Literature professor Melissa Scholes Young, WSP ’96, isn’t interested in writing (or even reading) about perfect people. “I don’t believe they exist, so I want fiction to tell that truth.” Her new novel, The Hive, centers on the perfectly imperfect Fehlers: matriarch Grace and her four daughters, all grappling with the sudden loss of Robbie—the head of the family and its fourth-generation exterminating business. Raised in the same part of rural Missouri where the book is set, Young brings warmth, humor, and a deft touch to The Hive’s heavy themes: patriarchal structures, doomsday prepping, recession, and the tension inherent in family businesses.
She hopes the tough conversations the Fehlers have around the kitchen table—about race, politics, and a woman’s right to her body—allow readers to safely broach the issues that that divide their own families. “It’s much easier to have those conversations when we can couch them in an imaginary family that may or may not look like their own.”
What was the impetus for The Hive?
I’m always writing, I always have stories in my mind. My stories begin with characters, and The Hive began with Grace. I have a note card from the  book tour for my first novel, Flood, where I’m writing the character of Grace.
I’m always driven by questions. As with all research, I start with what I don’t know, then I follow the research to the answer. With Grace, my question was: What is the line between preparedness and paranoia? And what motivates someone to step over that line?
Your research led you to “prepper camp.” What was that experience like?
I went to a three-day wilderness skill-building workshop in Saluda, North Carolina, in 2019. I went to prepper camp thinking it would be about political violence and hoarding resources, but it was much more of a hippie, back-to-nature experience for those who want to live off the land and keep things local. I took classes in beekeeping and butchery and learned about solar energy and composting—skills we tend to think of as being more liberal or progressive.
I’m not a journalist, but I am a storyteller, so I was very honest about why I was there. I would not say I blended in; I asked too many questions and I didn’t have any skills [laughs].
But you know, prepping is pretty mainstream these days, especially in the middle of a pandemic. It doesn’t seem extreme to ensure that you have enough food and water in your house to sustain your family for a while.
Was it difficult switching between characters?
I don’t recommend writing five first-person points of view [laughs]. Like I tell my students: There’s nothing wrong with first-person past tense. Keep it simple.
It was like writing five different novels, because the women are on five different journeys, all of them intersected by grief and the bankruptcy of the family business. That’s why the whole process took two years: I had to get the voice right, I had to get the characters right. I also had to figure out, for each of the plot points—like the funeral scene—whose story it was to tell. I approached each of the characters with curiosity and compassion. I think empathy is a writer’s superpower.
Who was your favorite of the women to write?
Grace was a lot of fun to write. I write ambivalent mothers who struggle really honestly with the role of motherhood. She had babies when she was 18 years old and that has complicated her own feelings about identity and her frustrations with the world.
Why a bug business?
We don’t like bugs, but bugs are fascinating—and our disgust of them is fascinating. I often feel like our disgust of them is class-based; we do not want bugs in our house. But we do not want to know whose job it is to get the bugs out of our house. That’s a skilled labor position that we would rather not know about.
I grew up in a family pest control business, but this is not, in any way, my family’s story. I have a bunch of brothers and [The Hive] is about an entire army of sisters sorting out succession among them, which is complicated because there isn’t a brother in the mix, there isn’t a male heir, as there is supposed to be in many family businesses.
The sudden death of Robbie makes room for the five women to come to their own conclusions about the place that they want in the business, the place they want in the world, the place that they want in the family.
Why is the novel set during the recession?
To understand where we are in this political moment, we have to go backwards. I was compelled to set the story in 2008 because I wanted to talk specifically about the recession and how it impacted the Midwest. I wanted to look at what Obama inherited and how it affected family businesses, since they are the backbone of this country. It was important to me to be true to that time period and to the fear and growing resentment of Middle America, and the need to have someone to blame. I grew up in a family business, so I see that tension, I see that struggle. I really want to talk about that in fiction, but in a way that’s digestible.
What was it like publishing and promoting the book during the pandemic?
It required a great deal of creativity and thoughtfulness. We had to think about how to meet readers where they are, instead of where they used to be. During the pandemic people are listening to more audiobooks than ever and reading more on Kindle. So, we released all three platforms at the same time.
I also did a lot of virtual events. In-person readings have an incredible intimacy, but there are also some limitations. A hundred people attended my online launch with Politics and Prose [in June], but thousands more downloaded the video the next day. I hope that we’ve learned lessons about accessibility during the pandemic, and I also hope that events remain hybrid.
Last great book you read?
Having and Being Had by Eula Biss. I also loved Tomboyland; Melissa Faliveno writes the Midwest very authentically.
Best time to read?
Umm, every time of the day? I’m always reading: drafts, manuscripts, student work, theses. I do tend to read differently at night.
Best place to read?
On the couch in my office or in the car pickup line [at school]. I wrote a whole draft of my first novel in the car pickup line.
You’re struggling to get through a book. Do you push through or put it down?
Readers don’t owe authors anything. And writers can’t control what baggage the reader brings to a page. Their time is valuable. It also might not be the right book at the right time. I’ve read The Awakening three times over three decades and it seems like a different book every time. It turns out, it’s just me changing.
There are so many fantastic bookstores in the DC area: Loyalty Books in Silver Spring, East City in Capitol Hill, Bards Alley in Vienna, Curious Iguana in Frederick, or Politics and Prose in DC. Know your local bookstore and support it.
You’re hosting a dinner party for three authors, dead or alive. Who’s on the guest list?
Lauren Groff, Danielle Evans, and Brandon Taylor.