What’s in a shared name?
It was 1986 when a friend first cracked the propolis and lifted the lid of a Langstroth hive for my benefit. A docile European species rose in a startled cloud. Gentle and unafraid, their keeper held the frames up and located the queen. I was gazing, entranced, into a winged and buzzing kaleidoscope when a single worker zipped out toward a meadow. I followed her trajectory — a line of light connecting bee and hive. For a moment, fields glimmered, cross-hatched with tangled threads of sunshine.
I visited more apiaries, the gold-vector hallucination returning with each fresh encounter, each field of waving flowers. My compulsion to write fiction got lost in the weeds until 2012, when honeybees were making headlines and colony collapse disorder fuelled panic about pollination and food production. Channelling the sense of awe during those hive experiences, I came up with the story of a man who had transformed into a bee colony and later reverted to human form. I called him Beck Wise and imagined him returning to a lover, Melissa Makepeace, whose father had been missing for twelve years. Like a double helix, these two mysteries spiralled toward an unexpected ending.
Dozens of drafts and uncountable hours later, the manuscript was ready, and publishing experts distilled several potential titles into their favourite. I had reservations about the choice, but my acquiring editor, Paul Vermeersch, assured me it wouldn’t divulge any secrets about the plot. We then searched for existing publications with a similar name; only a collection of stories in another language and some non-fiction turned up. And so we came to an agreement, and production began.
In winter I huddled as bees do, a warm ball of optimism. Snow and ice still clung to the ground when I received a distressing text about my forthcoming book. My blood ran cold: extreme drop in temperature, polar-bear-swim shock. I fumble-typed my chosen title into a search bar and waited to see the familiar cover design: orange bee on yellow background, title and author emblazoned in black. Instead, a different image populated the screen: a rust-orange jacket with purple flowers and red letters that proclaimed the name I had come to treasure.
Co-authored by Jodi Picoult and Jennifer Finney Boylan, this imposter was scheduled for release six months after mine. I’d never heard the second name, but I knew the first from a dog-eared paperback I found once at an Airbnb. The coincidence was poor luck but not a terrible thing, Paul consoled. It could even work in our favour: Picoult’s fame might draw readers to both our flowers like nectar. Pre-sales for their book were available, and early reviews multiplied like an infestation of kleptoparasitic wasps. I felt the bright focused pain of ten years’ labour lost. My amber honey had been confiscated at the finish.
Spring took away the sting. I toured, read at a festival, and launched in three locations. Early responses to my novel were overwhelmingly positive. In summer, I breathed the heady perfume of first-time publication, but autumn (as worker bees pushed drones outside to die) brought the Other One. “Why did you choose to call it that?” people asked, and in vain I explained that the second work had been undiscoverable. “How do they coexist?” At Chapters, the only new-book shop in Kamloops, British Columbia, the latest Picoult dominated the entrance while two copies of my volume snuggled spine-out on a bottom shelf, under W. Friends looking for my novel were redirected to you-know-what. In my hometown. In a store that had hosted an event for my debut.
I avoided the swarm surrounding the Picoult-Boylan release, but I was curious: was their creation sticky, like mine, with a special kind of honey? I began to read words that told an unrecognizable tale. How could a single title represent such disparate narratives?
My relief that our fictions are worlds apart was tempered by melancholy. My sales may be slightly inflated from mistaken purchases, yet I wish the Americans had called their novel something else. For Beck and Melissa, the man who became bees and the woman whose father vanished, those words on the cover are both a means and a metaphor. In spite of the mad, mad accident of its twin, a golden line connects my story with its title.