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Often when I begin a new project, I have some image in my brain that’s demanding to be put down on paper. In the case of Everything All at Once, this image shows up immediately, on page 1, paragraph 1: it’s Sal Reaves attempting to throw his sister’s ashes off the side of a cliff, and having a big gust of wind send them straight back into his open mouth.
I can’t explain where this image came from, but it was strong enough for me that I sat down and wrote a few paragraphs about this little family saying goodbye to their beloved aunt/sister/sister-in-law. I had no idea who any of these people were at the time, but their names came to me right away, and I loved having to figure out how these strangers would react to something so terrible happening (could you imagine getting ashes in your mouth??).
I realized quickly that these people had a great sense of humor. While Dad retreats into the bushes to throw up, Mom, Lottie and Abe try to control the “powerful, takes-over-your-body kind of laugh” that’s bubbling up in all of them. Part of this reaction, I’m sure, is from absolute shock. But I also think there’s a certain coping mechanism at work here—they’re all devastated about the loss of their family member, and relieved at having something to actually laugh about and take their mind off the pain, if only for a few minutes. In that way, their laughing at what just happened isn’t in any way meant to be an insult to Helen. Rather, it’s just their own momentary way of dealing with their loss.
The ways in which families interact with each other—and especially when dealing with something heartbreaking, like a tragedy or a loss—are incredibly interesting to me. Once I had this first scene written down, I know that whatever this new project was, it was going to focus heavily on the family dynamics of these four people (five, including Aunt Helen) I’d just written about. I tried to keep that in mind in all the subsequent drafts, and I hope it comes through in the final book!