Books·How I Wrote It

What do bees and artists share in common? The answer lies in Harriet Alida Lye's debut novel

Harriet Alida Lye shares how she wrote her first novel, The Honey Farm.
The Honey Farm is Harriet Alida Lye's first novel. (Twitter.com/Vagrant Press)

When the bees in The Honey Farm start dying, Cynthia decides to create a residency where artists can stay, in exchange for working on the farm. When the artists feel they aren't getting enough creative work out of the deal, they begin to leave — but something even more sinister may be taking place than a scam for cheap labour. Silva, a young poet, is one of the artists who originally agrees to the residency, but decides to stay and figure out what is really going on.

The Honey Farm is Harriet Alida Lye's debut novel. In her own words, she describes how she wrote it.

Listen to the bees

"On the first page of the prologue, it says, 'Listen, it starts with the bees.' [When I wrote this], I was in a part of France called the Cévennes, which is a natural forest and mountain range. I was in an extremely isolated cabin. We didn't have a car — we were like a 26 mile walk from any store. So I closed my eyes and listened to what was around me. If I was watching a film of this book, what would it sound like in the theatre? I wanted it to be very aural, so we experience the sound as Silvia experiences them."

Bees and artists

 "I did tons of research into it. I talked with my mom, who was once the director of communications for the Canadian Honey Council and the Ontario Beekeepers Association, and went to some farms specifically for research trips. The more I learned about bees, the more it seemed like their lives and workings were so rich in metaphor and lent themselves very well to analogies that apply to human interaction.

"For instance, there's a scene where they're harvesting the honey as a group for the first time and Ibrahim [a painter] has this revelation that bees make honey the way that artists make work: we use flowers and our surroundings as material or inspiration."

Changing the ending

"In one of the early drafts, the second half of the book had a very different structure. I had a script writer read it and he commented that the ending was a payoff for Cynthia's character rather than Silvia's character. Since Silvia is the character that we follow, it doesn't makes for a very satisfying ending; we're not getting a sense of resolution or fulfilment or understanding of Silvia's arc.

"You've got to make the characters real. Someone asked me what writing a novel is like and I said something off the cuff that I actually think is very true for me: You have to make a human out of words. The human has to walk and breathe — and be able to digest, have a heartbeat and their own thoughts. It took a couple of attempts to get a sense of the right flow. After that feedback, I ended up completely rewriting the second half in order to work through a resolution for Silvia rather than Cynthia."

Writing the first draft

"I think I wrote 70,000 words in a summer. I was staying with a friend at her farmhouse in northern Sweden. I would sit in her greenhouse and write 1,500 words in about three or four hours. Then I would go for a walk or run, meet up with my friend and read through the pages at the end of the day.

"I would always start a sentence of what I was going to write the next day and that made it feel easier to return to it. I think Hemingway said you should do that — you should always know what you're going to write the next day before you finish your work for the day. Even if you end on the middle of a sentence, at least you can start writing something."

Harriet Alida Lye's comments have been edited and condensed.

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