Editor’s Note: This interview first appeared in Path Finders, a new email newsletter from the Daily Yonder. Each week, Path Finders features a Q&A with a rural thinker, creator, or doer. Like what you see here? You can join the mailing list at the bottom of this article and receive more conversations like this in your inbox each week.
Melissa Scholes Young is a writer, novelist, and associate professor of Literature at American University. Her second novel, The Hive, was released earlier this month. A Hannibal, Missouri native, both of Scholes Young’s novels are set in rural parts of her home state.
The Hive begins with a classic dynastic drama: In a family of four sisters, who will be heir to the throne? In this case, the throne is a beekeeper’s suit and the crown is tens of thousands of dollars of debt. After the girls’ father unexpectedly passes, the struggling family exterminating business is left, in part, to a distant male cousin. The book spirals outward from there, grappling with the patriarchal assumptions underlying that decision—and with love and frustration for the late patriarch who made it.
As Scholes Young and I discuss, righting the family business is not nearly the only throughline in the book. Enjoy our conversation about ‘appearing presentable,’ shopping local, and the battle between inheritance and examination, below.
Olivia Weeks, Daily Yonder: When I was reading your new novel, The Hive, I was really struck by the breadth of topics you took on. To name just a few plotlines in the book, there’s bankruptcy, self-harm, pubescent queerness, infidelity, and doomsday-prep. When I started looking into your nonfiction work across the internet—which covers everything from motherhood and illness, to first-gen advocacy, to Rush Limbaugh—your format started to make sense to me. Was the decision to write five main characters (four sisters and a matriarch) a way to expand the reach of the book? What was compelling to you about fully exploring so many characters?
Melissa Scholes Young: The Hive is ambitious in its reach and compelling in its reality. My writing is about class and the intersections of identity. Those identities always include race, gender, sexuality, religion, ethnicity, etc. because none of us are just one. Each of these identity struggles contributes to the plot of The Hive and each of the five Fehler women play a role in creating an authentic, contemporary portrait of a family and their business facing bankruptcy and grief during the recession. The Fehler family is messy, like all families, but their foundation is strong enough to endure differences, crisis, and existential threats.
The Fehler family in The Hive is one that all readers can relate with and I hope, cheer on. They sometimes disagree, some of them make poor choices, some of them are lost on their path, they struggle with money and agency over their own lives, but they stick together. They know that if a family doesn’t protect every member and hold space for their differences, then they aren’t a true family.
DY: You’ve written in the past that one of your deepest desires is for “an examined life.” Here, your voice and the voice of Jules—the rebel sister who pokes and prods at every assumption, and ultimately moves away from Cape Girardeau—seem to merge. In the story, the eldest Fehler sister Maggie, who takes the helm of the family exterminating business when her father dies, seems propelled by a motivating force uninterested in examination. In Maggie’s words, a key difference between herself and her sister is that “Jules wants to know stuff just to know stuff.” Maggie is thoughtful and creative, but ultimately content with fulfilling her duty, trucking along unexamined. As a fellow questioner, I’m wondering if writing Maggie helped you better understand people who seem intrinsically, unambiguously motivated? Was that a goal of yours?
MSY: Writers watch and we do have insatiable curiosity it seems. My work always begins with a question and I write toward that question, embracing the rabbit holes of research along the way and motivated by all that I learn. For my first novel, Flood, I wondered what Tom and Huck’s famous friendship would look like if they were women. In The Hive, one of my burning questions was about the line between preparedness and paranoia. Grace embraces prepping as a way to control her fears and ensure her family’s survival but she comes dangerously close to trading responsibility for romance. Maggie is satisfied by her place in life and devotes her talents and energies toward the family business. She is motivated by local community investment and I admire that. It’s true that Jules is more prone to wanderlust like me and I do understand her desire to know things, to examine them, to ask questions for the sake of living more deeply.
DY: One phenomenon throughout the book that felt really familiar to me was something I’ve been mentally calling ‘selective sharing,’ which can so often be integral to remaining close to people with whom you disagree. I’m thinking of Jules choosing to wear pantyhose to her father’s funeral because she knows her hairy legs are too much for her mother to deal with on that particular day. That’s a benign example, but this tendency can get morally tricky. For instance, when Grace purposefully omits the race of her daughter’s boyfriend in a list of things she wants her late husband to know. The impulse is understandable, and none of us can pick every single battle. There’d be no novel if the family had to reach political consensus or else cease to be a family, but I wonder how you think about those moments of tongue-biting in the book and in your own life.
MSY: You’re asking a great question about the distance between the author and the narrator and characters on the page. This is not my story. I don’t always agree personally with how my characters behave, but it’s my job to understand them, write compassionately, and create empathy for their struggles. Jules adhering to a dress code she doesn’t agree with in that moment is a small sacrifice of love. She chooses not to do more harm because her mother is already fragile and she knows that ‘appearing presentable’ will avoid a conflict. Grace’s omission of race is more complicated and I’d argue more complicit in revealing her own implicit bias. Grace believes she is color blind, which is a point of view that injures people of color by dismissing their experiences. What I’m hoping to reveal in that moment is the work that white readers, including myself, must do to make our actions match our good intentions and clean up our carelessness. Many of the family disagreements in the business and the marriage intentionally mirror the debates we’re having as a country about health care and human rights. It’s true; you inherit your place, your family, your politics, maybe your religion, but in an examined life, you question those things too. To create an authentic portrait, you have to ask questions and interrogate what you think you know and why.
DY: At the Yonder we think a lot about avoiding both the rural idyll and the rural dystopia, because real rural people live neither in pastoral bliss nor desolate darkness. Your characters, no matter how harrowing their circumstances became, had a lightness to them. Like normal people do. It wasn’t that their problems could be fixed by powdered-sugar donuts after a funeral, and new highlighters on a life or death business plan, but that those things could pull them out of the brewing storm, if only for a minute. Even Grace, convinced that the end of the world as she knew it was near, found pleasure in stocking and sorting mass-market prepper goods. Do you think a healthy dose of American consumerism helped pull your characters out of a symbolic rural America and into a real one?
MSY: I love that “like normal people do” because I write about the complicated Midwestern community that raised me. I’m proud to call them my own, but loving something means understanding and questioning it too. That applies to a blind consumerism I see too. Perhaps buying something is a momentary lift for the Fehler family but that isn’t as available to them because of the financial and medical bankruptcy they are facing. We all want things; desire is normal. Even families struggling to make ends meet want moments of consumerism for the fun they promise, even if they are short-lived and shallow. Even prepping, as Grace does, is an expensive privilege, but she believes it’s justified. She wants to be self-sustainable so she’s growing their food, investing in solar, and trying to dig her own bunker. She’s trying to move beyond that mass-market ready-made answer through digging into her actual rural roots in skills like butchery, bee keeping, and gardening. The trappings of American consumerism are certainly there but the Fehler family is learning that their buying power is political too and if they keep it local to their community rather than throwing paychecks at big box stores trying to bleed local businesses, it serves their family, themselves, and their town better.
The Hive is a perfect read for ‘normal people’ in our politically divided country in this moment. I believe stories can heal us. We have access to worlds we might not otherwise spend time in. Each of the Fehler women have their own journey and they discover so much about themselves through sudden grief in The Hive.
DY: Lastly, what have you been reading lately? Any recommendations?
MSY: So many! Mary Jane by Jessica Anya Blau is a warm, epic summer novel you’ll love. Kerri Arsenault just won the Maine Literary Award in nonfiction for Mill Town: Reckoning with What Remains; it’s a deeply researched examination of class and culture. In poetry, I enjoyed Sandra Beasley’s Made to Explode and Steven Leyva’s The Understudy’s Handbook. If you like short stories, I highly recommend Danielle Evans’ The Office of Historical Corrections.
This interview first appeared in Path Finders, a weekly email newsletter from the Daily Yonder. Each Monday, Path Finders features a Q&A with a rural thinker, creator, or doer. Join the mailing list today, to have these illuminating conversations delivered straight to your inbox.