Peggy Hesketh talks about 'Telling the Bees' and the weird old O.C.

Peggy Hesketh is no stranger to facing her fears. For her debut novel, “Telling the Bees” (Putnam, $27), Hesketh comprehensively researched and observed the world of beehives and bees—an insect to which she is highly allergic. It is this same drive to face her fears that had Hesketh on the phone with us for an interview -- an activity, she confesses, that's extremely difficult for her.

“Telling the Bees” revolves around Albert Honig, an elderly bachelor beekeeper who lived a painfully reserved past and continues to live a solitary present-day existence. His bees are the closest thing Albert has to a real companion. When his estranged childhood friend and neighbor, Claire, and her sister, are murdered in a botched home burglary, Albert feels compelled to piece together the events of their lives in an attempt to make sense of their shared past. Albert discovers the dark secrets of Claire’s past as well as the mystery behind her murder.

A longtime journalist, Hesketh currently teaches writing and rhetoric at UC Irvine. She will be doing a book event April 20 at the Barnes and Noble in Fullerton.    

How do you feel your career as a journalist influenced your work as a novelist?

It taught me to write every day, rewrite two revisions.... It disabused me of the romanticism of being a writer and taught me the craft of it.  

What was it like to write in the voice of a male protagonist?

It was easy—I’m a tomboy anyway. I’m a sports geek—if you see me in a dress once every two or three years, you’re lucky. Well, maybe not so lucky. 

So, I got the male down. For the elderly, I found this lovely beekeeping handbook written by an elderly beekeeper and the voice was just so charming that it seduced me and I started trying to imitate his voice. Once I did that, the character emerged. I lived with my grandfather when I was a young child and we lived on a farm, we raised our own vegetables, we sold fruits and vegetables off of what we made. So I kind of knew the elderly, taciturn mindset of someone. I was very close to him—he taught me to read, he taught me to write, he taught me my multiplication tables. My protagonist doesn’t speak like my grandfather did but the character becomes a conglomeration of experience and voice and all of that. Once I found his voice, it was hard to get out of it.    

Albert is a very distinct character—he has a reserved past, a solitary present, he has an easier time connecting with his bees than with humans. What was the inspiration behind this character and in what ways do you feel like you can relate to him?

I think as a writer, I’m much more of an observer than the average Joe. I’m really active in things but I have a hard time interacting with people. This is really tough for me, doing interviews and speaking with people. So I kind of get that part of him.

But again, as I go back to my grandfather who was this terribly reclusive person who, many years later, I found out had this whole other life. But at the time that I knew him, he just puttered in his garden and was just this quiet person who just connected with the Earth and the seasons. This character became painfully real to me in a very sad way.

The bees play a huge role in the novel, almost serving as a character on their own. But I read that you are actually highly allergic to bees!

A long time ago, somebody said to me, "The things you’re most afraid of is where you need to be." I’m also terrified of heights, so the book I’m working on now has to do with dinosaur paleontology of the 1870s, which meant I ended up having to climb mountains in Montana. And I was absolutely terrified of it, but it was great. I dug up dinosaur bones, I know now how that character that I’m writing about figured out where the dinosaur bones were—which I couldn’t have from simply reading books on it.

With "Telling the Bees," I did go out and interview all sorts of beekeepers and went to hives and all of that. But what I learned is that if you move slowly, if you don’t disrupt bees, they don’t sting you. So it was actually quite lovely. I have an herb garden in my backyard and I would sit and watch the bees and I literally could see the little pollen sacks getting filled as they went for the flowers, and basil, and rosemary and what have you. Even if they landed on me, I learned not to be terrified and instead to just be gentle and be slow.  

 What type of research did you do?

What was kind of sweet was I was working for a community newspaper when I first started writing the novel. And my editor knew I was working on this book so when the prize honey for the Orange County fair was going on, he said, "Do you want to go do that story?" And he would send me off. He sent me off on all these little stories about bees and beekeepers, so I would go and visit them.

I always remember this one—he was an investment banker who was this really high-powered guy. When I met him at the door, he was really intense. Then he took me out back to his hives and all of a sudden he slowed down, he took his tie off and he became this other person completely. He became that quintessential beekeeper which is really hard to explain unless you actually go there. Suddenly the hum of the hives slows you down. It’s like a heartbeat. It is that lower C. You feel something.

 Why did you choose to set the novel in Orange County?

There was an incident that inspired the story. There were two elderly women who were known as the "bee ladies" who lived in my neighborhood in old Orange County. I used to drive by their house every day and they would sit on their porch selling their honey and one day, there was police tape wrapped around their house. Being curious, I checked the paper and found out they had been murdered in a botched burglary. And I went, "Wow! How could something like that happen?" That part of the story is absolutely true. Their house was eventually bulldozed....

I didn’t know anything more about that murder and I very consciously didn’t want to know any more because it just made me sad, but there was something about and I just kept saying, "How could something like this happen?" And then I started thinking, "How could I tell this story?" Because it was more than just simply these ladies dying. It was this whole era, this whole part of old Orange County. These were old settlers, these were farmers. It was kind of a sweet, old, little neighborhood. And I still live there and I’ve watched all the changes....

Orange County was a really interesting place when I arrived here when I was 9 years old with my family. I would wake up at night and I could smell the orange blossoms and the jasmine and the eucalyptus trees. It’s part my own memory but it’s also part a collective memory of people from our generation. But again, I have to say, I’m not Albert and I actually love that my neighborhood right now is incredibly diverse.

That’s why it’s set in Orange County—because the story couldn’t happen anywhere else.    

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