Here’s a conversation I had with Erick Setiawan, author of the new novel Of Bees and Mist. Read my review of the book here and do yourself a favor and pick up a copy. It’s an enchanting and mesmerizing tale that will haunt your memory.
NL: Erick, thank you for taking the time to talk with me.
ES: No problem.
NL: Of Bees and Mist is your first novel, and I have to say I really enjoyed it a lot. Can you tell me how long the story was brewing in your head and what you went through to get it published?
ES: The stories, I collected them from my childhood. So I guess if you want to know how long, thirty years! I’ve just been hearing the stories in my head ever since I was a child, and they were stories about members of my family, the women. The stories have been inside me for a couple of decades, but the writing itself took about 4 years. I was working as an engineer before and I started working on the book, and after about three years of working on it, I quit my day job and I decided if I wanted to be a serious writer I’d have to give this a fair shot, and that’s what I did. It took me an extra year to finish the book. From then on everything happened quickly. I finished the book in December 2007, I sent it out to agents, and within three weeks I got an agent. He sold the book to my editor at Simon & Schuster in about a month. So everything happened kind of lightning speed and I was kind of blown away by that. I wasn’t expecting that to happen so quickly, but the publishing process has been incredible. People have been really supportive, especially my publisher, so it’s been delightful.
NL: It really helps that it’s a good story. It really grabbed me from the beginning. In your dedication, you wrote, “To my mother, whose stories continue to delight and inspire me,” and you just mentioned all the stories you heard growing up. What kind of stories were they? Were they folktales? Were they stories your mom invented?
ES: I was born in Jakarta, Indonesia. My family was Chinese. So I grew up in this different blend of cultures. I inherited a lot of my family’s superstitions and a lot of their Chinese beliefs, so that was one thing. I also was raised by a caretaker, I guess I would call her a nurse, just like Meridia’s Nurse in the book, and she was Japanese, and she was also a Muslim. She loved telling me bedtime stories every night, and she told me about demonic beings, mythical beasts, and things of that nature. So from my childhood on it was a very comfortable environment for me to be hearing those things. Also, in Indonesia as a Chinese person, there was also a lot of anti-Chinese sentiment, so for many years I couldn’t find an outlet for all that cultural stuff that was building up inside of me. It was an interesting country to grow up in. When I was sixteen, I moved to the United States, and that was a different cultural influence in my life.
NL: You blended all of that really well. The magic and the superstitions – I was reading the press materials for your book beforehand and I was surprised to see that it wasn’t part of the story in the beginning. You added the supernatural elements later. Is that true?
ES: Yes. At first I just wanted to write about these two families, a pretty straightforward chronicle of their trials and tribulations and all their loves and deceptions. It wasn’t until I was about 70 pages into the story when I started writing the scene in which Eva was complaining for the first time – and she loves to complain a lot! – and it was kind of dull to me, because it was just this one woman complaining, what’s so special about that? But I didn’t know how to fix it. I knew it needed something, but I didn’t know what it was. Then my dad happened to be visiting from Indonesia at the time and he was telling me about a friend of his who was often kept up at night by bees. I was confused, “What do you mean he was kept up by bees? Is he a bee keeper?” My dad laughed and said, “No, no, no.” It was the friend’s wife who was keeping him up at night. She was constantly complaining about everything under the sun, and the sound of her complaining was so persistent and so relentless that it sounded like bees buzzing. So that’s how I got the idea (for the supernatural manifestation of bees in the story), and I immediately knew that was what the book was missing. So I put that in and I went back to the chapters that I had already written and I tried to infuse the other magical elements, like the mist and the battling flowers on the front lawn, for example.
NL: That’s great. The fantasy elements are what set it apart from other stories I’ve read. Sometimes the magic seems symbolic or sometimes it seems like it’s part of a character’s imagination, but then there are a number of times that you make it very clear that more than one character is experiencing the same magical occurrence. Aside from adding that extra element, what was your intent with the supernatural parts of the story? What does it signify? Is it just a magical world or is there some more meaning, something else that you were trying to aim for?
ES: It’s kind of both. I wanted to create this magical world. A part of the reason was I wanted a world where I could completely escape and feel comfortable. Also I see the magical elements as physical manifestations of what the characters are going through at the moment – outward manifestations of the emotions and the turmoil that are raging inside them. So the mist is a perfect symbol for Gabriel (Meridia’s father), because like him the mist implies things that are hidden and secret, things that are concealed. So I think that defines Gabriel very well. Here’s a man that doesn’t express his emotions and he keeps to himself pretty much all his life and nobody really knows who he is until much later in the book. Much in the same way, I think the bees symbolize Eva very well because here is this woman who can find fault with puppies and ice cream men and little children, she can find fault in everything, and I think the bees (and their buzzing) are a fitting metaphor of what she’s going through at any given time.
NL: Absolutely. When I was researching your book, I came across the term “magical realism,” which to be honest with you I wasn’t too familiar with. But when I mentioned the term to my mother-in-law, she named a whole string of books that she loved that fall into that category. What do you think of that label? As I mentioned in my review, I think your book crosses a bunch of different genres. But what do you think of “magical realism”? Were you conscious of that genre as you were writing the book?
ES: (Gabriel Garcia) Marquez is a huge influence on me, but I didn’t discover him until pretty recently. Actually, I think it was Oprah (Winfrey) who turned me on to him! I had One Hundred Years of Solitude sitting on my bookshelf for years, I think I tried to read it once many years ago but I couldn’t get past page five, I think, but then Oprah picked it for her Book Club, and I thought, “You know, this is the time to read it because if I don’t read it now I’ll be the only person left in America who hasn’t read that book!" So I started reading it. I don’t know when she picked that book, I think it was three or four years ago, and at that time I had already started Of Bees and Mist, I was about a couple of months or a year in. So I wasn’t aware of the whole “magical realism” stuff until I read Marquez, and even to this day I can’t call myself an expert on that subject because I’ve only read Marquez and Isabel Allende, and that’s pretty much it. When I wrote the book I just wanted to blend in all these different influences, what looks good and what feels good to me, and I didn’t really know the name (of the genre), I never took a Literature course, I was never trained academically to discuss those things. To me it was just very organic, what came naturally to me from my reading and what I accumulated over the years. So that’s how it came about.
NL: You mention that you weren’t trained academically in Literature. What kind of writing background did you have in fiction. This is your first novel, obviously. I mean, it’s so lyrical and so beautifully written, it seems like it’s from someone who has written so many stories before. Do you have a shelf of unpublished stories?
ES: I wrote two other novels before this. I guess I’ve been writing for seven or eight years now, maybe nine years. I wrote two other novels, and they were bad! I tried to sell them and nobody wanted them. Actually, the first novel, I sent it out, and I thought, “This is the greatest thing ever written.” Within a couple of weeks after I sent it out to agents, I got an email from an agent and he said that “Your characters are shallow, silly, and superficial. I cannot imagine anyone on Earth wanting to read your book!” He was quite blunt, yes, and I was depressed. I was 27 or 28 (years old) and I thought this was the end of my writing career. For some reason, there was this stubbornness in me – I still have it – that made me go on. I wrote another book and that one was also awful and got rejected left and right. But I started writing the third one, and thankfully that third one was Of Bees and Mist. Going back to my non-academic or lack of training in English Literature, I really wanted to study English in college, but I am an immigrant and English is my second language. I used to be very shy, very self conscious of the way I talk, and I knew at that point my English was kind of so-so. I knew that if I went for English classes they would make me speak up in class and that was something that I just couldn’t do. I couldn’t face the risk of being, I don’t know, humiliated in front of all those students. So I never went down that route. I sort of chickened out, and I studied Computer Science instead because they never make you speak up in Computer Science classes. So that’s how it happened. I really wanted to study English Literature, but I just never had the courage to do it.
NL: Well, you’re a great inspiration to would-be writers out there who have stories that haven’t been published – to persevere and keep going. I’m very surprised that they thought that your characters in your first few novels weren’t that strong, because that’s really one of your strengths in this book. Your characters are really, really amazing. I think Meridia is such a strong protagonist and Eva is such a strong antagonist. What was your inspiration for these characters? Were they based on any real people you came across?
ES: Eva is based on my paternal grandmother, my dad’s mom. When I was growing up, first of all, my grandmother and my mother didn’t get along. They were both very strong-minded women. They were both very clever and very resourceful women, so they were constantly at each other’s throats, so all throughout my childhood all I kept hearing was my mother who kept telling me, “Your grandmom, your dad’s mom, is the devil herself.” So that was sort of the rivalry between them, and I grew up just watching and observing all that. And because I was also very shy, I would also just sit in my mom’s living room every afternoon instead of playing outside with the neighbors' kids, and my mom always had aunts and other family friends visiting. All these women would unburden themselves to my mom, they would confide in her, so I would just sit there and listen. That way I picked up a lot of how women behaved with each other and how they talked and sort of related to each other when their husbands weren’t around. That’s how I created the women characters in the book.
NL: They’re wonderful. Meridia and Eva are the two strong, lead characters. I think even your supporting characters are all so well defined. They’re really powerful and they have their own individual arcs. Are there any particular characters in this story that you would say are your favorites? I guess that’s like asking which is your favorite child!
ES: Well, I do have a favorite character and that’s Ravenna, Meridia’s mom. To me, she is the embodiment of what my other grandmother, my mother’s mom, what I wish she would have been during her life. Like Gabriel in the book, my grandfather also had a mistress and a temper. He was often cruel to my grandmother. and my grandmother didn’t know how to dress up, she didn’t know how to talk to people, she didn’t know how to present herself in company, so she was relegated to the kitchen. She just cooked and cooked and cooked. Nobody really took notice of her. Even my mom, years later, admitted that when she was growing up she used to look down on her mom because she thought that her mom was kind of useless. She just knew how to cook and she didn’t know how to do anything else. So that was pretty much her story, she was confined to that kitchen, and she didn’t know how to break out of it, because in that Indonesian culture at that time a woman without a husband or a family would be considered nothing, so she couldn’t get a divorce, she couldn’t afford a life for herself. So I just wished that once in her life she could have stood up for herself and really given it to my grandfather. That’s why I wrote Ravenna – I wanted her to express all the things that my grandmother never got to express when she was alive.
NL: Wow. With all their flaws, like Ravenna for example, the first time I was reading it, she was a character who was hard to like, and then you really redeemed them. Even Gabriel and a bunch of the other characters, even Eva, there are moments where you almost feel sorry for them. That’s really something that impressed me in reading. Was that intentional? Did you strive to make them that way or did the storytelling process take you where it wanted to go? I guess that’s what I’m trying to ask: Did you know where all these different arcs for all these different characters were going, or did it come naturally as you were writing the story and you were surprised the way things turned out?
ES: I didn’t always know where the story was going, especially one character comes to mind – Malin (Eva’s oldest daughter). Her arc completely surprised me, because I thought she was going to be the bad seed. In the beginning she was going to inherit all her mother’s flaws and she was going to be this nasty woman. But she took on a life of her own when I started writing her and her journey I thought was quite beautiful and it was something I didn’t expect to happen. In respect to the other characters, one thing that harsh rejection taught me, that rejection of my first novel, I learned that you really should show a lot of compassion to your characters, even if they are going around doing these horrible things, I think you should try to – maybe not agree with their actions – but try to understand where they’re coming from. And that taught me a lot in the sense that, you know, even with a character like Eva, I think it’s important for the reader to connect with her on some level even if they don’t agree with what she’s doing. It’s important that you don’t make her so monstrous that she becomes inhuman.
NL: That’s a great point. There are so many surprises with the plot and where these characters are going. You know the cliché, “Don’t judge a book by its cover,” but the edition I have of your novel is the orange book sleeve with the stenciled rose bush, and there are all these subtle little details hidden among the petals and thorns, and they’re very surprising. Were you involved in helping select the design?
ES: Not at all. Thankfully I had no involvement at all. That was the first cover they showed me. What happened was that the Art Director at Simon & Schuster read the book, she loved it, and she just went ahead and designed it, this beautiful cover, and that’s what they showed me the first time. I was blown away. I’m incredibly lucky that way. And then later on I noticed all the little hidden items in the cover, and I was even more blown away! Oh my goodness, they obviously put a lot of effort and thought into this. So I can’t claim any credit whatsoever for the cover. It was all theirs. Great work on their part.
NL: And just one last question. What are you working on next and will it be in the same genre as Of Bees and Mist with similar fantasy elements, or is it something completely different?
ES: I think it’s going to have some of the same elements. I’m not sure how much fantasy is going to be in it, but I am working on something that I’m very excited about, but I don’t want to discuss it, I’m quite superstitious. But I think it’s going to borrow on my cultural influences in the same was as Of Bees and Mist, and I’m very excited about it. I can’t wait to start working on it.
NL: I can’t wait to read it whenever it comes out and thank you again so much for taking time to talk to me, and congratulations! This really is a great achievement for a first novel, and you should feel very proud. I hope a lot of other people get to read it.
ES: Thank you very much. That’s wonderful. Thank you.