An Interview With Alex Award Winning Author Lisa O’Donnell

The Death of Bees
Lisa O’Donnell is a 2014 recipient of YALSA’s Alex Award.  The Alex Award goes to authors who write books for adults that have a teen appeal.  I just read her book and loved it!  The story is told in three points of view, two of them are sisters who are in the process of burying their good for nothing parents in their backyard.  The third voice is the sexual predator neighbor who looks out for them.  O’Donnell agreed to be interviewed about her recent honor.

How did you choose the title, The Death of Bees?

In the first chapters when the girls are burying the bodies of their parents they go to a garden centre to buy lavender to disguise the graves and hide the smell. At the garden centre they meet a woman who scares Nelly about the possible extinction of honeybees. When the girls get home Nelly, who has Autism, obsesses over what the woman has said about the Bees. This makes Marnie angry because the truth is Nelly isn’t afraid of the Bees at all, she is afraid because they’re burying their parents in the backyard, the bees are simply where she projects her fear. Marnie knows this, but won’t acknowledge it either and also hides behind the subject of bees.

Marnie says: “In the end she gets me in a corner, goes right up to my face, not asking anymore but demanding an answer, so I gave her one. ‘I don’t know a fucking thing about the honeybees, so stop asking'”.

Marnie goes on: “She stopped then, hasn’t mentioned the bees since, not one word, but I know she still thinks about them”

Gene and Izzy are therefore the Bees in Nelly’s projected fear.

Nelly is a character who appears to be on the Autism Spectrum. What kind of research did you do to create this character?

Nelly was actually quite difficult to write and in the beginning I walked on eggs around Autism as the cause of her differences because whatever happened to these girls I wanted Nelly to survive, but the more I read about the gifts children on the Autism Spectrum are often blessed with I knew I would be able to save her. Children with Autism are resilient, intelligent and able for life, that’s how I wanted Nelly to be seen in the end. She survives two horrific parents; a difficult sister who in the end leans on the coping skills of Nelly who reveals herself to be more than able for life’s challenges.

Lisa O'Donnell
Lisa O’Donnell

What do you want readers to take away from the line where Marnie says this about Nelly, “She’s just not like normal people and can’t fake it, which is more than can be said about me. I’ve been faking it my whole life.”

Marnie has spent her life protecting her sister and herself from the horrors of their childhood, which includes deterring Welfare Services and local school authorities by pretending everything is fine when it just isn’t. Marnie is older than her years and is forced in adulthood when she is just a child while Nelly holds steadfast to her childhood. As the story progresses however Marnie begins to crumble but when she says to the reader “I’ve been faking it my whole life” this is the point when Marnie really begins to unravel.

Where did your inspiration for Lennie come from?

My mother was only 16 when she had me and she relied on my grandparents support to raise my sister and myself. I was very attached to my grandparents and especially my grandfather who liked to bake and cook, especially on a Sunday, which was my grandmother’s day of rest. I actually named Lennie after my grandfather, but Lennie himself was drawn from various sources other than my grandfather. There was an old couple that lived on the small Island where I come from, they were known to be gay, but they weren’t flamboyant. They were just two quiet old men who’d go everywhere together in their little grey caps and raincoats. They had this little terrier they’d walk and then one day it was just one old man. His friend had died. He was alone and I felt so sad for him. I don’t know what happened to him in the end. I left the Island to go to University but I never forgot this couple and their little dog. Lennie and Joseph in The Death of Bees pay homage to their love story in a way.

Which of the three main characters can you relate to the most?

I relate to all of my characters, there’s a much of what I’ve loved and lost in life in all of them.

 The story is written in three points of view. What is it like to write in that way? Will you write future novels in this style?

When I first wrote The Death of Bees it was from Marnie’s POV only, but I got bored with her voice and so I deleted 10 chapters and started again, but with three different voices instead. That was the best thing I ever did, it was also the hardest. It’s not easy for a writer to dump a 100 words never mind around 10,000. Anyway I felt like I needed to hear more from her sister who would in the end help me draw Marnie better for the reader and then I wrote Lennie who helped me draw both girls better.

What do you want readers to take away from the line where Marnie says this about Kirkland, “What he doesn’t get is that the real outsiders would do anything to be on the inside. A real outsider can’t be seen at all.”

The Death of Bees is about lots of things but loneliness is a prevalent theme. Everyone wants to belong somewhere in life but Marnie deep down believes she doesn’t belong anywhere. She wants to belong and she works hard at seeming like she does, but inside she knows she’s faking it and that’s what makes her an outsider in her heart.

-Kris Hickey, currently reading Princess Labelmaker To The Rescue by Tom Angleberger