Laline Paull studied English at Oxford, screenwriting in Los Angeles and theatre in London. Her new novel, The Ice (4th Estate), is out now. Her award-winning debut, The Bees (4th Estate) was published in May 2014. She has written screenplays and for the theatre; two of her plays, Boat Memory and Show and Tell, were produced at the National. She lives in England with her husband, photographer Adrian Peacock, and their three children.
As they descended over the treetops Flora strained for any trace of scent of drones in case Congregation was near, but all she could pick up was a fragmented smell of an alien nectar. They flew low over the great grey road, its bitter stench soaking up into the air, and then across a small field of rye. That brash familiar scent pushed into Flora’s brain and her senses began to revive. Vast grey-green fields swayed into the distance, but no fragrance of nectar or pollen drifted from ahead, only the dreary useless odour of fibrous crops and strange tang of the earth beneath them.
The wasp hovered on lissom wings and watched Flora.
“So, that way lies your orchard, cousin – and as you see, it is a route to give you empty baskets.” She sighed. “To think of all you poor cousins, your flowers rotted in the rain and no clue what to do.”
“There will be more flowers.”
“Not in our lifetime – do you not see the berries swell? All religions can read that sign. Many times we say at home, how we would willingly share our bounty with our cousins, for we have so much – how sad the Chosen People are too proud. Yet we Vespa long to forget the ancient feud…”
“You have pollen and honey?”
The wasp burst out laughing.
“Cousin, you work too hard! We have sugar…”
– from The Bees, 4th Estate, 2014
Thoughts in truthful form
“We write because we’re sensitive to the weight of words. There’s some visceral response to words.
“Words are alive or they would not have such force. When a child swears at you the words are certainly alive; the incongruity of word and speaker proves the vitality of language. If words were not alive we wouldn’t be sitting surrounded by words that still speak, pressed between covers.
“Why a novel? The utter vertiginous freedom of expression. The opportunity to grow, through the very effort and anxiety and (hopefully) transcendence of the process of putting one word after another, until a thought is born, in truthful form.
“There is a book my whole family loves called The Night Life of the Gods by Thorne Smith (he has just been reprinted). The language is wonderful: characters in his book do things like ‘book a flock of rooms’ and send up for ‘buckets of martinis’. Mercury is a pickpocket, Venus literally catches men… Apparently Thorne was the long time lover of Dorothy Parker and went out to Hollywood with Scott Fitzgerald. For a long time I thought Thorne Smith was my ideal man… I was 12.
“Ursula K Le Guin is another important novelist for me (from early on).”
Riding in someone else’s mind
“I have wanted to write novels since I can remember wanting anything. I was convinced, as a child, that the writer was my friend, which I still feel.
“Growing up we didn’t know anybody who made a living through creativity. When I went to university we read works published up until 1962. The idea that you could contribute to the sacred canon! Of course people were writing; I didn’t feel like I knew enough for a very long time to start writing novels. I feel I have the range now.
“I don’t know why I have always felt the need to write. I do know that I’ve tried to give it up: there have been a couple of times I have got so demoralised that I thought I’d stop but the urge has remained. There is contentment or a satisfaction, a fulfillment that comes from the struggle to write well, regardless of the outcome. I think all writers must share that because it is so difficult to do and yet we’ve all sat there for hours, on our own.
“I’ve written a book which I am delighted has been well received by readers. I have loved books so much that the idea that I might have written something that someone else would love – which I will try to do again – is a wonderful ambition fulfilled.
“When you read a book you are riding in someone’s mind.
“I read David Shields’ Reality Hunger and the idea is that reality is going to kill the novel, and we want shows that are the backstage out-takes of the reality show, so it’s a sort of meta-meta-meta situation. I thought, with some apprehension, that reading this was going to change everything I did and make me question everything, which it did – for a page…
“But good story is bloody difficult to make, or tell, and I don’t think the hunger for a good story will ever leave human beings. There is a psychic satisfaction in a good story. And anyway, a novel is an imaginative real world, and a lot in real life is an imaginative construct.”
Starting the engine
“I went to Cuba for a little while to work on a modern version of The Canterbury Tales in Spanish with a Spanish co-writer. We both had the desire to do a version of the Tales set in Havana. Because the language of Chaucer is still so vivid – the meaning carried in that language is still so alive and real and relevant. Instead of God being the overarching power, it was Fidel. And the pilgrims were visitors to Havana, both foreign and Cuban.
“My Spanish wasn’t very good but being immersed in the language, and the effort of striving to communicate, it made me very direct – finding the words in another language. And it stimulated my wish to write in English, because I realised I had this massive engine of ability, vocabulary, grammar, fluency. In struggling to express myself in a new language that desire was honed.”
Bringing in the natural world
“I did a lot of research before I wrote The Bees, up to the point where my ability to cope with statistics ran out. But there’s much that’s factual in it, and readers look those things up and then they find something that isn’t factual (let alone all the other things that aren’t strictly true). My agent has had a couple of emails from readers pulling me up on ‘biological inaccuracy’. But biologists have told me, you can study as much as you like but in the end the animals will do what they want. And it is a novel.
“Ballad of the Belstone Fox by David Rook had a powerful effect on me when I read it as a child. I missed a lot of the class-based observations, but the intimacy with the natural world spoke clearly to me. And of course Watership Down by Richard Adams, and Black Beauty by Anna Sewell – I was outraged at the treatment of horses when I found out it was realistic.
“It is no stretch of the imagination for children to ascribe feelings and thoughts to creatures other than human beings, as Hollywood still knows. I don’t know why we lose that empathy and imaginative playfulness.
“Because I’ve anthropomorphised bees I’m being asked in interviews whether animals have a consciousness, or indeed a soul. There was a piece of research I tweeted a few days ago that says the differences in bees’ ability to forage is being attributed to individual characteristics and memory – otherwise known as individuality. In the hive they are one organism but when they go out they have to think for themselves and their brains enlarge. Pathways in their brains open up the more they forage: education enlarges your mental capacity. Why would that not change other aspects of who or what you are?
“Animals are capable of affection and distress and sympathy, and empathy in fact. And why be so arrogant to make it a question of scale?
“Writing this book has made me confront certain ambivalences I have had about animal rights. The environment in which the animal lives is paramount. This has been a corollary of writing this book; it has moved me on from ‘I don’t want to know’ to ‘I have to know’. I don’t want to stand on a soapbox wagging a finger, I just believe now I have to care more.
“We’re so divorced from the natural world that anything that we feel brings us back to it or rather brings it into us feels so necessary. I suppose partly I am writing in response to that.”
All art aspires to the condition of music
“For me, music is the most elegant synthesis of intellect and emotion, requiring no translation. It physically affects us, it can psychically arouse us and manipulate us within seconds, and it can imprint us with emotion the way no other art form can. There is a purity to the transmission of the intention of the creator, and the experience of the receiver.
“I hear my work when I write it, and I feel it as well – it is an interior experience.
“However it’s a very different experience – listening rather than reading. Listening is much easier. Reading is more active and the reader directs the work in their imagination. Reading to children helps you to be a good reader. If you’re not doing it well they just get up and walk off! A great barometer.
“In terms of the way in which the bees speak, I heard the voice of Sister Sage, in her first dialogue: ‘That will be all, officers,’ and her tone was instantly clear to me: educated and authoritative, with a formality that hinted at her colossal ego, and a calmness that bespoke her sense of utter entitlement. Once I had her, I had the hierarchy of the system, and I tailored the language to fit the different castes.”
Language is dangerous
“You believe something imaginatively, then you say it as clearly as you can. Words are the mediation between experience and expression.
“Language is dangerous because you can actually say what you want and what you feel. It’s dangerous to speak truthfully: but telling the truth in writing is important.”
Syzygy is an alignment of three celestial objects: the sun, the earth, and either the moon or a planet. Syzygy occurs at the time of full moon and new moon. It also means two related things, either alike or opposite.
From Latin syzygia, from Greek syzygia, ‘yoke of animals, pair, union of two, conjunction’.
I love her to bits
In demotic speech, there’s one that always catches my ear: ‘I love her to bits’ which has an inherent aggression in it, and invariably precedes a good verbal kicking to the subject, delivered by an extremely unreliable narrator.
Laline’s portrait by Adrian Peacock