In a world where writers are eternally reminded to “write what you know,” debut novels are often thinly veiled memoirs, or at least tentatively tied to the author’s own experience through location or life experience. Not so for screenwriter Laline Paull, whose ambitious first novel, The Bees, doesn’t feature a single human character—and it’s set in the labyrinthine world of the hive. There, worker bee Flora 717 discovers she’s also able to lay eggs, a one in 10,000 anomaly that draws the notice of the queen as well as some unseen complications. We asked Paull, who lives in London, a few questions about the inspiration behind this remarkable first book.
Novels that portray animals as human-like in their thoughts and desires aren’t unheard of—from Watership Down to The Evolution of Bruno Littlemore—but insects are an unusual choice. Where did the idea for The Bees come from?
I made a new friend who was a beekeeper, and then I found out that her cancer had returned, and she died soon afterwards. She had a very beautiful conscious death and wrote her own funeral service, in which she mentioned her bees. In the immediate aftermath of her death and as a way of honouring her, I started to read about bees. And then something amazing happened. What had started as a way to try to keep close to someone who had gone became a genuine fascination with the most miraculous creature that is the honeybee. One extraordinary fact led to another, and within a week I was absolutely hooked on finding out more, and then, convinced someone must have seen the dramatic potential for a novel set in a beehive. I combed the Internet, then when I couldn’t find one, raced to make it mine.
How has writing The Bees changed the way you look at insects, flowers? What surprised you the most in your research about bees?
The more I found out about the natural world and the genius all around us that is so far beyond human invention, the more awestruck I became. I can see why scientists become abstracted and obsessed—I certainly did for a while, during my research. Even today I have to stop and watch a bee foraging. Today in my garden I saw a fantastic big bumblebee queen house-hunting for a good site to make a burrow. I watched her for so long that my coffee was cold when I went back to it. And the most surprising thing about my research into bees was getting in touch with that feeling of child-like wonder when you look at the world and think: Wow!
The hive is such a complex structure, like a cathedral or castle. Did you have any architectural model in mind when you were creating it?
I’m so glad that that aspect of the book succeeds—I worked very hard to make the hive feel real and knowable. I looked at the floor plans of 5th-century B.C. Minoan palaces, I thought about the Tower of London, I looked at oil rigs, cathedrals. I thought about the infrastructure of a massive luxury hotel, and the staff required to keep those penthouse suites going, I thought about ocean liners—but in the end, I had to turn the hive on its side to make all the verticals horizontals, to be more familiar to a reader—and easier to write. The topography of the hive took me a long time and many bad drawings to get right. My 11-year-old stepson helped me; he’s a good cartoonist. I did one scribbled map that worked, not pretty, but accurate—and I stuck with that.
"I worked very hard to make the hive feel real and knowable. I looked at the floor plans of 5th-century B.C. Minoan palaces, I thought about the Tower of London, I looked at oil rigs, cathedrals. I thought about the infrastructure of a massive luxury hotel . . ."
Flora is a classic heroine—she is loyal to her kin and to her hive, yet is willing to risk her life to try new things. She stands for both tradition and change. Can you talk about creating her?
The key to writing Flora came when I found out in my research about the real fact of the laying worker, a one in 10,000 anomaly in the hive. I imagined being devout and orderly and never questioning the status quo—and then you find you’re pregnant. You become a sinner, a traitor, and yet you’ve never felt such love in your life—and how can that possibly be wrong? It was the ultimate opposition of instinct and duty, and that makes for great drama. And I’m a mother too, so I know that the law would mean nothing if your child’s life was at stake.
"It was the ultimate opposition of instinct and duty, and that makes for great drama."
You write about the communication between the bees but also about their emotional states. Do you think insects are capable of feeling and thought?
Ah, I am not sure at all about that. We know that insects are irresistibly attracted to flowers, to what we, with our supposed “higher” consciousness, think of as beauty. Flowers are the sex organs of plants, pollen the sperm. Nectar, the lure to bring in the pollinators. Might insects feel some sort of arousal, at the sight of beauty? Men do. Might insects feel lust for each other? Why choose to mate with one, not another of their kind? The honest answer is I have no idea if insects can think and feel—but intuitively I feel they must, if not in any way that we can understand. I suppose I wrote The Bees in response to that very question.
Did you read other books about utopias and dystopias before writing The Bees? What other dystopian fictions or film would you recommend?
The Bees has been called a dystopia, and I suppose it is, but I didn’t conceive of it as such. I love books like Brave New World by the great Aldous Huxley, and of course 1984 and Animal Farm by George Orwell. I love most things Margaret Atwood writes, and I also love Mervyn Peake’s Ghormenghast. I was addicted to” Game of Thrones” on television while I was writing, so fantasy worlds are clearly attractive to me. And I bend the knee to JG Ballard—High-Rise, in particular.
Utopias I think are rather dull, compared to their opposites. We like to look over the wall of law and order, manners and good behavior. We like to see the wild side let out.
In what ways was writing a novel different than a screenplay? What surprised you about the process?
Compared to a screenplay, writing a novel was both harder and easier. I found it incredibly liberating to be able to tell as well as show, and I found that the discipline of working with story and visual images very useful in writing the novel. I love both forms—film and book. But the novel exists on its own terms—the screenplay still needs interpretation to truly live.
What’s next for you?
My next novel is set in the natural world again, as a character in itself, but also as the arena for much human conflict. More than that I don’t want to say right now, only because the spell is still binding.
ALSO IN BOOKPAGE: Read our review of The Bees.