Ryan La Sala’s third YA novel, The Honeys, was sold to Scholastic after a 13-imprint auction. The novel follows genderfluid teen Mars (he/she/they) returning to an elite summer camp to investigate the recent death of their sister, Caroline. There, Mars is drawn to the camp’s most popular clique of girls, the Honeys, whose relationship with Caroline, Mars, and the beehives in their care (and root of their namesake) may be more sinister than it appears. We spoke with La Sala about writing about the all-consuming intimacy of adolescent female friendships, navigating grief in surrealist ways, and how queer youth is at the heart of all his stories.
How did you prepare to write about the dark world of The Honeys? Were you inspired by any horror/thriller/mystery books or series for this book? Was there a reference, for example, to Jennifer’s Body?
I’ve always loved horror and spooky, scary things, but my eternal gripe with the genre is the final girl running away, helpless. A big part of my agenda as an author is often giving that girl some sort of recourse against the horror that is stalking her, which is why I love Jennifer’s Body. I’m so glad you got the reference; I think it’s when someone’s like, “You're killing people!” and she corrects them to “I’m killing boys!” That kind of sums up a lot of what drew me to writing horror, but specifically writing The Honeys and without spoiling too much of their agenda, it does allude to that recourse against the many masked killers that have been hunting girls down in the woods for decades.
The Honeys takes place in a very traditional setting for horror stories and thrillers: summer camp. What made that setting intriguing to you and the best fit for this particular story?
Summer camps are intriguing because they’re such paradoxes; they purport to be these encounters with nature in community, but they’re completely constructed and the wilderness is illusory, or at least it hopes to be because it’s supposed to be safe. But the fact of the matter is, summer camps also try to give kids the opportunity to push their own boundaries. As a kid at summer camp, I loved exploring new identities. I was a total liar. I would show up at camp and I would just invent a new person to be every year, and that gave me a lot of agency when it came to my own identity of exploration. At the same time, though, it rendered me very vulnerable because I was exploring my own queer identity, much in the same way that Mars is, in the flashbacks.
Camps are set up around a binary for the protection of their children, but what if you’re a child who doesn't fit into that binary? And what's between the boys’ and girls’ camps? Well, wilderness, the woods, places where you're vulnerable. It's very much a metaphor for Mars’s position in between the two safe nodes upon a binary. But it’s also a real-life gauntlet for children who don’t necessarily fit within that. And I loved camp, I had a great experience at camp. But I also had some pretty dangerous ones, as well. And all of that is kind of what I wanted to pull on because I didn’t want it to be demonizing to summer camp. I did want to sort of peel back the candied nostalgia that a lot of people have around it and report on the stuff that actually happens there.
Mars experiences this desire to have what the Honeys have in terms of their beauty, their relationship to femininity, and the way that they’re allowed to express that physically. How did you approach writing about gender envy and gender euphoria?
The dedication to the book reads, “This book is for the girls that took me in when the boys kicked me out,” because this book really is for the girls that I think kind of saved my life. At a certain point, I no longer could fit in among the rituals of boyhood, and I remember running to the girls for salvation. I think girls get this bad rap in youth because they’re mean and petty, and they gossip, but those were the people who protected me and shielded me—with their meanness, with their pettiness, with their ability to gossip—from other forces that were actively trying to exclude me. That’s all true for Mars, who sees this bastion where you’re allowed to be beautiful, where this indulgent frivolity doesn’t necessarily mean that there’s nothing to you, where it just goes hand in hand with also being a fully fledged person who’s comfortable with their selves. And that’s what the Honeys represent to Mars, who understands that often these behaviors and the rituals that society likes to look at as frivolity camouflage something much deeper, and that’s what he yearns for.
In working through their grief over the loss of their sister, Mars often gets lost in their own memory, kind of a world of their own, until they’re snapped back to reality. That escape seems to be a theme that appears in another one of your novels, Reverie. What is it about surrealism and finding other worlds within our own that interests you?
I think the psychic landscape that we all have within us is so rich and vast, and often I feel like I can get lost looking inwards myself. I think that’s especially pertinent when it comes to grief, because grief is this force that isolates you. When someone vanishes from your world very suddenly, the world itself becomes strange, even if nothing’s changed with the absence of that person. It’s easy to fall backwards through memories and time to reexplore and rehash everything that you have with that somebody because that’s suddenly all you have. I wanted to convey the disorientation that I personally experienced when I lost my own sister, and suddenly only had memories, and that’s where I wanted to live and explore. That's the only version of my sister that I could converse with, the one that was living within me within my past. And that’s why Mars vanishes into these realms of deep thought. But at the same time, it’s not just Mars running away from the real world. It’s something supernatural that is asking him to turn from what he knows and answer some sort of call.
This book references lots of science around bees, their social hierarchies, means of caretaking, and their different methods of survival. What kind of research did you do to incorporate the world of bees into your book?
To prepare, I did two things. One, I read a lot of books about bees, not just how to be a beekeeper, but also studies that have been conducted on bees as superorganisms, and how bees are one of the only naturally occurring forms of democracy in the animal kingdom. They have a wealth of cool and inspiring dimensions that gave me a lot to work with. But I also went beekeeping and went in person to a few hives, to try to get to know what it was like to actually handle these animals. Because it’s as surreal as the book makes it out to be. It’s a real-life brush with this otherworldly creature that lives in thousands of bodies at once, which is so unlike anything that you encounter in your every day.
And if you look at the behavior of a honeybee, a bee can’t survive alone, it has to survive as part of a system. The reason isolation is such an important thing for Mars is also he’s a completely independent person investigating these girls that kind of ritualized their behaviors after honeybees. So part of Mars’s journey is learning how to give to a group of people as a means of belonging. I wanted to get to that too, in his journey.
Had bees always been the original centerpiece for this novel? Had there been any other animals that interested you?
I always wanted it to be bees. I’ve always found it absolutely fascinating that a hive of insects can visit flowers, which are beautiful, architectural things, and come together and form this like ambrosial substance. There are eons of mythology also totally captivated by the exact same exchange. These have always been seen as the emissary between worlds by many different cultures. And I’ve had those myths playing in my head for a very long time. So it was always a book that had to do with girls and their relationship with beehives, which are also matriarchal, have a queen, all the workers are female. There are a few male bees, but come winter, they get kicked out and killed. I noticed the parallel between this group of girls and a hive that also is sustained completely by feminine bodies.
The all-consuming sacredness of female friendship is a prominent theme in the novel. Were there any female friendships/ groups you were thinking about when crafting the aura/essence of the Honeys?
I can think of so many high-stakes friendships in my own adolescence where everything felt so neon with importance, and that’s what I wanted to get to. I think that oftentimes when, relationships appear in YA, we focus on the romantic side of it, but for me growing up queer, it was all of my platonic relationships that felt so much more important. I had a brush with a bunch of different groups that sort of felt like the Honeys but even within my core group of friends, it’s the same sort of very close, interlocking efficiency that Mars responds really well to. Because everyone’s got something to do, which means that you’re needed, you’re wanted, you’re required to be there and put in the work, and that was the atmosphere that I wanted to create.
This is your third novel. Were there any aspects of the publishing process that felt different this time around?
I felt like with my first book, I was like the little match girl knocking on the windows begging anybody to look at me, quickly freezing to death. And thank gosh, people took a risk, and my first two books did get published and were really well received. But this was totally different. When I put together the proposal for The Honeys, I didn’t have this book written. I wrote three chapters of it and a synopsis and that's what generated a 13-imprint auction that ended up being preempted. But it was a totally different experience, and one that had sort of this instant resonance with a ton of editors, and ultimately created a life-changing situation, because it’s what allowed me to go full-time as a writer.
As a writer who centers queer youth, what is it like writing right now in an era of book banning and censorship in schools?
I will always write about queer kids. A big part of my agenda as an author is creating a new mythology around queerness that finds power in the narratives of queerness, and with nuance and complexity. That's always been the case and that's never going to change. I think the hostility that queer youth are facing, if anything, makes me feel all the more adamant that I don’t back down from these big creative challenges. I’m being given these big opportunities to tell stories the way that I want to tell them, which is uncompromising in their queerness, but also in their victory. It’s been a surreal thing watching our rights deteriorate actively. It makes me want to keep writing, so that I can keep inspiring kids to do more than simply ask to be tolerated. I want these kids writing their own stories, and I want them to be loud about it.
What do you hope readers take away from The Honeys?
I want people to walk away from The Honeys with a new perspective on themselves and on the world. A big part of The Honeys gets at letting yourself be sensitive enough to endure both the horrors and also the blessings that come with being a person and having a life. I want people to have a new perspective on nature and bees. I think that that would be wonderful, if people had a little bit more respect for the tiny pollinators that form the foundation of our world. But ultimately, as a horror writer, I want people to be unsettled enough to kind of reconsider their own relationships with certain things in their life. And especially with a book about grief, I hope that people put the book down and maybe call up somebody before they don't have the chance to call that person anymore.
What are you working on now?
I can’t tell you much, but I can tell you that my follow-up to The Honeys is a supernatural thriller, and it takes place in New York City. Whereas The Honeys deals with predators that haunt us in broad daylight, this one deals with the types of predators that nest within our own lives and oftentimes trap us in our own sort of claustrophobic sense of safety.
The Honeys by Ryan La Sala. Scholastic/Push, $18.99 Aug. 16 ISBN 978-1-338-7453-1-3