Why did you choose to set your book in these three particular time periods and places?
When I started to work on the book, I had three questions: why do the bees die, how does it feel to lose them and how would the world be without pollinating insects?
To answer the questions I did a lot of research and through the research, I found the three main characters of the novel – in the past, in the present and in the future. The past is inspired by actual biologists and bee keepers living in Europe and the US. The future by the fact that China already hand- pollinate. And the present by what happened in the US in 2007, when Colony Collapse Disorder got its name.
How did you adapt yourself to the demands of such very different periods and yet get them to mesh so well? Did you build up each story individually or work on the three simultaneously?
The first half a year I spent mostly on research. I read every relevant book and article I could find, saw all the documentaries available. I also started working on the three different voices and got to know my characters. After that I spent half a year writing out the stories separately, before I merged them into one. And then spent a lot of time, a year almost, rewriting. That is a very important part of the work for me, and I usually rewrite my texts at least five times. This novel was eight.
How much research did you have to do into Colony Collapse Disorder? What disturbed you the most about what you discovered?
A lot. There were several things that scared me, but even more that fascinated me. Most of all how the hive is one organism. The single bee is nothing, but with the others it's everything. I think this is the truth about bees, about men, about the planet. All parts of nature need each other. Everything is connected to everything. It is easy to forget, though, even though nature tells it to us every day. Men have done amazing things when working together, think about Europe after the Second World War, so much was rebuilt in so few years. We now stand face to face with climate changes that should make us act, and work together. And I hope we will...
Why do you think we continue to ignore the evidence of the importance of bees and the significance of their decline, despite all the mounting evidence and warnings of a catastrophe of the type you describe?
If I only had the answer to that … It is so difficult to connect the small choices we do every day to the big picture, even though they are connected.
Charlotte is an unsung heroine in the story of the bees. Was she based on a real person? Will women’s past contributions to the sciences ever be fully recognised or does the documentation just not exist?
Lorenzo Langstroth, the father of modern beekeeping, inspired William. Charlotte, on the other hand, is not inspired by a real person, because she is the kind of person the history books do not write about - as you say, the documentation doesn’t exist. But that doesn’t make her story less true. There are millions of Charlottes out there in the world, both now, and in the past.
Tao describes the irony of the availability of information online being so enormous that no one can actually gain a proper oversight of anything. Do you think that this availability is actually causing us to know and understand less? Does it make you pessimistic about our ability to bring about change in time?
It is a blessing and a threat. Information and education are strongly connected. Education, the power of knowledge is the answer to many of our problems. But sorting out the right facts in the overwhelming stream is very difficult. The gadgets that are now almost part of our body don’t always help.
As well as being about our relationship to nature, and especially bees, there is a very strong emphasis on the parent-child relationship, particularly fathers and sons. Was this something you intended to explore from the outset or did this theme develop as the writing progressed?
It was there from the beginning. I write both for children and about children. The relationship is also a big part of my next novel, Blue. Children are what we come from, and our future. They fascinate me and I feel a strong responsibility for them. As an author you always use yourself when writing. An example: in the beginning I struggled most with the story about Tao, mostly because her story is from the future. But when I forgot that and instead focused on her as a mother, it started to flow. Her son is three; my youngest was three when I did the writing. It was him, really, I imagined when writing about Tao. That actually made that story very emotional for me.
Tao, William and George all pressure their children, in their own way, to follow the path they set for them, often convinced that it is for their children’s own good. Do you think allowing children to follow their own path, however well-meaning their parents’ interventions might be, is the greatest challenge of parenting?
Definitely one of the greatest, yes. The three main characters are all very different from me, but they all want what’s best for their kids. They don’t always know what that is, though. This is a theme I, as a mother of three, really relate too. This relationship between parent and child holds immense love, but also often great ambivalence. Children are constantly evolving, and that constantly changes the role of a parent. It is so easy to forget that your child is a completely different person than you, and what’s right for you is often not right for him or her. Tao, George and William are all certain they know what’s best for their child, but are quite often mistaken.
George with his passive-aggressive ‘jokes’, Tao and Kuan unable to talk in the face of tragedy… Spouses, parents and children… all have difficulty in communicating with each other. Do you feel this is an unavoidable aspect of human relationships or is this another particular link between these protagonists?
Miscommunication is part of all human relationships, is it part of what makes it so challenging, and also exciting, to be human.
Williams feels that ‘Like the drone, I sacrificed my life for procreation.’ As a writer, a wife and mother, how far do you feel this tension between what William sees as professional passion and the demands of family life?
I’m lucky. I can do what I love every day; write. Unlike William who has sacrificed his career to keep the children alive. But I can really connect to his passion, I guess I feel the same way about his work as he does. Writing makes me happy, fulfilled.