The Hive may be Gill Hornby’s début novel, but she already had a healthy chunk of writing experience under her belt as a journalist, including writing a weekly column for the Telegraph.
She didn’t try balancing the two disciplines, though, waiting patiently instead for a point in her career when she could devote all her time to her novel. That came in 2010, by which point Hornby had learned transferable lessons from her journalism.
My favourite books are about ordinary people leading ordinary lives“When you are working on an article with a deadline, you just have to jolly well get on with it and that gives you a discipline – of knowing you have no choice but to get the words down, and knowing that once you start writing then the writing itself takes over,” she says.
After two years, The Hive was finished: a highly entertaining, witty, and un-put-down-able novel about the intensely competitive swarm of mums at the school gates of a village school.
The intricate social game playing, manipulation and one-upmanship goes from laugh-out-loud funny to disturbingly obsessive, and Hornby skillfully interweaves the stories of four main women among a huge cast of other characters.
She describes the process as “a bit like colouring in,” reading through big scenes to ensure all the characters had said enough or done enough, and going back over and over it until it was right.
For a light, heartwarming book, Hornby covers some hard-hitting topics, including suicide and obsession. So how did she get the balance right?
“I balanced it like that because life itself is balanced like that, isn’t it? Especially life in quite a large, extended community like a primary school: there is hilarity and misery all around you, whichever way you look. Something very funny happens most days, and something very tragic will happen to someone at some point,” she replies.
The head of this community in The Hive is the appropriately named Bea. I was keen to know more about why Hornby decided to use the bee symbolism – including the fact that another leading character, Rachel, has a bee-keeping mother – as such a central part of the story.
“The role of the queen bee in female society has been brilliantly analysed by the American psychologist Rosalind Wiseman in her book Queen Bees and Wannabees. I didn’t realize quite how many similarities there were between us and the honeybee until I went and looked in a hive and then I was astonished by the similarities. That was when I made Rachel’s mother a bee keeper…”
The bee theme is also key to one of the book’s most endearing qualities – the emphasis it puts on the importance of being a mum, and being part of a community, and the way it cuts through a generally snobby attitude held by many ‘career women’ who feel dedicating a life to your family makes you boring and unfulfilled.
Hornby explains the bee metaphor is an important reminder to women that, “We are better together, there is safety in numbers. When we are raising our families and buzzing around the school gates, we are building our communities, looking after each other, and coming together to raise our young and that is terrifically important. Like bees, we are doing an enormous amount to keep the planet going.”
One element that could undo some of this empowering message to women is the fact that as Bea gradually loses her grip on her desperate-to-please gaggle of mums, there are plentiful references to her weight gain.
But Hornby is quick to argue that this was more symbolic of a loss of control of something that she had previously held a vice-like grip.
“It is fair to say that we are all very aware of the body shapes of others, and it can be a contributory factor to a character’s popularity,” says Hornby.
“But with Bea in particular, being in control of the group’s exercise regime was important to her as a way of keeping social control. So that, when she starts to abandon that, then everything – including her figure – starts to fall apart.”
It’s not just her book that celebrates everyday women, it’s Hornby’s entire outlook on the fiction industry. Refreshingly, she doesn’t care about press coined terms like ‘chick lit’ or the condescending way many sections of the literary press ignore lighthearted books about everyday lives in favour of ‘harder’ reads.
She says, “All writers should surely be writing for their readers, rather than press. My favourite books are about ordinary people leading ordinary lives, and when I was writing this one I could see, every single day, the people I was writing about and the people who might like to read it.”
She’s equally unflustered by concerns about being ignored by the press in favour of male authors, as seems to be the trend:
“Women buy huge amounts of books, and most of them seem to be by women. And the passion that female readers feel for their favourite writers is fantastic and inspiring to see. That’s the most important thing.”
In fact, it was books about ordinary life that inspired her the most, in particular, the William Cooper novels Scenes from A Provincial Life and Scenes from a Metropolitan Life were a turning point for Hornby.
“The idea that you could write an entire trilogy about a perfectly nice, ordinary chap living a nice, ordinary life and make it so charming and fascinating certainly piqued my interest,” she explains.
Female literary heroes also played a part in the way Hornby wrote The Hive, particularly on the way the story builds to a wonderful social climax, “much like the way Jane Austen might use a ball – as a big set piece where everything shifts and settles.”
Like all good books, the ending prompts readers to say a difficult goodbye to a community they’ve grown to know and love, so what’s next for Hornby?
“A second novel, set in the same small town as The Hive, but with slightly different characters, all of whom are at the next stage of the process, and the next great metaphor from the animal kingdom: the empty nest.”