Laline Paull talks about her first novel, The Bees
How did you become inspired to write about bees?
My beekeeper friend Angie Biltcliffe opened the magic door to the hive for me. She was dying of cancer, and she said she hoped there would be a flowering of creativity when she had gone. I took that very much to heart. Immediately after her funeral I started reading about the honeybees she loved so much and called "her girls." That was it for me; intrigue became fascination became obsession with the incredible ancient social order that is the hive, and the extraordinary process of making the unique substance that is honey. Bees are quite miraculous creatures.
One of the most remarkable aspects of The Bees is the complex gender politics. How close is this to the reality of the hive?
I'm neither beekeeper nor biologist, but I have tried to do my research as well as I can and I believe that I've got it more or less accurate: the Queen is the only fertile female in her society, the huge majority of the workforce are sterile females, and the small minority of drones exist solely to fly out to inseminate a queen or princess (unmated queen) from another hive. And, yes, when their summer of love has passed, the remaining drones are driven out of their home hive, to certain death. And imagine being the queen--the only one of your kind. The power, and the loneliness.
An even more charged issue in the novel is fertility--only the queen may breed, a law enforced with violence. The effect is of a dystopian society--but it's complicated because the hive is a very fragile ecosystem.
You're right; by human standards it's dystopian--but this is a social order that's existed almost unchanged for about 40,000 years, so in the evolutionary world of the honeybee, it works. A kind geneticist did explain this reproductive altruism to me in detail during my research--but I would have to delve through 20 files to find the precise definition. The reproductive set-up of the order of hymenopterae (bees, wasps, ants) deeply perturbed Charles Darwin, too.
Speaking of which, there's a lot of violence in this book. Has anyone described it yet as Game of Thrones with bees?
Game of Drones--I love it. I suppose there is a lot of violence, though I imagined that as truthful to honeybee life. They face predators, poison and all the dangers of their distant sorties. Everyone has seen a spider's web--fear is a matter of scale. And the "fertility police" are a real biological fact of hive life, though of course I've anthropomorphized them.
There are echoes of fable and mythology throughout the book. What are some of your literary influences?
There are so many: my mother told me bedtime stories from Greek myths, then my favourite book for ages was Thorne Smith'sNightlife of the Gods--a comic treat for anyone who can find a surviving copy--reprint time surely? Books are like food for me, and I'm a greedy omnivore, so it's hard to say what my predominant influences are. Oh, and in my late teens I really enjoyed Jacobean revenge tragedies. Perhaps that shows.
Is your extensive background in theater manifest in your work as a novelist?
Amongst many other dramatic lessons, theater teaches you the power of compression in dialogue, and the power of what is not said. And in rehearsal or work-shopping a play, interaction with a cast and director encourages, if not forces you, to hone your language to a fine edge.
That bees are dying worldwide is an important touchstone in the discourse on climate change. Throughout the book there is an ominous tone, portending the destruction of the hive. Were you thinking about the possibility of bees' extinction when you were writing?
Absolutely. It was impossible to go forward in my research without becoming much more environmentally aware. Learning about honeybees and their plight made me look around and realize how much the natural world is exploited. I always thought "I care," but now I have become more active in my attempt to make a difference and protect our environment. Having said that, I still sometimes get caught out without one of those now-ubiquitous linen bags, and use a plastic one. Then feel so guilty. And the more campaigns and petitions you sign on to, the more you get sent, until it becomes as demoralizing as watching the news 24-7. So I have become pro-active, but selective.
On your website you mention that having a shed changed your career--that's so interesting. Can you elaborate on that?
Ah, my wonderful shed. 8'x10', though I wanted bigger. But my husband worried if it were long enough to have the day-bed I wanted, I might love it so much I'd go and live in it. Some days towards the end of writing The Bees, I was working such long hours that I probably would have slept there if I could have done. Having a shed changed my career because I left the domestic arena of the house to go to work. The location of the shed, right down out of sight at the end of the garden, in a plot that is still intentionally unkempt, meant it was completely my space. The other reason my shed changed my career is because I don't take my phone there and there's no internet. No connection to the outer world = easier access to the inner one.
What's next for you?
My next novel draws very strongly on the natural world again, but it also tells a human story. I can't say any more at this time.
- Ilana Teitelbaum for Shelf Awareness, reproduced at BookBrowse with permission of the publisher.
Unless otherwise stated, this interview was conducted at the time the book was first published, and is reproduced with permission of the publisher. This interview may not be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the copyright holder.
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