An Interview with Lisa O'Donnell
A: 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.”
Q: Where did the idea for The Death of Bees comes from? Does any of the story come from your own experiences?
A: 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.
Q: 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?
A: 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.
Q: 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?
A: 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.
Q: 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?
A: 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.
Q: What’s next for you?
A: 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.
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