Eileen Garvin, THE MUSIC OF BEES

Eileen Garvin, THE MUSIC OF BEES

“I’m so glad that I found my way in because it’s the thing that makes me feel the most myself.” Eileen Garvin joins Zibby to discuss her debut novel, The Music of Bees, and the serendipitous experiences that inspired it. Eileen shares how her hobby of beekeeping was the best way for her to connect with her late father, why it took her so long to discover she was meant to be a writer, and what inspired the first spark of this book. Read Eileen’s essay for Moms Don’t Have Time to Write here.


Zibby Owens: Welcome, Eileen. Thanks for coming on “Moms Don’t Have Time to Read Books” to discuss The Music of Bees.

Eileen Garvin: Thanks so much for having me. It’s great to be here.

Zibby: Would you mind telling listeners what your book is about?

Eileen: I’d be happy to. The Music of Bees tells the story of three lonely strangers who meet by accident on a beekeeping farm in Oregon. You could say that each one of them has been wounded by life. There’s three main characters. Alice Holtzman is forty-four. She’s an overworked, underappreciated county employee. Alice has recently lost her husband. She’s just reeling from this loss. She’s sort of a loner, never expected to meet anyone, and so this particular loss is very hard for her. Then there’s Jacob Stevenson who has the tallest mohawk of Hood River Valley High School. Jacob is a mouthy upstart kid. He’s just graduated from high school. He’s on his way leaving his parents’ house in this Podunk town he’s grown up in. He has an accident at a high school party and has ended up in a wheelchair and is grappling with this tremendous change in his life. Our third in this unlikely trio is Harry Stokes who, at first, doesn’t seem like he has an obvious problem. He’s twenty-four. Harry’s made some bad choices, made the wrong friends, and landed in jail. Now he’s trying to find his feet. The three of them meet at Alice’s farm, which is located in a fictionalized version of Hood River, Oregon, which is the town I live in.

Zibby: There you go. Amazing. I was sort of taken aback by the mohawk as the starting scene and how you seem to have such a grasp on exactly how to do it and where you shave and how pointy it is and the different sections of the hair and all of that. I was like, all right, interesting. How did you do your research on that one?

Eileen: Clearly, I don’t have a mohawk, as you can see. It’s just one of those funny sidebars that you get to do as a writer. Of course, I have friends who have had mohawks. I’ve seen a mohawk. I thought, if I’m going to make this character have a mohawk, this has to be realistic. I interviewed friends who’d had them in the past. What do you use? How did you make it stay tall? All this sort of thing. It gave me a whole new respect for the time management that that particular hairdo requires.

Zibby: I don’t have a single friend who had a mohawk, I have to say. I think my research would’ve had to be more extensive. I also like how you slowly explain — you don’t say right up front that he’s in a wheelchair. You have to discover that. I found that really interesting. You draw the reader in. Then you realize. You’re like, oh, no. Then you have to shift everything you’ve been thinking about. What made you decide to start it off that way?

Eileen: I wanted to give readers a sense of Jacob to begin with. It was a little bit unconscious, I suppose. That scene in which we meet him, he’s going through his morning routine. He doesn’t want to think about the fact that he’s in a wheelchair and the life that he had planned has been put on hold. He’s just distracting himself by doing his hair. That’s how we meet him. Then of course, in that moment, he can’t escape the fact that at the end of this two-hour procedure of doing his hair, he really has nothing else to do with his day because he’s stuck at his parents’ house because of this thing that happened. I like that indirect explanation and introduction to Jacob.

Zibby: I like that too. It was beautiful. How did you come up with this idea? Why these characters? They are an unlikely crew. How did they pop into your head? How did this become a book? All of that.

Eileen: They came to me from elsewhere, as I’m sure you’ve had lots of writers say. I should say, my background is in nonfiction. I started as a business reporter. I’ve done lots of freelance as a travel writer. My first book was a memoir. With nonfiction, you’re beginning with a pile of facts. The craft is putting together the order and all that. That’s where the creativity lies. Fiction was really outside my experience at all. The story came to me when I was driving to a farm. I’m sorry.

Zibby: Is that your dog?

Eileen: Yeah, my dog.

Zibby: My dog always is shaking and rattling during podcasts.

Eileen: She might show up here in a minute. She’s really bored with me right now. So I was driving to a farm in my town to pick up a new package of bees. I am a backyard beekeeper. My hive had died. I needed to buy a new package of bees. That is exactly what it sounds like. You buy a box of bees. It’s buzzing with bees. I was driving to pick them up. I was passed by a young man in a wheelchair with this tremendous mohawk, something you notice. Number one, it’s a country road. It’s a small town. You don’t see a lot of mohawks in Hood River. I also noticed that he was very fit-looking. Hood River’s a pretty sporty town. We have a lot of Olympic athletes that train there. We have a lot of Paralympic athletes that train there. I figured that must be who this guy was, but I didn’t know him. He passed me.

The first line for the story, “Jacob Stevenson had the tallest mohawk in the history of Hood River County High School,” just popped into my mind. I pulled over and jotted it down, that feeling you get. I have to do something with that. I went and picked up my bees and then went home and the next morning, got up. The dog that was just making some noise had just had surgery, so I had to sit with her and keep her quiet. I sat down and started working on the story. I worked on it every morning for the twelve weeks that she was in recovery. By the end of that period, I’d met Alice. I’d met Harry. I was getting a sense of how they all came together. It was really a wonderful experience to just follow that thread every day when I got up and see where they were going to take me.

Zibby: Wow, I love that. I love how you so casually throw in that you are picking up your bees as if this is the most normal thing people do over the course of their day.

Eileen: Right, I know.

Zibby: Why don’t you explain your career here?

Eileen: I’m a backyard beekeeper. It’s definitely very much a hobby. I know lots of beekeepers that have anywhere from ten to a hundred hives. I just have two. I got interested in beekeeping in 2014, honestly, because I wanted to have chickens. I thought that’d be too much trouble, so I decided to get into beekeeping. I had some friends that were doing it. It’s one of those hobbies that, for better or for worse, you can get into fairly easily. Where I live in Oregon, you can buy a package or a nucleus of bees to get started. The hives, you can order through the mail and put together. I did all of that. You can start with a book. The first couples of years, I really made lots of mistakes. I should back up and say, to begin with, bees don’t need us, really. They can get along without me, but I really wanted the experience. I wanted to learn about them. I love honey, so I started keeping bees. More recently, I joined the Oregon State University Master Beekeeper Apprentice Program, which I mentioned Jake also — well, I don’t want to — anyway, there’s some detail about that in the book, but to study more formally. I’m actually right now completing that program. They do a terrific job walking you through everything you need to know. There are field worksheets that you do with your mentor. My mentor’s name is Zip, for reals. His name is Zip. Work the hive and then there’s an exam at the end. That was really fun, as I was revising the book, to be studying more formally and thinking, okay, I’ve got to put that in there. Here’s a fascinating detail about bees. I’m going to make this part of the story.

Zibby: Wow, that’s amazing. I just love that. You also, in addition to this book — not to stop talking about the book or the beekeeping or anything. Beekeeping also, of course, plays into your essay that you wrote for Moms Don’t Have Time to Write, which was called “Beekeeping Through the Seasons of Grief: What bees taught me about love, loss, and remembrance,” which was just beautiful. Thank you for writing this for us. It was amazing. Maybe talk about what this essay was about and how you tracked the seasons of grief, essentially.

Eileen: The beekeeping was a fairly reliable practice last year when everything else sort of went out the window. There’s very, very specific tasks that one needs to do during the course of the season. In winter where this begins, you’re hoping that they’re still alive and you’re going to see them starting to take their cleansing flights. Then in spring, you have your maintenance projects. In the summertime, you’re hoping for the honey flow. In the fall, you’re readying them. The structure there was really just the solace that I took in having that to go back to last year when so many other things were unavailable. My father passed away in January of 2020 really quite suddenly. We were very luckily able to have his funeral because it was before things shut down. I was thinking about him as I was walking through those projects and feeling very much the isolation of not being able to be with my family. Of course, grief doesn’t happen in one moment. You don’t just have the funeral, and then you move on with it. I was really yearning to be with my brothers and sisters and my mom. That wasn’t possible. I was thinking about them and thinking about him.

He was a really funny guy. I loved him very much. He was not the most accessible person. Forgive me, I can’t quite remember if I put this in the essay. My dad was a guy who liked to talk about the Civil War, golf, and medicine. He was a retired physician. If you didn’t have anything to say on those three topics, he just really wasn’t going to waste his time pretending to be polite and interested in what you had to say. I am not interested in golf, nor the Civil War, nor medicine. We had one of those relationships where it was sometimes hard to connect even though there was a lot of affection there. He was also a self-taught carpenter. He made beautiful furniture for all of us. When I took up beekeeping, it was a very specific and quasi-scientific practice. This was something that I could talk with him about. He was always interested to know what I was doing from the moment I got interested and I bought the hives and was putting them together. He was interested in the construction and then the tasks that followed. That was something that we could really talk about. I loved being able to do that.

Zibby: I just loved this whole bee fascination. When I did butterflies with my kids — you know that kit where you can make your own butterflies? You have to wait. Then they grow. That’s the extent of my caretaking in the natural species world.

Eileen: You’ve got some humans to take care of, so I’m sure that keeps you plenty busy.

Zibby: That’s true, but I lack the skill set you have, which is pretty impressive. Yes, you did mention those things about your dad in the essay, but that’s okay. It’s always nice to talk about what your parents love. You had a couple lines that I just wanted to read really fast, or at least one that I can find. You said, “Some moments are golden; others, like smoke, like birds, like bees, like light on the lake, like everything that rises, are held briefly in our fallible human hearts and move on like a swarm abandoning the hive.” That is gorgeous. This whole essay is gorgeous. The book was gorgeous. You have all these zingers that are — maybe I should say — I don’t know. There’s got to be a bee joke in there.

Eileen: Thank you. It was a pleasure to write. Fiction is fun in its own way. I’ve described chasing this creative thread. Memoir and personal essay, which I know are a favorite of yours, I love them particularly for two reasons I’ve been able to distill for myself. One is that I find out what I think when I’m writing it. I think Flannery O’Connor or — I can’t think — Joan Didion said — one said, I write to know what I think. The other said, I write to know what I believe. I’m paraphrasing badly. Anyway, you get my point.

Zibby: I get it.

Eileen: It’s the process that leads you to discover what’s in your own mind. That’s one thing I love. The other thing with memoir and personal essay in particular, you really get to capture a moment. Our lives are fleeting. The people we love die. We die. When we capture in an essay or in a memoir, our remembrance, that’s just such a gift to a write, whether or not anybody reads it. That’s really a distinct pleasure I take in that kind of writing.

Zibby: Tell me about your memoir. I didn’t have time to research that too. Tell me about your memoir.

Eileen: Yes, I’m happy to tell you about it. My memoir is called How to Be a Sister. It was published in 2010. I grew up in a family of five siblings. We were all born within six years, typical Irish Catholic clan. My second oldest sister, Margaret, has autism. Communication is very difficult for her. She has a really hard time. She doesn’t talk a lot. When we were younger, it was a household of hilarity and tragedy all mixed up together. She really had a huge influence on me. I was born when she was three and had just been diagnosed, and so I never knew life without Margaret. I had this weird position as a sibling. We like to joke that our birth order’s all screwed up in our family because I was kind of responsible for her. I always felt responsible for her because of the difference between us. I always wanted to write those stories, like I was just saying about capturing, it was sort of the family encyclopedia, things that we joked about for years or crazy stories about things that happened at weddings. That was part of it. In the moment of writing the story, I had to moved to Hood River from the Southwest and had been, when I was living in Albuquerque, able to sort of ignore this discomfort of being around her. Now I’m four hours away by car. I have to figure out how I’m going to reconnect with her as an adult. How to Be a Sister tells that story of my journey to reconnect with Margaret as an adult while telling the backstory of the shenanigans that happened in our lifetime together.

Zibby: Did you always like to write?

Eileen: I always liked to write. I did. I danced around it for so long. When I’m talking to younger writers now, I really like to tell people, don’t wait. I think I was waiting for someone to tell me that it was a good idea or that I had talent or something. I never took any classes. I studied English. I learned to read when I was three. Like I said, that big family, my oldest sister taught me to read when I was three. I have little books that I made in grade school, little yarn-and-paper books. I did practically every job you can do around writing until I fell into it. I was a tutor. I worked in PR for small presses. I decided to go to graduate school and teach English after teaching English abroad. I had a year in between my master’s and my PhD of English. I had a year off. I was waiting to start that program and took a job at a newspaper in Albuquerque and realized, oh, no, this is so much fun. This is what I want to do. I want to write something, edit something, and see it published and have that. After that, it was all over. That led me to, then, personal essay and the memoir and everything else. I wish I hadn’t waited for so long. I’m so glad that I found my way in because it’s the thing that makes me feel the most myself. I feel very lucky to have had the chance to engage in that way.

Zibby: That’s a nice way to put it. It’s the thing that makes me feel most like myself. That’s really nice. I always wonder sometimes — the other day, my hand was really hurting. I was like, what if I can’t type? What if, at some point, I’m not able to write? What if I have ALS and I can’t communicate? This is the crazy anxiety stuff that keeps me up at night. I’m so dependent on it as a form of mental health, even.

Eileen: I know. I totally hear what you’re saying. You’ve got it deep in your core as well. I feel that way. I’m sure you’ve had this experience too, when you’re traveling and you don’t have access to your pen and paper or something. It just feels like sort of a drug, this way of calming everything down by taking notes and coming up with ideas. It’s really a wonderful way to explore the world.

Zibby: I wonder what people do who don’t live that way. I wonder how they get their feelings out. I wish I had a better way. This way takes a lot of time.

Eileen: It does. It takes a lot of time. That is true. There’s no direct way. I don’t know if you find that. Sometimes you lose the window because you’re busy or you have to go do something. You can feel that. I really have this idea in the back of my mind. It’s making all this noise in my brain while I’m supposed to be doing the rest of my life because I didn’t get a chance to sit down today and work on that thing.

Zibby: Maybe I just don’t have as many ideas as you do. Some days, it’s totally fine.

Eileen: I’m working on something right now. I’m feeling a little bit that way. Since I was in college, it all wants to come out at once. I’m really impatient with myself. I’ve got a good rhythm. I’ve got the dog who insists on taking breaks. Otherwise, I would be just inside right now all day long.

Zibby: I feel the same way. I’m like, thank god for the dog or I might not go outside. I mean, my kids too, but when I don’t have the kids. I’m very content inside my house. It’s really bad, especially after the pandemic.

Eileen: Thank goodness for the dogs.

Zibby: Thank goodness for the dogs. Wait, so what is it that you’re working on now? What can you tell us about it?

Eileen: I’m working on another novel. I don’t want to say too much about it. I would say that it’s similar to The Music of Bees in that it’s about people with problems.

Zibby: I like it. Awesome. Aside from what we’ve already discussed, what other advice would you give for aspiring authors?

Eileen: I am going to pass along some terrific advice that I heard from — oh, goodness. Why am I blanking on her name? House on Mango Street, Sandra Cisneros. Thank you very much, memory. It’s early here, so I haven’t quite had enough coffee.

Zibby: My memory is gone. I can’t even make a sentence anymore, so I understand.

Eileen: Thank you. Sandra Cisneros, famous for writing House on Mango Street, I love her work. She has a new memoir called A House of My Own and a little novella out called Martita, I Remember You that’s also in Spanish that I just finished and loved. That’s not what you asked me, but I want to pass along —

Zibby: — She’s coming on this podcast.

Eileen: Her advice — I believe she was being interviewed by Krista Tippett, “On Being,” when she said this. This question, what advice do you offer aspiring young writers? She was very specific. I loved this. She said, make your own money. Control your fertility. Solitude is sacred. I loved that because what she’s saying is, make your own money so nobody can tell you what to do with your time. Control your fertility. Decide when you want to have kids and how many kids you want to have so that you have room in your life for your writing kid. Then, solitude is sacred. I’m sure you find that as well. One of the hardest lessons I had to learn was saying no to people. If you’re writing, you got to carve out some time for yourself. That means saying no to people that you love that are asking you to do things. You have to choose between writing and people. I just thought that was so brilliant for her to offer as advice and much more specific than the usual, just keep on trying and don’t give up, which is also useful. I just thought that was really wonderful.

Zibby: I like that a lot too. It’s neat. I like hearing a new perspective on it. It’s awesome. That’s great. I can’t even get a sentence out about that. See? Eileen, thank you. Thank you for coming on to discuss The Music of Bees and your great essay for Moms Don’t Have Time to Write. It’s been a pleasure.

Eileen: Thank you so much for having me. It was a pleasure to be here.

Zibby: Take care.

Eileen: Bye.

Zibby: Bye.

THE MUSIC OF BEES by Eileen Garvin

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