Long ago and far away,
Far away and long ago,
The World was honeycomb, we know,
The Worlds were honeycomb.
HONEYCOMB is a different project to anything else I’ve ever written. This is at least in part because of its construction; and because it was written in a completely different way to any of my other books, and via a different medium; that of social media.
I started to write these stories some years ago, on Twitter. Under the hashtag #Storytime, I would write them, live and from scratch, in front of a Twitter audience, whenever the spirit moved me, at odd moments during the day. I wrote them on trains; in airports; in response to current events; and because they were fables and fairy tales, I wrote them in a rather particular language, using the character limitation imposed by Twitter to create a deliberately stylized and performative manner of storytelling, closer to the oral tradition than to the written form. And I always began with the following phrase:
There is a story the bees used to tell, which makes it hard to disbelieve.
One of the most interesting things about social media is how intimate it feels. Telling stories on Twitter feels much more like a live performance than a merely written one. And little by little I began to understand that these pieces of ephemera – originally meant to be sent out on Twitter like seeds on the wind – were part of something larger; a world of returning characters and interconnected storylines, fitting together organically, like a piece of honeycomb.
I started to keep my stories, instead of letting them disappear. Many people asked me if I was planning to publish them. At the time, I had no such plan, but a couple were published in magazines, and one made it to an anthology, ambitiously subtitled “The 100 Greatest Short Stories Ever Written”, 2 years after the editor, David Miller first read it on Twitter. The same story also became a mini-opera, with music by Lucie Treacher (you can see the process of translating a short story to a libretto here, and there’s a link at the end to the final performance). I used several of my stories as a basis for a live music and storytelling show with the band in which I had played since I was in my teens – stories are naturally volatile, crossing naturally from one medium to another, and they translate well both to music and to illustration. After three or four years of #Storytime, I realized that I had already written over a hundred of these stories, some dark, some funny, some moving; some sad; all set in the same fictional multiverse as Runemarks and The Gospel of Loki, as well as that of Orfeia, The Blue Salt Road and A Pocketful of Crows. Some are only loosely interconnected, others are part of an overarching storyline that evolved naturally over the years to make, not a collection of tales, but a novel in the shape of a jigsaw puzzle made up a hundred chapters, each one a story in its own right, in which every story is a piece of the larger picture.
The main character is the Lacewing King, ruler of the Silken Folk, a shapeshifting, secretive people, casting no shadow and known to humans only through the darkest of stories. It begins with the birth of the Lacewing King and his delivery by a human midwife, and follows his adventures, his pursuit by both the vengeful Spider Queen and the deadly Harlequin, and his gradual transformation from cruel trickster, tyrant and thief, until his final redemption. On this journey across the Worlds – through the Worlds of the Folk, of the Sand Riders, the Undersea and even the Kingdom of Death itself – he encounters a multitude of characters – a clockwork woman, a watchmaker’s boy, a huntress with a mechanical tiger, a boat-builder, an engine driver, an undersea Queen in love with the Moon. Some of the stories stand alone; some form larger pieces of the Lacewing King’s journey. But each of the pieces provides a clue, – or a message, a theme, or a warning – that adds to the greater picture.
I started to toy with the idea of putting these stories together to create an original, illustrated book for adults, in the tradition of the classic golden age of fairytales.
It took me some time to persuade Charles Vess to illustrate my stories. But I’d always loved his work, and I knew he’d understand what I was trying to create. There are so few fairy painters left who actually believe in fairies: and for this project, I needed someone who could recreate the magic in a different medium.
This book is the result of that: a labour of love in so many ways, and a testament to the power of the oral tradition of storytelling. These are all new stories, and yet to me they feel intimately connected to those collected by Grimm and Perrault, or set out in the Child Ballads. Perhaps this is because such stories, like the ones in HONEYCOMB, are all part of a larger narrative; that of our shared experience, the story of our hopes and dreams.
I hope you’ll find yours there, too.