INTERVIEW: Laline Paull, author of The Bees

Posted on: November 26, 2015

Previously published on Dawn Books & Authors.

LALINE Paull is a playwright, screenwriter and novelist. Her first novel is The Bees, the story of a worker bee who finds that she has turned out to be more than her hive bargained for. The narrative is about rebellion in a totalitarian society, the courage of a mother and the wondrous lives of honeybees. The Bees was shortlisted for the 2015 Baileys Women’s Prize for Fiction.

I believe you started reading about bees after a beekeeper friend passed away. Was there something in particular about bees that struck you as a starting point for the plot of The Bees?

When I learned about the 24-48 hours at the end of every summer when all the males are pushed out of the hive, I thought that was an extraordinary thing, but somehow poetically just, after their life of ease and leisure, living only to eat and breed if they got the chance. Then, when I learned about the true phenomenon of the laying worker, that one in 10,000 sterile worker females, who will spontaneously become fertile, I knew I had found dramatic riches.

You’ve written for theatre before but this is your first novel. What made you decide to write a novel now?

I wrote for the screen and stage as a way of putting off the great endeavour of trying to write a good book. Finally, there was no avoiding it — but I put a lot of energy into the procrastination, many years in fact. And I must add that this is the best time of my life so far.

Flora 717 is the protagonist of this book — a worker bee who finds that she is able to do something extraordinary, something she must hide. Was she always the protagonist in your story, or did she evolve slowly?

Flora 717 came to me pretty much fully formed as a character — to be told you cannot have the child you carry, to be told you must kill your baby because you have committed a crime in becoming fertile and giving birth, I felt her outrage and instantaneous rebellion. She goes from devout and obedient, to a flagrant, devious criminal, and it was easy to imaginatively empathise with her.

The love of a mother for her child is central to this narrative, but there are also important threads of alienation, feminism, even racism at play here. There’s also a clear ecological concern; how did you find this balance of awareness and entertainment?

Well, all those years procrastinating and learning about story, stagecraft, and narrative, and all those years learning about the world and other people, and having a lot of rough edges planed off me, might have helped. If you shout at people they tend to walk away. Far better to entertain, and let people bring their own intelligence and experience of the world to the story.

Obviously you did a lot of research on how hives function, but I believe you also used the Cretan Minoan civilisation as inspiration. How did these two societies merge into the one in The Bees? I used the Cretan Minoan civilisation as moral support as I set about writing the first draft. I told myself that matriarchal societies had existed in the past — I reminded myself of the evidence in the British Museum — and that the beehive itself is a successful matriarchy thousands of years old. I think because the language used to talk about honeybees is already anthropomorphised, with a queen, and workers, it was easy to see that society in a hierarchical way, and so a map of a Minoan palace supported my idea of the beehive as a parallel universe.

The Bees is as much about a hive as it is about the politics of a totalitarian state. Which perspective did you write the narrative from, or were they both entangled?

I knew I was onto something, there was the pulse of life in writing the book, I could feel it. I didn’t want to look too closely at exactly what I was doing; I focused on telling the story, knowing that my political convictions would bleed through without conscious effort. So long as I felt the pulse, I knew I was on the right track.

I loved the idea of the ‘fertility’ police and was fascinated to learn that this exists in hives. What were some of the more surprising things you learned during your research?

I learned that beekeepers and bee biologists are fascinating, generous people, who will gladly share their knowledge. I learned that it is possible to educate yourself about a great deal in this world, if you are prepared to be patient, and watch, and listen, and not care that you may ask stupid questions. I learned that it is possible to regain what you might think was a lost sense of awe and wonder, misplaced somewhere in childhood. Everyone can get back in touch with that if they choose, and the world will be a richer place for it.

At which point did you stop researching, put away the books about the lives of honeybees, and just start making things up?

The making things up part happened before, during, and after the research — but when the biological research began to use more statistics than language, it was a signal to me to stop.

The Bees is remarkable in many ways, including the fact that it is a very self-assured debut novel. During your writing process, were you ever made nervous or doubtful about what you had set out to do? What brought you back?

There was maybe a 24-hour period when I questioned if anyone would buy a story set in a beehive, and if I could pull it off. A highly respected agent I ran the concept past before I’d written it, told me that I would either be able to do it and it would be amazing, or I would fall flat on my face, that there was no middle ground. And hearing her say that made me very calm. Of course I was going to do it. But in answer to the second part of your question, which is what brought me back to the story, it was always to refer to the real biology of the organism — the truth is the best guide.

Is there anything you can say about your next projects? Are you leaving theatre behind for more novels now?

I love theatre, I’m sure I’ll work in that form again; it’s too much fun to be part of that shared excitement. And I’m working on my second novel at the moment, so I can’t let the energy out by talking about it for the time being. But I hope that anyone who enjoyed The Bees will respond to the imaginative DNA of my new book, though it’s very different