Helen Jukes is a successful writer, writing tutor and beekeeper, originally from Leicestershire. In 2018, her memoir A Honeybee Heart Has Five Openings was published by Simon and Schuster. It has been described as ‘an intimate exploration of the heart and the home’. The novel illustrates her very personal journey raising a colony of honeybees in an inner-city back garden in Oxford, often finding links between her life as a human and the somewhat alien existence of the bees. Her re connection with nature encourages a newfound understanding of love, care and duty, while inspiring awe and wonderment at the natural world.
Helen’s writing has been featured in BBC Wildlife, LITRO, Resurgence, the Junket and Caught by the River. She teaches on Oxford University’s creative writing programme, and works with the Bee Friendly Trust, encouraging the creation of sustainable habitats for pollinators.
She will be leading a one-day writing course, Writing About Place, with Writing School East Midlands in March 2020.
I think I’ve probably always been a writer, in that it’s always been my go-to when there’s something I’m needing to think about or process. As to whether I ever imagined I’d have a book out — absolutely not! All that exposure! The younger me would be appalled.
As to your second question, I suppose Honeybee Heart is to be expected, in that there are certain preoccupations that I seem often to return to in writing, and this book was one expression of those, and of the particular events that took place during that beekeeping year. The next book will be very different in tone — but I guess some of those same central preoccupations remain.
Your memoir carefully treads the line between life-writing and nature-writing. Was maintaining this balance difficult?
I didn’t really think about it in that way. The book came to me quite fiercely; there was something in me that wanted to get out, and it seemed important during the initial stage of writing to listen as carefully as I could to whatever story it was that wanted to be told, without making too many judgements about it. I stepped back at times and asked myself questions about genre — whether there’s value in life writing, whether I’m qualified enough to ‘do’ nature writing — and I do think those questions are important. But there’s also something a bit magic about quietening that more critical side and just listening very hard, working very hard, at helping a story out.
A Honeybee Heart Has Five Openings describes a progressive, almost day-to-day journey. Its use of present tense means it feels very ‘in the moment’. Was the writing process gradual and free-flowing, or did you find structure and planning a more fruitful method?
Yes, traditionally memoir is written retrospectively but I was keen to keep to the present tense because I didn’t want to speak from a position of supposed resolution to a past struggle — I wanted to write from that struggle. The present is uncertain, confused, difficult to decipher, and I wanted to keep myself in that place — I wanted to speak from it.
The story had a natural structure, in that it took place over the course of a year. As for the writing — that was different at different times. There were many drafts and redrafts. Whatever the process, I was keen that the experience for the reader shouldn’t be at all laboured — I wanted the sentences to take on something of the light and roving nature of foraging honeybees; I wanted them to flit about like thoughts.
Links have been drawn between the massive drop in insect-life across the globe and drastic environmental changes. Are you hopeful that your journey reconnecting with nature will encourage others to do the same and make changes to their lifestyle?
Globally, over 40% of insect species are now in decline — part of a massive collapse in biodiversity brought about by intensive agriculture, urbanisation and climate breakdown. Honeybees aren’t threatened in the way that wild species are, so beekeeping does nothing to stem this decline — but you’re right that keeping a hive in my garden helped me connect differently to the world around me, and to other creatures too. If reading Honeybee Heart prompts others to think and act with greater care for their wider ecology, that would make me very happy!
Next year, you will be leading a short course, Writing About Place with the Writing School East Midlands. How influential has your environment been when writing/how important was place when writing A Honeybee Heart?
I think there’s an ethical imperative now for writers to bring environment into the frame. There are so many complex interactions going on all the time between people and place — we’re so involved in our environments, in so many more ways than we tend to think. I’m excited about leading this course because it’ll be an opportunity to explore this as a group.
I mentioned that for me there’s an ethics to it, but in fact I think ‘place’ has often had a strong effect on me. Certainly my sense of place changed a lot through that year in Oxford when I was keeping a hive. That shift was triggered by an encounter with tens of thousands of honeybees, but I think writing can prompt something similar — when we begin redescribing an environment we begin seeing and sensing it differently, and maybe we begin treating it differently, too.
What advice would you give to other writers?
Go to the difficult places — write towards the things you think you won’t have the words for.
Interview by Lilian Kent