"Today is Christmas Eve. Today is my birthday. Today I am fifteen. Today I buried my parents in the backyard. Neither of them were beloved." Those dramatic first lines of Lisa O'Donnell's debut novel, The Death of Bees
, launch the story of two sisters, 15-year-old Marnie and 12-year-old Nelly, who, in alternating voices (along with the voice of their neighbor Lennie), describe their lives growing up very poor in Scotland after burying their parents, Izzy and Gene. Struggling to keep their parents' death a secret as well as pay the bills, go to school, and maintain some semblance of a normal life, Marnie and Nelly cope in very different ways.
Though those opening sentences set the scene for the darkness of the subject matter, they don't necessarily convey how funny the book is, nor how realistic and beautifully written the girls' voices are. The Herald (Scotland) raves, "The Death of Bees is compelling stuff, engaging the emotions from the first page and quickly becoming almost impossible to put down."
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Jill Owens: What was the genesis of The Death of Bees?
Lisa O'Donnell: I suppose the story has always been inside me. I didn't grow up in a rich family. I lived in housing schemes — I think you call them projects over here — and there was a lot of poverty around me, a lot of unemployment, because I was brought up during Thatcherism. My parents were quite young when they had me. My mom was 16 and my father was only 17, and they were kind of forced to marry each other. It was a huge scandal.
They were always in conflict with their youth, and I saw that firsthand. It made them a little bit careless as parents and a little bit neglectful, but they grew out of that eventually, and they became really, really strict, which was kind of bizarre.
But we weren't rich, so we lived in areas where I was confronted by things some kids might not have been confronted by. That's what happens when you live in impoverished areas, I suppose. I saw there'd be kids sitting around waiting for their parents to come home, playing after dark. Strong kids that sort of banded together. They would play together, and I wasn't allowed to play with them because my mother was frightened it was contagious or something. But the kids would hang out together waiting for their parents to come home, and the parents would roll up drunk with fish and chips — I don't know if you do this here, do takeout after you get drunk.
Jill: Yes, people in America do that, definitely. [Laughter]
O'Donnell: So they would bring home fish and chips. They would eat them on the way up the road, and the kids would get what was left over, basically. I do remember one story, when I was growing up: There was this young girl, two or three years old. She was being babysat by her cousin, who was eight years old. And I was a little older and was there too. Her mother was out drunk and had left her children in the company of little girls, and basically saw them as little women, which is just ridiculous. But I was one of those little women, and I was in this house looking after this little girl, and we were essentially treating her like a doll.
My mother got wind of what was going on, and she was furious. My father had to go down and basically drag this woman out of the pub and make her go home to look after the kid. So I saw things like that growing up.
I'm living in East LA now, and it's weird because things haven't really changed that much since I was a girl, and if anything, it's gotten worse globally. Here in East LA, I was driving around in my car with my own kids, and I saw this little girl. She was pushing a stroller with a little kid in front of it, her brother or sister. And behind her was her mother. And, I mean, these kids are really young. So the woman holding her toddler's hand had a pram, and in front of her, she had another toddler pushing a pram, and I was really struck by the little toddler.
And in my head, I thought, She's like a wee mother. Do you know what I mean? That got translated in The Death of Bees as "Wee Maw" because we call our parents "Maw" and "Paw" in Scotland. I thought, These kids, they just don't get a chance to have a childhood. And that's what it's like in difficult areas; you have young kids that are being forced into adulthood before their time.
That was my experience of the world when I was growing up. My sister is the same as me. We always talk at length about what could have become of us if our grandmother hadn't been in our lives or my mother hadn't shaped up.
My sister sent me this docudrama, and it was awful. It was so awful. It was about, again, the same thing. It was based in Scotland, in an impoverished area. And this little girl was actually waiting for her father to come home with the welfare check so that they could go shopping. And, of course, she was debating with the journalist about whether he would do that or not. It was really sad. She was hoping that he would come home or she was going to end up going to her grandmother's for dinner. I was totally struck by how old this little girl sounded; she must have been about seven years old, but she spoke as if she were 25.
When I put all these thoughts together and all these personal experiences, I thought, What would this child do if she had the resources to go do the shopping herself? She'd probably get on better. She'd be better off raising herself.
And then I thought about a circumstance where the parents were absent, and that's when I came up with The Death of Bees, of burying the parents in the back garden so that they would be entirely absent. And these girls were on their own and forced to live by themselves, which they have essentially been doing their whole lives anyway. That's really where it all came from.
Jill: Why did you want to have the novel in three voices, and which character's voice came to you first? The voices, which are wonderful, seem to me to carry the book almost as much as the plot does.
O'Donnell: Well, dialogue is my strongest asset. I can write good dialogue, I've been told. So first person seemed like a really natural way to go. But when I first wrote, it was those beginning lines: "Today is my birthday. Today I turn 15..." And so on. I looked at those words for a month, and I wasn't sure whether it was going to be a screenplay or a novel. I really wanted it to be a novel, but I was quite scared to write one. I didn't know if I had the wherewithal to get on and do it. Because when I wrote screenplays, it was just pure dialogue. And there seemed to be less expected of you, which is probably why I wasn't a very good screenplay writer. [Laughter]
But I was much more challenged by the novel. That's why I wrote it in voices, because it felt easier to write it that way. And, also, I could hear them in my head, if you know what I mean. You get yourself attached to an idea of a character and they have a voice, and you get really attached to that voice, and you can hear it. It's like they're talking to you.
Marnie started to talk to me a lot, and I started to write down her thoughts. For a long time, it was just Marnie's voice, and then I scrapped a lot of that, and I thought, She needs something else to bounce against. I needed her sister to speak, and I actually toyed with having Izzy speak — her past voice speaking. But it didn't work.
Then I thought about the neighbor, and the neighbor's voice came very naturally to me because I was raised by my grandparents, and my grandfather's voice was really there. And I could hear him because that's how my grandfather would speak. He was from Plymouth and he had this way of speaking. So I could really hear these people in my head, and it just flew from there.
My sister, as she was growing up, was always trying to elevate herself by speaking in a really posh voice. I don't know why she did that. But that made it into Nelly's character in the book. My sister's actually called Helen, and her nickname was Nelly, so that's where I kind of stole the bits of my sister's quirkiness. [Laughter]
Jill: I was going to ask if you knew anyone like Nelly, because she's such an unusual and specific character, and sometimes it seems like she was trying to model herself a little bit after their grandmother, who was the only sane adult in their lives growing up.
O'Donnell: Exactly right. You've pinned it down, because my grandmother was exactly like that. My grandmother was just so... She used to call herself the countess, my grandmother, even though we were really poor. We used to laugh about it. It wasn't nice to laugh about it, but we used to say Nan had delusions of grandeur, you know? She would talk about being the countess and how everyone referred to her as the countess on this small island that we lived on. And she was quite hung up on that. When she married my grandfather, she got elocution lessons, and she just fancied herself as a bit of a monarch. [Laughter]
So one of the things my sister would do to impress my grandmother would be to talk very poshly, and I picked that up when I was writing it. Then I thought, I can't just have a character that speaks like that and there not be some sort of underlying cause, and I also wanted her to be smart and clever.
I remembered another guy I knew who I think had undiagnosed Asperger's. He was a very successful human being, but he just had this way of talking, and he was completely socially inept. And he used to say things, and you would think, What on earth are you talking about? But he was super clever, and it was just his way, so I kind of embroidered that into Nelly. I embroidered my grandmother into Nelly. I embroidered my sister into Nelly. And I embroidered a man into Nelly, which is where I think she's quite strong.
Jill: Marnie and Nelly deal with their circumstances in such different ways, which Lennie notes at one point. He's looking at Marnie as being the tough one and the active one and the one who's sort of getting them through it, and Nelly as being more innocent and trying to rise above the circumstances.
O'Donnell: Well, Nelly's in conflict with growing up. She's not pure; she just doesn't want to get older, which is ironic because she's already been forced into being older. But it's like she doesn't want to address that in any way. She doesn't want to deal with her own circumstances. In some respects, she's the polar opposite of Marnie. I mean, they're essentially the same person. If you flip them upside down, they're the same girl. But Nelly is somebody who's in denial about what she's going through, so she adopts this way of being, in the same way that... This might sound really pretentious, but she kind of represents to me how society denies what's going on with girls like Nelly and Marnie, and she represents that voice, in a way.
That was embroidered into her as well. Her denial of what's going on is the kind of denial that people go through or justifications people will give themselves when they're ignoring children like Marnie and Nelly. Nelly does that as well.
And Lennie does too, a little bit. He knows that the parents have gone away, but he doesn't investigate it very much. You know the way the grandfather investigates, he really pushes it? Lennie doesn't because he doesn't want to know. And he doesn't want to know because he wants to keep the girls. He wants to be with the girls and be their family.
Jill: As you said earlier when you were first talking about the genesis of the book, it can almost be easy to forget, just listening through Marnie and Nelly's voices, that they're still so young. I mean, Nelly's 12 and Marnie's 15, and they're having to deal with these unspeakable things and then keep up their normal lives. That was another nice thing about having Lennie's voice in there, because he does remind the reader that these are just children. I mean, he's not doing what maybe he should be to investigate the disappearance of their parents, but he's got that adult perspective.
O'Donnell: And so does Vlado. That's why I put Vlado in there as well. I needed a strong voice, you know? He was a character that was not hemming and hawing over it; he was there pointing the finger, saying, You are a child, all the time. I really like the idea of Vlado. I thought, I'm going to put someone really sexy in here. [Laughter]
Jill: Those first chapters, when Marnie and Nelly are burying their parents, are pretty intensely gruesome. How did you think about introducing the story and setting that initial tone?
O'Donnell: I actually remember when I wrote those scenes. I could tell you exactly where I was and exactly what I was doing at the time. I was in my bed in the dark, because my ex-husband was sound asleep, and I had to work with the light off. It was the middle of the night, really late, like two or three o'clock in the morning, and I'd already researched about decomposing bodies. This is going to sound sick. I hope you don't think I'm weird. [Laughter]
Jill: No, I actually wondered whether you did research for that part. I assumed you would have had to, because of the level of detail of that chapter.
O'Donnell: I was completely engrossed in it. I was reading on forensic and funeral-home websites about how quickly they have to work on the bodies, and the rest is just me thinking, like, Well, how would that work, and what would happen if she were lifting him? If his body was doing this, then obviously she would touch him in this way... and so I had to work all of that out. And this is going to sound sick, but I actually laughed all the way through that chapter because I just couldn't help it.
I don't want to gross you out, but there's a bit where they can't find rubber gloves. They can only find woolen gloves. Somebody once told me to always challenge the devices at hand, and I thought, If I give them rubber gloves, that's boring. So if I give them woolen gloves, let's just go on to wonder what would happen. And obviously if you're lifting a body, you're going to get tired. What do you do when you get tired? What if you get to the top of the stairs? You're going to think, Forget this. Let's just chuck him down the stairs. Because a normal person isn't going to know what to do with a dead body, are they?
Jill: Especially if they're 12 or 15.
O'Donnell: Right. They're not going to think, Oh, if we throw him down the stairs, he's going to explode. They're not going to think that. They're just going to think, We've got to get him to the bottom of the stairs because he's heavy.
Also, I read an interview with Dennis Nilsen, a serial killer, and the journalist asked him a question, because when he cut up the bodies, there was no blood because he left them for a long time before he cut them up. The journalist asked, "How did you do that?" He said, "When you leave a body for a long time, it congeals, obviously," as if the journalist should automatically just know that. The serial killer was like, You're so stupid because you don't know that about a dead body. But people generally don't know what you do with a dead body! So it's things like that. What would I do if I were confronted by a dead body?
Which is why I had that bit earlier on in the novel where Marnie says, "The other day I actually chastised myself for leaving Gene in the house for a week before burying him, it was like a postscript to self. Bury people immediately."
Jill: I was going to ask you about that quote because I really like it, and because it highlights how funny the book is. So it's actually not that shocking that you laughed all the way through that chapter. I mean, it's a very dark book, and it's dealing with some incredibly serious subjects, but it's really funny too.
O'Donnell: I think it's funny, but people keep going "Oh..." When the reviews were out, some of the people that were reviewing it said, "Oh, once you get past the gruesome bits, it becomes really funny." [Laughter]
Jill: How did you think about balancing the darkness and seriousness of the subject matter with the humor?
O'Donnell: Somebody has asked me that about my work before because I do write like that in general, and I've written like that in my second book as well. It's just something I do. I think it's something I've grown up with because things were so difficult when we were growing up. I always thought of it like, if you didn't laugh, you'd kill yourself.
The women in my family are incredibly funny. And there are a lot of women in my family. My grandfather was blessed with eight grandchildren and six of them were women. He also had three daughters, two sons. So there were lots of women around me when I was growing up, and they're all hilarious.
My grandmother used to tell stories — she had 11 brothers and sisters, and they lived in a two-bedroom house, if you can imagine.
O'Donnell: I know. They were really poor and my grandmother used to tell these wild stories about what they would do. They were funny stories, though. They were never stories like, Oh, poor me, I'm so poor. They just laughed about absolutely everything that they had experienced, and that's something I was taught to do, to laugh at everything that was dark. That was how you survived difficult situations in life. I think most people would agree with that. Some people just can't do it, but I laugh at difficult situations. You'd go mad if you couldn't do that. People should give it a try. [Laughter]
Jill: That's the amazing thing about Marnie and Nelly — their resilience, and maybe it's partly because they, especially Marnie, can laugh at the absurdity of it a lot. These horrific things have happened, and they have minor breakdowns and fights and freakouts, but, by and large, they keep going to school, they keep hanging out with their friends, they keep trying to have relationships and pay the bills, and they do a pretty good job.
O'Donnell: Yes, because the world keeps going. If you've stopped in life, it's not going to change the fact that the world is turning. It's still going. It's still moving. That was something I was taught as well. You've got to keep going no matter what is happening in your life. And that's how the sisters have been brought up, to keep going. That's what they got from their grandmother as well, when she was in their lives. She taught them you must keep going.
Jill: Marnie and Nelly's grandfather, who you mentioned earlier, is an interesting and bizarre character that the sisters don't know whether to trust or not at first. How did he come to be a part of that story?
O'Donnell: It's interesting that you ask me that. I don't know, to be quite honest. [Laughter] I needed jeopardy. Every good piece of work needs jeopardy. It needs something that comes in and challenges the status quo. So I had to invent somebody that would do that, and I needed somebody that would come into the piece and take a place in it. So it had to be a relative. I needed somebody who would jeopardize the status quo, so it had to be someone who was looking for either Gene or Izzy. In order to give him a place, I used this apparent kindness and the religious aspect, so there is an illusion of safety around him, but as things progress, you realize there's nothing safe about this character. He's jeopardy personified in every conceivable way.
Like I said, I come from a small island, and it's very religious, and my family was very religious, so I was able to insert religion in there as a sort of oppressive force as well.
Jill: I think that is something that can happen to some people if they've had a really hard time in their life, for whatever reason, or recovered from addictions — they can become very strict about religion.
O'Donnell: Yes, they can. I had that with my posh grandmother, the countess. She was actually a recovering alcoholic, and she had gone to AA, so she was really religious. She wasn't like the grandfather in the book. She was an absolutely wonderful woman, but she was intolerably religious. [Laughter] She used to carry that card with the Serenity Prayer on it: "God, give us the serenity..." I mean, the prayer itself is great. But religion can become a device for people to lean on, and it can be annoying. That's a terrible thing to say, but it's true.
Jill: One thing Marnie said that I thought was interesting, about her teachers and the way they viewed her, was: "Intelligence should be the reward of the virginal nonsmokers of the world, not some morally corrupt teenager with dead junkies in her back garden." Was that something you saw from your teachers and authority figures growing up?
O'Donnell: Yes. Definitely. There was a class divide on the island where I came from, and it was just presumed that the kids who came from poorer areas weren't as gifted as the kids who came from wealthier areas. There was a religious divide as well, because Scotland is like that. There were Catholic schools and Protestant schools on our island, and they were public schools as well. I think you have to go private here to do that, don't you? If you want your kid to be raised in a specific way?
Jill: Usually, yes.
O'Donnell: In Scotland, it's a choice that you make, and it's a public school. The government will pay for that choice, and it's up to the individual family where they want to send their children. When I was growing up, the Catholic community had less money, for whatever reason. I don't know why that was. It was predominantly a Protestant area. And so the world was divided in that way too when I was growing up. That was kind of what I was saying in the novel as well. I don't know if that's how it is nowadays, but it was when I was growing up. Some kids were put in classes that they shouldn't really have been in because they were smarter than that, but they were just put in that class.
Lots of kids were put in a class called Social Studies, which was a class for dimwits, basically. But there were girls who should not have been in that class. I knew them, and they should not have been there. It was a class thing.
I did come from an incredibly small island. A really small sort of narrow-mindedness existed there. But I also think that it's like a microcosm of the universe. You're living in a really tight community. Even if you go into the mainland, you'll find your own tight community, I think.
Jill: I read in a Q&A you did about the book that The Death of Bees has been compared to Ian McEwan's The Cement Garden, which is also a favorite book of mine. How did you feel about that comparison?
O'Donnell: I do love Ian McEwan. I think he's great. I like Atonement. That's a great book. I had never read The Cement Garden when I wrote The Death of Bees, and once it was going to publication, somebody sent me this note saying it was like The Cement Garden. I was like, What's "The Cement Garden"? And I read a synopsis of it, and my heart just went into my stomach. [Laughter]
Jill: They're such different books, though. I mean, superficially, there are some similarities in the plot, but they're really different books.
O'Donnell: Yes. Then I read it, and I thought, Thank God, because they're not remotely similar. I mean, his is really dark and claustrophobic, and it's about incest. But even though some of the elements were similar, the way it's written, the two books couldn't be more different.
Jill: So who are some of your favorite writers?
O'Donnell: Oh, I love everybody. I love John Irving. I love Sarah Waters. I love What I Loved by Siri Hustvedt.
Jill: That is one of my favorite books in the world. I've probably read it, like, 12 times.
O'Donnell: I love that book. And my other favorite book in the whole world is Geek Love.
Jill: Oh, yes. Katherine Dunn. She's from Portland.
O'Donnell: Oh, really? I love her. She's just brilliant. She's so fantastic. I love those kinds of stories that are really imaginative. And that one was off the chart. I also really love Neil Gaiman.
There are some writers from back home that I like. I like Helen FitzGerald. She wrote The Donor and Dead Lovely. She's a brilliant writer. I love her stuff. I was doing some work with Kerry Hudson at the Edinburgh Book Festival, and I read her book, which has a great title: Tony Hogan Bought Me an Ice Cream Float before He Stole My Ma. That's the title of her book.
Jill: That's a fantastic title.
O'Donnell: And it's a fantastic book. I love her work. She's great. I love Irvine Welsh. Everybody loves him. I could go on. Roddy Doyle. Milan Kundera. I could go on for, like, 100 years. [Laughter]
I spoke to Lisa O'Donnell by phone on December 17, 2012.