Thievery: The Death of Bees
One Thursday per month, I invite my favourite writers to share the inspirations behind their stories. Here’s one from novelist and screenwriter Lisa O’Donnell.
Gene’s flesh was literally falling off him and ripping like paper in some places. Every time we moved he made a noise, like a fart, except wet and by the time we’d reached the top of the stairs we’d had enough and couldn’t bear to hold him any longer. At one point his arm escaped, limp as a rope, Nelly tried to cover it, but she accidently caught his hand and his finger nail came away and got stuck in the knit of her glove. She boked then and couldn’t take it anymore, neither could I, so we mutually agreed to push him off the top landing and let him roll to the bottom. It was the worst thing we could have done. He burst at the seams, body fluid everywhere, on the carpet, on the walls, a swamp of poison.
When I finally buckled down it took me under a year to write The Death of Bees, but it had been sitting in my head for a long time before that.
I remember writing Marnie’s first lines “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” and wondering if I should attempt another screenplay, which is my background. I was afraid to write a novel you see. I thought it was out of my league. I believed I wasn’t committed enough, but then I was in touch with a couple of writer friends who really encouraged me to unleash my book in a word document, but what to write beyond those first few lines?
I remember I was living on the North East Side of L.A at the time and I was seeing the same level of poverty I experienced as a child during 80’s Thatcherism. Anyway I was in my car off Figueroa when I saw this little girl, maybe about seven, walking in front of her mother and pushing a pram with a younger sibling in it. The mother was also pushing a pram and holding the hand of a small toddler, but it was the young girl that caught my attention and I thought to myself she’s just a “Wee Maw”, which is how I describe Marnie taking care of her younger sister in The Death of Bees. Later, my sister sent me a docudrama about families in Scotland living with drugs and poverty, and again, the maturity of the children immersed in such a heartbreaking situation struck a chord. One child in particular was talking to the journalist about a father who might not return with the groceries for the week and go on a “bender” instead. She worried about Welfare Services getting involved in her life again and I wondered what the girl who waited for her father to return home with the shopping would do if she had had the money to go for the groceries herself, I wondered what she would do if it was in her power to get the electric bill paid, and what lengths she would go to in order to survive parents who had essentially vanished from her life as Marnie’s had in those first few lines. That’s when the idea of The Death of Bees really began to develop as a book and I decided Marnie needed a sister and so I created Nelly, but despite the keen eye Marnie and Nelly have on each other and the world outside, I felt I needed a pair of eyes on the girls themselves to really capture the experience of neglected children and so I created Lennie.
It wasn’t an easy write for me and I was afraid people would feel lectured at and I didn’t want anyone to feel lectured at, I wanted people to pay attention and so I introduced comedy and before I knew it I’d written a contemporary dark fairytale.
After the novel was published I was overwhelmed with the praise I received and there aren’t words for how I felt after winning the Commonwealth Book Prize for my debut. I just feel grateful people enjoyed the book. I’ve had my second novel Closed Doors published by Random House and it is set for publication by Harper Collins in the United States in May. It’s an exciting time, but it’s also a scary time. I’m working on my third novel now and it’s definitely a work in progress. I’ve had so many false starts, but that’s how it goes when you’re writer. You write, you edit, you write, you edit and sometimes you just delete and there’s been a lot of deletion recently, but I’m getting there and I will get there. I have to. There’s nowhere else to go.
The Death of Bees is published by Cornerstone. Lisa’s new novel, Closed Doors, will be out in paperback on 4 July.