to Amy, represent a life that could have been.
Now her house is overflowing with the objects she loves – soon there’ll be no room for Amy at all. But when a family move in next door, a chance discovery unearths a mystery, and Amy’s carefully curated life begins to unravel. If she can find the courage to face her past, might the future she thought she’d lost still be hers for the taking?
Perfect for fans of Eleanor Oliphant and The Keeper of Lost Things, this exquisitely told, uplifting novel shows us that however hopeless things might feel, beauty can be found in the most unexpected of places
‘This book took hold of me and wouldn’t let me go until I turned the final page’ BETH O’LEARY
‘Beautifully written and thought-provoking’ KATIE FFORDE
‘A gorgeous, warm hug of a novel’ SINEAD MORIATRY
Order your copy online here.