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The History of Bees: Maja Lunde on Writing Fiction About Our Changing Climate

Posted on 13th April 2018 by Martha Greengrass
Our Fiction Book of the Month, Maja Lunde’s cautionary ecological fable The History of Bees, was a runaway European hit. Now that same success is being replicated here. For Waterstones, Lunde explains the genesis behind her frighteningly prescient bestseller.

I had known for months, or maybe years. After several scripts for tv-series, and several books for children and young readers, I wanted to write a novel for adults. I wanted to write something I would want to read myself. In Norway we have a strong tradition for autobiographical fiction, with the books of Karl Ove Knausgård becoming something of a game-changer on the international literary scene. Investigating that tradition, I researched my own life, looking for stories. I have them, as we all do, but none of them truly engaged me. My life is normal, not without drama, not without tough years and not at all boring, but writing about it bored me. I put the texts away and started a new children’s book.  

But then, one day, I saw a documentary about Colony Collapse Disorder (CCD), the mysterious disappearing of bees all over the globe. Learning about CCD and about the bees’ importance for us felt like an epiphany. 

Write where it burns, we say in Norway. 

I grew up with a poster against nuclear weapons above the kitchen table. My family regularly talked about environmental issues and climate change at dinner. As I grew older, my worrying about the planet didn’t diminish, rather the opposite. 

I don’t consider myself an activist, but this is where it burns for me. Seeing the film, immediately sparked my interest, questions rose. Why do the bees die? What would the world look like without pollinating insects? Would we be able to survive? 

From the very beginning I knew the book I set out to write would have to be a novel, not a non-fiction book, because I knew I wasn’t really writing about bees, but about people. The three characters were alive on the paper from day one. William, the British biologist in the 19th century, trying hard to invent a new kind of beehive that would make him famous, the American beekeeper George in 2007, devastated when losing his bees to CCD, and Tao, in China 2098, working as a hand pollinator in a world where the bees have disappeared. 

I had my characters, I had a beginning, a middle, and an ending, and at first I thought of the book as a stand-alone. But as I was writing it, several other stories kept buzzing (pun intended) around in my head. All of them about people living close to nature, many of them affected by environmental change. Like Signe, an old woman growing up by the foot of a waterfall in Norway. Or David, a young climate refugee in southern France, and Nicolai, a Russian zoo manager.

Suddenly I realized they were all part of the same story, suddenly I realized that even though The History of Bees was almost done, I was not done. Not even close. 

This is still where it burns for me.

My characters, my stories, were all pieces of a big jigsaw puzzle, and there had to be four books. A quartet. Signe and David found their way into the second book, which will be published next year, Nicolai will probably show up in the third. 

Each book can be read separately, but for readers who have the patience to read all four, a bigger picture will hopefully appear.

Someone have called my novels 'cli-fi'. I think of them only as novels. I told myself I didn’t want to write about my own life, but looking back at the two published books, I do see a lot of my own life in them. I write about parents and children, about love between partners, about losing someone you love. The books can be read as relationship stories, as stories about the value of knowledge, about class, equality, conflict, love. And I guess, it has all emerged from my life, somehow. 

Climate change is the biggest issue we - all of us - need to deal with in the years to come. My life seems small and of little importance compared to this, I’m just a piece in the puzzle, as is my life. But then again, aren’t we all?

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