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issue #220

Where the Bees Are Going

by Andy Holt

Issue #220 September 8, 2016

Edited by Karen Friedman



Excerpt

The first time we speak to you, we whisper.

Hilderbach Square.

Some of you hear us right away, but Levi Colby can’t make out the words, only the buzzing around their edges, so that we come to him like his own bona-fide idea. He’s on the couch watching the Netflix browsing screen flow upward. An unopened beer can warms on the coffee table, but he’s so high that he’s forgotten it’s there, and perfect, we think. This guy right here, he’s perfect.

Three days later, Levi will remember how our words flickered sudden and blurry in his mind, like a hint of neon through urban haze.

Go for a walk.

We tried subtle attempts on him all afternoon: arranged objects from his apartment into strange patterns, tickled the back of his neck, formed waving figures at the edge of his vision. Hallucinations, he decided. Tricks of the mind. After six full weeks indoors, Levi has started to see his apartment like the inside of his own head. It’s a paranoid land of spooks, hiding around every corner. We need him out in the open.

Go outside. Go for a walk.



Andy Holt

Andy Holt was born and raised on the Gulf Coast of Florida. As a result, his blood is mostly lemon-lime Gatorade. His work has appeared in Chicago Quarterly Review, McSweeney’s Internet Tendency, and places beyond. He is a recent graduate of UC Riverside’s MFA program in writing, and his first novel, Junk Food, is nearing completion. It is not about bees.



Karen Friedman on Where the Bees Are Going

In my early 20s, I moved to New York without a job and with very little savings. My roommate, an aspiring actress and high school friend, found us a cheap one-bedroom in Fort Greene. She was my only friend in Brooklyn, which seemed fine at first — there were drinks with producers and various “industry” people to fill the hours and I was always invited along. Then she left for a month to try pilot season in L.A. Without my friend, there were no nights out. I was trying to temp, but work was slow, so I spent three weeks alone in our apartment trying and failing to write. I lived on cereal. I read. I watched our 5 channels of network television. I listened to “Blood on the Tracks” so many times I can still sing the entire album from memory. I wished I’d never left home. Mostly, though, I waited for something to change.

Almost 20 years later that feeling of overwhelming inertia, the sense of being powerless to move beyond my circumstances, came back to me as I read “Where the Bees Are Going” by Andy Holt. Through the unexpected and captivating voice of bees, Andy explores the nature of loneliness and how we survive it.

Far from mindless drones buzzing around the backyard, the insects narrating his story are survivors of collapsed hives. They long for the homes they’ve left behind, navigating what it means to be thrust out into a world where the very basis of their survival, the hive, no longer exists. In their desperation, the bees attempt to create a home. This time one based not on conformity and duty, but rather shared need. Along the way, they learn from a species all too familiar with what it means to struggle in loneliness: our own. The bees find that their survival depends on a measure of grace, sacrifice, and compassion. I hope this story captures your heart and imagination the way it captured ours.



Q&A by Karen Friedman

KF: One of the most memorable elements in this piece is the voice. You’ve managed to tell it (quite convincingly I might add) in the collective voice of bees. So just where did the voice come from?
AH: It started with an article I read about Colony Collapse Disorder. There was something mysterious about how the colonies are found with the worker bees missing. Not dead, just completely gone. I couldn’t get the image out of my head. I tried writing a short piece as a group of missing bees from a collapsed colony, and that turned into the first Tobias scene.
KF: The scenes where the bees emulate humans have always been my favorites. More than just an amusing party trick, imitating humans enables the bees to connect those they are collecting and provides sometimes damning characterizations of our species. Beyond the narrative function, can you talk a bit about how you approached those scenes?
AH: The impulse was for the bees to show some clumsiness in those scenes. There are moments where they aren’t quite pulling off the disguise. I imagined that impersonating humans would be much more difficult for the bees than just studying human behavior. Interaction between people requires an incredible amount of subtlety—all kinds of things can go wrong with phrasing, gesture, tone, pacing, you name it. If you put these bees into that arena, I figured they’d only be able to get 80% of the way there. But real people struggle to communicate all the time. None of us are quite pulling it off, and we’re used to filling in the gaps. So the bees get away with it.
KF: How much did you know about bees before writing this story and did the actual science regarding bee behavior impact the story?
AH: Can’t stress enough how little I knew about bees. The plan was to sketch out a draft, then use research to plug the holes. But then I kept encountering facts about bees that inspired major additions to the story. Research can be fun that way. One tidbit that didn’t make it into the final draft: bees flap their wings over 200 times per second.
KF: How long did it take you to complete this story?
AH: I wrote that first Tobias scene four years ago, but I didn’t know what to do from there. It went into my junk writing folder. Fast forward a few years: I had a deadline for grad school workshop, and I didn’t have anything new, so I dug up that old bee scene. This time, the rest came pretty quickly. That’s why I save every piece of writing, no matter how small.
KF: What was the most challenging aspect of writing this story?
AH: I’d never written a speculative piece before. At first, when you write a story with magical elements, you feel like you can do anything. The rules go out the window. But then it becomes clear that you have to make your own set of rules, and they have to be consistent and logical. It’s an extra layer of thought that goes into every detail.
KF: What are you working on now?
AH: Cleaning up a crime novel set in Florida.
KF: What is the best bit of advice about writing you have ever received?
AH: My undergrad mentor John McNally once told me that I’d developed a habit: I only wrote “lonely boy” stories. All my short stories had a main character who spent most of the story alone, thinking, being melancholy. That must have been tough news for him to break, since we both knew, of course, that I was probably the lonely boy on some level. But I needed to hear it.

I think writers should be aware of how our own insecurities impact our writing. It’s one thing to inject ourselves into stories, which just about everybody does. But it’s another to forget that storytelling lives between ourselves and the readers, not only inside our own heads.

I still write stories about lonely boys sometimes, it’s just that I hope they’re better ones. “Where the Bees Are Going” features two lonely boys and a lonely girl, but hey, there are bees.