“It takes twelve bees their entire lives to gather enough nectar to make one teaspoon of honey. It should be priced like gold.” Laline Paul
Laline Paull’s remarkable and quite brilliant The Bees is the only debut novel on the 2015 Baileys Prize shortlist and is set entirely in the world of a beehive. In The Bees Laline introduces us to Flora 717, a sanitation bee, born into the lowest class of her society, only fit to clean her orchard hive. But Flora is not like other bees – despite her ugliness she has talents that are not typical of her kin. While mutant bees are usually instantly destroyed, Flora’s skills are recognised and she is removed from sanitation duty and is allowed to feed the newborns, before becoming a forager, collecting pollen on the wing. She also finds her way into the Queen’s inner sanctum, where, the blurb tells us, “she discovers secrets both sublime and ominous.”
A gripping story, The Bees is a stunningly creative novel, the story of a heroine who, in the face of an increasingly desperate struggle for survival, changes her destiny and her world.
The child of first-generation Indian immigrants Laline Paull went to Oxford where she read English. Working in the film business as a receptionist, trainee film-financier and finally as a screenwriter she has lived in Los Angeles, New York and London. After the birth of her daughter she started writing for the theatre, where she says, “Working with actors is great. They are the word made flesh.”
But writing a novel is a completely different form and my first question for Laline was about the challenges that this presented. She explained, “A play is about subtext as expressed in dialogue and a limited amount of action – depending on the skill and talent of the playwright, director, and the actors, the imagination of the audience can be a shuffling donkey or a winged steed. The limitation of that form is its freedom; compression of time, space and language creates an intense experience, and theatre at its best is psychologically intense, be that for comedy or drama. There is no cast and crew with the novel, just the writer and the words on the page. The absolute lack of limitation is the challenge – you have to put boundaries in for yourself and believe in them, even if you are a long time ago in a galaxy far, far away. Then the reader feels secure and will go anywhere with you.”
And Laline takes the reader on an incredible journey in The Bees, creating a complete fictional world within the beehive, a word that faces threats and crisis which are akin to the threat bees face in the real world. I wondered how much research had gone into the book. Laline told me, “Once I knew there was a book waiting for me to draw it out of the environment of the hive, I began my research. I didn’t put a time frame on it, but I did set myself to work as methodically and strictly as if I were some really important person’s PA, and what I was doing was vital.
‘I didn’t know I had research skills until this moment – but perhaps I’d never been so motivated (you have to remember I’d spent my whole life avoiding the challenge of writing a novel, even to the point of becoming a screenwriter then playwright, to try to duck out). I ended up doing about 3 solid months of research, six days a week – books, films, conferences, beehives, beekeepers, lying in the grass, poetry, song, honey, mead – but it was the statistics that called an end to the research phase – a huge wall of advanced maths stopped me in my tracks. Then it was time to write… I didn’t use all the research, perhaps 20 percent.”
With this depth of knowledge of the inner workings of a hive and its occupants, I asked how closely Laline had stuck to science in the story? Whether it had shackled or liberated her? She revealed: “It liberated me, because though the novel brings complete freedom of expression, that also includes the freedom to fall flat on your face. So whenever there was a fork in the narrative, and either a character was threatening to hijack the story, or I had two equally intriguing avenues to explore, I stuck to what was biologically possible. And this choice instantly revealed itself as the only logical one to make – because if you are throwing yourself into fantasy, anything that gives you balance and structure is vital.”
She continued, “At first I thought I was going to write it from the drone’s point of view – one drone who survives the massacre, and is the only one of his kind to realise that death awaits this life of privilege – but then I found out about the laying worker – and the character of Flora 717 took shape very quickly. My imagination was primed by all the extraordinary facts my increasingly obsessive reading about bees had brought to light.”
With such a complex story created in a complex fantasy world, I asked Laline whether she had plotted The Bees closely at the outset, or if her writing process was more organic?
“I don’t know how those writers work, who say that they just put fingers to keyboard and see what comes out, or those who claim their characters ‘just run away with them’. Either they are so brilliant they are geniuses and I am just terribly envious and incredulity is how I cope with that – or they have done so much interior work on the story before they start, that the deep structure is there unconsciously, and the characters are already fully developed in their imaginations and bursting with life. I have to have some sort of vague structure, in that I’ve glimpsed the imaginative territory as if from a plane coming in to land. And I have a strong explicit sense of the feeling of the ending – but when the plane lands – i.e. you start the actual writing – of course it all looks different from the ground. You don’t have that lofty perspective, you’re wrestling with words and feeling and structure and it’s hard. For me, anyway. I can only liken it to setting out with directions to a place I’ve never been, and of course I get lost, or see somewhere more interesting and decide that’s a better destination. The whole thing is fraught with uncertainty and peril – writing is not a comfortable experience. But then you are occasionally rewarded by an opening of the way, and a glimpse of your destination again, and you know you’re on the right road. Enough metaphor!”
Laline has a wonderful writing shed, the construction of which was the literal starting point for writing The Bees, I asked if having her own space to write was an essential part of the process? She is categorical: “Essential. Must disappear entirely. Colm Toibin recently said at Hay Festival (and he’s a brilliant speaker as well as writer), ‘Give no sign of who you are as a writer; give everything to the book.’”
Locked inside her shed, the book took shape, she explained, “I wrote six drafts in 14 months, so I worked very fast. But as I said, I’d put off the challenge of writing a novel my whole life, so I had a good head of steam to work with – and a brilliant editor for the last two drafts.”
Laline describes her experience as one of contrasts: “Waiting, waiting, waiting, WAITING to start writing – a half-baked novel in the bottom drawer – a new idea and a store of courage – and last week I was reading at the Hay Literary Festival, and next week I’m at the award ceremony for the Baileys Prize, in the finest company a debut author could hope to rub shoulders with. So worth the wait. And if there’s one thing I’d like to say to your readers, it’s this: If you want to write a novel, it is never too late to start. Take a creative writing class or start one yourself, to find out if you’ve really got the fire and grit for the long haul, the rejection, the obscurity – and worst of all – facing your own mediocrity in your early efforts. And if you still know you want to write, then do it, because wonderful things can happen when you take that risk.”
Shortlisted for the Baileys Women’s Prize for Fiction 2015, longlisted for the Desmond Elliott Prize for New Fiction 2015 The Bees is in bookshops now or pick up your copy online here!
The winner of the Bailey’s prize will be revealed on June 3rd 2015, watch out for news here on Writing.ie.