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'Death Of Bees' Captures A Grim, Gory Coming-Of-Age

Jan 5, 2013
Originally published on January 5, 2013 9:59 am

The Death of Bees is a story about two young girls living in a Glasgow, Scotland, housing project. And if you believe the first sentences of a novel are often the most difficult to write, try this beginning paragraph:

"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."

Those words, written by author Lisa O'Donnell, begin the story of Marnie and Nelly, two sisters who find their parents, Gene and Izzy, dead. But instead of reporting it, they decide to keep it a secret. Their goal is to make it until Marnie turns 16 and is legally allowed to care for her younger sister. Though really, Marnie says, she's always been the one taking care of Nelly:

"I was changing nappies at five years old and shopping at seven, cleaning and doing laundry as soon as I knew my way to the launderette and pushing Nelly about in her wee buggy when I was six. They used to call me wee Maw around the towers, that's how useless Gene and Izzy were. They just never showed up for anything and it was always left to me and left to Nelly when she got old enough. They were never there for us, they were absent, at least now we know where they are."

O'Donnell joins NPR's Linda Wertheimer to discuss how she came up with the story and the three narrators who tell it.


Interview Highlights

On how the novel grew out of that beginning paragraph

"I actually thought about writing it as a screenplay to begin with. And I thought of a girl who had lost her parents speaking. I looked at those lines for a really long time before I decided they were going to be a novel. That's really why I came up with them. I wanted a little girl who was on her own, by herself, neglected, alone. So I came up with this idea of two little girls, raising themselves and making their parents absent. And I toyed with the idea of having the parents go on holiday, just abandoning them. That wasn't enough for my sick mind. I came up with the idea of burying them in the back garden."

On the book's three narrators: Marnie, Nelly and Lennie

"Marnie is 15. She's tough ... straight-talking, mature, responsible. But she's still a child. She's sexually active; she drinks too much; she's doing a whole lot of things that she shouldn't really be doing for her age. She's older than her years, but there was no one in her life to stop her doing those things. Her parents were very neglectful of her and, you know, these are people that just weren't paying attention to the children. They were more interested in their own lives and the abuses that they were putting upon themselves. ...

"And then there's Nelly and she's, you know, she's got a slight autism. She speaks like the queen of England ... She doesn't want to grow up. She wants to pretend everything around her that's happening isn't really happening. So she hides behind this language, and she hides behind Marnie. And as the book progresses, we see Nelly becoming more mature, and we see Marnie becoming a little bit more vulnerable and not quite as tough as she sets out in the beginning. And together, I hope the reader sees these two girls coming to meet in the middle. ...

"Then there's Lennie [the neighbor], and Lennie came about basically through my absolute respect for the older generation. I was raised by my grandmother, and she really grounded my sister and I. And I'm really grateful for my grandparents, and I hope I recognize that gratitude by creating this older figure that comes in to save Marnie and Nelly. He observes that they're by themselves, and he has his own issues, he has his own remorses in life. He's incredibly lonely for his partner that he lost, and he sees these two girls as a chance to redeem himself and also to fill in the blank in his own life. And he takes them in, and he takes care of them. And this unusual family develops."

On the book's gruesome early chapters, in which, after a week, the girls finally decide to bury their parents, whose bodies have begun to decompose

"Somebody said ... they found it quite difficult to get through those chapters. But I had been humorous before those chapters, so I knew that people would struggle through them because they knew, they were assured of some laughs beyond it."

On why, despite the drugs, gore and abuse, O'Donnell still thinks of her novel as a young adult book

"I think there's a narrow margin. I mean, I hate saying this, but there are 15-year-olds and there are 15-year-olds. Young girls do fantasize about the absence of their own parents, wishing they weren't around. It's not a nice thing to say but, you know, frustrated teenagers. I don't think that there's anything in there that would surprise your average parent. I think that they're aware of the dangers their children face. And if they're not, they should be."

On how Marnie and Nelly begin to find normalcy

"With Lennie's help, they're able to form a family. But Marnie, from the beginning of the book, is someone who simply doesn't trust the adult world. And, you know, she believes herself to be an adult. And as the novel develops, Marnie comes to realize, 'I'm still a child.' And the flip side for her sister is she comes to realize, 'I'm not a child. I need to grow up, and I need to support my sister.' "

Copyright 2013 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

Transcript

LINDA WERTHEIMER, HOST:

This is WEEKEND EDITION, from NPR News. I'm Linda Wertheimer. "The Death of Bees," by Lisa O'Donnell, is a story about two young girls. It's told in their voices, and in the voice of their elderly neighbor. The older girl, Marnie, kicks things off. And if you believe - as I do - that the first sentences of a novel are very important and often, the most difficult for a writer, try this beginning paragraph - the prologue to the novel.

LISA O'DONNELL: (Reading) Today is Christmas Eve. Today is my birthday. Today, I am 15. Today, I buried my parents in the backyard. Neither of them are beloved.

WERTHEIMER: That's Author Lisa O'Donnell. She is from Scotland, as you can hear. She lives in Los Angeles; but she joins us from Rome, where she's on vacation. Welcome to our program.

O'DONNELL: Hi.

WERTHEIMER: Let me ask you about those first lines. That's kind of jumping in at the deep end, don't you think? I mean, how did you decide to begin that way?

O'DONNELL: Well, I actually thought about writing it as a screenplay, to begin with. And I thought of a girl who had lost her parents, speaking. I looked at those lines for a really long time before I decided they were going to be a novel. That's really why I came up with them. I wanted a little girl who was by herself, neglected, alone. And I toyed with the idea of having the parents go on holiday and just abandoning them, but that wasn't enough for my sick mind.

(LAUGHTER)

O'DONNELL: I came up with the idea of burying them in the back garden.

WERTHEIMER: Now, this is a narrated novel. There's nothing in the voice of the author. Everything is in the voice of the characters in the book; the two girls - Marnie is the older girl and Nelly, the younger - and then there is their neighbor, whose name is Lennie. Perhaps you could just sort of introduce us to those three people.

O'DONNELL: Marnie is 15. She's tough, talks from the hip, mature, responsible; but she's still a child. She's sexually active. She drinks too much. She's doing a whole lot of things that she shouldn't really be doing for her age. She's older than her years, but there was no one in her life to stop her doing those things. Her parents were very neglectful of her. And, you know, these are people that just weren't paying attention to the children. They were more interested in their own lives and the abuses that they were putting upon themselves.

WERTHEIMER: And then there's Nellie.

O'DONNELL: And then there's Nellie. And she's, you know, she's got slight autism. She speaks like the Queen of England. And she's...

WERTHEIMER: (LAUGHTER) She really does. It's very funny, her - the way Nellie talks.

O'DONNELL: Yeah. She doesn't want to grow up. She wants to pretend everything around her that's happening, isn't really happening. So she hides behind this language, and she hides behind Marnie. And as the book progresses, we see Nellie becoming more mature; and we see Marnie becoming a little bit more vulnerable, and not quite as tough as she sets out in the beginning. And together, I hope, the reader sees these two girls coming to meet in the middle.

WERTHEIMER: Now, there's Lennie, who is the neighbor.

O'DONNELL: Yeah. Then there's Lennie. And Lennie came about, basically, through my absolute respect for the older generation. I was raised by my grandmother. And she really grounded my sister and I. And I'm really grateful for my grandparents. And I hope I recognize that gratitude by creating this older figure that comes in to save Marnie and Nellie. He observes that they're by themselves. And he has his own issues. He has his own remorses in life. He's incredibly lonely for his partner, that he lost. And he sees these two girls as a chance to redeem himself, and also to fill in the blank in his own life. And he takes them in, and he takes care of them. And this unusual family develops.

WERTHEIMER: Now, the beginning chapters of the book are quite gruesome, especially the account of Marnie and Nellie deciding that they would conceal the bodies of their parents. It takes them about a week to decide what to do. And by that time, the corpses are quite nasty. And that chapter, I must say, that's a little hard to take.

O'DONNELL: Somebody said that as well. They find it quite difficult to get through those chapters. Well, I had been humorous before those chapters, so I knew that the people would struggle through them 'cause they knew - they were assured of some laughs beyond it.

(LAUGHTER)

WERTHEIMER: Do you think of this as a young adult book? I mean, every calamity that parents fear for their children - poverty, drugs, dangerous sex, abuse - these girls are exposed to all of it.

O'DONNELL: Well, I think there's a narrow margin. I hate saying this, but there are 15-year-olds and there are 15-year-olds. Young girls do fantasize about the absence of their own parents, wishing they weren't around. It's not a nice thing to say about, you know, frustrated teenagers. But I don't think that there's anything in there that would surprise your average parent. I think that they're aware of the dangers their children face. And if they're not, they should be.

WERTHEIMER: I was especially drawn to Marnie, I must say, who is determined to keep her sister with her. She's frightened that little Nellie would never survive foster care. Now, I wonder, could you read to us from page 9? It's Marnie, the older girl, who is talking - the paragraph right at the bottom of the page.

O'DONNELL: (Reading) I suppose I've always taken care of us, really. I was changing nappies at 5 years old and shopping at 7; cleaning and doing laundry as soon as I knew my way to the launderette, and pushing Nellie about in her wee buggy when I was 6. They used to call me wee (unintelligible) - that's how useless Jean and Izzie(ph) were. They just never showed up for anything, and it was always left for me, and left to Nellie when she got old enough. They were never there for us. They were absent. At least now, we know where they are.

WERTHEIMER: (LAUGHTER) And they're always making jokes about this - at least now, we know where they are. They make jokes about them being in the garden. Now, at a couple of points in the book, the girls talk about the trap of DNA. And what they mean by that is welfare officials left them with their dreadful parents, rather than putting them in foster care years before, because they were their parents. And most of the book, after the parents are in the garden, is about the children's effort to sort of reconstitute - or create a family that they ought to have had.

O'DONNELL: Absolutely. Well, with Lennie's help, they're able to form a family. But Marnie, from the beginning of the book, is someone who simply doesn't trust the adult world. And, you know, she makes her - she believes herself to be an adult. And as the novel develops, Marnie comes to realize: I'm still a child. And the flip side for her sister is, she comes to realize: I'm not a child. I need to grow up, and I need to support my sister.

WERTHEIMER: Lisa O'Donnell's book, "The Death of Bees," was published this week. Lisa O'Donnell, thank you very much.

O'DONNELL: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.