The Music of Bees is Spokane native Eileen Garvin's first novel, but its initial inspiration is rooted in her adopted home in Oregon.
A few years ago Garvin, a beekeeping hobbyist, bought a package of bees from a local farmer to replace her hive that died the previous year. It was around dusk, and Garvin was tooling along a small road in the small town to pick up the bees when she passed a striking image. And that picture immediately turned into the first line of the book, slated for release at the end of April.
"Jacob Stevenson had the tallest mohawk in the history of Hood River Valley High School."
Garvin's dog had just undergone ACL surgery and was stuck, inactive, in a pen for the next 12 weeks. Garvin had three months of down time ahead while she cared for the pup, time that would be spent tending her hives, too. But that short drive changed everything.
"I passed this young guy in a wheelchair with a mohawk who was going the other direction," Garvin recalls of that scene from 2016. "I'm in a small town, but I don't know who this person is. And the first line just popped in my head. I pulled over, like we writer nerds do, and jotted it down, and then went and picked up my bees and brought them home. The next morning, I got up, installed my hive, sat down with my dog in her little pen and I started writing the story."
That forced confinement was a blessing for Garvin. It'd been years since her nonfiction first book, How To Be A Sister, made a critical and commercial splash as Garvin recounted reconnecting with her autistic older sister after returning to the Pacific Northwest after years away. Fiction was always on her mind, and 12 weeks stuck at home with an ailing dog, and that lucky encounter with a wheelchaired punk rocker, led to a situation where "the story just came" and Garvin "just let it happen."
That might make writing sound a lot easier than the reality, and Garvin worked for years to put herself in position to write a book like The Music of Bees. The 50-year-old has wanted to be a writer since she was a kid in Spokane, where she was born at Deaconess and attended Cataldo Catholic School (her Irish great-grandfather helped build the place) and Gonzaga Prep before leaving for college and adventures around the West and beyond before landing in Hood River 15 years ago. Like so many aspiring authors, though, she was always driven to choose a "more practical" career.
"I ended up doing everything you can possibly do around writing, without writing, before I fell into it," Garvin says. "I worked in marketing for small presses. I taught English as a second language. And in between my master's and a PhD program that I abandoned, I started working for a newspaper and I realized, 'Oh, this is really what I want to do.'
"I don't have an MFA. I've never had a writing group. I've always felt like sort of an outsider. But when I finally wrote How To Be A Sister, it felt so right."
The massively mohawked Jacob Stevenson is just one of the winning protagonists of Garvin's new book, and he meets one of the others, Alice Holtzman, after she nearly hits his speeding wheelchair as she returns to her small rural home outside town with a new batch of bees. The near-accident spawns an unlikely friendship between the teenage Jake and the widowed Alice, one that also welcomes a friendly 24-year-old drifter named Harry who applies to work on Alice's hives when he hits town.
The development of the trio's relationship, each of them traumatized by events in their recent and not-so-recent past, is genuinely uplifting, and the arrival of a bee-threatening pesticide company in town raises the stakes in Garvin's story beyond overcoming their individual challenges.
The choice to make Alice a beekeeper obviously touches on Garvin's own life around hives, an outlet that, like this book, has roots in dog care. Garvin started tending bees when another elderly dog of hers couldn't move around much anymore, so she sought out something she could do while the dog enjoyed its last days in the sun. As she learned more about bees and how hives function, she realized how well they could work in a book, both metaphorically and as a device for her characters.
"I've always liked books where the characters are doing something, because it gives you the chance as a reader to learn, and also gives the characters a chance to do something together," Garvin says. "They're not just operating next to each other and having their emotional experiences. There's a physical thing for them to be doing. It makes it a little more believable and more interesting."
The Music of Bees arrives officially on April 27, but Garvin will be starting her virtual book tour early, including an online stop at the Get Lit! Festival. When her last book came out in 2010, she planned her own book tour and did 20 or 30 events around the West, an experience she recalls as "really fun, but really exhausting." Her novel is coming out from a bigger publisher (Dutton, a division of Penguin Random House), but the pandemic has pushed promotion largely online.
Garvin has enjoyed Get Lit! in the past as an audience member, and even though she won't be attending in person this year now that she's one of the featured guests, she still gets to Spokane regularly. Her mom and two siblings are still residents, and Garvin's seen Spokane grow up from afar.
"To see the festival grow and just get so many high-quality authors to Spokane is really great. Spokane is such a great town, with the arts and culture and public radio and Auntie's Bookstore," Garvin says. "I didn't appreciate it when I was younger, and it wasn't until I was living in a small town that I realized how much cool stuff you have going on there." ♦
Eileen Garvin will be in conversation with poet Bill Cardy in "Poetry and Prose" on Thu, April 15, at 2 pm via YouTube. She will also be part of the Must Read Fiction Presents: Conversation with Festival Authors on Sun, April 18, at 3:30 pm via Zoom. Visit getlitfestival2021.sched.com for more details.