Laline Paull on her first novel becoming a musical

PUBLISHED: 15:33 27 January 2016


Laline Paull from St Leonards published her first novel, The Bees, in 2014. It was shortlisted for the Bailey’s Prize for Women’s Fiction and is now being adapted as a musical. Andrea Hargreaves found out what all the buzz is about

When I got reacquainted with Laline Paull at Shop in St Leonards we arrived on the threshold at the same time, ten minutes early. Immediately she was into efficient nurturing mode: let’s get tea, are you recording this? Is it going to be too noisy? She had replied immediately to my request for a meeting, suggesting this ultra hip venue, and the afternoon because she devotes her mornings to writing. The pictures, taken by her professional photographer husband Adrian Peacock, were in my inbox already. This level of organisation should have come as no surprise from the acclaimed author of Bailey’s Prize for Women’s Fiction-shortlisted The Bees, a best-selling thriller – now set to be a musical – about a worker bee, detailing the complex life of the hive and a totalitarian society requiring absolute loyalty and adherence to order.

I first met Laline at The Beacon arts hub in Hastings when she spoke about her book, the result of three months of research talking to top biologists at the University of Sussex, among others. Though prepared to sacrifice everything for the Queen, the protagonist Flora 717 manages to escape internal massacres, religious purges and a huge marauding wasp, but when her devotion to a life of service is overwhelmed by forbidden maternal love, she must break the most sacred law and embark on a collision course with everything she holds most dear.

It’s often said that a first novel is autobiographical, but Laline soon put me straight on that one: “That’s in my bottom drawer. Unpublished.” She theorises that a successful novelist needs to be able to draw on life experience and reflection – so that first novel will not be wasted as its characterisations can be drawn on and developed for other more fictional stories – and so it was that a career spent in the film and TV industry did not see her first book published until middle age. “I was published at 50 and it was great.” She explained: “I’ve worked in the film business in many capacities: receptionist, gofer, trainee film-financier, sales agent, development and acquisition, reader, then finally screenwriter. I’ve lived and worked in Los Angeles, New York and London. When I had my daughter I stopped writing for television and started writing for the theatre, because time had become more precious, and story-telling by committee didn’t suit me. Working with actors is so rewarding.”

But now she has swapped theatres for her writing shed in the garden of her home just outside St Leonards, a place that also serves as a hide. “I spend a lot of time watching the local wildlife. I procrastinate with binoculars – following bees, amused by squirrel battles, and I’m struck by the power of paying attention: how readily the world reveals itself – I saw a dove arch its wings back and hiss at a rat, to drive it away.”

The Bees came about following a visit to the Winchelsea home of a friend with whom she shared the same sensibilities. “Angie Biltcliffe was dying of breast cancer. On her wedding day we walked around her hives; that was so poignant and beautiful. She put the theme of bees into her funeral service with quotes from books. I was feeling so emotional that I was able to jump the gap.” The result was a heroine who was one of the one in 10,000 workers who can spontaneously give birth. Flora doesn’t have much regard for the drones: “They are like layabout courtiers to the queen. If you have a hierarchy you have a story and great people to write about,” said Laline.

So was her own upbringing relevant to the story? “As a child, books and animals were my best friends. My parents were first-generation Indian immigrants. I went to a comprehensive school, then a grammar school for sixth form, where I won a scholarship to Oxford to read English. Because I’ve been immersed in the full spectrum of the British class system, I firmly believe in the power of nurture, at least as much as nature.” Her own daughter, India, is 16 and she also has stepsons Jackson, 13 and Rider, nine. “They are all wonderful,” she said, going on to say how much she respects mothers who choose to devote themselves to the care of their children. She herself, she added, owes her own cultural education to her self-taught mother. Before moving to St Leonards she lived in Hampstead, London –so what brought her to East Sussex? “Love and family.”

Laline is now spending each morning in her shed working on her next book, this time set in the human world – with some animals of course – but first this organised and home-loving woman had cakes to bake: three to be precise.

The Bees is published by HarperCollins at £14.99 


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