Gill Hornby | “I want to do ‘Mean Girls’ for mothers because it is like this.”

Gill Hornby | “I want to do ‘Mean Girls’ for mothers because it is like this.”

Gill Hornby sets her début novel The Hive (Little, Brown, May) in a bloodthirsty arena all of us have experienced at least once: the school playground. The action takes place at the fictional St Ambrose, which is set in a West Country market town (Hornby herself 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 the teacher—and here I am. I couldn’t believe how it functioned.”

Main character Rachel is going through a divorce, and as a single thirtysomething mother whose husband ran off with his secretary, she is all too aware of the cliché she has become. Fellow school-gater Beatrice is the queen bee of the stay-at-home mums, 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 Beatrice’s throne. Cynical duo Jo and Georgie—the two most down-to-earth characters—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’d think: ‘It’s exactly the same as the mums.’ And then I read that famous book, Queen Bees and Wannabes, which [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” with the Newbury Beekeepers Association to monitor the behaviour of queen bees and see if she could draw any similarities—the ones she found, 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.”

Family ties

It might be assumed that Hornby, who has worked as a producer on “BBC Breakfast” and 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.”

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.”

With huge potential commercial/literary crossover appeal, Little, Brown is pitching the book as something completely fresh rather than using comparison authors. But The Hive did gain pre-publication awareness when film rights were sold last summer, 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 Beverly Hills or something, and he got it.”

It is unknown whether the film will be based in the UK or the 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.”

Personal file

1959 Born Upper Poppleton, Yorkshire
1978 Degree in Modern History, Oxford
1984–90 “BBC Breakfast” producer
2009 Freelance journalist

Book data

Publication 23/05/13
Formats HB/EB/export trade PB/audio
ISBN 9781408704356
Rights sold Seven countries; including Little, Brown in the US
Editor Antonia Hodgson
Agent Caroline Wood at Felicity Bryan