A few weeks ago, we had the opportunity to read Laline Paull’s debut novel, The Bees, which has generated quite a buzz (pun intended!) in the literary community. This imaginative and curious novel tells the story of Flora 717, a worker bee struggling to rise the ranks of her hive and gain the respect of her brothers and sisters. When Flora discovers a deadly and mysterious secret about the hive, she must explore forbidden and dangerous territory in order to save her colony. But Flora has a secret of her own, and she soon realizes that her fight for survival has only just begun [Full Review Here].
The Bees was just released yesterday (May 6, 2014), but we were lucky enough to have a chat with the author about her amazing debut novel, which has been endorsed by the likes of Madeline Miller, Margaret Atwood, and Emma Donoghue. What follows is a (mostly) spoiler-free discussion of The Bees and the great honeycomb of ideas behind the novel:
Laline Paull studied English at Oxford, screenwriting in Los Angeles, and theater in London. She lives in England with her husband, photographer Adrian Peacock, and their three children (From the publisher’s website)
TE: Who is Laline Paull?
LP: Good question. I’ll think about it while I’m writing the next book, and come up with a few pithy answers.
TE: What led you to the world of fiction writing?
LP: I always knew it was my world, but it took me a long time to boldly go, etc. My mother gave me my love of stories and storytelling by reading to me a lot when I was small, so I have her to thank. I started my first novel at the age of seven, which was a wish-fulfillment fantasy about waking up in the morning and seeing a horse outside my bedroom window, which my parents had bought me. Then I would ride it to school. I can’t remember what happened next. Vet’s bills, probably.
TE: How does it feel to have such a highly anticipated debut novel?
LP: Very grateful. To have readers is to engage in that intimate communication between minds, which is so exciting and for me, the whole point of being a writer.
TE: The Bees explores aspects of service, loyalty, grief, kinship, motherhood, and duty. Was it difficult to ascribe such visceral qualities to a cast of insects? How did you capture this delicate mindset of a bee?
LP: Every quality you cite, except grief, I found in the biological study of honeybees. I tried to do my homework properly and gain a true understanding of the workings of the colony, but the grief you rightly identify, and the mother-love (which is the core of the story), come from evoking feelings in myself of how it would be to fail to protect your child. I know I’ve anthropomorphized an insect, but who are we to say other living creatures don’t have emotional lives? Especially such a sophisticated one as the honeybee.
TE: Flora 717 is a freethinking rogue in the hive mind who manages to have a great deal of influence over her colony. In a real beehive, would a situation like Flora’s ever be possible?
LP: I’m neither biologist nor beekeeper, but fiction rushes into gaps of the unknown. Luckily for me, despite the vast amount of study of the honeybee, many fascinating questions are still unanswered – and I grabbed the creative opportunity. The phenomenon of the laying worker is real and documented, as are the patrols of bees that search and destroy both the rogue worker and her eggs. Although laying workers of most strains of bees only create male eggs, I think I’m right in saying that there is a race of African bees where the workers can and do occasionally lay female eggs – and that same race is also very prone to swarming. So if we know that it’s how a female egg is treated that creates worker or queen, then my story becomes (just!) possible. And like people, other living creatures migrate, mix, and so the world changes.
TE: You have said that The Bees was written in memory of a friend who was a beekeeper. In what ways did your friend influence the story?
LP: Yes, my friend Angie Biltcliffe. We were in the same all-female singing group – a wonderfully fun and supportive sisterhood of sorts. So although I wasn’t yet thinking of writing The Bees, that element of the story was already in place. And while Angie could still talk, she asked us to come and sing at her bedside so that she could say goodbye. An artist herself, she said that she hoped there would be ‘a flowering of creativity’ after she had gone. I sincerely hope she’d like this book.
TE: Every single character in this novel is either an insect or another member of the animal kingdom except for a few appearances by the colony’s beekeeping humans. Why did you choose to include this brief human-bee interaction?
LP: I did it to put the bees in context, because of course the hive is man-made. In their natural state, they will find a hollow tree or hole in a wall. So two species collaborate: housing for honey. And I wanted to just very lightly shade in the change in our awareness, of how we are becoming more conscious of the many threats and injuries we inflict on the natural world, and how now in enlightened self-interest if not compassion for other forms of life, we are trying to address that. The honeybee is the poster creature for all pollinators, but as Sam Goldwyn famously said, ‘If I wanted a message I’d send a telegram.’ Readers draw their own conclusions.
TE: Which books and authors have influenced you most as a writer?
LP: So many! I adore comedy – in many ways I think it’s the hardest form, because we can easily evoke pity, terror, all that Greek tragedy stuff – but to exalt people by making them laugh, that’s genius. So I’m going to say PG Wodehouse (‘the aunts lashed their tails under the table’) and Thorne Smith, and Dickens, Sylvia Townsend Warner for the wonderful Lolly Willowes, and Gerald Durrell, and I’m sure there are masses I’ve temporarily forgotten. But I also love a good bit of dramatic passion, so I was very impressed when young by John Webster’s Jacobean revenge tragedies The Duchess of Malfi and The White Devil. And of course I bend the knee to both Margaret Atwood and Richard Adams for The Handmaid’s Tale and Watership Down. And then there are George Orwell and Aldous Huxley, and JG Ballard and William Burroughs, and George Eliot for Middlemarch, which is in a class of its own. And she’s got much more of a sense of humour than I first thought when I read her at 18. I’d love to have known her. Oh, and Jennifer Egan too, and Donna Tartt, and then I recently read Room by Emma Donoghue, so scary, but not in the way I expected – and how could I leave off Cormac McCarthy, whose The Road I read in one gulp and then had to phone my then-fiance-now-husband in the middle of the night and wake him up to discuss it with him – I could go on and on.
Laline Paull’s debut novel The Bees is published by HarperCollins and is available wherever fine books are sold. You can learn more about Laline Paull by following her on Twitter and visiting her official website.