I was a Little Afraid of the Medium: A Conversation with Lisa O’Donnell

Dear Reader,

My session notes for our Spring 2013 deliberations are clear: the selection committee readers were  absolutely mad for Lisa O’Donnell’s smashing debut, The Death of Bees.

Teenage Marnie Doyle and her younger sister Nelly have a little secret: their parents are buried in the garden of their Glasgow home.  The Discover readers are still talking about the Doyle girls, left to their own devices and wanting nothing more to keep the outside world at bay.

O’Donnell discusses how she found the story she wanted to tell in The Death of Bees, using humor to make readers pay attention, and hearing Scotland in everything she writes, among other things, with Discover Great New Writers.

You started out as a screenwriter and won a couple of awards early on — the Orange Screenwriting Prize in 2000 for The Wedding Gift, which, in the same year was nominated for the Dennis Potter New Screenwriters Award. What made you shift gears towards writing fiction?


I worked in TV for a while but found myself working on other people’s ideas. I wanted to see my own stories come to life and though I considered novel writing I was a little afraid of the medium. It took me a long time to pluck up the courage to write something down and when I did I wrote: “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”. These are the first words Marnie says in The Death of Bees. I must have looked at those words for about 6 months before I had Marnie say something else. I just wasn’t sure where I was going to place those words, in the context of a screenplay or a novel? I’m glad I chose a novel.

The voices of your two young protagonists, Marnie who is 15 and Nelly who is 12, seem completely authentic – their fears and joys are distinctly those of teenagers who’ve just buried their no-good, drug-addicted, alcoholic parents in the backyard of their Glasgow housing development. How did you get inside their minds and hearts?


I knew them already. I am a social gleaner. I listen to people with my eyes as well as my ears and I am fortunate enough to have known all kinds of people in my life, for better or worse. I have known poverty and the challenges that come with it and I have lived in environments where those challenges have affected the lives of others.

I knew many Marnies in my adolescence. I was always drawn to the kind of girl who holes herself up in a cloudy bathroom. I can’t deny I was afraid of these girls and I suppose another person might have run away from them, but I ran towards them. I wanted to know their stories and when they eventually confided in me I would hoard those secrets like a bag lady might. It was easy to write Marnie. It was like writing an old friend. When writing Nelly I just flipped Marnie upside down. They are bound together by love and secrets but if you look closely they are essentially the same person.

Where did the idea for The Death of Bees come from? Does any of the story come from your own experiences?


Living on the East Side of L.A I see the same level of poverty I experienced as a child during 80’s Thatcherism. I was in my car recently when I saw this little girl maybe about seven walking in front of her mother and pushing a stroller. The mother was also pushing a stroller and holding the hand of a small toddler, but it was the young girl that caught my attention. I thought to myself “She’s a wee mother” which later translated in The Death of Bees as “Wee Maw” when referring to Marnie raising Nelly.

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. I wondered what the girl who waited for her father to return home with the groceries 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. The thought then occurred to me that these children would be better off raising themselves. That’s when I came up with the idea of The Death of Bees and had two children bury their parents in the yard making them disappear forever, leaving the girls to their own devices.

It seems that in Marnie and Nelly’s world, the adults are the children and the children are the adults – the roles are switched. Except for their neighbor Lennie who is a deeply flawed character with secrets of his own, there aren’t many real adult role models for the two girls. What were you trying to say here? And how does this bode for Marnie and Nellie’s future?

 

It’s a sad truth but lots of children out there are left to take care of themselves and if you pay attention you’ll see it all around you. The sin is not paying attention. These children possess a level of maturity that’s almost obscene and it’s thrust upon them if they are to survive the abuses of the people who are supposed to take care of them, but I wanted these girls to survive it. I wanted to illuminate the reliance, the strength, and the character it requires to endure what these girls are put through. I created adults as a device to bring love and protection back in their lives but when I wrote their grandfather it was to illuminate how little they were willing to tolerate and to underline how strong these girls have become.

There’s a lot of humor in the book – readers will especially enjoy the scenes when Lennie’s dog keeps digging up the bones of the dead parents – did you have fun writing these scenes? What other scenes and characters are your favorites?


In Macbeth, to relieve tension, Shakespeare creates comedy through the Porter. The dog is my Porter. I find people are more willing to pay attention to intense subject matter if they know they’re going to be relieved with a bit of humor. It would have been too bleak a story if I hadn’t peppered it with comedy. I like the scenes with the dog but I also enjoyed writing the scenes where Nelly and Marnie are burying their parents. That was comic to me and I got away with a lot, but at this stage of the material, though a grueling read, the reader knows that laughs are expected and forthcoming and give themselves permission to read on.

You’ve moved from Scotland to Los Angeles. Have you been able to see fictional characters and settings more clearly from that distance? Has your writing life improved in any other ways?


I love the US and I love living in Los Angeles. It is a city awash with experience and everyone has a story here. I glean from people what I can, but I can’t shake the Scottish thing. It’s what I know best, I hear Scotland whenever I write. It’s where my second book is set and hope to look at themes that affect us all.

What’s next for you?


I come from a small island in Scotland where everyone knows everything about everyone and so I love the thought of things that are actually kept secret in a world like that. My next book will focus on a big secret having repercussions for everyone who keeps it.

Who have you discovered lately?


The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry by Rachel Joyce [A Fall 2012 Discover Great New Writers Selection. -Ed.] is a wonderfully vivid book full of charm and tenderness. It’s an amazing debut and I am looking forward to reading more from her in the future.

Cheers, Miwa


Miwa Messer

Miwa Messer is the Director of the Barnes & Noble Discover Great New Writers program, which was established in 1990 to highlight works of exceptional literary quality that might otherwise be overlooked in a crowded book marketplace. Titles chosen for the program are handpicked by a select group of our booksellers four times a year. Click here for submission guidelines.