Gill Hornby sets her debut novel The Hive in the bloodthirsty arena all of us have experienced at least once: the school playground. The fictional St Ambrose is set in a West Country market town (Hornby lives in Kintbury, Berkshire), and expertly captures primary school for parents.
The idea for the book came about “by having had four children and standing at the school gates for nearly 20 years,” Hornby says. “I just went along thinking that it would all be normal and then I thought, ‘hang on, I’m back at school here – this is exactly what it was like at school’. There’s the group smoking over there in the car park, there’s the sporties, and there’s the ones taking an apple in for teacher – and here I am. I couldn’t believe how it functioned.”
Main character Rachel is going through a divorce, and is all too aware of the cliché she is living out as a single 30-something mother whose husband ran off with his 20-something secretary. Beatrice is the queen bee of the stay-at-home mums of which their little group is made – all of whom, Hornby points out, are named after things bees feed on (Clover, Heather, Jasmine, Sharon). As the mums navigate their way through PTA meetings, coffee mornings and fundraisers, the hierarchy is perfectly in order until ‘new girl’ Melissa joins St Ambrose and threatens to usurp Bee’s throne. Cynical duo Jo and Georgie slightly detach themselves from the central hive by being smokers, which Hornby says drives bees away.
“When my children would have issues with other girls, I thought it’s exactly the same as the mums. And then I read that famous book, Queen Bees and Wannabes, what [the film] Mean Girls is based on, and I thought there’s simply no difference between them and us at all. And so I thought this is what I want to do, I want to do Mean Girls for mothers because it is like this.”
In the book, Rachel’s meddling mother is a recreational beekeeper, and the activities of her hive represent an amusing observation of life serving a queen. To further her research Hornby “spent some sunny mornings” at with the Newbury Beekeepers Association to monitor bees’ behaviour and see if she could draw similarities – which, she says, were “unbelievable”.
“They live for ages because they don’t do anything; they lie around and they’re fed and they’re cleaned and groomed and protected and when she goes anywhere they all huddle around her. But then when they’ve decided enough’s enough they’ll bring out another queen; and she can either go off and form another hive somewhere else – or she will be stung to death,” she laughs, adding: “I’ve never been friends with a queen bee; I’ve never been a hivey type of person.”
It might be assumed that Hornby, who has worked as a producer on BBC Breakfast was until recently a freelance journalist, had some help writing her book in the shape of her husband Robert Harris, or her brother Nick Hornby. Did she seek any advice from what must be one of the most high-profile literary family trees there is? “I don’t think there’s much crossover,” she quips. “When I showed Robert the first draft I nearly fainted, but it got easier." Brother Nick didn't read the novel until it was finished.
Luckily for Hornby she also knew Caroline Wood from the Felicity Bryan Literary Agency – their daughters are at the same school – and in a Hive-esque storyline, “we met before pick-up one afternoon and I told her about the idea [for the book] over coffee, and she said ‘do it’…she kicked me up the bum, because it’s quite easy not to write a novel, as I’m sure you can imagine. So I rather amazed myself by doing it.”
The film rights to The Hive have already been snapped up, which Hornby says was “completely amazing. What I found encouraging was it was a 40-year-old American man that bought it, because I thought I was completely writing this story for people like me. But he lives in Beverley Hills or something, and he got it.” But who would Hornby want to play the mums? Gwyneth Paltrow would be "the dream" for Beatrice, with her glossy highlights and impeccable physique; and Kate Winslet would make an ideal down-to-earth, slightly dishevelled Rachel. Hornby adds that Olivia Coleman would be a perfect Heather, who is always on the outside looking in, desperate to belong in the inner circle.
It is unknown whether the film will be based in the UK or US, but Hornby admits she wouldn’t mind it being American: “But I don’t want it to be New York or Beverley Hills, it has to be nowheresville. It has to be somewhere with a school, a coffee shop, a high street and a church, because once you throw in immense wealth and that sort of thing it all gets very distorted.”
As the Mean Girls generation grows up, The Hive proves that playground politics don't end when you leave the classroom.
The Hive is out on 22 May, published by Little, Brown.