Notes from a small island

Katie Silvester

Commonwealth prizewinning writer Lisa O’Donnell, from Scotland’s Isle of Bute, wrote her first novel based on characters she knew from her own childhood

When dreams of being a screenwriter culminated in writing a few episodes of English soap opera Hollyoaks, Scottish wordsmith Lisa O’Donnell decided to turn her attention towards novels. It turned out to be a good career move – her first novel, The Death of Bees, won the Commonwealth Book Prize in 2013. 

“I was always dabbling with a pen growing up and used to write poetry. Bad poetry,” laughs O’Donnell, 42. “I had a keen interest in film and in my 20s decided to try my hand at screenwriting. In 2000 I entered the Orange Prize for New Screenwriters and won. After that I spent a few years pursuing a career in screenwriting. I worked with the BBC developing new projects but they never went anywhere.” 

The author, who hails from the Isle of Bute (population 6,500) off the west coast of Scotland, tried her hand at writing a novella next – fiction that is shorter than a novel, but longer than a short story – sending the finished product, Isabel’s Window, to literary agents Conville and Walsh. 

“Patrick Walsh called me at home and told me it was good, but novellas are a hard sell and I should think of writing something else, which I did, ten years later. I wrote The Death of Bees and submitted it to Conville and Walsh who represent me now.” 

The Death of Bees tells the story of two Glaswegian girls – 15-year-old Marnie and 12-year-old Nelly – whose alcoholic parents die suddenly. The girls bury their parents in the garden to avoid the involvement of social services. 

“There are a lot of kids out there raising themselves,” says O’Donnell. “It’s not a nice reality, but it is a reality. In movies we see welfare officers sweeping in and protecting children from abusive parents – in real life it doesn’t happen that way. Drug addicts and abusers still have children and while they are visibly neglectful parents, there are also those abusive parents who are invisible to authorities and their children are out there fending for themselves. 

“It’s frightening if you think about it but if you pay attention to the world you live in you’ll see that it’s all around you. I wrote The Death of Bees for all those children forced into adulthood before their time, children denied childhoods and forced to take care of themselves. But I empowered my characters by creating a dark fairy tale, if you like.” 

Elderly neighbour Lennie – a bit of an outcast, thanks to a conviction for an encounter with an underage rent boy – notices that the girls’ parents don’t seem to be around, and takes them in, soon becoming their unofficial guardian. 

“My girls are educated and streetwise, but I always remind the reader they are children. They’re fighters and definitely older than their young years, but as they fend off social workers, school authorities, nosey neighbours and drug lords, I was able to tell a story of survival in the worst of circumstances.” 

The story is told in the first person, mainly by the coarse, brash Marnie, who smokes and has under age ex. Other passages are narrated by Lennie and Nelly. 

“I had a strong feel for my characters when I started to write them and was able to slip into their heads fairly easily. I’d been thinking about them for a long time before I wrote them. I suppose writing Marnie was easiest because I’ve been a 15-year-old girl, but I was never the kind of 15-year-old Marnie was, although I knew a lot of girls like her. In a lot of respects writing her was like visiting an old friend.”

O’Donnell used her Commonwealth Book Prize money to buy a cherrywood antique writing desk, which now resides in her study where she does most of her writing. She cites other Commonwealth writing that she admires as Andrea Levy’s Small Island, Mark Haddon’s The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time and Peter Cary’s True History of the Kelly Gang. 

With her first novel receiving such critical acclaim, O’Donnell was always going to be under pressure to produce a worthy follow up. Closed Doors was released at the end of 2013 – this time the story is told from the point of view of a 12-year-old boy. It was included in the Books of the Year list in homeless magazine The Big Issue. 

As with most authors, O’Donnell admits that writers’ block can occasionally be a problem. “Writers’ block is difficult. I like to exercise and take walks when it rears its ugly head. Reading is good too, that way I still feel like I’m working. Reading is as important as writing to me.” 

I ask about a third novel – and it sounds like the writers’ block demon has visited recently. 

“I’m in a jumble of words and ideas at the moment. A story is screaming to get out and I’m luring it out of myself with the greatest of difficulty. I’m taking a lot of walks right now!”


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