Lisa O’Donnell calls them hooks. Opening hooks. Hooks with succulent baits that grab readers and keep them enticed – coaxing them to keep turning the pages of a novel until they have flipped over the last leaf, satiated, yet yearning for more.
The hooks – the opening lines – of Lisa’s 2013 debut novel The Death of Bees had that effect on me. Without doubt they were some of the most memorable lines I’ve ever read in recent times. Check this:
‘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.’
To me, these lines were more than just hooks; they were harpoons. And The Death of Bees did not let me go until I turned the last page.
I am seated in the al fresco patisserie at InterContinental Dubai Festival City on a pleasant October evening with the award-winning author of the novel, Lisa O’Donnell, and am keen to ask her more about the craft of writing.
In Dubai to deliver two creative writing courses in association with Curtis Brown Creative and the Emirates Literature Foundation, Lisa is eager to share her views about the written word, but right now though, she is hooked on the spectacular Imagine laser light and sound show that is unfolding on the dancing fountains in the creek just below us.
The 47-year-old, enraptured, stares at the spectacle in child-like glee. ‘Dubai is just amazing,’ she gushes over the thumping music of the show. ‘The city has an exciting vibe, there’s so much to see and do and experience, the people are so helpful, the facilities are perfect. I mean, I’m wondering why I did not visit this place earlier.’
Once the music fades away and the fountains subside, I coax her into revealing more about her perfervid love for words, the exquisite craft of writing novels and film scripts and why she is also passionate to mentor wannabe writers.
‘I initially planned to write The Death of Bees as a screenplay,’ Lisa says, when I mention how the first lines drew me into the book.
The story of two sisters, Marnie and Nelly, the book opens with the girls finding their parents dead, but instead of reporting it, they decide to keep it a secret. (There, that’s my hook to get you to read the novel which won Lisa the Commonwealth Book Prize.)
Lisa’s original plot centred on a little girl who is growing up on her own, neglected and alone. That led to the first few lines taking shape and the more the writer kept looking at what she had written, the louder she could hear her character’s voice – a key factor for her to develop a story. ‘I struggle to write if I don’t hear voices,’ says Lisa, quaffing a drink, and enjoying the soft breeze wafting in from the sea. ‘But in this instance, I could hear my character speaking loud and clear and I felt I could work with her for a while.’
However, after a while the character became boring to her. ‘She was just saying the same thing... and I said ‘I cannot be sitting with you for 300-odd pages’,’ she says.
By then Lisa had written close to 20,000 words but because it was in first person and one girl’s voice, it sounded more like a diary entry. ‘And the thing about diary entry [style] is that it is limited,’ she says.
Although planned as a script for a movie, ‘I realised that the story did not belong to the medium of film. It didn’t belong in a screenplay,’ she says. So Lisa decided to turn it into a book and introduced another voice – that of the girl’s sister.
The writer considered having the two teens growing up alone after their parents go away on a holiday abandoning them. But ‘finding that not good enough for my sick mind’, she came up with the idea of ‘burying [the parents] in the back garden’, says Lisa, tracing the evolution of her novel.
A runaway success with critics appreciating the brisk pace that the narrative followed, The Death of Bees went on to also bag the the Alex Award and was nominated for the Anobii First Book Award.
Lisa, who has always wanted to be a storyteller, credits her grandmother for honing her storytelling skills. ‘My mother was only 16 when I was born, so I spent a lot of time with my grandmother and when you tell grandma a story, you had to tell it in detail – with all the colour, all the facts.’
Lisa followed the same tack at school too during story-writing sessions – classes she looked forward to because apart from enjoying giving vent to her imagination, impressing the teacher with a well written story meant earning a star. A golden one, no less.
But Lisa did not receive a star for her stories. Instead, what she did get was an insight into the perspectives of truth after she once turned in a story about fairies and witches, signing off with a bold line at the end of tale vouching that ‘this is a real story’.
Her English teacher, Mrs Woods – a ‘God-fearing pianist’ – was clearly not impressed with that last line and Lisa remembers being reprimanded for lying by claiming that the witch story was real. ‘I was very young at the time and this idea of truth was immediately held up to me creating a conflict in me,’ she says.
The budding author wrote about ‘fairies and witches and talking cats’ because those were the things she was convinced existed. ‘I said it was a true story because I wanted people to believe in the things I believed in, because that’s the truth when you are seven years old.’
Mrs Wood clearly did not think so and warned Lisa never to lie in stories. ‘And she denied me a gold star.’
Lisa smiles as she juxtaposes that incident in school with the reaction of the Commonwealth Book Prize jury who praised her tale of two little girls burying their parents in the yard as ‘authentic’, ‘human’ and ‘real’.
‘Although it wasn’t a true story – my parents are alive and living well – amidst all the creative lying you’ll find truth,’ she says. ‘But to reach it I needed to disguise it and that meant telling lies, but that was only to make it easier to write and to give readers an experience they believed to be true; that’s what writers do.’
Mrs Woods was not the only person who locked horns with Lisa over the question of truth.
Flicking back her hair and sipping her drink, Lisa regales me with another incident that occurred when she was growing up. ‘One evening, my dad, who was a bit of a drinker, forgot about a pan he’d left on the stove – burning down the house for the third time,’ she says, with a laugh. The family was fortunate to escape with a few precious belongings including a diary that Lisa maintained and in which she later included the incident of her house burning down.
But one day, her mother discovered the diary and promptly destroyed it. ‘She was planning to apply for insurance and didn’t want anyone to lay their hands on stories about how the house was gutted. So with truth out of the question, I wondered what I’d write about.’
Lisa, albeit for a brief while, decided to put down her pen and plunged into reading. ‘I read all the time, anything I could find.’ She is sure that helped her in her career later in life. ‘As Stephen King said, ‘If you’re not reading, you are not having the tools to write’,’ she says.
Looking back, what is your take on truth? I ask.
‘The truth is never true because memory is constantly lying,’ says the mother-of-two. ‘It gives you information when you are ready to handle it… when you are ready to absorb it. Telling stories is a way of letting go of a pain, letting go of a memory that hurt you. So really we are always using our imagination, and we are also editing a tiny bit, and we are also telling ourselves little lies. Memory is a bit of a liar, really.’
To underscore her point, she explains how she once wrote a story about an incident that occurred in her childhood and sent it off to her sister Helen (incidentally, one of the characters in The Death of Bees is named after her). ‘I told her ‘do you remember this incident?’, and Helen said ‘Yes, I do but it did not happen the way you wrote it.’
‘So sometimes you edit out information [or the truth].’
Lisa started off her writing life penning poetry. ‘I wrote terrible poetry,’ she admits, leaning back and laughing. ‘But because I knew it was bad, I started reading a lot of poetry. And I realised there is a great deal of truth in poetry. I also realised that language is not just language but a note within a melody and in order to make someone pay attention to you and listen to you, you have to strive [to create] that melody.’
That realisation got her obsessed not with writing but with speech. ‘I was obsessed with the way people communicate, how they talk, what they say...’
Lisa then leans forward and almost conspiratorially whispers, ‘The other part of the story is that I’m hard of hearing. So I’m especially interested in speech.’
That interest in speech led her to writing screenplays. ‘I absorbed how people lean on tone, and how they rely on their bodies and gestures [for communication].’
That surely came in useful when Lisa scripted The Wedding Gift, which was optioned but not produced. It won her the Orange Prize in 2000, the same year she was nominated for the Dennis Potter New Screenwriters Award.
And her favourite screenplay? ‘It has to be The Good, The Bad and The Ugly,’ she says. ‘There’s hardly any dialogue in it but it is such a loud movie… There is so much unsaid.’
Choosing a writing style
Since Lisa is in town to mentor a few budding novelists, I ask her to share her insights into the art of writing novels. Was it a challenge telling The Death of Bees using three voices?
‘I’d initially planned it as an epistolary novel,’ reveals Lisa. But she junked that idea fearing it might get boring, and considered the third person style. ‘Third person is like a crow sitting on your shoulder and watching the happenings. It’s like Jane Austen’s Pride & Prejudice,’ she says. But the writer quickly ditched that too in favour of a first person narrative ‘because I really like to be intimate with my characters and wanted my readers to feel close to my character’.
Not content with just one narrator, she included two more. ‘I created a second character Nellie, Marnie’s sister, to comment on Marnie, and a third, Lennie, their neighbour, to comment on them both.’
To distinguish the voices of the two teenage girls and create definite identities for them, Lisa employed an interesting tactic. ‘I couldn’t have them sound the same; I needed to make their voices sound different so I gave Nellie Asperger’s.’ This technique allowed the character to have a very distinct voice – markedly different from her sister’s.
‘I don’t tell the reader that she has Asperger’s, but just allude to that in the book. That is another lesson in writing: You should trust your readers to pick such things up from the text. Often, books fall apart because writers don’t trust their readers and over-describe or over-write characters details.’
Was there a reason in using children as narrators in The Death of Bees?
‘The wonderful thing about using children is that as Samuel Beckett said ‘children are whitewashed in fiction’. So, you believe everything a child tells whether they are reliable or not. You will believe them first before doubting them.’ Lisa underscores the point by highlighting how Harper Lee uses children in To Kill a Mockingbird. ‘Scout has nothing to gain by telling a lie, she is calling it as she sees it.’
Samuel Beckett, Harper Lee… So what makes one a good writer? I ask.
Observation, replies Lisa. ‘People who love things and who are empathetic are objective. They think of all facets of a situation. They just don’t come over and tell you for instance, that their grandmother is perfect and here is a story of a perfect woman, because who is really interested in the story of a perfect woman?
‘Instead, someone who observes a lot of details would say their grandmother is perfect but that she was also a schizophrenic and often a pain, and tells her story. Readers will then recognise the complexity and would trust you because you are willing to look at something that was imperfect and still love it.’
Where do you get the threads for your stories, I ask.
‘Oh, it could be anything,’ says Lisa, recalling what opened the doors for her second book Closed Doors.
‘I was listening to a Blondie song called In the Flesh and a visual came to mind of a little boy looking through the window and I thought ‘Oh, that’s interesting. Then I started listening to the voices in my head and started writing.’
Closed Doors, narrated by an 11-year-old boy, tells a disturbing and moving story of the emotional turbulence the lad undergoes after learning about a shocking incident that befell his mother. Saying anything more would be a spoiler, but as The Guardian remarked about Closed Doors, ‘with her second novel, O’Donnell suggests that the only thing worse than having no parents is having them.’
Lisa, who was long-listed for the BBC short story awards a few years ago, is now busy working on a collection of short stories. ‘I’m also working on another book simultaneously – about some evil men in Scotland,’ she laughs.
A writer who has also been teaching creative writing for the past four years, she says what gives her immense joy is to ‘give the students the tools they need and the courage they require to write the story they came to tell me.
‘And the book a student brings to the table at the start of the course, is never the same book they take from that table. That makes me happy.’
The Emirates Airline Festival of Literature, organised the Emirates Literature Foundation, is on from Feb 2-9, 2020. Among the major names attending the festival are TV presenter and bestselling author Nadiya Hussain, explorer Ranulph Fiennes, children’s book author, Oliver Jeffers, space scientist Dr Maggie Aderin-Pocock, and UAE’s first astronaut Hazzaa Al Mansouri.
Lisa O’Donnell's tips for wannabe writers
Keep it simple. There is no such thing as writers’ block. Get on and write.
Once done, edit it. Accept that your work has to change, that it’s going to evolve. Join a writers’ group and dare to send your work there. I decided to do a creative writing course AFTER two of my books – one an award-winning bestseller – were published.
You should be able to pitch your book in one or two sentences. As Steven Spielberg said, ‘You can pitch any movie idea in 27 words.’
Do not overcomplicate storylines. Take five of your favourite books, extract the main arc and you’ll be able to write the story in three sentences or less. An example: a giant shark in the sea and three men going into the ocean to face it. Are they going to win? That’s basically Jaws, right?
Write the main idea of your story on a Post It, stick it on your workstation and refer to it frequently to stay on track.
Once written, read your book out aloud. It should sound right. Every piece of work you write should have its own melody, rhythm and pacing. It should have its own beat. This hooks readers in, keeps them flipping the pages over.
Your objective should be: When a reader closes your book they feel a little bereft because they are not going to be hearing your music and are going to be living without your character.
Figuring out what you DON’T need in a narrative is important to take your novel forward. There is no room for everything that a character does. Choose just the ones that’ll take the story forward.
An example: I’m a big fan of Jane Austen. But do you know who Mary in Pride & Prejudice is? She’s one of the sisters but nobody knows what she does other than play the piano. Question: do you need so many sisters in the novel? I’d probably lose at least two of the sisters. Lucky for Jane Austen I was not an editor back in the 1800s.