Lisa O’Donnell is the award-winning author of the dark and startling The Death of Bees. Her newest work, Closed Doors, takes on tough issues in 1980s Rothesay, Scotland: When protagonist Michael’s mother is assaulted, she initially doesn’t report the attack. It’s only when her attacker strikes again that she knows she must come forward. What ensues is a coming-of-age story about secrets and loss of innocence. Here, O’Donnell chats with Bookish about getting inside the mind of an 11-year-old boy to write Closed Doors, the importance of nosy neighbors, and why she likes to write from the perspective of a child.
Bookish: Eleven-year-old Michael narrates this novel with a very distinct voice. How did you get into character to write from his perspective? How was the experience of writing through the eyes of a young boy?
Lisa O’Donnell: I knew a lot of boys growing up in our housing estate. It was a small community, and if there were no girls around, I didn’t mind playing with the guys. They were always playing “soldiers” or “hit and run.” Sometimes they wanted to play kissing games, but I was never up for that.
I remember coming across a group of boys I knew poring over a porn magazine. They waved that magazine in my face, but when I told them I’d tell on them, they pulled it away. This magazine was a precious thing to them, and they didn’t want it taken from them. It contained all the things the grownups would never speak of, and that made it a respected commodity. Adult secrets were very valuable to us. Knowing what the grownups were saying and thinking made us feel like grownups, too, and collectively we’d collude to know those secrets. We’d all listen at doors and get together and talk our own grownup talk about war and politics. We didn’t know what we were talking about, but we made sure we sounded like we did.
Michael is the perfect combination of a child being a child and a child trying to be a grownup, but he’s kind of forced into this dichotomy, and he quickly realizes the burden it is. Choosing the voice of a little boy was easy because I have a little boy, and I could listen to him all day. Slipping into a child’s world was relatively simple. It’s a blessing and curse for lots of writers, but we can be anyone we chose to be when telling a story.
Bookish: Your first novel, The Death of Bees, is also narrated by characters who are quite young. What draws you to using such young narrators?
LO: “Out of the mouth of babes and sucklings hast thou ordained strength,” King James Bible.
There is nothing more honest and pure than the naked eye of a child. They tell it how it is; it gives the reader a level of clarity an adult character just couldn’t provide. Michael is too young for euphemisms and gentle phrasings. He’s out for truth, and when he finds it, he can only be genuine about it. He’s an innocent. His mother has been raped, and I didn’t want to lose his voice amidst that. I wouldn’t have been able to communicate the tragedy of what has happened to Michael’s mother with the same effectiveness. A child telling a heartbreaking story like this amplifies the story. It was the same with Bees. I chose children’s voices to communicate pain and despair. Readers are simply more willing to listen to the roar of children.
Bookish: The “male gaze” is a recurring theme in this book: Michael watches his female neighbor dancing through his window, just as the town watches Michael’s mother after she is raped. Was this an intentional feminist statement about the way women were seen in 1980s Scotland?
LO: I was listening to a Blondie Song called “ In the Flesh,” and I pictured this little boy staring at a dancing woman through a window. He’s coming of age, and even though his gaze is sexual, it’s enough for him to see Miss Connors through the glass. The distance between them is deliberate.
When it comes down to it, Michael’s too young to seek anything more from her, but there is definitely something stirring inside him. He just doesn’t know what it is. Eventually Dirty Alice breaks the window, and this marks a real change in Michael’s life. The breaking of the window symbolizes the end of innocence for him, and the consequences of it. Marianne offers him a look at her body, and he runs away. He then discovers the truth about his mother. He’s suddenly not sure of anything anymore. He suddenly becomes aware of himself. He even stops looking at pornography.
How he views women changes radically overnight. Focusing on the “male gaze” was an intentional statement, but I think women today are as troubled by the “male gaze” as they ever were in the 1980s, moreso when you consider we didn’t have the Internet back then. It’s everywhere you go now. Advertising and media in general is like a daily assault.
Bookish: What drew you to the topic of assault? Was it difficult to write about?
LO: When I was growing up, there was a string of sexual assaults on the island [where I lived]. There was a lot of grownup whispering about it, and gossip in general. Like Michael, I listened at doors or sat in rooms hoping they’d forget I was there and continue with their adult talk. There was speculation about who [the culprit] might be, and of course, women talked about how to protect themselves. The perpetrator was also flashing young girls. I was one of them.
My sister and I were coming back from our grandmother’s house, but the flasher didn’t get too far because we ran away before he was able to show us anything. We already knew about the flasher and as soon as he whispered for us to look at him, we bolted. My mother freaked out completely, and my father went out looking for him. I think my sister and I were more upset by the reaction of our parents [than the incident itself].
Looking back, I realize it was the threat of a sexual assault that scared them. It was suddenly possible for their daughters to be under threat. Amidst all the whispering, I don’t think they had seriously considered that as a likelihood. Someone was charged eventually; this was a great scandal in the town because the person accused was local. But in the end, the courts found the man innocent and this was an even bigger scandal. Everyone was so sure they had their man. I don’t know if they did, but I do know the man in question didn’t live a happy life on the island.
I was about 12 years old when this happened, and I’ll never forget the anxiety around me as a young girl. Obviously, as a grown woman, I understand the root of my parents’ fears and the unspoken terror of mothers and fathers all over the island. Obviously, they couldn’t articulate this to their children, but maybe they should have. We were simply warned about a flasher and told to run as fast as we could if anyone should move to hurt us in any way.
It was very hard to write about. I had to literally place myself in the shoes of a rape victim, and that was difficult. I did a lot of research, and of course I know women who have been sexually assaulted; most people do. I had to become Rosemary. I had to become Miss Connors and that was a tough thing to write, but it’s the duty of a writer to place herself in impossible situations to tell an authentic story.
Bookish: In many ways, this is a book about Michael’s loss of innocence. It’s also a book about the way rape was perceived in the 1980s. What made you decide to weave these two narrative threads together?
LO: I don’t think how people have viewed rape has changed that much. Victims still fear judgment, and men still walk free.
Rape seen through the eyes of an innocent child was the only way I could tell this story and make an impact. As in The Death of Bees, I wanted to tell a difficult story with violent subject matter and that was an intense read, but I didn’t want to alienate the reader by lecturing them on sex crime, either. I want them to pay attention, so I weaved in a tale of an unknowing child confronting his own sexuality. The purity of his awakening collides with a devastating actuality; as a result, I have forced the reader to imagine his reality. I have created a character the reader is willing journey with. What he discovers, they discover with him, and they’re willing to do so. His view on life gives the story strength and a voice that’s both unique and powerful.
Bookish: The Death of Bees and Closed Doors both deal with the subject of nosy neighbors. Why are themes of surveillance so important in your work?
LO: It’s incredible to me the things that happen in communities and the people who simply stand by and do nothing. I read a story in a newspaper about a woman who went on holiday to Turkey, leaving her three children in the care of her oldest child, who was 9 years old. The community watched these kids feeding themselves from dustbins for days before someone thought to call social services. I remembered that story while writing Bees.
Then in Austria, there was the case of Elisabeth Fritzl, held captive for 24 years by her father Josef Fritzl, resulting in seven children. And though his neighbors considered him strange, not one of them enquired why his rubbish overflowed. Why there was so much noise coming from his home despite the fact he apparently lived alone with his wife. Why he took cabinets and TVs and other furnishings into his home late at night. I was fascinated by such stories. The turning of a blind eye and the lengths a community will go to, to simply not see what’s going on in front of them.
I didn’t grow up in a community like that. I grew up in a community where everyone knew everything about everybody. It can get claustrophobic, but there’s no way we wouldn’t notice a man hiding a child in his cellar who had bore him seven children, or a woman who had abandoned her kids to enjoy a holiday abroad. On the other hand, I always felt watched growing up and when you’re being watched you’re sometimes being judged.
All of these themes exist in my work. In The Death of Bees, I have a community that turns a blind eye. In Closed Doors, no one can turn a blind eye, but that’s also a problem, to a certain extent.
Bookish: Do you have a favorite indie bookstore?
LO: My favorite independent bookstore has to be Powell’s. The recycling of literature and making it affordable for everyone is an incredible concept. I love Powell’s.