In this version of twenty questions, I send a list of questions to a willing
victim author and they choose their own interview by choosing which questions, and how many questions, they want to answer! Lisa O’Donnell’s The Death of Bees tells the story of two sisters raising themselves in a Glasgow housing project after burying their parents in the backyard. Here is what Lisa had to say about reading, writing, and what helps her to write after she finishes procrastinating.
Would you give us a bit of introduction and let my readers know who you are, how you got started writing, and what kind of books you like to write?
My name is Lisa O’Donnell. I’m from a tiny Island on the West Coast of Scotland called Rothesay. I went to The Robert Gordon University in Aberdeen where I studied Publishing, which always makes my agent laugh because I actually did a course on grammar and lets just say it’s not my strongest asset. I wrote for the University newspaper and I used to write poetry. Bad poetry. Then I moved in to Screenwriting and won The Orange Prize for New Screenwriters in 2000. I didn’t stay in screenwriting for very long. I worked on some TV Shows but I didn’t like working on other peoples ideas and decided to write novels. I like to write in the first person and I rely on dialogue a lot. I’ve spent a life time listening to people and their stories, but it’s the way people tell their stories that really captures their character and the world they live in.
I am often struck by the different ways writers respond to the process of writing a book. Linus’s Blanket refers to my use of reading and other activities as a means of escape and comfort, can you share with us any routines, food or recipes, or favorite books or rituals that help you thorough the writing process?
I actually experience anxiety at the thought of sitting down to write and it can take me many hours of procrastinating, but I force myself in the end. I will usually switch on the television and let it buzz in the background. I find adding noise in my environment stimulates me. I find a movie I really like THE WINGS OF A DOVE for example and let it run all day long. The dialogue is amazing and Hossein Amini is an incredible screenwriter. It doesn’t distract me, I could listen to his dialogue all day long. I also listen to music but I think everyone does. I also like the washing machine to be on or the dryer. I need something going on in the background. I’m watching THE HELP while writing this.
Write the question you would most like to answer in an interview, and then answer it.
What motivated you while writing The Death of Bees?
My family motivated and encouraged me every step of the way. From reading the original draft and then pushing me into send it to Alex Christofi at Conville and Walsh, the agent who represents me. Also my ex-agent Marc Helwig, who supported me when I was trying to break into screenwriting, he always said I was a novel writer and encouraged me in this direction.
People live in stories, we are surrounded by them. What was it about this the story that made it the one you had to tell at this time? What impact did telling this story have on your life? Did you find that it had changed you?
I had been surrounded by this story for a long time. Obviously my own parents aren’t buried under the patio but I can’t pretend it was easy having them as a mother and father. My mother was only 16 when she had me and my father 17. It was a huge scandal in the small town where I grew up and they were forced to marry. It was not easy having such young parents, they were teenagers and they were always in conflict with wanting to have a family and wanting to have a youth and it made them careless and sometimes neglectful.
We weren’t a rich family, my grandparents supported us as best they could but then we moved out of my grandmothers home and my parents were forced to become more responsible, but I was always surrounded in challenging environments. We lived in a housing scheme during Thatcherism and the community was immersed in unemployment and when people have nothing to do, when people have little money, they lean on their vices to get through the day. It’s not a nice reality, but life is like that sometimes. My parents ironically became strict in the end, afraid I’d meet their fate and I wasn’t allowed out past 6, but the other kids would be out until 10 at night and I sort of envied them. I used to watch them from my window, hanging out together and I suppose supporting one another. Their parents weren’t home and when they got home they would be drunk and carrying fries for dinner.
As I grew older unemployment worsened and the kids sitting on dirty pavements were now smoking in bathrooms, drinking from tins of beer and making their own dinners. Tough kids, strong kids and able kids, some of them raising their brothers and sisters. I wanted to write about their struggles, their strengths and their smarts. I wanted to pay attention to them because children like this are largely ignored. I created a world for Marnie and Nelly in The Death of Bees to be saved in. It wouldn’t be an easy road for them and obviously I created a somewhat dark reason for why their parent were absent, but it’s also an original reason and takes us into a world where we can see children like Marnie and Nelly endure.
What are you reading now? What are some of your favorite books and authors? Has writing your own book changed the way that you read?
The Light Between Oceans by M.L Stedman. I was given this book by my agent last Christmas and I’ve been so busy that this is the first chance I’ve had a chance to sit down and read it. I have a lot of favourite authors, too many to list. I like John Irving, Helen Fitzgerald, Milan Kundera, Sarah Waters, Kerry Hudson, Irvine Welsh, Roddy Doyle and Katherine Dunn.
Are you able to read when you’re writing and if so what books inspire you when you’re working your own book(s)?
I never read books when I’m in the middle of writing a novel. It would affect my confidence. There are some amazing voices out there. I’d never write a line otherwise. I’d be constantly diminishing myself.
What was the most interesting thing that you found out while researching this book that you ultimately decided not to include?
I included everything I wanted in The Death of Bees, the editors were very kind to me. Their one true complaint was the dog. I kept forgetting to give him a place in the novel and in the end he became a very important comedic devise.
With regards to research, the story has always been inside me, but I did research what decomposing bodies look like in their different stages and was able to create the rather grueling burial scenes. I also did research into Aspergers and I found that very interesting there are so many unique and amazing children out there with special gifts.
What types of books would some of your characters have if they were readers? Given their issues what book(s) would you suggest for them to read?
I would suggest Nelly read Wuthering Heights. Marnie read Lolita and Lennie The Torch Song Trilogy. Vlado can read what he likes as long as he reads it to me. He’s the sexiest character in the book.
In the past I have visited a blog called Daily Routines and it’s all about the schedules of writers and creative people. What does a typical day look like for you and how do you manage a busy schedule?
I wake up at 6:30a.m. and prepare myself for the school day ahead. I have a coffee, check my emails and get the kids ready for school. I wake them at 7am and we are out the door at 7:55am. I get home at around 8:45a.m., it’s a lot of driving for me in the morning, I have more coffee. I find a channel on the TV I can listen to while I’m working or I find some music. I play around on the net, I procrastinate and go on FB (Facebook) and that takes me to about 11:00 a.m.. Then I crack my knuckles and write something down, I hope it leads somewhere. I hope it makes me feel like writing some more. Sometimes it does, sometimes it doesn’t. This can take me many hours however. I eventually shower and get ready to pick up the kids at 2:30 p.m., all the time thinking about what I wrote in the morning, motivating myself to write something else in the afternoon, but after snacks, homework, dinner and bath, I’m a little tired. I put the kids to bed and lay down with them. I promise I won’t sleep. I always do. I wake at 6:30 a.m. and prepare myself for the school day ahead.
If you could have everyone read five books, which ones would they be?
Geek Love by Katherine Dunn. A Prayer for Owen Meanie by John Irving. The Unbearable Lightness of Being by Milan Kundera. The Night Watch by Sarah Waters. What I Loved by Siri Hustvedt.
Did you know what you wanted the title of the book to be? How involved were in choosing the name of the book?
The title of the book was always The Death of Bees though we thought of changing it several times, but whatever we came up with just didn’t fit as well. We were so worried with the world’s concern for the actual death of bees, people might think the book was a non fictional book about bees.
Do you ever look back at your early work? How do you feel your writing style or approach to writing has evolved since you first began?
One of the reasons I went straight to Conville and Walsh was because ten years ago I sent a novel to Patrick Walsh himself called Isabel’s Window. It was a novella. He called me at home and said he was impressed with my writing style but the book itself had no market. He told me to write something else and send it to him. I did, almost a decade later. I recently found Isabel’s Window on my PC and there is still much I love about the book but my research was weak and it was an ensemble piece that didn’t connect as it should have. I sometimes think I will go back to the book or maybe glean chapters from it for another book.
What were your experiences with reading when you were growing up? Was there a pivotal moment in discovering literature when you knew that you wanted to be a writer?
I was very excited by ghost stories and fairy tales when I was very young. I was also inspired by Enid Blyton and the gusto of all her female characters. I was also drawn to the privileges they experienced going to private schools and the friendships they forged. I didn’t have too many friends growing up and I loved how everyone had a friends at St Clares and Malory Tours, but these were fantastical books. It was was Joan Lingard’s Kevin and Sadie stories about the troubles in Ireland that really created a shift in how I actually wanted to write. The Sadie and Kevin stories introduced me to very streetwise children living in very real worlds and in very real danger.
How many works in progress do you have going at any one time? How do you know when one has potential and when one just needs to be scrapped?
One at a time and I will give it my entire focus. I can get to 15,000 words however and just get stuck and scrap it. That’s always heart breaking but there are some stories out there that won’t get heard and as far as the author is concerned it’s for the best. Sometimes we press the delete button and sometimes we just sneak it into a drawer for later use. I usually bang tables and cry.
As a published author, what’s been the biggest surprise about life after the publication of your first book?
I was grateful for the great reviews I got in the UK and further grateful for the amazing work of Harper Collins in the US in promoting of The Death of Bees, especially Heather Drucker. I’m going to be very busy in the New Year, but good busy. The other thing is kind of silly but I think before I was getting published I didn’t take myself very seriously as a novelist. Someone said to me way before I was published that if you don’t believe you’re a writer now, then you’ll never be a writer. I think that’s true.
Are there other books you love or writers you admire that are from your local area?
William Boyd’s Any Human Heart, Helen Fitzgerald The Donor, Kerry Hudson’s Tony Hogan Bought Me An Ice Cream Float Before He Stole My Ma and Irvine Welsh, who doesn’t love Irvine Welsh. I also love Roddy Doyle and Frank McCourt.
Who was your favorite character to write, and why did you have an affinity for that character in particular?
I love them all, but especially Marnie. I knew so many girls like her growing up, it was like writing an old friend.
Did you have to do much research when working on your books, and do you tend to write first or research first?
I actually research as I go along. If I know I’m going to bury a decomposing body then I research the process. It was actually nauseating but then fun to write.
Where do you most love to write? Are there places where it comes to you easier than others?
I write near my kids so I can watch what they’re doing and beyond that I like to go to Italy. I hate to be a cliché but I love the country and it just makes me want to write.
As mentioned 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.