A friend of mine recently purchased two side-by-side tumbledown houses. Knowing that I’m currently writing about a hoarder, she invited me to look inside before the houses were demolished. They were occupied—I can hardly bring myself to say “lived in”—by two elderly sisters and their sundry flotsam and jetsam for many years. Imagining them shuffling about their hazardous piles, taking ancient medicines, fighting insects and vermin for their shreds of unoccupied space was grotesque, but it helped me also more fully imagine my character Sylvia’s life.
There was some dramatic irony in the experience, too. Nothing as significant as Oedipus killing his own father, but rather several poignant illustrations of the sisters’ (unwitting? helpless?) decline into decay. Among their many possessions were troves of self-help books. They were scattered about, like everything else, with no logical arrangement. But I found several of them lying artfully atop heaps of detritus, as though they might somehow mitigate the mess beneath them. Perhaps they represented the unattained goal of restoring or achieving order. Maybe they were left as offerings at the shrines of their inner demons. I’ll never know what purpose they served, but it makes me ache with tenderness for these two women, and appreciate the complexity of the real and imagined characters all around me.